You will pay for your excessive charm
More from the fictional Trumpocalypse and an increasing number of cats
|Abraham Riesman אברהם ריסמן||Apr 2, 2020|
Hello, dear friend. Well. Quite a time to be alive, huh? I write to you today from my bunker in Cobble Hill. My fiancée is sleeping in the bedroom and I’m sipping my coffee while scanning Twitter for the latest horrors. Oh wait, right, I forgot to mention: I got engaged! My boo proposed a week ago and I enthusiastically said yes. Who knows when or even how we’ll tie the knot, what with all city clerks’ offices and their sacred marriage licenses indefinitely off limits due to the pandemic. Sigh. We’ll get there. In the meantime, she’s moved in with me so we can ride out this particular apocalypse together. Anyhoo, I figured I might as well drop in and try to momentarily distract you with a new edition of the newsletter. Today’s main course is the latter half of my interview with author Mark Doten, whose Trump Sky Alpha all-too-accurately predicted how our president would conduct himself on the eve of Armageddon. But first…
Other than the engagement, the other good news keeping me afloat these days is the fact that my fiancée’s cat is getting along astonishingly well with my two cats. Here’s photographic proof:
And here’s a tender moment between father and son:
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson — I started this astounding novel a week ago and have been utterly gripped ever since. The initial tout for me was the fascinating premise: what would the world look like if the Black Plague had killed off not 30% of Europeans but 99% of them, thus eradicating from this earth the population that would come to be known as “white people”? But that alternate-history conceit, as intriguing as it is, turns out to only be a small part of why the tome is worth devouring. So far, it’s a meticulously researched and thrillingly paced journey through a wide array of cultures and institutions, none of them the hegemonies we take for granted in our timeline. I genuinely have no clue where it’s all leading, but I’m very much along for the ride.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — I hadn’t listened to this album in well over a decade, but something prompted me to pump it up last week and I’m so glad I did. It’s some of the best work that mid-’00s indie pop had to offer. If you’re unfamiliar, start out with “Details of the War” and expand from there.
High Maintenance — I’ve long been a big fan of this show, going way back to when it was just a low-budget webseries on Vimeo. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to watch it evolve since then into a rich and lush HBO program. My darling and I just finished getting from the first episode all the way to the most recent one, and it was her first time seeing any of it. Watching it with her has been so delightful, both because she has marvelous insights and because seeing it all at once allows me to see parallels and callbacks I’d completely missed the first time around. You should watch it! But make sure you start with the webseries episodes! They’re crucial and the subsequent HBO episodes make a lot more sense if you’ve seen ‘em.
Me, me, me
I wrote my first article for the excellent progressive outlet Jewish Currents, and I’m quite proud of how it came out. Entitled “Urgency and Compromise: Progressives Run for the World Zionist Congress,” it’s a look at a desperate (and, as it turned out, not-so-successful) attempt by progressive American Jews to gain more influence in mainstream Zionism, an ideology whose tentpole individuals and institutions have taken a sharp turn toward racist and reactionary politics in recent years. Their mission was to take a stand in the elections for the World Zionist Congress, an august body that allows Diasporic Jews to affect policy in the Holy Land. The article was published before the results of the WZC vote came in, so if you want to see how the story resolved, you can read more here.
Today, we return to my interview with the great Mark Doten, an editor and novelist who published a prophetic book called Trump Sky Alpha last year. It’s a remarkable work about the arrival and aftermath of a nuclear war instigated by the titular president. I absolutely adore it and give it my highest recommendation, although it may be a little intense to read in the present circumstances. Or it’ll be cathartic, maybe! Even if you don’t read it, you can follow and appreciate the conversation I had with Doten a couple of months ago. The first half of it can be found in my last newsletter and the second half is below. Enjoy, if that’s the right word!
On maybe not as abjectly grim a note, I didn’t have a copy of your book to review before we started talking, because I gave my copy to my radical Filipina weed dealer. She came over one time to deliver, and she had some pins in Tagalog, and they had these rad designs on them, and she said they were from Filipino punk bands, and I went, “I have a book for you!” So, why did you have the Philippines play such a large role in the book? That was such an interesting and specific choice.
