I see everything, I see everything
Talkin' apocalypse with Mark Doten, but also more kitty pix
Howdy, folks! Been a little while. Oops. I write to you from the comfort of my Brooklyn apartment, where I’ve been (a) celebrating turning in the latest draft of my book and (b) procrastinating on an unrelated article. And now I’m procrastinating even more by sending a new edition of the newsletter! Aren’t you grateful? This time around, the main course is a long interview with Mark Doten, a novelist of whom I’ve become very fond and who deserves more of an audience. But before that, let’s get to what you’re really here for: cat pictures.
Father and son.
A good girl.
“Delete Forever” by Grimes — I know, I know. Grimes is problematic. But Jesus, she’s so talented. I love the “Wonderwall” vibes on the opening strums and the quietly impassioned chorus. Dammit!
How to Read the Jewish Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler — I’m not done with this one yet, but it’s blowing my mind. Lots of fascinating analysis of how the Tanakh should be read if you want to understand how it would have been perceived by varying generations of ancient Israelites. I fear bringing it up with my rabbi, however. I don’t wanna be sacrilegious!
High Maintenance — I’m a longtime fan of High Maintenance, going back to 2014, when an ex and I had a post-breakup coffee and she told me to check out its web shorts on Vimeo. I was hooked! And now the HBO series has become my favorite show on television. When I’m feeling down about myself, I often try to think of what it would be like if I was the protagonist of a High Maintenance segment and, suddenly, I have empathy for my silly little life. You should watch it!
Uncut Gems — I’m a million years late on this one, but I recently finally caught it at Cobble Hill Cinemas and yes okay duh I loved it. Safdie Brothers, call me, I have ideas for a collab!
Me, me, me
In today’s look at the Riesman archives, I present you with an investigative feature I wrote way back in 2015 entitled, “The Bizarre, Unsolved Mystery of ‘My Immortal,’ the World’s Worst Fanfiction Story.” It does what it says on the tin! There’s this infamous piece of Harry Potter fanfic that mysteriously emerged in the aughts and has confounded people ever since. Since its publication, I’ve regularly received messages from amateur sleuths who want to compare notes. The real joy of reporting and writing it was that it got me in touch with people from the fandom world and helped me understand that oft-wonderful, oft-terrible mode of being. Enjoy!
Trump Sky Alpha is one of the most thrilling novels I’ve ever read. I picked it up on a whim this past autumn, devoured it in a matter of hours, and haven’t stopped thinking about it. I don’t want to spoil too much, but suffice it to say that the novel begins with an extended vignette about Donald Trump riding his private zeppelin during the birth pangs of a nuclear war, then explores what Twitter would look like during the end of the world, and only gets wilder from there. It’s a book about the death of the Internet, the death of America, the death of humanity, and the possibilities of what comes next. It’s a grim, brutal read, but if you’re a social-media-addicted masochist like me, you’ll be utterly gripped. I caught up with its author, Mark Doten, to talk about all manner of things. Below is part one (the full thing was too long for Substack!) of a conversation we had in the lobby of a nice hotel in Manhattan, just a few weeks after the president almost enacted the nightmare Doten had imagined. Oh, to be a Cassandra…
During Trump’s Iran crisis in January, did you have a mountain of people being like, “Your book’s really happening!”
I did get a little of that. I mean, what I think has been interesting about Trump, is that it’s been a while since Trump has issued a nuclear threat, which he was really throwing around willy-nilly there for a while. I’m very curious about where that restraint is coming from. Did he just realize — because he seems so unrestrained in so many ways, and he’ll always make the biggest threats possible. So I’m curious how long he can keep that streak going and when he’ll be back to the “fire and fury” talk.
But like, do you have people in your life who read the book and now approach you and go, “How did you know this was going to happen?”
People do say stuff like that. I think it’s — it’s meant in a flattering way, so that’s nice, assuming he doesn’t literally blow up the world, in which case, that won’t help with book sales. But yeah, I think, the book does predict some things about Trump that were … Because there were some pretty clear inklings of the kind of ways he’d be a bad president even before he took office, which includes nonstop grifting, enriching himself and his family, and also his complete inability to accept blame for anything, and his erratic and irrational decision making, and his incredibly thin skin, and his reactiveness. So within that sort of framework, it’s totally possible to dream up any number of Trump scenarios and have some of them come true, and some will not. And he’ll always surprise you. His brain — I’ve used this example before, but his brain is so broken and bad in such specific ways to him that he’ll come up with odd turns of phrase, so that when you’re channelling his voice, there are things you can think of to say that seem very Trumpian, and then there’s other things where he tweeted that everything he did with — I’m trying to remember what the tweet was in reference to — where he referred to some of his actions as “very legal and very cool.” I want to say Russia?
