The Novel as Eating Machine: A Conversation with Mark Doten




MARK DOTEN’S FICTION names names and swallows whole our geopolitical morass, the effect of which is often exhilaration and incredulity: you can do that with the novel? His 2015 debut, The Infernal, centers on the voices channeled by an unknown boy being tortured by American operatives. And not just any voices: Mark Zuckerberg, Dick Cheney, and Osama bin Laden all make an appearance.

Doten’s second novel, Trump Sky Alpha, arrives almost four years to the day after The Infernal and on the heels of his inclusion on Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists list. (An excerpt is available on the journal’s site.) It confirms his unique and enviable place among writers. Who else would begin with President Trump piloting a blinged-out zeppelin amid an accidental nuclear Armageddon while desperately assuring his YouTube Live audience that everything’s fine, nothing to worry about, it’s fake news — in one bravura four-page-long sentence? 

Trump Sky Alpha then jumps ahead a year: 90 percent of the population has died, and Rachel, a former New York Times journalist, is given an assignment to write about internet humor in the days before the great collapse. She agrees on the condition that she be allowed to visit the last known location of her wife and daughter. Her investigation uncovers the Aviary, a shadowy group that may be responsible for a global cyberterrorist attack during civilization’s last days, and leads her deeper into a bureaucratic hell. The hydra-headed book documents internet recursion, the role of a circumscribed press in dystopian times, and the numbness of living with grief — not to mention the careening, disturbing monologues of a tech-addled terrorist and a logic-addled Donald J. Trump.

An editor at Soho Press, Doten teaches in Columbia University’s graduate program, from which he received his MFA. He recently spoke to LARB by email about meme culture, narrative fragmentation, Joan Didion’s influence, and the effects of historical trauma.

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RYAN CHAPMAN: Novelists wishing to dramatize political leaders often go for thin veils (Roth’s Our Gang) or allegory (Orwell’s Animal Farm). There’s a feeling — perhaps an outmoded one — that simply naming a character Donald Trump adds too much extra-textual ballast. How did you approach this, and how do you avoid caricature in a serious-minded work? Put another way, how does one ventriloquize a buffoon without falling into pure farce?

MARK DOTEN: For me, it had to be Trump. With him, the “ballast” of the name and all of the associated branding over the decades is so critical to the story of the guy. From the bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal to the failed Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka to the fraudulent Trump University, and now to the greatest branding coup of all, this terrible Trump presidency, it’s all Trump. So while there are certainly scenarios where it makes sense for writers to elide proper names (e.g., to refer to the character as “The President”) or use a sound-alike (“Gerald Gromph,” et cetera), here it’s gotta be Trump.

In terms of the voice, of course no one can outdo Trump at being Trump. The things he says and the ways he says them are just so pungent and broken and surprising even now. He surprises in the way that children with a shaky grasp of the language will continue to surprise with their strange formulations, or like elderly people deep into dementia. So I wanted to capture that, the cadences and weird ungainly music of the guy’s speech. But in my novel, we’re hearing Trump speak on a live stream as he’s starting World War III, which allowed me to produce certain effects with the character, particularly in how I play the mismatch between his narration and the world-changing events surrounding him. This hopefully moves things beyond the pure farce you mention (not that there’s anything wrong with a good farce).

The book grapples with the internet — as a force, as a Greek chorus, as a tool, as a weapon — through a sustained novelistic inquiry I haven’t come across since maybe Infinite Jest. The internet resists totalization, which is reflected formally in Trump Sky Alpha’s fragmentary, collage-like chapters and structure. I’m wondering how you came to the story and if you could touch on the research that went into it.

Thank you, that’s quite a compliment. There are a number of writers whose work doesn’t explicitly engage with the internet — either because it was written before the internet existed or because that simply wasn’t their subject — but nonetheless seems to capture aspects of the internet, its temporalities and fragmentations and encompassing nature. David Foster Wallace’s work does that for me. I find that as well in Proust and in Didion’s political novels.

The novel began with the premise, What would social media be like if the world was actually ending? And I think in part it would carry on much as it does every day, until the moment it stopped, with people making jokes, scoring political points, trolling, harassing, sending affection, hoping for likes and faves. As I was working on that, I became interested as well in the deeper working of the internet. I read a book called Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization by Alexander R. Galloway, and that changed everything for me. Because I realized how little I had thought about how the internet actually works.

What is a distributed network, and how does it function, and who controls it? What is packet-switching, and how is it that when we transmit data, it can be broken into packets and reassembled on the other side of the world? What structures and languages make this possible? The research was fascinating. I read quite a few books on the history and structure of the internet by Janet Abbate, Milton Mueller, Laura DeNardis, and Andrew Blum.

A lot of the research also came in the form of hours of conversation with my brother, Chris, who leads the tech group for a large NGO that focuses on international democracy work and who was patient in explaining and re-explaining things to me. He and another friend, Josh Archambault, who is a network engineer in the finance world, helped me to think about the attack that shuts down the internet. (I will say, because I don’t want to get them in trouble, that the book cannot actually be used as a guide to shutting down the internet since the attack it uses relies on a back door in a key piece of software and that back door is a fiction. But I hope that beyond that network engineers and other internet-savvy folks who read the book will find that the tech stuff all passes the smell test.)

Trump Sky Alpha is almost modernist in a way. As Joyce presumed (or hoped) that his readers had knowledge of Latin, Greek, and a few Romance languages, your novel rewards familiarity with memes and the rules of the telephone game of meme-culture. (The imagined riffs on Hillary and Pepe the Frog were spot-on.) The effect is a book that feels incredibly now, that risks being read as dated in, say, five years. With a lot of novelists in recent years opting for historical, fabulist, or allegorical settings, what interested you in running straight at rendering our political moment?

Datedness is an interesting concept, but as a writer I don’t really believe in it, or I don’t believe that it’s something the writer can control. There was a debate in the 1990s about including brands in novels that I believe centered around the brand-crammed American Psycho. Well, that book is doing fine, while I’m sure that other books written with an eye to timelessness are long since out of print. The same 10-year-old book that feels hopelessly passé to one reader may feel “more relevant than ever” to another, to use the clichéd phrase. Personally, I find stories about white, cisgender heterosexuals having affairs in the suburbs (this seemed to comprise a fair-sized chunk of US literature for a while, as strange as that sounds) dated, which is not to say that there isn’t great work in that category. It just doesn’t particularly interest me, though the valorization of this type of literature does say something about its historical moment.

I did attempt to organize the memes and the more technical parts of the book in ways that will still provide aesthetic pleasure and a certain amount of information to readers who have no idea where “what is ‘binch’? what is to be ‘corn cobbed’?” comes from or what it means. I’d like to think that there’s still a sense of the cultural texture in those passages that will be legible in five years or even 50 years, even if much of the context is lost. On the other hand, if that’s not the case, that’s fine. I won’t be here in 50 years to worry about it.

Moby-Dick may be the great example of a book filled with outmoded technologies and terminology that has lasted. And the book was more or less forgotten for decades, until it was celebrated starting in the 1920s, which shows how slippery and arbitrary these things are. Fashions come and go. Books come and go. On a long enough timeline, all of our books go unread.

And the polyphonic, fragmentary approach?

I love fragmentation in novels. We live in fragmented times, and my own brain certainly sees things more as a collection of fragments than as a unified whole. That’s probably why I love the novel. I see the novel as an eating machine, a technology that allows us to bring in many voices, many forms, many types of information: poems, memes, bureaucratic documents, weather reports, playscripts, and on and on.

Mikhail Bakhtin referred to this as the novel’s “heteroglossia” (not to keep harping on Moby-Dick, but that is certainly one of the great examples of a many-voiced fiction). The novel is something like the internet in this regard: it’s a form that can consume all other forms. With this book I knew from the start that I wanted multiple voices and perspectives, and the art becomes trying to figure out how much you can bring in and still end up with a relatively cohesive whole.

Rachel’s investigations into the internet’s last days unearth the diffuse and pervasive influence of a fictional novel by Filipino-American Sebastian de Rosales. The Subversive inspires copycat cyberattacks in an extremist version of the author-reader dynamic. What drew you to placing a novel at the center of a global cataclysm? And how did you come to incorporate the Philippines into the story?

A lot of credit goes to my partner, Paul Nadal, who was completing his dissertation on English-language Philippine novels at the same time I was working on Trump Sky Alpha. Just as the internet is a global system, it goes without saying that a nuclear apocalypse is by definition a global event. So I knew early on that the focus couldn’t be exclusively on the United States, and I was intrigued by the connections Paul was making in his work between the evolution of the Philippine novel throughout the 20th century and the integration of the Philippines into globalized systems of trade and finance. I’m fascinated by questions of how writers and their novels fit into larger networks of power.

