Seth looks for meaning in love, drugs, Judaism, and branding, and … doesn’t find it. Meaning seems to be there, a floater in his peripheral vision, never something he can access head-on. The toxic masculinity he’s been marinating in at the office seems to have soaked in deep enough that it now creates a barrier, always separating him from the wider world. There is something Seth is missing, and he knows it, but he isn’t quite ready to look at the problem directly.
I got to talk to Ben Purkert recently on a bench in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park about his new novel. We discussed the vicissitudes of the male ego, toxic masculinity, viral media, and what it all does to the closeted fullness of Seth’s being.
KATYA APEKINA: I know that you worked in advertising. How did that world inspire your book?
BEN PURKERT: I started working as a tagline copywriter at a branding agency right after college. Just sort of the standard office job that no one knows or cares about. But then, roughly the same month that I started there, the TV show Mad Men (2007–15) came out. Obviously, my job was not as glamorous as that! But what was really interesting was how much of that [1960s] world felt utterly unchanged, particularly with respect to the toxic aspects of the workplace—the big egos, the pace, the electricity, the way people were worked to death on behalf of the client. A culture of intense drinking, affairs, unhealthy power dynamics. And so I became interested in looking at how the advertising/branding/marketing world hadn’t really evolved all that much, even as it tells itself that it’s a very progressive industry. I got interested in exploring that disconnect and also poking fun at the hypocrisy I saw.
Did you come up with any good taglines?
I worked on a bunch of project-naming exercises. Microsoft Bing, for example. I was on the team that came up with that name. We liked the Bing cherry association. Also, when we pitched it, our slogan was Bing: The Sound of Found. Like ding! when the search engine serves you up exactly what you need at the exact right moment. Yeah, it’s not bad.
It’s almost as good as the slogan Seth comes up with that goes viral for men’s adult diapers: “Everyday Briefs for the Everyday Hero.” It’s like remasculinizing the emasculated.
I think that’s often what men’s branding projects seek to do. You look at a product like Viagra or Cialis or something like that, and so much of that advertising centers around being vigorous and masculine. And projecting a kind of strength, which is obviously a form of compensation, I think …
[At this point in the interview, the bench we were sitting on was overtaken and surrounded by children, so we pivoted.]
Have you ever gone viral? It seems to do a number on Seth.
Seth’s downfall is very much connected to that moment of virality. If Seth didn’t have that breakout moment so early in his career, would he have still turned into that Icarus figure? I do know that on the rare occasions that I’ve had tweets go viral, it didn’t feel particularly good, actually. I had this one tweet about a pizza bagel joke that just will not die. It shows up on every parenting blog you’ve ever seen. I got more texts about this than I’ve ever gotten about a poem I’ve spent years working on or, you know, a book review I wrote, or even this novel.
I guess something happens to work when you’re overly aware that there is an audience.
Having your written work be popular immediately introduces the possibility of distortion. Like my undergrad thesis advisor, poet Jorie Graham, said, you have to be really thoughtful about when you send out your writing for submission because it’s possible for your work to be going in a really exciting direction and then a rejection stops you right at the moment when you’re at the precipice of a breakthrough, or alternatively it gets accepted and now suddenly all you’re trying to do in your creative practice is to reproduce that success.
So, you studied poetry and then you were doing copywriting. I never thought of the connection between the two, but I guess copywriting is just taking poetry and applying it to capitalism?
For me, writing taglines was an exercise in soulless poetry. It felt just like poetry, on the surface level. It was all about being concise with language, generating imagery, turning out double and triple meanings. It pushed a lot of the buttons that I loved, except for the most important, which was that there was no heart or soul in it. It was all in service of pushing a product.
How did you approach writing a novel as a poet? This book is so well plotted and propulsive.
I wrote the first draft very quickly. I imagined a marble going down this downward spiral and that was exhilarating. It felt like the plot was driven by the momentum of my character’s downfall. Most of the eight or nine years I spent on the book involved just trying to go through the early draft and trim every single sentence in the way that I would a poem. And the challenges of scale there were immense. I wasn’t prepared for them because all the tools that I have are tools that I developed in poetry workshops. It’s like what Aria Aber says about the poet bringing her little nail scissors and pruning every comma.
I love your two epigraphs. One from Ogilvy about advertising and the other from Vivian Gornick: “He was a man … he heard the sound of no voice but his own.”
I love Vivian Gornick. I think she’s just such a brilliant critic and writer. When I read that quote, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s my character in a nutshell.” It’s startling, the degree to which Seth is unable to take in any sort of input, particularly any critical feedback. And the idea that that is not just a fatal flaw that he alone has, but is something common to many men—that became really interesting to me.
In advertising, a lot of the creative directors who wielded the most power were frequently men who would not hear any sort of pushback, either internally or from the client. And then that behavior was rewarded, and it built up a kind of mystique. A Don Draper type, a fearless visionary. Not all that distinct from an Elon Musk type of character.
Was it something that you were aware of in yourself, as a man?
I don’t want to let myself off the hook. Part of what I wanted to do with this book was interrogate myself. Before I made the decision to leave my job at the agency, it was tempting to envision a career for myself in which I could be one of those powerful creative directors. Wouldn’t that be great? But it became pretty clear to me that that was not the life I wanted to live—both because I was really excited to devote myself to creative writing and to making art and because that’s just not the sort of person that I aspire to be.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was in a fraternity in college, and those experiences were ones that I definitely drew upon in writing the book. One of the things that interested me about being a part of this fraternity was the projected masculine self. So much of the behavior was bro-ey and admitted no possibility for vulnerability or sensitivity whatsoever. As the wannabe poet, I was afforded a long leash. I could be a little bit weird and unusual, almost as a novelty. But there was no appetite or tolerance for it otherwise, really. And yet alongside that, there was so much homoeroticism. We were always with our shirts off. We were always hugging. There were always guys hooking up with each other on the weekends. But no one talked about it. No one was out. And it was both fascinating and heartbreaking on some level, being a part of this group of young men without the vocabulary or the permission to give voice to the complexity of feelings they were experiencing.
Throughout the book, Seth is trying to find himself through his work, through Judaism, and, disastrously, through love. He’s searching for himself but coming up short. Is that lack of self-knowledge connected to the idea of toxic masculinity?
One of the questions for me in this book is to what extent toxicity is a consequence of a deep sort of loneliness. I remember reading Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001), and it talks about the absence of bowling leagues and how the lack of camaraderie can cause depression and feelings of isolation. None of this is to excuse toxic behavior, but in my mind, it’s helpful to trace the roots of it.
At the heart of my book is Seth’s relationship with his superior, Moon, the bro-iest of the bros. Those were the scenes that I loved writing the most. If you were to ask Seth, he’d tell you that he hates Moon, he resents him, he’s disgusted by him. But I also think that Seth doesn’t have the language to be able to articulate his need for companionship, and to admit this would be to demonstrate a kind of weakness or even call into question his own sexual orientation. Someone asked me the other day if there was a love story in the book and my immediate knee-jerk reaction was to say, “No.” But then the more I thought about it, I do think that you could absolutely read Seth and Moon’s relationship as a love story.
So, I guess I want to ask you the question of the title! Can men be saved?
You write a title like that, you beg for a question like that, even as it’s obviously an impossible one for me or for anyone to answer. It goes without saying. Men are human beings, right? But I do think the question of, can masculinity be saved, in the way that we have traditionally defined masculinity, does that have a long future? And I think that if masculinity, as defined by a kind of stoic toughness or an unwillingness, as Vivian Gornick suggests, to hear the opinions of others and instead to only project strength … then, no, I don’t think that has a long future, or at least I hope it doesn’t! I think we need, as a society, to really challenge and expand and complicate what being a man means, or we run the risk of continuing what we see now, which is so many of society’s ills being traced back to decisions that men are making.
Before I wrote this novel, I identified as a poet. It felt like I was identifying myself with a form of artistry and vulnerability and sensitivity that was not modeled by a lot of the men in my life, or not modeled by a lot of the men in popular culture or in sports. A lot of people have said that this novel is really funny. And I’m glad to hear that, but I also think there’s this profound sadness in seeing just how closeted the fullness of Seth’s being really is.
That’s such a good way to put it. I think with all really funny books there is a profound sadness underneath.
My high school English teacher, Mario Costa, told me that the only thing more tragic than tragedy is comedy. And I’ve never forgotten that. In some ways, it’s the lens through which I engage with writing and art, because I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
Ben Purkert is the author of a poetry collection, For the Love of Endings (2018), and a novel, The Men Can’t Be Saved (2023). His work appears in The New Yorker, The Nation, and The Kenyon Review, among others.
Katya Apekina is a novelist, screenwriter, and translator. Her novel Mother Doll is out March 2024. Her debut novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, was named a Best Book of 2018 by Kirkus, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, and others, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in Los Angeles.