I think it was Russia, FBI something. Who can remember in the mists of time from a year ago.
“Very legal and very cool” doesn’t sound Trumpian until he said it, and now, in retrospect, it does sound Trumpian. And he loves intensifiers like “very.” But I never in a million years would have come up with “very legal and very cool.”
You also never would have come up with, as brilliant as you are, that America has to deal with the three words “perfect phone call” at least seven times a day. A phrase that makes no sense, that no one had ever uttered in a sentence prior to that, and the world seems to hinge on it.
I probably have LexisNexis access through institutions I teach at. You can search some of these things like “perfect phone call,” and I’m sure you’re right. It’s so odd.
How long did it take you to write the 20-odd-page Trump monologue at the end of the book? Is that something that you did in a one sit-down?
I think I wrote it relatively fast. A different version of that, before I’d come up with the Zeppelin idea, appeared in n+1 online, and so I started writing that piece after the Republican convention, when it suddenly seemed like, Oh my God, he might win. And I still didn’t think he was going to win, which is why I assumed that this piece would be just something I’d put in for a story collection or something. But it was still a very frightening moment, and even though there had been so many signs that it was possible he might win, and a lot of people who were smart were like, “This can happen,” I was someone who would look at that snake in The New York Times — they’d have the blue and red — and I’d be like: The snake is nine states over! It’s looking good! But with the convention I did get very terrified, and I wrote the story pretty quickly. I think the immediacy you’re talking about has something to do with the way that Trump’s voice, in the monologue — he’s always kind of a pure reactive surface. So the way he speaks and thinks, it’s very much built as: whatever he’s said will trigger him to talk about something else. So he goes on all these tangents, but they’re all kind of based on whatever he was just saying, as he loses the thread and pings off this way and goes the other way. So, yeah, there’s a movement in his voice that is different from the way that Obama would speak, where he’d speak in paragraphs. Trump doesn’t. He speaks in sentence fragments that ricochet one after the other.
This will sound like a weird comparison, but I’ve been doing some reading lately in my spare time about the composition of the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. And one thing that’s fascinating about them is, we take these books as canonical texts, but when you read them, they’re completely disjointed, they’re all over the place. They don’t fit into a narrative form that we can necessarily recognize in 2020, and yet there’s something primal in them. I keep thinking about Trump when I read about these texts, because I think: Similarly, Trump doesn’t speak in anything resembling a linear fashion, he doesn’t compose a narrative, and yet the people for whom, even the people who don’t like him, you basically get what’s going on. Even though we joke about What the hell is he talking about?, you go, I guess I can follow the internal logic for it, sometimes at least.
Most of the time.
So, one thing I’d like to ask artists, is, I like to ask this possibly apocryphal story about Philip K. Dick, which is that the origin of The Man in the High Castle was that one day this name popped into his head: “Mr. Tagomi.” He had no idea where it came from, what it was associated with, and he consulted the I Ching, and that was sort of the beginning of the novel. Did you have a Mr. Tagomi moment where one phrase or character or moment appeared, unbidden, in your head?
I’m trying to think my way back to how … I wrote the libretto for an opera about Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks with the composer Ted Hern that came out in 2014. It was directed by the guy who did the Oklahoma! that’s up now, Daniel Fish. And that was all primary-source stuff, so it was reading Twitter feeds, the leaked chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo, and other primary sources, journalists and stuff. So after that project was done and after my first novel had come out and I was sort of casting around for ideas, I thought it might be fun to work again with this composer on something that would be a little more light-hearted and focus on memes and how they evolve and use Twitter and Reddit and 4Chan as the source for these texts. And it turned out not being a project that the composer decided not to pursue that, and I was looking at all these meme texts, and that’s when I started to put together that sort of question of, “What would internet humor be like if the world was ending?” That part is a central part of the book, which is another kind of non-narrative prose. And that was actually the beginning.
Initially, I had some thought — and I was very interested in it, I think — that there were various conversations about joke thieves on Instagram and Twitter. We can think of a couple very big examples of that. I thought about doing something about that in the way that memes circulate and spread around, and kind of what belongs intellectually and to whom, and then I moved away from that idea as we started getting into the election season. I just decided there wasn’t enough oomph to it. I could see someone writing a good novel about joke thieves on the internet. But I’m not the right person. My interests are much more overtly political, so once we got into the election I decided that I would try to write a book that would be ready before the inauguration, that would be possible to be published whether either a Republican or a Democrat became the next president
Unfortunately, my agent popped me out of this idea. Because there was no way on the timeline, there was just no way to do it and do it well. I’d basically have to have two versions of the book written, and it would have to move through copyediting proofs and stuff. And in both cases, the world would come to an end. And I’m not sure … If we’d assumed that Hillary was the nominee, and she was the president, I hadn’t even figured out exactly how she would bring about the end of the world. I mean, she certainly, I didn’t figure it out. I didn’t have to figure it out.
