Jacob Silverman | Longreads | February 2019 | 22 minutes (6,069 words)
Mark Doten is a deranged seer, a mad scribe mapping the end of the world. In The Infernal, his wonderfully strange first novel, he tackled a host of twenty-first century horrors: Osama Bin Laden and his followers, the moral disaster of the War on Terror, the gravitational pull of the networked world on our minds, and a seemingly inevitable post-human future in which one of the few survivors is Mark Zuckerberg. Now, in Trump Sky Alpha, Doten’s produced a fierce, unexpectedly moving, and surprisingly quickly conceived book about the Trump presidency. The new novel begins with a nuclear conflagration that wipes out 90 percent of the global population. The protagonist, Rachel, a journalist steeped in the folkways of the internet, is one of the few survivors. In an effort to reboot American journalism, the New York Times Magazine, risen from the ashes, assigns her to write an article about internet humor at the end of the world. What were people tweeting as the bombs fell?
It may sound like a deliberately obscure assignment, but it soon takes Rachel into some of the darkest corners of the post-apocalyptic American landscape. Mourning her dead wife and child, Rachel is also searching for their final resting place; along the way she finds a new lover, encounters an American security state that seems just as malevolent as its pre-apocalyptic forebears, tangles with a frightful hacktivist-turned-cyber-villain, and meets a novelist dying of radiation exposure who may be the key to it all. Trump Sky Alpha begins as an elaborate farce and ends as something much more grim and compelling, covering issues of politics, resistance, identity, and what, after all these years of mindless info-consumption, the internet actually means to our society.
I spoke recently with Doten about these issues and his new book over beers in a Brooklyn bar. Our conversation has been slightly condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.
Jacob Silverman: How is it writing about Trump? Did you feel like you had to, or is it more a product of writing about the times?
Mark Doten: I knew that I was going to write something about the internet and politics, and I came up with the idea of a novel that asked: what would social media be like as the world is ending? I started the book in October 2015. As the U.S. moved through its presidential primary process, it eventually became clear that we were choosing between two distinct tracks. One was a sort of center-left, neoliberal competency. A Clinton continuation of the Obama years, with a lot of rightwing rage roiling beneath it all. And then on the other hand the gathering force of Trump’s politics of reaction, racial grievance, ignorance, and clownishness.
After the conventions, the polls tightened up, and that was the first time I truly believed that Trump could win. There are two long Trump sections in the book. I wrote the first in August of 2016. That was published as a story before the election. It’s a monologue Trump gives as he’s blowing up the world where he’s blaming everyone but himself, talking about what a great job he’s done and so forth. The second Trump section, which offers a different perspective on the same events, I wrote in the weeks after the election, in a state of extreme anger, sadness, and distress. That eventually became the opening of the book.
A line based on the notorious John Stoehr tweet, ‘What is binch? What is to be corncobbed?’ was particularly difficult to translate.
Is there a certain kind of pressure when you’re writing about the present moment or the near future? Does it feel like reality is hard to keep up with, especially when the dial of absurdity seems to be going up every day?
The thing about Trump is his brain is so broken and his uses of language are so strange that no matter how many weird things he’s said in the past, you can’t predict what he’ll say next — it will be “off” and bizarre in whole new ways. A recent example of this was when he said his business dealings were “very legal and very cool.” Very legal and very cool! You can’t invent that. I mean, it’s Lionel Hutz from the Simpsons kind of stuff. After I made the very final changes to the manuscript and it was off to the printer, Trump went on a tear of using the word “evil” to describe his critics, particularly those who opposed Kavanaugh. ““These are really evil people,” etc. I wished that I’d anticipated that. Because it’s such a frightening thing for a president to be saying about a huge chunk of the American population.
With Trump, the trick is to imagine things are as bad as they can be, double that, and then you’ll be getting close to the actual reality.
How about writing about internet humor and culture when it can all seem so ephemeral? Which memes are important? Which will last for any length of time?
