Who Wants to Live in a Fucking Utopia?: An Interview with Nathan Larson




TO READ ONE of Nathan Larson’s novels from his Dewey Decimal trilogy is to enter a devastated future that is part Warriors part The Third Man. Dewey Decimal, the hero of the series, is a stone cold killer with a soft spot for people in a jam. He’s OCD, prone to seizures, and lives in a secret chamber in the New York Public Library. Dewey’s nonstop give-no-slack, take-no-smack chatter as he tries to stay one step ahead of the bad guys drives the series.

To put it simply, Nathan Larson has an incredible ear for dialogue. So it should come as no surprise that he is an award-winning film music composer, having created the scores for over 30 movies, including Boys Don’t Cry, Dirty Pretty Things, and Margin Call. His music has been featured in commercials and on television, and he’s sat in with the house band for Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Last spring Akashic Books published The Immune System, the mind-bending conclusion to the Dewey Decimal series. The novel opens two years after the Valentine Occurrence wiped out all but one of Manhattan’s bridges and turned the island into a feudal war zone. You can call it neo-noir, retro pulp, hardboiled dystopian, post-apocalyptic rock ’em sock ’em. I call it really fucking good.

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JIM RULAND: Where did the idea for the series come from?

NATHAN LARSON: I had parameters, which is always fantastic for a writer … I knew it would be “noir.” I knew it would be a finite series. I had been given a mandate by my publisher. I didn’t know that was super awesome, but it is. The only other item I had was a mental picture of this beautifully dressed black man, asleep on the floor of the Rose Reading Room in the New York Public Library main branch. It was dark. He was alone. I didn’t understand the location, but I recognized on some level the man, who became the character Dewey Decimal. That was pretty much all I had, but it turns out that was a lot.

Did you know right away the series was going to be a little different? 

It’s hard to believe, but the word “dystopian” wasn’t thrown around a lot even five years ago, so much so that I had to think about it for a minute when I saw the first blurb for my book. Now we’re so inundated with the “dystopian” it’s become a drag. It’s hard to find a YA or sci-fi novel that doesn’t have a “dystopian” element. But it’s like that argument against heaven. Who wants to live in a fucking utopia? What’s interesting there?

In these books I was exploring the human tendency toward fear-of-the-other, toward clannish-ness, extending that as far as I could. And as I got deeper I was, of course, exploring my own issues with race, violence, power, masculinity. In the same sense that I have a bit of a complex that I never got an education beyond high school (punk rock touring was a great education, actually), I have a complex about having never been in the military. Most of the males in my family are/were vets. And there’s always this implication that I somehow am lesser for it. This whole bullshit narrative about the “Greatest Generation,” which is a pretty shitty term because it implies that other generations can only be less that great, that our grandparents’ achievements and impact on the world can never be matched, not in deed, or in terms of purity of intent.

Did Dewey Decimal spring into your imagination fully formed, or did he develop over time?

Dewey Decimal emerged pretty much fully formed, and I consider him very much a living entity. It’s huge fun to watch him walk around and do his thing. In other respects, he represents the schism in the modern psyche: this tendency toward xenophobia, extreme violence, this apathy, this suspicion of the natural world (fear of germs and the medical establishment), and yet this tremendous ambition and industry. This desire for order and hierarchy, this commendable notion that there is a moral fabric to the universe, the search to connect with that fabric in an environment that doesn’t exactly encourage such quests. The fact that the heart is capable of cruelty and empathy in equal measure. He’s a weirdo and an outsider, but he faces a lot of the essential questions many members of the dominant culture du jour face, and he exhibits both our worst and best qualities.

Are there elements of Dewey Decimal that are autobiographical?

The character is a mash-up of many people I have known: he has aspects of my grandfather, who fought in two wars, my cousins (those who are vets that is), me, and most obviously, from a physical standpoint, this homeless dude I knew in Washington, DC, named “Chicago,” who is very likely dead by now. Chicago also came correct; the dude slept rough but dressed like a mod squad Desmond Dekker type, always turned out.

There’s more than a little truth to the saw “All writing is autobiographical,” but with work that’s out of step with time, we often assume that the author is working on a higher level of imagination.

On a lot of levels, the more I talk about these books the more I realize how much I’m drawing on my own family. My father worked for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and may or may not have been (at least tangentially) involved with testing during the Vietnam area. This was the facility where, so the legend goes, the Jacob’s Ladder experiment took place, the “rats of NIMH,” etc. My father’s response when I ask him about this has always been, “Well, there were a lot of strange things happening back then.”