She’s pretty hawkish.
She’s pretty hawkish, and it’s certainly possible that the world would already be in a nuclear war if she was president. But she’s also this technocratic, relatively pragmatic person, so who knows? But it ended up going this other direction, but that was where it started, this idea of people rushing around to make the best Twitter jokes they could when the world was ending, which we saw in practice when there was that transformer explosion in Queens.
I remember that explosion in Queens.
Did you have a joke about it?
Oh, yeah. You know, Twitter is so ephemeral. I’m sure I had some kind of joke, but I can’t remember what it was, even.
Yeah. I deleted Twitter after my book came out after a few months, because I was so tired of it. But I remember that being a very giddy night on Twitter. Like, everyone was coming up with these jokes about it being a nuclear attack, or it’s the aliens coming to get us, or Independence Day-type stuff.
I really feel called out by your novel, because I’ve never seen media Twitter skewered so excellently. Horrifying.
I’m trying to remember if Vulture or New York magazine is namechecked in there.
They are and they aren’t. You namecheck them insofar as you cite my colleague Madison Malone-Kircher — @4evermalone — you cite her at one point. I picked up the book at Spoonbill and Sugarbird, in Williamsburg. I picked it up on a whim, sat down at a cafe and started reading it, and then, 24 hours later, I was done with the novel. I’m a relatively slow reader, so that was a testament to it, and about twenty minutes in, I got to the part where Madison was cited, and I took a photo, and she hadn’t even heard of the book, so I did outreach for it. New York magazine has that brief mention insofar as she gets cited, but not as much as, you know, Josh Marshall, who gets mentioned by name. Every reference point you had to us, us terrible ink-stained wretches on Twitter, was far too accurate for comfort. Do you have a particular vendetta against Media Twitter?
Not at all, no. When I was on Twitter, I loved Media Twitter. I’m sure I followed you. It’s funny: Twitter is an interesting thing where once you’ve stepped away from it for a month, you almost forget everything about it. Was your avatar a cartoon?
OK, so I definitely followed you. But I followed tons of people, which is always fascinating. I worked in book publishing, which is …
Yes, it’s adjacent, but it’s very different from the sort of people who worked at Gawker and New York magazine, Vulture, The Cut, Vox, etc., where I do feel like there’s a lot of very funny people, spending a lot of effort on that medium, which book people tend not to do as much, for various reasons. There’s a sort of personal branding that goes on on Twitter amongst media people, in just trying to have the funniest comments about stuff. It’s amazing. I love it.
I feel like Twitter has done more to — at least in my own eyes, I don’t know about that of the world, though I assume so — it’s done more to delegitimize journalists as people than anything since the age of yellow journalism. You can go onto this free website and find out just how moronic and petty the people who are ostensibly interpreting reality for you are. It’s wild. You can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube. It’s true for me, I’m sure.
It was such a relief for me to delete my Twitter and pass that 30-day thing, and go: Oh, good. Because the entire time I was on Twitter, I was also in book publishing. So I’m sure I never said anything too outré, but I’m sure I said some things that are a little more outré than I would want, that I would not say now.
It encourages you to blurt things out.
I remember when Gawker was closing or something, I remember Ashley Feinberg got pilloried for some tweet. And then she went through and started deleting every tweet of hers. And then she stopped halfway through, and just was like: I give up. I don’t even remember what the controversy was. The nice thing is, even with the churn in the industry, a lot of people just keep landing somewhere.
Feinberg, I love her.
Oh, she’s done amazing reporting, finding the weirdest stuff. Like Mitt Romney’s secret …
Pierre Delecto! We wouldn’t know without her. No, I mean, one of the reasons I like working at New York magazine is, we have people, who, like Ashley, get that this is what the world is now. This is where everything happens: on people’s finstas, or wherever. You learn more about a person by how they’re interacting with technology, than you do by what their public statements are. I really appreciate people like Ashley, or my colleague Max Read, or Adrian Chen, who I haven’t seen anything from in a while. Has he been writing?
I don’t know. Didn’t he write one of the early big pieces on the Russian troll farms?