Anticipating memes is also impossible. Just since I’ve done final corrections, we’ve had some big new ones. We’ve had “He’s Not Your Man” and “One Taught Me Love,” and this interview won’t run for weeks from now, so these memes may be completely washed out by the time anyone reads this. The way book publishing works, you finish your book over a year before it gets published, and very final corrections are due in the neighborhood of six months before the book publishes. My solution was to create this notion that at the end of the world, people went back and had this nostalgic curtain call for all the old memes. A temporal collapse where memes from five years ago existed alongside memes that were current when I was writing and other memes that I invented.
There’s a silliness to it, but it also feels like exactly what would happen. If people were feeling like the world was ending — or it’s almost like that missile false alarm in Hawaii — people are going to be tweeting about it. People are going to be tweeting as the apocalypse comes and trying to cope with it, with memes and whatever light-hearted mechanisms they have. That part captured something about our moment, about how very serious and fraught and anxious moments get caught up in a very silly kind of discourse.
People will absolutely be making offhanded ironic smug jokes about their own death. We saw that with the transformer explosion in Queens that turned the NYC sky blue. That could have been something very, very bad. I mean, for all anyone knew, that was the end of the world, and everyone just made Twitter jokes about it. But there’s a great tradition of that. Oscar Wilde, famously — and this may be apocryphal but let’s say it’s true — his final words were, “Either the wallpaper goes or I do.” Ironic detachment and smugness are not always useful. But there can be almost a nobility to it, staring down death, to keep making jokes up to the last moment.
I saw that there’s an Italian edition of your book. Do you worry about how incorporating memes and internet humor will translate, both to another culture like Italian or even someone who’s not an incredibly online Brooklynite?
My Italian publisher has been great about this. One example: a line based on the notorious John Stoehr tweet, “What is binch? What is to be corncobbed?” was particularly difficult to translate. My editor there, Brian Moore, explained that initially they tried to leave “binch” and “corncob” in English, but it lost the echo to the original tweet. But leaving it entirely in English made it impenetrable for Italian readers. I’ll share just a couple lines of an email from Brian: “I thought we could replace the words with two similar Italian terms or internet neologisms to create a similar effect. The first is ‘strunz’, which similarly to binch is a slightly modified Italian expletive (‘stronzo’, literally meaning ‘shit’, but used the way we use ‘asshole’), which originates from the Neapolitan dialect but is now used as an insult on the internet)…”
The discussion — about a single line in the book! — went on for a full page. I certainly appreciated that level of care from the editor and the translator, Teresa Ciuffoletti.
Beyond that, I’ve always enjoyed when novels incorporate technological language, specialist language. “Moby-Dick” is a great example. The Cetology chapter in particular splits people — all these whales! — but just in general when you’re reading Melville, there are so many specific nautical terms, and people who don’t stop to look each one up still get something from those words, and still have an experience of the novel. Of course, I recommend as a general practice looking up words you don’t know. But twenty years from now, should the world still be around, and if someone happens to find in the dome where they’re living a copy of “Trump Sky Alpha,” they won’t understand the context of some of it, and maybe won’t be able to look it up, even if they had the inclination. But I hope they’d still understand something about our lives and times from the way the book skates along on top of those internet textures. My former teacher Ben Marcus, a writer I greatly admire, has populated books with invented technologies that have a sort of strange dream logic to them, and it can give his work a haunted, otherworldly quality. Perhaps some of the internet stuff would feel that way to future readers. That would be a beautiful outcome. But you can’t control any of that, and on a long enough timeline it doesn’t matter.
Totalization … can never be realized … you can always add another order of magnitude of information. But the figures are astonishing, and we’re still only getting started … Everything you say is monetizable data to someone … The information that the various apps you use send back to companies is increasingly fine-grained and detailed.
I’m interested in this idea of systems. That’s a big part of the novel. This almost seems to be an ongoing preoccupation from your first book, too. What’s your interest in systems, and do you see the internet as being as totalizing a system as some of your characters describe it?