I was born across the street from the NIH, at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, about which many conspiracy theories orbit: the JFK autopsy, the “suicide” of James Forrestal (that makes for a fun Google search), etc.

My mother is an epidemiologist, who was early on AIDS. Later on she became an authority on hand washing and public health, and helped develop Purell. Alchogel was part of her life’s work, and she was one of the prime movers in the medical community who got those dispensers put everywhere in hospitals and airports. She even sent my first book to the head of Purell, who thought a book that featured his product sounded great, but whether or not he ever looked at it I’m not aware.

Let’s talk about world building. What was the biggest challenge?

A couple pages in I thought, fuck, I’m going to have to make this a sci-fi thing or something, because the thought of attempting to write a big scale noir with mobile phones and computers and all this stuff, it just sounded so incredibly boring. Right? You get into a jam, you make a phone call, boring. “He opened his laptop …” Boring.

Also, I knew I needed to clear out the space for the character. It would be New York City, it had to be, and it would be scooped out, patchy, sort of half there, like my character. The world unfolded from there, and I made it up as I went along, no outline. I wrote fast, which made for some sloppy stuff, but kept the energy up and kept me excited about it.

Dewey is from Harlem. You live in Harlem. Coincidence?

I had the good fortune of being able to physically go to the places about which I was writing to make sure I got things right. I walked the routes he walked. It was pretty easy to see the version of New York I was describing, especially as I started the series in 2010, which was the flowering of Bloomberg’s love affair with real estate developers. New buildings were popping up left and right, and there was tons of construction, spaces that were closed off for this or that reason.

You’ve written that you think our society is heading toward a dystopian reality. Do you still feel that way?

I am absolutely of two minds about this, and I’ll start with the optimist in me, because in my daily life it’s the louder voice. Far louder!

With Ferguson, with Eric Garner here in New York and Walter Scott down in South Carolina, with Baltimore, etc.: these things are not happening with greater frequency. Rather, we now live in a period where these atrocities are being noticed, documented, and reacted to. This is new, this is very new. Could it be a stronger, more vigorous reaction? Yes it could, and that, I have to believe, is coming.

I think there is simply no way we as a people can recover from and examine the gigantic cosmic wrong of slavery after a mere 130 years. There is no way we cannot be affected by the echo of such a massive trauma. It’s just too soon. We can’t pretend otherwise. And we’re going to have to sort it out, because otherwise we perish — because, unlike the old-world countries, our fates are completely intertwined and always have been. We are intertwined as a population like no other country in the world.

You have a unique perspective on the situation here in the United States.

I have the advantage of living half the time in Sweden and observing their version of racism and social inequality, very much in evidence now, just as it is in much of Europe, as the fascists settle into their newly gained seats in Parliament. The third-largest political party in Sweden is an extreme right-wing party that on many issues makes the most extreme Tea Partier look benign. For all of their claims of modernity and inclusiveness, for their (one might argue smug) self-satisfaction with their open-door immigration policy, the ethnically Aryan Swede is terrified of the brown people knocking at their door. So they stick them out in suburbs and wring their hands.

It’s a little different here in the United States …

America is many things, but we are not calcified. We can still move around. We are fucked up, we are violent, we are crazy, we are foolish, we are selfish, we are power mad, we are murderous, we are so many things, but we are not calcified. We are an overextended teenage empire containing innumerable civil wars. But we are face-to-face. We see each other. Eventually we will interface, because we do not have 800 years of clan warfare coloring our actions and guiding our logic, and for the most part everyone in this country can claim at most four or five generations on this soil. In most cases it’s one or two.

It will be here, in this country, that we devise solutions. Otherwise, where? France? Saudi Arabia? The Congo? I don’t think we realize how short the history that haunts us is. True, our story is as brutal and as painful as it gets, yes. Slavery, subjugation, genocide. But it is a blink of the eye when compared, say, to the quagmire of crap through which the Greeks, Macedonians, and Turks crawl. It is surmountable. It is not too late for us, for all our sins and crimes; and though we are in steep decline, we are also in the process of becoming something else — no longer an empire, but a new place. It’s okay to not be the biggest boy on the block, and that’s where we’ll wind up, compromised and (I hope) humbled.

Do you think technology will save us or destroy us?

Technology will not destroy us, though it certainly can if we allow it to. We will merge with the technology and infuse it with our own morality or lack thereof. That sounds goofy and corny, but think about it. It’s a moment where, if one just turns the prism a little bit, we can see that the potential to be our best selves is more available to us than ever. If we don’t accept this gift, we will die. And if that’s the case, we never deserved life. I, for one, do not believe we will fail each other. For every bit of technology that makes horrors like drone “warfare” possible, there are two bits of technology that can improve our lives. Show me why this is not so.