Yes. He sort of has earned taking a little while off, because he had this five-, six-year streak where he kept churning things out that were paradigm-shifting, including the most terrifying article I’ve ever read, which was the first look at content-moderation farms. I remember reading that article and going, As a society, we’re completely fucked.
There was just a Mary South story in The New Yorker this week about a woman who works in a content-moderation farm.
I missed that one.
It’s good. My first job in media was at The Huffington Post when they launched. And you cannot imagine — or I’m sure you can imagine perfectly well — but when they started to have some big hits, they had Arianna, or — who was the guy who was the MSNBC correspondent for a long time, who was kind of center-left? Anyway, he was the one who said that the [Valerie] Plame leaker was [Karl] Rove, and that was something that happened at Huffington Post, which is something I can tell you off mic. But I just remember with that, and Cindy Sheehan was someone that Arianna got to blog for them. So there were things that were appearing on — and it’s so funny to think of this now — like, the Yahoo homepage, that were repurposed from our site, and we’d get these thousands of comments all of a sudden, and there’d be no system in place — or a very ineffectual system — for figuring out how to deal with them. And there were just, like, teams of volunteers Arianna would cajole somehow, just sitting at home, moderating hundreds and hundreds or thousands of comments.
I remember one time, this person wrote a controversial — and it turned out to be not correct — piece about Katrina and how people were resorting to cannibalism, which got jumped on by Drudge and the right, so thousands of comments. And then Arianna made him moderate his own comments, and then he made his wife do it. [Laughs.] So I’m on the phone with this nice lady, who doesn’t really know how to use any of this technology, and I’m just explaining how the comment-moderation system works, but eventually there’s a number of systems that come into play that are a little more effective. But it really was the Wild West there for a while, in terms of comments, and in terms of trying to figure out a better moderation system, but the trolls would be constantly thinking of ways to outsmart you. They’d realize: OK, only the first 50 characters or whatever are visible in your views, so they’d start out with, you know, “Applause, applause, Arianna! You’ve really hit the nail on the head with this!” And then they’d start out with this disgusting homophobic or antisemitic stuff. Or they’d figure out if they’d made their username an offensive comment, the moderators weren’t necessarily looking at the username, they were looking at the content, and so there’d be people who’d be like — a lighter, funnier one was “Blowbianna Huffingfumes” — I remember would try to comment. But again, that was an earlier glimpse at the kind of antisemitic stuff in the sewers of the Internet. Because so much of it, I’d say over 50% of the comments, that were, you know, hate speech comments, were antisemitic.
It’s funny, you saying that makes me remember this thing that’s kind of on the flipside of that set of debates, which is that in 2009, or 2010, I went to this event run by CAMERA, which stands for Coalition for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Very much one of those backronyms — I’m sure they started with the acronym and worked backwards. It’s a little cumbersome.
[Laughs.] I don’t think I knew the word “backronym.” It’s great!
I didn’t come up with that. Basically, they are this bullying group that is run by very pro-Israel people, and their whole goal is that any time there’s a story about Israel they don’t like, they’ll create targeted campaigns against media organizations, to say, “You’re biased, and we’re going to boycott you, blah blah blah.” I went there because my grandmother is a donor — long story, this is the problem of our generational issues in the Jewish community right now — but she invited me to go, because she couldn’t go that year, and she was like, “I have a ticket, I can’t go.” I thought, You only live once, and Elie Weisel was the keynote speaker, and I was like, That might be interesting, see him before he dies, let’s do it. So I went to it, and the highlight of the whole evening was, this nice little old lady won the award for “letter-writer of the year.”
Oh my god.
What that meant was, she had coordinated this harassment campaign against the BBC, I believe, for a story they ran. And in her acceptance speech — she must have been 65 if she was a day — she goes, “I just want to tell everyone: did you know that at the bottom of most news stories online, you can leave a comment? And the best part is, you can write a comment about whatever you want! So when I read a news story, I like to make sure I go to the bottom of the story, and no matter what it’s about, I write, ‘I stand by the state of Israel during these dark times!’” And I was like, This is how it happens! These people have a completely different conception of what the internet is than I do. Theirs is probably more valid than mine!
Trump wins the Internet by being that old person who barely knows … He doesn’t use the technology the way other people use it, but old people love it, and it immediately gets reported on all the outlets that old people do watch. Fox News — and all of them! — are just Twitter machines for Trump. I don’t know what the answer is, or if there is an answer. I never think that not covering something is a good idea, but it’s hard to know.
With the book, was there a degree to which you felt a little better about having gotten all this off your chest, when you were done with it?