Well, there are a few reasons for that. One, a global apocalypse is by nature a global event, and I didn’t want to be one of those books that’s a couple of white people in the US. But, I mean, the Philippines is interesting. Manila was the site of … The first round-the-world telegraph runs there. There’s a lot of interesting Internet history, and a lot more that people have told me about since the book came out. Apparently, a lot of new changes to Facebook or other sites get beta-tested in the Philippines.
Well, Facebook had this kind of closed ecosystem of millions of people there, where Facebook distributed, in a deal with the government, all of these phones that use Facebook and that’s kind of all they can do. It was the most evil-genius plot, because you had all these people who literally never had access to the Internet before, and, all of a sudden, the entirety of their Internet experience is Facebook. They think Facebook is the Internet.
I should have included that in the book.
You had plenty, don’t worry. The point is, it’s a population that Facebook feels like they can experiment on.
That’s right. And also, it was one of the countries that was the subject of American colonial power. It’s an English-speaking country — not entirely, there’s a vast number of languages in the Philippines — but it’s a country where many people speak English. And also, my partner, Paul Nadal, was doing his dissertation at Berkeley on the relationship between literature and economic changes from essentially the independence through the present day, so there’s a lot of really interesting sort of big-systems-y thinking in this dissertation that I found generative for my own writing. And he being from the Philippines, that made it. We share a lot of work with each other, so he was sort of able to help me think through how the character Sebastian would appear, what his childhood would be like, what kind of worked and what didn’t. I want a Filipino reader to be able to read this and be able to say, OK, that seems pretty good. Just as I’d like a network-security expert to read this and be like, OK, I’ve seen much worse. I wanted to pass a basic smell test on that front. So the almost-collaborative element with my partner was very useful for those sections.
In terms of the main protagonist, were you thinking, I want to make sure that my protagonist here is not just a white man?
I think the decision to make Rachel, to some extent, had to do with the influence of Didion on the book. Didion has three political novels: Democracy, A Book of Common Prayer, and The Last Thing He Wanted. Not everyone loves those political novels, but I adore them. I think the voice in the Rachel portions is kind of inflected with that kind of cold, detached tone that Didion brings to the narrators and female characters in her work. So there seemed to be something … I just never considered having that character not be a woman.
Ideating on stuff like that, it sounds like your head was in the right place, because I’ve found that as a cis white man or whatever, the more I think about writing fiction, the more I feel like I really do have this fixation on people who are like me. And it’s really hard. Part of that is: I’m afraid if I try to step outside of that, I’m going to get it wrong. I want to have a good healthy bit of representation, but it’s hard to think, Ugh, I’m going to try to write a character who isn’t like me, and everyone’s going to laugh at me because I do a bad job with it.
I mean, that can definitely happen. But on the other hand, I teach writing, and I edit books, and so on, and I do think that writing outside of your own race, nationality, gender identity, sexuality, etc. can be … I think it’s more high-wire. If you fail, the failure is worse, it’s a harder fall than if you’re like, “And here’s a Jewish guy in media in New York City.” But I think a lot of great writing comes out of that, and out of both people writing very … There are people like Ben Lerner, who writes very close to himself, yet still uses that character, even if it’s a very selfish character, very similar to the real-world Ben Lerner. He’s still able to dilate the perspective in very interesting ways, and he can bring in very interesting points of views and perspectives. And other people write very far-ranging things with lots of different voices. Marlon James, for instance, The History of Seven Killings, he writes an incredible multiplicity of voices in that book.
When I was a kid, I always used to tell myself, after having watched a documentary about the making of Alien, “If I ever write fiction, I’ll do what they did for Alien,” which is that they wrote Ripley as a man, and then just said, “What if we made her a woman, and didn’t change anything about the script?” Like, “Yeah, that would be the real feminist thing to do! I’ll write a character as a man and just change all the pronouns, and that’ll show that women are just like men!” And the older I get, I realize that they really lucked out on that one, because that’s a recipe for disaster, to just act like the specific experiences that we give a population are going to be the same universally.
Is it Alien or Aliens that ends with her snuggled with her cat in her sleeping chamber?
So it does end on a very maternal note, so they did kind of finesse things a bit. There’s no way Arnold Schwarzenneger is going to end a movie in his nighty, clutching a cat.
I don’t know. I can see it. But by the time they did Aliens, which I think is a superior movie, they really leaned into the fact that she’s a woman.
With the kid stuff.