I do. Let me answer the first part. I’ve always been very interested in systems work. Fiction that addresses systems can vary from texts like Beckett’s “Company” or “Happy Days” or Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” all of which describe enclosed or confined worlds, to the big systems novels of Pynchon and DeLillo, and I would add Didion to that list as a great systems novelist. “Things Fall Apart” is a systems novel, too, though it’s a different system from the one we see in “The Crying of Lot 49.” I’m intrigued by the impulse to grapple with whole systems, whether they’re relatively small or impossibly vast. How do we include a world as a cognizable object in fiction? Because it’s the nature of language that it’s always in some sense approximate. There’s never a perfect correlation between signifer and signified. And any description of a system can only ever be partial, because there’s always orders of magnitude of additional detail you could add, at any scale.
One of the reasons Kafka is so powerful and seductive is the way that he shows us a character like Josef K attempting to navigate and understand a vast system. Josef K has these repeated moments where he thinks he’s finally figured it out, he’s cracked it, and he’ll make some big declaration. And then — to mix a different metaphor in here — the camera draws back and we see that he is not in fact where he thought he was. He is not addressing who he thought he was addressing, that the center of the power is always somewhere else, somewhere else that he can’t reach. That struggle is very interesting to me.
Finally, descriptions of systems are predicated on exclusions, which make the descriptions themselves vehicles of power. That’s not just the case with descriptions of the system, of course. The systems themselves concentrate power and marginalize people with absolute ruthlessness, which I think is particularly interesting with the internet, which was evangelized in the 90s and even somewhat to this day as a space of equality, a level playing field, and of course it’s often anything but. The internet has allowed marginalized people to find each other and organize. But at the same time, it’s created incredibly toxic and destructive dynamics that target marginalized groups. The famous manifesto from John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” has not aged well. “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity” — tell that to trans people being hounded by bigots on Twitter.
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What kind of research were you doing? It sounds like you composed the book pretty quickly, but it also has a deeply researched aspect to it with all the stuff about internet architecture, internet history, and Filipino history and literature?
There were some key texts. I read a number of books on internet history and governance. Alexander Galloway’s book Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization was the one that really got me started on the ideas in Trump Sky, and I learned a great deal from books by Janet Abbate, Milton Mueller, Fred Turner, and Lauren DiNardis. More personally, my brother, Chris Doten, leads the tech team at an NGO that does international democracy work, and he kindly and patiently spent many hours answering my questions as I wrote this book. I’m also fortunate in my partner, Paul Nadal, who is an academic who wrote his dissertation on the English-language Filipino novel. His work and his early reads of Trump Sky were critical to the book. In terms of other research, I did a lot of hunting down old newspapers that had information about, for instance, the first transpacific cable, which ran through Manila. One aspect of the totalizing nature of the internet that I’m happy about is how so many old newspapers are scanned and searchable and free, if you’re able to figure out how to get to them.
I keep going back to this idea of the totalizing aspect you talk about. Do you mind defining that? Was it always going to be all that way? Was any digital network going to be totalizing the way you describe?
The internet has grown explosively since the 80s. You look at graphs of the numbers of devices hooked up to the internet, it’s really staggering. There are now billions of people on the internet. Global IP traffic has topped a zettabyte since 2016, and a zettabyte is a very big number — a trillion gigabytes. And that’s rapidly growing. Two percent of global energy consumption goes to the internet. When I talk about totalizing in the book, I’m looking at how the internet subdivides the world into smaller and smaller pieces and processes more and more of everything there is into streams of information. Totalization is an asymptotic process, it can never be realized — as in the systems answer, you can always add another order of magnitude of information. But the figures are astonishing, and we’re still only getting started. People have these devices inside their house now, their Alexa or their Echo, that listen to everything they say. That’s not just unnerving from a “oh they’re listening to me isn’t that weird? what if I say something embarrassing?” kind of way. It’s the fact that everything you say is monetizable data to someone. Your phone tracks you everywhere you go. The information that the various apps you use send back to companies is increasingly fine-grained and detailed.