I was in a pretty intense mental anguish after the election, like a lot of people were. So I wrote the Zeppelin scene that opens the book in, I don’t know, like a month. I had to turn it in for … I had a deadline for getting something into the magazine Granta, so I spent all my time in that world, writing that stuff, and it was a great way to channel that. Whereas now I find everything so diffuse that it’s … I’ve been trying to write a couple more stories about the Trump era, and I just finished one which is going to be published by n+1 in a few months, but it’s about a gay, white-supremacist, incel, would-be mass shooter, and then you imagine some of the consequences of what his attempted acts looks like. I think it’s in part because of just being mentally worn down by these years of Trump, it’s harder to write in that sort of white heat, and it took me a year to write this one story, and the other one I’m working on, that’s very situated in the Trump era, so I wish I could capture some of that early rage.
I know, it’s so funny when you talk about that, because I do think back on early 2017 the other day, and how I felt so, on some perverse level, excited, because it felt like … I remember tweeting one day “Moral clarity is a hell of a drug,” because I’d come out of this eight year period of being uncomfortable with the Obama presidency, but feeling weird saying that, because there was still this sort of residual “he’s one of ours” thing. And even though I know all this awful stuff about the Obama presidency, it still felt like not everyone I knew was on the same page about that.
If you say it on Twitter … I mean, you can say it on your newsletter.
Right. Now, I feel like you can get away with that with Obama a little more. But circa 2017, it felt like a new thing to be able to be like, I know the president of the United States is a bad person and does bad things for the country, and everyone around me agrees with me. Like, I’ve never been more certain of something. I was at the protest at JFK against the Muslim ban. I didn’t have anything going on that day, my aunt was a big activist and was in town, and I like looked at Twitter and saw that this thing was happening, and we were like, “I guess, let’s go.” We were some of the first people there. I remember being there and feeling this thrill, like, Wow, the whole world is watching, this is the beginning of something. And it’s so hard to feel that now.
Yeah, I mean, this is going to be the ballot box. It’s astonishing, the man’s diet and stress levels, but, yeah, he’ll outlive us all.
That’s what’s crazy! The guy’s going to die in his fourth term, you know?
My story to complement yours, is: I did not go to JFK, but I did cancel my Uber [because they were breaking the temporary taxi-cab strike of that day]. I deleted Uber and sent a very sort of aggressive message to them. And then I found myself traveling in a country that did not have Lyft, and really, by far the best and safest way to get around was Uber, and I could not get it reloaded, and this kept coming up, and I was always travelling with my boyfriend and used his account. But I was always travelling in a place, and I was like, This is crazy. And it took about five emails with Uber customer service to finally get myself reinstated, to this account that I so indignantly, self-righteously canceled. I’m sure I would be very embarrassed if I saw that email. And you put it next to my grovelling emails where I’m like … Well, I didn’t grovel, but it’s me asking to get my account set back up.
When I read the book, I felt like, Oh, I can unclench reading this, because this is the only book that gets how fucked-up and freaked-out I am. I felt very seen, both as someone who uses Media Twitter, but also someone who thinks about these worst-case scenarios, because you’re not supposed to say those out loud, you know? I always feel like I’m going to be bringing someone down, if I say, “Hey, have you ever thought about the fact that even if Trump loses the election, he’s not going to concede, and it’ll create a constitutional crisis that the United States can’t withstand, or we just go into open authoritarianism?” I’ll occasionally say stuff like that, and nobody has a response, and it’s like, OK, well, what’s the next topic? Because what are you supposed to say?
I mean, I am just wired to be a catastrophic thinker. It’s always, The dog is going to run into the street and get hit by a car. The garbage disposal is going to take your finger off. Or, in a nice combo of that, I’m going to drop the kitchen knife onto the dog, and kill it.
I think about that all the time with my cats. I always think, if I’m carrying a knife, I’m going to drop it and kill my cat.
My dog is always stepping underfoot in the kitchen. I’m thinking that if I hold a cast-iron pan, that’s almost weighs as much as the dog does, or I’m holding a knife that’s sharp, some part of my mind is like, Be very, very careful. That type of thinking somehow makes it more likely, in a perverse way, that you’ll accidentally be so careful with the knife that you’ll slip on the big grease stain that’s on the floor, then the knife will impale you into your dog and you’ll both die.
The Rube Goldberg device that is fate.
Exactly. I haven’t seen this whole series, but I saw Final Destination last summer, and it has the Rube Goldberg, weird/crazy ways of killing each other. While the movies themselves are not, at least based on the first one and a half, are not, you know, the most extraordinary pieces of filmmaking of all time, those kills really get my synapses firing, and I haven’t even begun to think of all the horrible ways to die that surround us at all times.
To be continued …