With the kid stuff, with the climaxes. It was the origin of the Bechdel Test, Aliens. That was the comic that Alison Bechdel got cited for, which was about two lesbians walking by a theater that’s playing Aliens, and one of them says, “I judge movies on whether …” all those criteria. And in that movie, you have scenes where Ripley and Newt are talking about the aliens, and not men, and so it technically passes the Bechdel Test. Now we’re going down a tangent.
What are they called, Xenomorphs?
They’re female, right?
The queens are female. Other than that, they’re kind of genderless.
But then you get to have that amazing line: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
I love those movies. Sigourney Weaver was my first crush. Well, it was a tie between her and Harrison Ford, simultaneously.
She is super-hot. I wish she was in more stuff. But I guess her being relatively selective is … I guess she’s going to be in all five Avatars, or whatever.
Talk about something dystopian. The fact that the Avatar series is still going to have as many installments … I joked, when they announced that there were going to be four more of them, that, ironically, we weren’t going to get to the end of them, because the global ecosystem will collapse, in the most bitter irony you can imagine. But I don’t know when these things are going to fucking come out.
What’s going to be funny, too, is when they’re going to be huge hits, and everybody who has been shitting on them all these years has to eat crow.
When Film Twitter has to eat crow, like they had to do with Mission: Impossible. For some reason, it was decided that the Mission: Impossible series is really good.
And the Fast and Furious series, too.
Yeah, that kind of groupthink on Twitter is something that really drives me up a tree, because I’m so susceptible to it. I think back sometimes on things I’ve been enthusiastic about — whether they’re cultural objects, political moments, whatever — and so often the enthusiasm was, Well, everyone on Twitter was excited about it, too, and I got caught up in the excitement. I guess that happens outside of Twitter, too. But for me, I hadn’t experienced it that much, prior to being in the scrum of social media like that, where I can really just love a work only because everybody else loves it and we’re all collaborating on loving it at once. Do you miss anything about being on Twitter?
No. I honestly, like, in terms of muscle memory stuff, I find myself still, once every three weeks, typing Gawker in, to go to Gawker, but I don’t do that with Twitter. I loved it, but it was consuming, I never felt like I had a good enough ratio, and in all the ways that social media can drive you insane, it drove me insane. I was like, Wait a minute, that Tweet isn’t getting any business? That’s a really good Tweet!
When did you join?
I joined not super-late, pretty early. But, I think in retrospect, if I had it to do over again, I followed a ton of people, political writers and media people, so I had a very underwater follower ratio until my first book came out. I think if I had a good ratio, having joined whenever I did … When did Twitter start?
I think I started in 2009 or 2010, maybe. I feel like I would have had a very different Twitter experience, because I realize, once you get into a positive ratio, then I’m looking at people who follow me when something comes out, I do sort of like that thing of holding the cursor over and seeing what people’s ratios are. And it’s so toxic and stupid, but then on the other hand it’s not like you have time to do a deep dive into every single person that follows you’s Twitter feed, to find out if they’re one of the good ones, so it becomes a sort of sorting mechanism. The fact that I’m constructing this theory for why I was not more popular on Twitter, like, nine months after I deleted my account, just shows how deep the claws can get into your cerebral cortex.
It’s one of those things that happens in the tech spheres nowadays, where you go: Oh, the FDA isn’t approving these things, right? There should be some long-term testing on the effects of Twitter on the human brain, but that would never happen. We test pills that go out into the world, but not these things that affect brain chemistry in a very similar way.
Absolutely. There’s no question that my concentration — and some of that has to do with the Trump era too, and before the Trump era, too — it’s way down from what it used to be. I think about the amount of focus I used to bring to book editing, when I was first starting out, and now it’s really, I have to play all these games with myself to keep my attention focused. I almost have to gamify editing, where I go: I can go through these twenty pages, then I get a reward of getting to check Instagram or whatever. It was so refreshing to switch to Instagram, and I’m more new to Instagram, but that world can be … It’s nicer than Twitter, but it still has the same basic levers and claws in your brain.
Unfortunately, as a journalist, I have to use all these platforms to promote and network, basically just do outreach. There are people you want to get an interview with, who you can’t reach any other way, and you tweet at them. It’s true about Facebook and Instagram as well. You have to be hustling like this, and we get this amnesia to the degree where I don’t remember what I regarded as a successful article prior to social media. I can’t remember how I knew if articles did well. The other day, someone was asking me about writing for my college paper, and I said something like, “Oh, my most popular article was X.” And they said, “How did you know it was popular? What was the traffic on it?” And I went, like, “We barely had a website, I don’t know. I guess people told me they liked it? I don’t remember.” I had some feeling like, This article has done well. People have read it. I can move on with my life. And now, you just have numbers in front of you. They’re made up numbers, or very misleading numbers.