The internet wants our experience of it to be as frictionless and invisible as possible, to be the daily hum of our lives, to be oxygen.
And the power over all of this is contained not only in the public-facing internet gatekeepers like Amazon and Apple and Facebook, but in the organizations and individual that shape and control the protocols and standards and address space that make the internet work. There is tremendous power and value in these things that we don’t see and that in fact the internet, writ large, doesn’t want us to think about. The IP address space is an interesting barometer of the explosive increase in internet-connected devices. IPv4, the version of internet protocol that was deployed in the early eighties, allowed for around four billion IP addresses, which are the unique addresses that are essential for internet addressing and for all internet connected devices. Those original addresses have been largely depleted. IPv6, which is its successor, will have a theoretical limit of 2 to the 128th power, which is a very, very large number. But control over those addresses will remain contested and valuable and for most internet users, invisible. If we can speak of the internet having a point of view: the internet wants our experience of it to be as frictionless and invisible as possible, to be the daily hum of our lives, to be oxygen.
That raises the “where does it end?” question.
Right. And I don’t know where it ends. Just recently, you had the CEO of Ford talking about how the future for his company was going to be monetizing the data of its customers. Think of how much data comes from a car — where you go, what you listen to, what you say. The tone of your voice — how fine grained can the voice analysis get? What about facial analysis? How do you react when certain songs come on the radio, certain ads? If your car wants to index as many possible factors about you, from weight and body temperature to tone of voice and who knows what else, it can and will, because that information is useful and can be sold. To someone. Someone wants that information. And this is on top of all the data the company gets when you apply to Ford for the credit to buy the car in the first place!
What’s your relationship to this stuff? Writing fiction takes a certain degree of detachment and contemplation, hopefully without notifications going off in your pocket all the time. What is your relationship to these technologies and did it change at all when writing the book?
I’m not a network security specialist or anything close to it. I’m a curious layperson when it comes to the deep working of the internet. I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter right now. Like most people, I basically hate Facebook. Maybe a couple months after the book comes out, when I’m done touring, I’ll get off it. I took a year off once before, which was great. Instagram is nice, but because it’s owned by Facebook, it comes with all the Facebook ethical horrors. But I love looking at French bulldog Instagram, so I can’t see losing that anytime soon.
There are a few websites I visit every day for news, New York Times, Washington Post, Talking Points Memo, Eschaton.
I saw Josh Marshall [of TPM] made it into the book.
Yes. Not in a way that I think he’d love.
He’ll be flattered to be in it, I’m sure.
Yeah I’m sure he’ll be flattered.
My main thing online is that I love Twitter. Of course I also hate it: that’s the default stance for most of Twitter. But I’m addicted, and so much of the news and opinion that I read comes from tweets or is linked through tweets. I’m not good at Twitter in the way that the people I really admire on Twitter are good at it. But I hope I’m able to capture in novel form some of the experience of what it feels like to be reading things on Twitter, on Facebook, and so on.
What comes through in the book is more impressionistic in a way. It’s interesting how these memes, the way it’s presented, also the use of repetition. I noticed there’s sort of a chorus-like effect in this book. There’s the one line, you use it a couple times, about the internet clearing trillions in transactions every night. Do you have a name for that kind of stuff? Is calling it a chorus fancifying it too much? Or is that just a writerly technique that you repeat things here and there?
Many of my favorite writers employ a lot of repetition. Beckett, Bernhard, and Didion come to mind as people who work in this musical way with repetition. That is a quality that I think can be very useful for fiction, when you’re working in somewhat non-narrative ways, when there isn’t always a traditional plot. You need to create energy and momentum and change within the work regardless, so introducing terms and phrases, having them recur, and putting different spins on them, allowing them to ramify and achieve different meanings as you work, is a way to create other sorts of narrative movement in work that doesn’t have standard plotting. There are parts of the book, the Rachel sections where she’s trying to figure out what’s going on, where there’s a conventional plot. But other parts of the book work in other ways, and repetition is key to that.
