The State of Paranoia: An Interview with Brooks Sterritt

March 26, 2022   •   By Dan Magers

THE UNNAMED PROTAGONIST of Brooks Sterritt’s debut novel, The History of America in My Lifetime — an employee of a “document storage and shredding facility” returning from “a conference organized by the Supranational Association for Information Destruction (SAID)” — stumbles across “something that no one could turn away from,” namely a man with a pixelated face, an effect called “fogging” or “tiling” in television or film. This imposition of a “screen” image onto real life starts the protagonist’s byzantine journey to seek out this man, and later to seek out a mythical underground filmmaker who specializes in surveillance footage.

The novel’s title is in reference to a quote by 20th-century British figure painter Francis Bacon who, Sterritt explains, “once quipped that a goal of his was to capture the history of Europe in his lifetime in a single image.” Like the painter, Sterritt’s desire to “capture the history of America in a lifetime in a single book” is a quixotic goal. What the novel does include — the compulsion to gather and process information (which is often ephemeral, unreliable, or qualified to the point perplexity); the fascination with watching (often mediated by screens) and the corollary fear (and desire) of being watched; the obsessive aestheticization of reality into a conspiratorial narrative — all point to the reality of living in a surveillance state, wherein we are being tracked by the very devices that we are enslaved to.

The History of America in My Lifetime, published in 2021 by longtime New York City indie publisher Spuyten Duyvil, draws clear comparisons to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in terms of narrative structure, as well as the laconic, satirical humor and dark worldview of Samuel Beckett’s prose fiction. The protagonist’s compulsion to mentally catalog information, outcomes, and origins as he tries to make meaning out of the proliferation of data and characters he encounters, coupled with his muted affect, also calls to mind Beckett.

The following conversation is an edited interview I conducted with Sterritt over Zoom in early August 2021. The conversation ranges from thematic concerns of the novel, connections between novels and film, and writing communities local and online that illuminate Sterritt’s development as a writer “without a hometown” — and The History of America in My Lifetime, a novel about a nameless protagonist living in a nameless city.

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DANIEL MAGERS: Where did you grow up? When did you start writing, and who and what influenced you?

BROOKS STERRITT: I grew up in North Carolina. Neither of my parents are from there, but I lived there until I was about 20. It was in the country, a rural upbringing you could say. As far as writing goes, it was something I just started doing as a child but then when school became difficult, I stopped writing for a long time. I wanted to get back into it but didn't know how. I ended up living in Germany for a while and stumbled back into it that way. I lived in Berlin for a year during college [at Wake Forest University], and then after I finished, I lived in Germany for another year on a Fulbright. In a little tiny village of 4,000 people on the Baltic Sea. I don’t know — it was idyllic in a way, but it was very, very isolating. [I was] writing more because there’s more free time and they’re more humane and give you more holidays.

I was a German major in college, and never took any English classes till the end, which seems odd in retrospect. [At Emerson College’s MFA program in Boston] I [got] into the American postmodernists, the nouveau roman, Beckett, Borges, and Burroughs. Lydia Davis, who I still read all the time. I also kept hearing the name Gordon Lish, usually with some kind of awe or vitriol attached to it, so of course I tried to read everyone he had edited or taught. After I finished my MFA, I heard that Gordon was coming out of retirement, and I was fortunate enough to take his class at the Center for Fiction in the summer of 2012.

One aspect I found particularly interesting running through your novel is the conventions of detective novels, or of noir or neo-noir in film. There’s an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust of others — even and especially friends, people close to you. Use of intrigue and double cross, women as femme fatales, a journey through settings and scenes that feel very filmic. What drew you to these conventions? How do you think you are using them?

Early on, I was fascinated by locked-room mysteries, whodunits, and all kinds of pulpy stuff. Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, and even Isaac Asimov, who is mostly known for sci-fi but also wrote dozens of mystery stories and “puzzles.” Then there are books that kind of deconstruct the noir thing: Auster’s New York Trilogy and of course Beckett’s trilogy, especially Malone Dies.

I find film noir and film gris super interesting, the way the conventions have endured and changed. On the “neo” tip, I’ve watched Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998) at least 50 times. And this might sound funny, but working on the novel I watched probably hundreds of episodes of Forensic Files — not for research, per se, but because I became addicted. I was near a TV somewhere and an episode came on, and they’re 15 to 20 minutes long. And the narrative pull is like — they hook you in 15 seconds. You end an episode and the next one starts — they don’t even end on a commercial break, purposefully.

The thing about true crime is that it satisfies a hunger people have to read fiction, while also pretending to provide some utility in that they’re learning about real life or learning about a kind of history. Reading Tom Clancy or the literary equivalent because you’re getting all this submarine info on the side. Whether or not it is edifying you is totally beside the point. But along with Forensic Files, I was also fascinated with symbols and their decipherment. These symbols pop up throughout the book, and that’s probably enough of an answer. But it’s all connected for sure: the sleuthing, the missing pieces, the insoluble puzzle, the locked room.

Reading fiction for information is interesting. These detective or noirish conventions allow you to engage with deeper thematic issues: one of them is this sort of obsessive compulsion to gather information, often via the internet, to make meaning in the face of this impossibility of getting to the truth. The novel is incredibly interested in information as such — information, misinformation, cataloging information, unreliable information, ephemeral information, qualifications to the point of uncertainty.

Absolutely. I had all these ideas, and then at some point the Snowden revelations happened, which confirms what we always thought, that we’re being watched. More and more so through our devices and through our internet habits. On the other hand, one way my book is unlike the internet is its extreme linearity.

Going back to the information and data, sleuthing and collecting. We have so much at our fingertips, but we just collect bookmarks that we will never look at. Download and archive images that we will never sort through or ever return to. So, it’s this proliferation of data and information, and it goes right back to surveillance. We each produce so much data valuable to corporations and to the government too much data to look at it all without vast resources, which doesn’t happen unless you’re a terrorist or a journalist.

This idea of being monitored or watched has great bearing on all of us living in a surveillance state — I mean not just the government but corporations. Much of it is like, you know, not sinister, it’s to make money off us and how we use the internet, how we use our devices.

Well, you said it’s not sinister — it’s more that it’s not personal, I guess. I know to a certain degree it’s just part of the landscape or part of our environment, and would I prefer that to not be the case? Sure, but my interests in terms of the novel and surveillance were how and why to make a novel in this environment, and how the technology of the novel has responded to the emergence of surveillance tech.

You say that the novel takes place in a “world like the present,” which is a really interesting way of putting it. Do you see this as like a speculative novel? Is this literary realism? Do you think that there’s a spectrum between realism and the speculative?

I’d say it’s a realist book, depending on how you define realism. I think it was Fredric Jameson who said, if you examine the word “realism,” it begins to wobble. Is it realist, is it realistic, is it real — the question is, in what way? No book is a pure mirror, even if you sat down and attempted to write something photorealistic or a true depiction of a world that’s exactly like the present. It’s not a true mirror because it’s literature, it’s not real life.

I don’t know if I think in terms of the speculative, but several people brought up Black Mirror. And I think that’s a good example. Or take J. G. Ballard — it’s sort of a depiction of the world right now, but extrapolated and far shittier, which turns out to have pretty good odds of appearing prescient.

I just read Ling Ma’s Severance and last semester I taught Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Inventory,” and both of those were published three and four years ago. They’re all about epidemics, in a sense — there is a clear speculative quality, an epidemic wipes out people and breaks down society, which has all become totally, totally true.

Those are great examples, and it’s interesting what takes on new resonance in light of current events. As far as the speculative goes, there are things that don’t exist whose depiction helps get at the truth of our world, whether they end up existing or not. It allows the freedom to tweak reality in order to get at something behind it, maybe. I think the gauge is less whether a book appears predictive, but whether a book speaks to our moment in advance or recognizes the unnoticed seeds of such a moment in the past.

While you were there writing the novel at University of Illinois at Chicago [where Sterritt received his PhD in English], you were studying the connection between novels and film. What connections do you see between the history of the novel and the history of film? What drew you to this?

What drew me to it was, I suppose, the pretty basic idea that novels have changed because of other available media, and vice versa. Early on, when people started creating short films and feature films, the models they had to go on were literary ones, often novels. It was fascinating to me to learn that D. W. Griffith gave the credit for his innovation of the close-up to Charles Dickens. Then you have Sergei Eisenstein writing that Griffith’s parallel montages were influenced by Flaubert! In a way this makes total sense, considering that novels were pretty much the dominant long-form narrative devices at the time, and what better for film to draw on?

But the kicker for me was when film editing “matured” and cuts and edits were becoming more obvious devices in film, that modernist literature in turn subsumes this, that a modernist novel like Ulysses has absorbed filmic techniques that arose in response to literary realism. And this evolution or this relation is still going, though in a faster and more splintered way, perhaps.

Speaking of ongoing relations between literature and technology, you worked for HTMLGIANT, which was (and I guess still is) “the internet literature magazine blog of the future,” an early innovator of internet-based indie writing. What kind of things were you doing for them? 

Yes, I was in Boston when I learned about HTMLGIANT. I met a lot of wonderful people through the site. Gene Morgan and Blake Butler were exciting curators of ideas and knowers of people. This was back when writers were posting on their own little literary blogs, and these guys got out in front of it with the genius idea of putting everyone on the same blog. Anyway, that was an irreverent and vital place, and someone should do a history of it at some point in the future.

At first, I was reading and commenting, and I was a contributor a little bit later on. At one point, I was a reviews editor; I solicited and edited. For a while, we were doing 25-point reviews: you had 25 numbered sentences that didn’t necessarily follow from one another, like a factoid structure or Donald Barthelme’s story “The Glass Mountain.” We also ran anonymous reviews, which everyone got mad about, so we stopped doing it.

To have any chance of getting a tenure-track appointment, you need to be prepared to move anywhere in the country, following a one- or two-year appointment, postdocs, fellowships in the process. You were fortunate to get a TT position at University of Houston-Victoria. But you had a pretty stable writing community and group of friends in Chicago. What’s it like living in a place that far away from your established literary communities and networks?

Fortunately or unfortunately, the internet isn’t going away. Though I do miss Chicago, where I was for six years. People use cars here quite a bit. It sounds absurd, but anything I say about where I live now absolutely applies to the United States at large. People can be friendly, yet there’s a whole set of challenges and political pathologies, obviously. It’s getting harder, when someone asks me where I’m from, to give a satisfactory answer.

As of this writing you have over 10,000 followers on Twitter, and Elon Musk commented on one of your recent viral tweets. What is your current relationship with Twitter? What do you get out of it? Do you think all writers should be on Twitter?

Like everyone else, I’m ambivalent. For a while after the book came out, I felt pressure to tweet every day or tweet many times a day. To be favored by the algorithm. I don’t do that anymore, and I envy people who are not on Twitter and have never been on it. But when I learned that certain famous authors are just lurking, as in they’re not officially on Twitter but nevertheless spend time looking at it — I’m like, you’re so close, you were almost free!

I’ve used the word addictive a few times, and this time I mean it. It’s addictive. A service designed for maximum engagement to harvest your data. So, yeah, we’re using it for free while being used by it. Obviously, I don’t know — my relation is complicated. If I could look at it for strictly 15 minutes a day that would be good, but I look at it way more, obviously. Maybe I’ll take a break.

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Dan Magers’s first book of poems, Partyknife, was described by Thurston Moore “as if poet-ghost adrift thru dressing rooms backstage taking notes … Writing poems like these is just as good as starting a band.” His writing has been published in Notre Dame ReviewHyperallergicViceFanzine, the Pen America blog, Barrelhouse, and others. He lives in Chicago. Twitter: @DanMagers.