Imagine if you were a creator on Netflix or something, and you never found out. I know how many of my books, roughly, went out into the world, or I would if I looked at my royalty statements. I think there’s been a glitch on them mailing them to me. I’m like, Good. I’m just going to keep that. Until they’re sending checks with the royalty statements, I don’t want to know. This is a little bit of a sidepoint, but it’s also funny, because what you’re famous for is not necessarily the thing that you love. I was talking to the poet Meghan O’Rourke, who also wrote for Slate, and she edits more now. I think she edits a literary magazine now. She wrote a piece on Crocs for Slate.
Like the shoes.
When they first became a big thing. So, you know, a poet sells the number of copies of a book that a poet sells. Probably low four figures would be very, very good. And her Crocs piece has been viewed millions and millions of times, and it will always be the most-read thing. But it’s very strange, what you put out into the world. Like, and I’m sure your publisher would want you to write a piece for Lithub, a personal piece for the TimesMagazine, or something, get interviewed, try to get all these things, and the effect is so hard to … It’s so hard to know what makes things line up and hit, and what doesn’t, and book publishing is certainly as strange as it can be when it comes to that. There are things that are big that aren’t supposed to be big, and things that are the reverse. And some people do a perfect, they do every bit of publicity, they get a ton of attention, and the book still … y’know?
I’m very curious to see what happens with my book, because the hustling ecosystem is so weird, and changes every day. Everyone thinks they have the right formula figured out, but there hasn’t been a stable formula for rolling out a piece, whether it’s an article or a book or whatever, in like a decade.
People drop pieces on the weekend now, sometimes. There’s not even Friday afternoon to Monday morning, as blocked out. It’s just whenever.
Is it easier or harder to get through the day, post-being done with the novel? Do you feel like you’ve made peace with some part of yourself, and maybe it’s easier to face the day?
No, I don’t feel that way.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Although, I do feel like these years are sort of beating us into slightly new, worse shape. So maybe it’s a little less immediately painful, so the permanent deformation of my brain and myself is something that will last a long time that is permanent, I guess.
What are you working on?
A story collection. A lot of politics and political violence and so on.
I gotta read your first book. If this is something I were getting paid for, I would have read it already. But it sounds like a great novel.
Thank you, yeah. It’s longer and in some ways a little less accessible than the new one.
Good, I like inaccessible.
Lots of antisemitism in it.
Sign me up!
This may surprise you, but Osama bin Laden, if you look into his public statements, he doesn’t have the greatest things to say about the Jews.
No, he doesn’t. That’s a whole other conversation, about, the American Jewish establishment, because of the degree to which it shares a fear of the Muslim population, has bought into Trumpism, that’s one of those internal Jewish conversations that we try not to air dirty laundry too much about.
But will the percentages electorally really switch?
No, you just end up with this weird perspective shift where you go: Who speaks for the Jews? Is it the majority opinion, or is it the most committed people who care a lot about being Jewish? Because among people who self-identify as Jews, in the broadest sense, 70 to 80% of American Jews voted against Trump in 2016. Roughly similarly numbers voted against Republicans in the midterms. And while that’s an overwhelming majority, the overwhelming majority of American Jews are not really involved in Jewish life anymore. It’s not that much of a focus for them. Once you get into Jewish identitarian circles, like institutions that are explicitly built around being Jewish, all of a sudden, they lean way Trump. It’s a small population, but these are the people who sort of act as the spokespeople. So you end up with this weird bifurcation where the average American Jew is going to be much closer to an Eli Valley than a Jared Kushner, but at the same time, Jared Kushner is the one who is in power. Those are the Jews who are holding the levers of power. Now I sound like an antisemite, but that’s what always happens when you talk about your own population.
Not at all. The legislation against BDS campaigns, it’s crazy. It feels like the anti-Sarah Schulman and Judith Butler laws of 2019 or something.
Are you Jewish?