Maybe it’s dull to talk about where inspiration comes from, but where did you get the person who, on a bet, lives in a billionaire’s house for 10 years?
That comes from a Chekhov story where someone makes a bet that he can live in a millionaire’s house for 10 years with no contact with the outside world. And then the guy, while he’s there, he essentially reads all of literature and all of philosophy, and he then voluntarily leaves the night before he would receive his reward. His reading has led him to believe that everything is completely meaningless and that the money that he was so fixated on 10 years ago means nothing to him now. Which is fortunate, because the millionaire who had made the bet with him had by now gone broke.
I wanted to do something that I could write fast, a book that would be light on its feet and dynamic in responding to what’s happening in the world.
That’s very interesting. That’s very sneaky how you port that into this novel.
Chekhov goes in there a couple ways. “Uncle Vanya” is mentioned several times in the book, generally through the vehicle of the Louis Malle and Andre Gregory movie adaption, “Vanya on 42nd Street” — Rachel unearths a webpage with some of the subtitles for the movie during her research into the now defunct internet. I love the moment at the end of Vanya when Sonya is telling Vanya about her dreams of the world that will await him after death. She says, “Uncle, I know you’ve known no joy in your life. You’ve suffered. But just you wait, uncle.” A rough paraphrase. And then she describes heaven to him. It’s a very affecting moment. I don’t believe in heaven, and I don’t think Chekhov did, either, but the transcendent vision of a world to come is still very seductive.
I didn’t realize there could be so much Chekhov in a post-apocalyptic internet tale. It’s interesting what you say about plot, too, because sure, it’s not a conventionally plotted book, but it moves pretty swiftly. There’s a certain amount of meditating on this lost world. And of course, there’s this archival research that Rachel does that reflects back on that world. But everything moves pretty quickly. And we have these contained worlds that open up into something new — the containment zone, the military shepherding around Rachel, the Birdcrash mansion. Are you someone who’s thinking ahead with plot, or does the story just unfold for you?
I had an idea early of some of the components of the book. The apocalyptic event. The character who’s assigned a year later to look at internet humor at the end of the world. I’m a fan of James Bond-style villain speeches, which I think is kind of an amazing trope, and the idea of a long monologue directed at an immobilized character came in early, too. That idea also owes something to the monologues of Thomas Bernhard.
My first book was quite long, well over one hundred thousand words, with thirty different narrators, and it didn’t really have a central plot, though it was enclosed in a frame narrative that sort of tied things together. With this one, I wanted to do something that I could write fast, a book that would be light on its feet and dynamic in responding to what’s happening in the world. Just write it quickly with some heat and momentum, and hopefully the experience for the reader would be fairly propulsive.
Who are your readers when you’re composing something?
My friend Kimberly King Parsons is my first reader on everything. Her first book is coming out next year, a collection of stories set in Texas called Black Light, and it’s going to blow people away. My editors at Graywolf, Steve Woodward and Fiona McCrae, have worked as a team on both of my novels, and their perspectives have been invaluable (and they’re attuned to different sets of deficiencies and moments that call for development in my drafts, so having a round of edits from both Fiona and Steve in succession is something rare that I’m very grateful for). And I already mentioned my partner and my brother as readers on the Philippines material and the network material, respectively.
My brother told me many times that network security professionals roll their eyes, with good reason, at most depictions of hackers and cyberattacks in popular culture. I’m hoping that Trump Sky will elicit a smaller-than-average eye roll.
Though I do want to be clear that I’m not offloading any blame when it comes to the Philippines or cyberattack material: if you don’t like it, the problems and mistakes are mine alone!
You talk about this need to move quickly with your work and keep a sense of propulsion and momentum. Is that what allows you to write stuff like “Piss Trump”? Is that something that was a quick turnaround, burst of inspiration sort of thing? [“Piss Trump” is a short story that Doten wrote for n+1, based, of course, off of the rumored pee tape.]