That sounds optimistic.

Consider the alternative. Dystopia? We’re already beyond there. We live in a period of time where corporations can make limitless contributions to political campaigns. We are a consumer state, and we’ve constructed it ourselves. We elaborate on it with everything we buy, with every film we rate on Netflix, with every swipe of our credit card. We are a corpocracy the likes of which history has never known, could never have known. In this sense we are bleeding edge. We’re state of the art. It’s boring how much Amazon.com and the NSA and any number of entities know about us; certainly enough to reconstruct our identities many times over, to whatever end.

What do you mean by corpocracy?

There are no longer any divisions between business and government. The United States military is at least 50 percent subcontractors, big companies that also provide catering, office supplies, and construction services. They blow up a bridge in Iraq or Afghanistan and are then paid handsomely to do a deliberately shitty job rebuilding it, so it might break again. The politicians who made this possible sit on said company’s board and get a kickback, which then in part goes back into getting their buddies into office. And on and on it goes. We have shown we have very little will to go after criminals after the fact: witness Dick Cheney et al. who broke even the few rules we had separating government and business, and did so unapologetically and without consequence. This will continue until we do the simple things, like disempower the lobbyists, repeal Citizens United, and allow politicians a finite amount of tax money for their campaigns. These are achievable; as entrenched as these traditions have become, one can imagine their end. But this blow-it-up pay-ourselves-to-rebuild, this is what we’re doing all over the world. So why are we shocked when our shit gets blown up now and again? Why are we surprised?

This is where Dewey Decimal steps in …

Right. Why not apply this rip-it-down-build-it-up model here at home? That’s one of the main postulations of this series. For all our supposed progress as a species, we’ve seen time and time again, when the infrastructure fails, when the power goes out, when people are released from having to be civil — they will revert. They will go into a default mode that is based on these ancient conflicts or perceived allegiances, like we’ve seen in former Yugoslavia or Rwanda or now in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and soon I’m sure this will be extended to other areas of the former Bloc.

This is my lifeboat theory: people are civil to one another so long as there’s enough food for everyone. But when resources are scarce, somebody’s going over the side …

Exactly. In America, with how deeply the military industrial complex has come to define us, we are really close to a medieval system. The gap between the rich and poor is such a chasm that the “poor” can’t even see it for what it is and are lulled into complacency. Even more incredibly (this was a tremendous trick), they’ve been conditioned into a staunch defense posture of a structure that damages them above all others in society. How was this achieved? You can’t help but be impressed.

There will never be a revolution so long as people are willing to line up for $5 lattes.

In 2006 I was part of a demonstration. The Republican National Convention was doing their gala in Manhattan, and there was a mass protest, which culminated in a huge show of force by the NYPD and the Secret Service. I was arrested along with thousands of other people, and we were stuck in that fenced-in area you have to go to when you get your car towed in Manhattan on the West Side Highway. We were told if we paid the citation, we were free to leave. Well, if you sign the citation, “Yes, I’m guilty of such and such,” you get a red mark on your passport. This took me years and a lot of time with my lawyer trying to sort out, and made international travel very difficult. That’s quieted down, but then more recently — this sounds kind of embarrassing now, which is sad — I was part of Occupy Wall Street and observed how that was put down. Pretty blatantly, through blunt force on the part of the NYPD. And then the introduction of some sneaky legal stuff that disallowed people to congregate, which really seemed to accelerate this sort of intense enforcement of “No, we own this public park.”

I’m a white man. I have nothing to fear. I cannot ever know what it’s like to be black and be pulled over at night by a cop, wondering not for the first time, if tonight I might die. I don’t know about you — I think you were active military, right?

I did a stint in the Navy right out of high school.

I never had that direct experience. But I have two cousins who were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and, you know — however one feels about these conflicts on a more macro scale — I’ve watched these guys I grew up with just lose it completely. Both developed some kind of drug dependency. One of them is in jail now for life, as his crimes escalated from theft to hot prowls to murder. Their lives disintegrated. This is what you see on a much wider scale in the black community. It’s just our system doing what such systems do, exploiting its weakest and most vulnerable population. This is the way it’s always been. Cannon fodder. It’s a drag to have to examine our own country, behaving as it does, impossibly irresponsible and cavalier about the treatment of veterans, let alone mental health in general. It’s breathtaking and it’s astounding: the powers that be have done such a thoroughly amazing job conditioning this population to accept these circumstances as normal and somehow necessary.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

It’s that fundamentally American axiom (you could be talking about the health care system in general here as well, or the prison system): if you’re weak or broken or penniless or sick, it’s somehow your fault, ultimately your responsibility, and certainly not anyone else’s obligation to help you. Get off my property. The poor are lazy. This perverted worldview has morally compromised us to the point that we as a people have no credibility left, just like the Romans, the Spanish, the Greeks, and the British before us. The cycle of empire always looks more or less the same; it eats itself from within and dies in the attempt to expand beyond its capabilities, because those whom it consumes are necessary fuel, expendable and ultimately indispensable. The final irony of empire. Of course this is not limited to America. This is a human thing, and it’s certainly not limited to the present. Having said all this I still feel optimistic. Probably this is my microchip just clicking away, doing its job …

Is the end of empire where the Dewey Decimal series begins?

In my books, Dewey’s struggle is kind of our country’s struggle writ very small. Did we forget what we did in Tuskegee? Can we ignore what we did in Abu Ghraib? To the Native Americans? In Vietnam? Central America? Iraq? Afghanistan? Any number of African countries? Do we imagine that the things we know about are the full extent of our crimes? Can we as a nation live with our history? Probably, so how do we manage that? First we tamp down such distasteful stuff and hope it just disappears. If it comes up, we figure out how to justify it. But karmically, it can’t disappear — it poisons us, so how do we manage? These are big questions, but they’re inescapable.

These questions also make the whole “when New York was cool” argument we’ve been seeing ad nauseam seem superfluous.

Instead of lamenting the loss of “when New York was cool,” we’ve destroyed it.

It’s been six years since you started the series. Are you surprised by how quickly New York has changed?

Yes, but in retrospect I shouldn’t be surprised, for all the reasons I mention above. And, of course, these changes are not limited to New York City. Our era moves with such velocity that Detroit will be Williamsburg, Brooklyn tomorrow, and next week it will all be over again. These cycles. Post-industrial towns offer special opportunities and will soon be saturated in one way or another. Architectural decay porn is peaking and will soon pass.

Nostalgia for dying cultures never gets old.

Nostalgia is lovely when shared. It’s good for tribal recognition, but it’s ultimately pointless, and it’s not a state within which anyone should choose to live. Sure, I can talk about the East Village in the late 1980s, the fucked-up bars, the lawlessness, the drugs, and how there was a single bank machine you’d visit once a week because it was such a hike, then carry your money in your sock and a roll of quarters with your keys poking out your fingers so you can gouge the inevitable muggers. Nobody had landlines and we all slept with and on top of each other. That felt nice to write down. But is this good? Is that great?

There’s always someone to bitch about how much better things used to be.

Once upon a time in SoHo, there was nothing, and we lived in big huge lofts with no heat. Before my day, we’re told, it was even crazier. How about the Le Pain Quotidian on this corner, and the other Le Pain Quotidian over there on the other corner? Are they good? Sometimes, if you have to pee, you can sneak in and use their bathroom. Otherwise they do nothing for me, but people seem to enjoy them. Do we need this here cupcake shop? Is it better than the other cupcake shop up the street? Did we need the drugs? Did we need all the dive bars? It’s all transient.

Everyone downtown is now from France or Russia or Scandinavia. Okay. I can go back to Harlem and it’s a lot less like that. It’s got a lot of the old flavor. There’s a proper, old-school, open-air smack market. But did I appreciate the legless dude nodding out in a wheelchair as I walked to the subway today? Do I like that people feel comfortable pissing on my stoop, such that my son comes out in the morning and puts his hand in it: “Sticky!” Is that good? No it’s not. Am I an interloper, a gentrifier, a white man in a brownstone? I am that. Do I jack up the property values, hike nearby rents, me and my ilk, by my very appearance on the scene? Yes, I do. Yes, that’s who we are. Is it good? Of course not. Is it bad? No, I have a beautiful house for my family, and someday my son will inherit it, should it still be standing, should it not be underwater. Is that good? Yes. Is it also bad for the family across the street? No and yes and no.

It sounds like you’re not going anywhere.

I still love New York. There’s some crazy here you can’t kill. There’s chaos here like nowhere else. To some it’s a nightmare, to others it’s soul-enriching, and sometimes it’s both things and everything else. Can you still come from shit and become the mayor? Sure. Can you still come here from Tanzania and get a job driving a livery car, work shitty hours, and fuck up your back? Yes, but can you make more money than you could even come near in Tanzania, and can you send it back home and pay for a medical procedure that saves your mother’s life? Yes, you can. Is that good? I say it’s good. Like everything else, it’s complicated.

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Jim Ruland is currently collaborating with Keith Morris on his memoir My Damage about his life with Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and OFF! (Da Capo 2016).

 

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