When Trump said that he thought American Jews were being disloyal, and didn’t specify, initially what they were disloyal to. Now, everybody and their grandmother could tell you: He’s talking about Israel. He’s saying that American Jews are being disloyal to Israel, which is a very antisemitic thing to say, because we shouldn’t have expectations to loyalty to another country, but the Republican Jewish Coalition, god bless them, tweeted out something to the effect of, “We stand with President Trump. It’s truly terrible when you’re disloyal to yourself.” And I was like: How do you jump your brain through enough hoops that you feel like, Yeah, people will buy this!
I could be wrong, but hasn’t he used the term, like “your country?” “Got your capital back.”
Repeatedly! He refers to Benjamin Netanyahu, in front of Jewish audiences, as “your Prime Minister.” And at the same time, I was just in Israel, and I was talking to so many Israeli Jews who couldn’t get why I wasn’t on board for Trump, because he’s “good for Israel.” And I was like: I don’t know what to say to you. And some of them were my age! That was the scary thing. It wasn’t just an “OK, boomer” thing. That’s where we’re at, and it’s so much of Trump politics, even beyond the Jewish community: It’s generally disorienting from an epistemological perspective, to think that so many people live in this alternate reality. I couldn’t have a conversation with these people. And that makes me sad. It makes me mad, and then it makes me very very sad, ‘cause I don’t know how you put that toothpaste back in the tube. How much did you have to learn about the way the internet is structured for the book?
Oh, a lot. Tons. I had to read a bunch of books, and also, my brother Chris and a friend and former colleague of his — both mentioned in the acknowledgments — spent hours talking through the scenarios and helped me come up with the central act that takes place, which involves the addressing functions of the internet, which is kind of hard to get your mind around, because we think of: You type in Weather.com and you go to Weather.com. But, of course, that’s not what happens. We type in Weather.com because humans are good at remembering words. Computers are very efficient with numbers. So there’s an IP address, which of course a human — unless it’s all zeroes and a one — would not be able to remember.
It’s not far off from an AOL keyword, we just act like it’s more advanced because it involves www or whatever.
The thing is, the addressing function, where a URL address matches up to an IP address, is a tremendously complicated endeavor, involving massive servers around the globe that have to update repeatedly. It used to be that the entirety of the internet could be spread on one spreadsheet, on one computer, and you could ask that spreadsheet what the IP is for a URL. As you hit a world in which there are X billion of IP addresses, making sure these address books still work. It’s just a consuming problem, and it always will be for the internet. There’s a new version of IP addressing that we’re currently in the transition of, which opens up, I don’t have the exact figures in front of me, but when they first created the IP addresses, they assumed that the number of figures in the IP addresses would be essentially infinite, because the current addressing function allows for 10 billion addresses, or 100 billion addresses, or whatever.
That might as well have been infinity to them.
But that is not the case. And we’re running into something called IP exhaustion, which is something where initial IPs are running out, for a lot of reasons, and becoming scarce and valuable. So they’ve created a new version of the IP protocol that has many, many, many more times the IP addresses in it. And it’s seemingly infinite. And I think that this time, maybe it is, because there’s an awful lot. But it’s a big number.
You really sort of hit on the two things that frighten me the most — well, not climate change, so two of the three: the collapse of the internet, and Donald Trump. That’s how I knew that this would be the book for me, because those are two of the things I think about most often. Did you read David Wallace-Wells’ book? I always tell people, “You should read this book, but only if you’re ready,” because it’s very much a Matrix — I know the MRA’s have taken this word — but it’s very much a redpill moment, where, once you read that book, nothing looks the same. It’s a slim volume, and when you’re done, you go, Oh, this is the most important thing. I’m sure people have had this with other books too, but for me, it was that. And I’m curious: Do you feel like we’re at a bigger risk of nuclear war or climate change disaster? What do you think?
The climate change disaster is happening and is ongoing. I don’t know.
I only ask, because this feels like the rare conversation I can have with somebody who thinks about this stuff on the regular.
Once I get this short-story collection put to bed, the next novel I’m working on will be about climate change and the end of society as we know it, and then hopefully I’ll be done writing about the end of the world. I’ve sort of had in mind for years this trilogy, and it’s not a real trilogy, but a very loose conceptual trilogy, where the first book is kind of about the singularity, the second book is kind of about nuclear apocalypse, and the third is kind of about climate change. World-ending events. And hopefully after that I can do some self-examination and just write a realist novel.
A roman à clef, finally.