The pee tape is irresistible — it’s the great mythological object of the Trump presidency. Even though it didn’t make it into Trump Sky Alpha, the tape was something I’d wanted to write about since Buzzfeed reported on the Steele Dossier in January of 2017. I turned in my edits on Trump Sky Alpha in March of last year, and I thought I’d try to write stories to get my mind off the novel. Around that time, the comedian Andy Daly released an episode of his improvised comedy podcast, “The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project,” that centered on the pee tape. Now, as far as I’m concerned, Andy Daly is a genius and this podcast episode, “The Pee Tape with Don DiMello,” remains the definitive work on the subject of the pee tape, and you should listen to it before you read my story. I won’t spoil it, other than to say that there’s a moment when a character played by Mary Birdsong from Reno 911 describes the action of the tape as being like ballet, or a fountain dance in Vegas. They didn’t follow up on that line — there’s no ballet or fountain dance in the episode — but the idea is so weird and so funny that it kept rattling around in my brain. Then a month later, people on Twitter were dunking on Hannity for a bizarre moment on his radio show where he claimed a conversation he’d had with Michael Cohen was privileged because he’d given him a ten-dollar bill, and this, he said, made Cohen his lawyer. As people noted, this is a scene from Breaking Bad, and not exactly legally sound. After the Hannity thing, it clicked into place very quickly — I think I had an early draft within a day or two and most of the rest of the story within a week. In it, Hannity accosts a lawyer, gives him ten dollars, demands privilege. And then he claims what he calls “double privilege” by not putting anything in words, but instead miming it. He goes on to mime a whole series of his own and Trump’s misdeeds, ending in a massive Busby Berkeley-esque pee ballet and fountain show that devolves into a combination of “Piss Christ,” the “Rogue Nation” diving scene, and poor Augustus Gloop in the tubes in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” And there’s some stuff in there as well about the gripping strength of coconut crabs. That’s how the story came to be, and I owe a debt of gratitude to both Mary Birdsong and Sean Hannity.
It’s a total pageant.
Yes, a total pageant. I was raised Catholic, so pageantry is in my DNA.
I could feel that a bit — not that it goes on long — but there’s a similar sense in the opening scene of the novel of this absurdist, phantasmagoric tableau of violence and occasionally beauty. The descriptions are very lush at times, very sensory-loaded. That seems to be a talent of yours, to conjure these kinds of scenes.
Because pieces like Piss Trump or the opening of Trump Sky Alpha have these kind of iterative structures, they’re infinitely expandable or contractable. And they can become containers for so many ideas and images. Fiction is great because under the right conditions it’s such a massive eating machine: you can combine images and ideas from heterogeneous works like a Mission Impossible movie and an Andres Serrano photograph in a way that isn’t possible in other mediums, at least not in the same way. The version of the opening scene of Trump Sky is longer than the one that ran in Granta Magazine a year and a half ago because I kept wanting to put more stuff in as the presidency barreled on. It’s good I had to stop at some point.
I’m one of those people who thinks all art is political, and I think those politics are becoming increasingly legible.
Did this satisfy your itch for writing about Trump? Obviously he’s not gone. Are you doing more, fiction or non-fiction, writing about him or tech or these issues?
My next book is going to be a short story collection. Again, there will be politics and war and tech. The pee tape story should be a part of it, but beyond that, I don’t think that Trump will show up again directly as a character. I hope not. It’s not done yet, though, so who knows?
You seem to have no qualms about incorporating political issues, much less going for the core issues of the time, in your fiction. Is that a passe kind of argument, worrying about politics in the novel and capturing it well, or risking alienating readers? Is that a silly concern now?