Paul also told me to read José Rizal, a revolutionary novelist of the Spanish colonial period whose work took him from the Philippines to Hong Kong, Berlin, and London. De Rosales speaks about Rizal’s two great novels in Trump Sky Alpha, and the title of the invented novel The Subversive is a nod to the second of these, El filibusterismo. Meanwhile, in my own research for the book, I kept running into connections between global communications networks and the Philippines. The cables that carried the first around-the-world telegram ran through Manila, for instance, during the United States’s brutal period of colonial rule, and the ILOVEYOU computer worm, one of the most destructive computer attacks ever, originated in Manila in 2000.

Book editors have a kind of aerial view of the contemporary novel, as they see so many more manuscripts than the rest of us. Both Roberto Calasso and Toni Morrison were book editors, and their fiction is wholly unique — almost market-defying, to borrow a possibly vulgar term. How has your work as an editor influenced your fiction?

It’s been great for my fiction. As an editor, when you’re in the zone, you have a sort of x-ray vision for sentences and paragraphs: you can see the deeper structures and what things can be trimmed or modified to strengthen the work. When I’m revising my own writing, I try to bring that same appraising eye to the page, though it can be hard to see things at the proper distance when it’s your own work.

Also, I frequently harp on writers to make the opening pages — the first 50 or so — as propulsive and engaging as possible, in order to propel the reader forward into the world of the novel (by this I don’t mean car chases and bombs, necessarily — the opening of Swann’s Way is terrifically engaging, and that’s about a little boy waiting for a kiss from his mommy). And that’s advice that was very helpful to me in revising and structuring both of my novels.

Of course, the job takes up time and brain-space, but I do most of my writing at night, between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., after my partner has gone to sleep, and Trump Sky Alpha is very much a product of that: it’s a night book, and I think it would have been very different if I had written it during the day.

It reads as a night book — there’s a kind of keyed-up desperation and headlong momentum. I wanted to ask about the literary constellation of Trump Sky Alpha and the writers who informed it.

I’m a great admirer of Didion’s three political novels, and those books influenced elements of both the Rachel character and my strategies for incorporating various streams of information. Didion is a master at pulling in quotes from newspapers, congressional reports, journalistic scuttlebutt, and Rand documents, and she does it with such elegance, assuredness, and music. (My favorite passage in American fiction is the opening two pages of The Last Thing He Wanted, which everyone should read right now.)

The body of the novel — the Rachel section — is half Rachel’s journey and half the monologue of another individual that she meets. I got that from Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles, in which a boy is traveling through the countryside with his doctor father and the final patient that they meet essentially takes over the rest of the novel with his monologue. I am also greatly influenced by a number of queer writers who fracture conventional modes of narrative and temporality, and who foreground the body — in many cases the suffering or tortured body. These writers include John Keene, Dennis Cooper, Heather Lewis, and Dale Peck.

I’m also a big Bernhard fan. And Keene’s Counternarratives is one of the best short story collections of the past decade. Both writers grapple with historical trauma, which also runs through Trump Sky Alpha (and The Infernal). But you localize trauma in your characters, as well. Several of the principals are victims of abuse, and Trump becomes an objective correlative for one character’s processing of childhood trauma. And as one would expect of an apocalyptic setting, grief and loss are pervasive. For all this Trump Sky Alpha resists easy catharsis — I could imagine two readers coming away with opposite reactions to the final pages. (I’m a fatalist-optimist.) Do you think catharsis is possible for Rachel? Is she doomed? Are we?

I’m glad that you brought that up. And here I’d say that historical trauma always produces a great number of individual traumas, but the reverse is more slippery. The lingering effects of childhood sexual abuse are entangled with the catastrophic events the novel describes — and the abuse itself is a result of failures in systems from the family and community to society at large — but I didn’t want there to be a simple cause and effect, a “hurt people hurt people” on a global scale. There are a great many reasons for the catastrophes in Trump Sky Alpha, just as it was a confluence of countless failures in the real world that put Trump in the White House.

I leave it to the reader whether there’s hope for Rachel. Certainly the book is skeptical about certain modes of “resistance” that it discusses. But Rachel’s objective throughout the book was simply to get to the grave of her wife and daughter, to bear some kind of witness, and so whatever else happens I think that your feelings on the ending may depend on whether or not you think that she achieved that goal. I will say that I’m optimistic in the real world about a better politics, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s actions and rhetoric since the election being a particular bright spot.

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Ryan Chapman’s writing has appeared in NewYorker.com, Bookforum, BOMB, Longreads, The Brooklyn Rail, The Millions, GQ.com, and elsewhere. His novel Riots I Have Known will be published by Simon & Schuster in May.


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