I’m a book editor, working mostly on literary fiction, and my take is that there’s a lot of different ways to capture the politics of the moment. Allow me to say: please everyone don’t write stories in which real-world politicians are lyrical grotesque characters. But without question there’s an increasing interest in works that engage with the politics of our moment. People want to read, want to publish, want to review, work like that. I mean, I’m one of those people who thinks all art is political, and I think those politics are becoming increasingly legible. So there are types of stories, let’s say white people having affairs in the suburbs, whose politics do not feel particularly relevant to the moment. And fiction from marginalized groups is getting more attention, though often still not enough. I had the pleasure of editing an amazing book that came out last fall, Insurrecto by Gina Apostol, which is a fascinating, wild novel about art and film and the sort of forgotten history of the Philippine-American War. A war that, Gina notes, is forgotten both in the United States and in the Philippines — erased from the national consciousness of both countries. It’s a formally challenging work. It’s non-chronological, there are multiple layers of reality, there are competing realities. It’s very playful. It does very strange things with time. But it’s gotten a ton of reviews and attention. And I think that speaks to both the incredible talent of the author, and what she’s created, and to a contemporary hunger for politically engaged work, in a multitude of forms.
Were there then other political impulses behind your work, besides confronting the potentially apocalyptic nature of the Trump era? I noticed that all of the relationships in the book were same-sex. But I didn’t notice much said about that. Everything is a choice but I didn’t know whether you were trying to say something there.
Most of the characters in my first book are in some way queer. If there’s not overt homosexual characters, there are very homosocial relationships.
Certainly with bin Laden and all his acolytes [in The Infernal].
Exactly. Bin Laden and his acolytes. There’s also the Iraq vet who’s married but who appears to be a repressed gay guy.
I’m gay and queer art is more important to me than anything. I read it, teach it, live it, dream about it. In terms of creating an almost entirely queer world, one model is the novelist and filmmaker Dennis Cooper. His novels are often almost entirely queer. The world itself is queer. The characters are. It’s the default. It was a conscious choice for me in Trump Sky Alpha to make all the main characters, except for Trump, queer. I don’t want to layer too much of a narrative onto what that should mean you. But I do like creating a fully queer world where queerness is the norm and heterosexuality is somewhere else or concentrated in this figure of Trump.
I was also very struck about Rachel wanting to get back to Prospect Park [where she thinks her wife and child are buried]. It’s this classically bougie Brooklyn setting, but now it’s been turned into a killing field, a burial ground. There’s a lot of that in this book, where old comforts are juxtaposed against incredible horrors. Even something like the zeppelin is this luxurious, ultra-appointed space and then it turns into this horrible fiery conflagration.
I’m also interested in this idea of resistance. Obviously it’s a much thrown-around slogan. But the book in some ways is not quite clear. There are some places where I think you’re indicting people for being complicit. The novelist character in the book says, “Oh you resisted,” and he laughs and he says, “You just went along with things.” Can you expand a bit on that term and on what you were trying to dramatize within the book?
The book is about ideas of resistance, and also revolution. And they’re both these complicated, fraught things. On Left twitter, and probably Right Twitter, there’s a lot of joking about #TheResistance. A famous phrase on Twitter is “welcome to the resistance, [blank].” And it was initially used earnestly, like if John McCain did something remotely anti-Trump, someone would tweet, “Welcome to the resistance, John McCain.” And then it became a joke, for when right-wing people did something only mildly anti-Trump. At the beginning of the Trump presidency, there were massive marches and the word resistance was very central to that. I think that massive marches are great. I think group political action is great and other activities, like door to door canvassing, can be great. There’s a lot of things that need to be done politically for a left politics to grow and to gather strength against everything that’s awful in our country right now. But, as everyone likes to say, because it’s true, there’s a lot of stuff that is very online but doesn’t actually have any real effects in the world. There’s a lot of ways to make political gestures without actually engaging in a real politics. And that itself is also something that’s widely joked about on the internet. And Trump Sky is certainly interested in those recursive layers of meta-cynicism, and whether it embodies them or “resists” them will be up to readers.
In terms of revolution stuff, the novel within the novel is about a revolutionary hacktivist collective. Their actions are reflected in the novel itself in a way that unfurls throughout the book. But the revolution does not have the effects that the hacktivist group wanted it to. They tried to push back against the totalizing nature of the internet, but the effects of their revolutionary act were catastrophic, or were a part of the catastrophe. So perhaps I am something of a reactionary myself.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky