The end of America:
Miles Newbold Clark interviews Noah Cicero
Miles Newbold Clark: Reading Treatise feels a lot like reading On the Road, insofar as both books read as if they were written hastily. Is this right? Can you say a little about how the book was composed? How did the process of writing this book differ from, say, The Human War or The Condemned?
Noah Cicero: I wrote the book in a month. I always wanted to rewrite a book. I like Kathy Acker and movies that do that. I thought it would be fun. I didn't have any publishing intentions when I did it. I tried only once to get it published, it was rejected. Then I never tried again. Not because I gave up or something. I didn't care. I wrote the book not caring about it getting published. That's why when it was released on Lulu it had so many typos. I didn't go back and reread it. I didn't care. I saw no point in caring.
I found the text of [Chekov's] My Life on some website I can't even find now. It was a different translation than the original I read. I copied and pasted the book onto a word document. I would read a little bit and then rewrite it. There were parts I took out and parts I made up. I wrote it fast. I don't sit and 'write.' I don't sit and make things up as I go long. I want to say before I go on, I'm judging people on writing different ways. This is the way my brain works. I walk around and do things, sit in the bathtub, on the porch, mow the grass and basically compose what I'm going to write. I didn't have a job then because my car broke and I couldn't deliver pizzas anymore. So I was looking for a job and couldn't find one. I had a lot of time to think. When I write, I do it in my head first. I can concentrate really well. When I was little I had problems in school. They asked if I had ADD, but the doctor was like, "No, he concentrates too much." I still have this problem. My friends and people I work with have always made fun of me because I will be staring into space, and they will have to yell to get me to come back to reality.
"Contemporary books lack so much social conscious [sic] they pretend that the suburbs exist in some void in outer space. Reading [them] is like being in a spaceship outside of reality. There isn't anything about being human or about living in America. They aren't about anything."
MNC: Let's talk about writers you admire. You've noted [Ernest] Hemingway and J.S. Foer for their sentence structure. [Fydor] Dostoyevsky's monologues were defended as an element that's fallen away from contemporary fiction. Treatise itself takes its inspiration from a [Anton] Chekhov story. What's surprising about all of this is that Foer has led a life of privilege, Chekhov was a doctor, Dostoyevky and Hemingway had a lot of conservative quirks. Does a writer's social conscience or background ever influence your opinion of a writer's work? Why or why not?
NC: I don't like Foer. I think I mentioned a couple of times how readable he is. But he isn't an influence. I'll talk about the other authors. I don't base my opinion if I like a writer on their class. I always analyze their writing in terms of their class. I like to learn about the writer and what class they were from, what their parents did, what religion they were. I don't think you can analyze a book without knowing those facts. To analyze a book without knowledge of the author's life is to make the book float in space and have no context. We read The Catcher in the Rye in school like it floats in space. Never taking into account the life of J.D. Salinger.
Most great writers are conservatives, Knut Hamsun and Ezra Pound were both Fascists and they are considered the creators of 20th century prose and poetry. I think a lot of writers are conservatives because conservatism is control and power. Writers are usually control freaks. They are people that feel like they have no power in reality. So they read to escape and retreat into their rooms alone. The main point is 'alone.' Without people there they have control and no one is there judging them. Writers want control. They are attracted to extreme politics like fascism and communism because they are systems of control. Jack London, [Pablo] Neruda, and [Jean-Paul] Sartre were communists. They were all control freaks. You can see it Hamsun, [Ernest] Hemingway, Neruda's lines. They are so precise. So chiseled out. Only a person who was felt so powerlessness would resort to such control.
Then you have writers not concerned with politics. They might have made some comments but nothing serious, [Jack] Kerouac, [Marcel] Proust, Chekhov and [Jean] Rhys. They are more concerned with freedom. Writing for Kerouac and writing for Knut Hamsun are two different things. Hamsun would leave reality and go into a room alone and write alone and there, alone, would create a reality he could deal with, a reality he could control. Writing was part of Kerouac's life. Writing for Kerouac was on the same level as doing the dishes, making a sandwich, or doing a task at work. He would be living and think, "That would make a good story." Then he would go and write it. Proust and [Fernando] Pessoa were like, "Well, I don't have anything else to do, I guess I'll write." I think the difference is that Hemingway and Hamsun really considered themselves 'writers' like it was a job. But I don't think Proust, Chekhov, and Rhys considered it a job. Probably because they had other incomes or just didn't consider an option. I think when a person puts the title 'WRITER' on their head it changes one's view of how to write drastically. But that probably springs from things in childhood.
I want to say that I don't think there should be a preferred way of writing. I like many books where the author writes a very controlled book. I love Knut Hamsun and [John] Steinbeck...
A writer's social conscious [sic]? The books that are remembered usually do not have a strong social conscious. The Brothers Karamazov or Moby Dick have no real social conscious. Books that are remembered and considered classic are usually books focused on what it means to be human, which is the reason they transcend cultures and time.
Contemporary books lack so much social conscious they pretend that the suburbs exist in some void in outer space. Reading Foer or [Dave] Eggers is like being in a spaceship outside of reality. There isn't anything about being human or about living in America. Most authors nowadays focus on sex or taking vacations to exotic locations. They aren't about anything.
"Kerouac fans are people who think the suburbs are shitty. People who like Updike are people who think the suburbs are fucking sweet and want to remodel their houses every three years. "
MNC: So, contemporary books fail to galvanize us because they lack all social conscience? Which means it's necessary, but not sufficient, for a writer to possess at least some semblance of social conscience? Elsewhere, you've referred to Treatise as your philosophy book. Why did you decide to take Chekhov, a short storywriter, as a model? He doesn't seem as overtly philosophical as many of the other writers you often mention, like Sartre, [Albert] Camus, or Dostoyevsky.
NC: My Life by Chekhov is very philosophical. His 'Boring Story' is really philosophical also. Usually he just tells a little sad story. But in those two I think he created an ubermensch character. Chekhov wrote it as a comment on Tolstoy but I think in some way he showed something more. Chekhov was older when he wrote it and seem to come to some strange realization that life couldn't be put into forms and happiness wasn't something you could build like a train or factory. It was personal and had to the individual had to make their own choices. Chekhov, like Camus, had poor people's blood in him and had a concrete relation to poor people. He understood them; he understood that people were basically fucked up and absurd. He saw the communists, nihilists, and naturalist writers running around saying there could be one big happy world. And he knew that people basically wanted to get drunk and act like asses. And like Camus, Chekhov doesn't go extreme. Misail in My Life goes through various experiences and at the end determines to go his own way.
MNC: How much of this book is a "remix" of Chekhov, and what elements do you think you've dubbed over or cut?
NC: Most of the book is a remix; when the pizza shop comes it leaves the plot mostly, though. The form is still there, the arc. But Chekhov does it with a farm and not a pizza shop. It would have been silly to do it with a farm in America.
MNC: The directness of Treatise often makes it feel distinctly autobiographical. How much of the book is drawn from your personal life?
NC: Most of it is autobiographical in some way. I've never worked in an office, but I have worked in a factory and had to deal with plastic parts that didn't look like they did anything and no one even knew what they were for. I worked at a pizza shop and the characters in it are based on real people. The conversations are based mostly off of real conversations. I don't have a sister and I didn't grow up in Canfield with a father that owned his own business. I took a lot of that from several people I met in the little indie world they have in Youngstown. As for the father, my father is stubborn like that. But he doesn't speak like that and could never articulate those thoughts out loud.
MNC: Near the end of Treatise, the protagonist points out that the media is controlled by the upper class. You seem to largely confine the term "media" to visual arts like television and indie films. Is literature outside this "media"? When do you think that happened, and why?
NC: No, the real literary world that makes money and gets to Barnes and Noble and gets published by Harpers and Random House are totally upper class. Foer, [Rick] Moody, Eggers, [David] Sedaris are all people who grew up with money. And for the most part not even a normal suburban amount.
As fun as it would be to call it some upper class conspiracy against lower class people, I can't. The evidence points that blue collar and poor people went to television and movies. Someone could say, "There was Richard Wright, Sinclair Lewis, and Steinbeck." But they wrote predominately for the upper classes, to arouse sympathy and understanding of lower class people or themselves. Poor people weren't reading Richard Wright and [Emile] Zola.
Blue collar and poor people, if they do enjoy art that resembles themselves, they had Erskine Caldwell and Jack London; they weren't political but had characters like them. I'm talking about London's Yukon stories, not The Iron Heel. There are a lot of shows and movies that have blue collar and poor people in them; detective shows have basically all blue collar characters mixed in with some lawyers that exhibit blue collar values. My Name is Earl, most horror movies, cowboy movies, Steven King. They aren't political, but they have the characters, behaviors and value systems there.
White collar people—but I shouldn't just say white collar people—white collar people read more in cities because they are trapped in their little box apartments. They don't have yards to play in and work in. Women read more than men because they play less sports and are encouraged less to play outside and to do physical things. The white collar world involves more reading, going to college, working in an office involve reading. Reading becomes habitual. There is barely any reading in the blue collar/poor people job world. You might have to read a few words here and there, but usually not a sentence. I read the words, "baked potato", "Sweet potato", "Fries" all day long, but that isn't really reading.
"The books that are remembered usually do not have a strong social conscious. Books that are remembered and considered classic are usually books focused on what it means to be human, which is the reason they transcend cultures and time."
MNC: Did you have a working-class audience in mind when you write Treatise? What you say about upper-class writers… I don't know enough about the demographics of everyone involved to agree or disagree, but I do know that many folks who work in, or with, big NY publishing consider "self-publishing" to be broader than most of us would imagine—I've heard definitions that absorb not only all online publishing and p.o.d venues like Lulu, but also outfits like McSweeney's and Tin House. Basically, the idea is that if you can't pay big money for a book, you're not a "real" publisher (forget the fact that HarperCollins is starting imprints along many of the same principles as those which govern small presses). Conservative as this seems, there's a clear distinction being drawn, very possibly a class distinction. And if literature can be broken down into classes, I'm wondering where to place MFA programs. It seems to me that much of the structure of such programs—"meritorious" admissions leading to "terminal" degrees whose end result is, in almost every case, to teach in the same classrooms and publish in obscure journals—reflects a sort of middle-class ideal, in that it undertakes activities which indirectly support the objectives of the ruling class. Maybe I'm painting with a broad brush here, but do you think that sort of arrangement—big NY Publishing, MFA/University Presses, "indie" presses—would make sense to a writer like Moody or Foer? Why or why not?
The protagonist points out that the typical intellectual proclivities of the suburban upper class are represented by Kerouac or Updike. Can you provide context for this typicality? Are the two of them are emblematic of an Americanized version of suburban yin and yang? What would writers would you replace them with, and what do you think the end result would be?
NC: I think the Kerouac fans are people who think the suburbs are shitty. And they want freedom of some sort. So they do drugs, backpack, and probably like gardening. People who like Updike are people who think the suburbs are fucking sweet and want to be rich like Bill Gates and remodel their houses every three years. For me, anyone who reads Kerouac, Updike and Yates aren't anything but signs of what kind of person I'm dealing with. I'm not concerned with what people read.
I also think Lorrie Moore and Joy Williams are for people who think the suburbs and white collar city life are shitty. But they don't understand freedom caused by their claustrophobic childhoods and still contain many values of the American white collar like ambition. So they sit in their room and dwell on their meaninglessness, hate themselves, and choose to love the feeling of their own claustrophobia. But at the same time they get up everyday and maintain their life of going to work, achieving and paying bills on time.
MNC: The best justifications of "suburbia" that I've read come from Frank Lloyd Wright, but even they hinge on an ideal of American "horizontality" that doesn't seem to hold water in a world whose physical frontiers have closed. But, like you said, these places exist and are part of this country now, the same way they, and for that matter, abandoned factories, are a part of Treatise. So with Moore and Williams it's the negativity of enclosure, counterbalanced by the positivity of everyday heroism—these the things that a writer of suburbia should focus on?
On the back cover of Treatise is a blurb saying that the book will be taught in Universities 252 years from now. If that were true, what writers do you think will be taught alongside you, and why? How would a professor "introduce" the class, and what would they say about the "school" of which the book was a part?
NC: I don't know what writers would be there. I think Tao Lin, Sam Pink and Fawzy Zablah are really great. I like them a lot. We probably won't read unless people still feel empty in terms of a class-divided techno society.
I think the professor would introduce as a class on the end of America class. It would be a group of writers that best show what America was like, what motivations they were having, what was driving them to use up resources. And how even though they were telling themselves everything was fine. They were acting like fucking retards and everything was actually pretty stupid, lame and fucked. Maybe he would show on a director scenes from sitcoms and sports events and tell the class how they Americans were a deeply deluded society and individualistic to the point of ever being able to unify. He would have the class read Treatise and talk about how no one in the book has any relation to each other. And that everyone was alone. And because of that they could not unify or working in groups to and how everyone was giving opinions to the point nothing could ever be done.
"Americans are obsessed with their own individuality. We love being individuals, we love having our own style, doing our own thing. That free market capitalism will create nothing but a Steinbeck nightmare if we do not unify."
MNC: Earlier you said that writers like Hemingway and Hamsun could be distinguished from many of their peers by their ability to conceive of themselves as writers with a capital 'W'. The end result of this self-chosen isolation —distance—seems very similar to what you've now described as the inability of contemporary Americans to really relate to each other. In the first case, distance is the product of an inferiority complex; in the second, it's the estrangement that confronts us when presume our own opinions to be inviolate. Do you think there's a causal similarity between the two—that the seriousness with which we take our individuality has isolated all of us the same way that the serious confrontation with inferiority once isolated Hemingway and Hamsun? It would be ironic if a conception of powerlessness which led to the veneration of a strict system of control led to the same place as its positivistic, free-market contrapositive. Or that there was a fundamental inferiority complex in American individuality.
Social issues are a big factor, both in Treatise and on your blog. In both you talk a lot about living paycheck to paycheck. I don't own a car, but I buy cigarettes at the gas station. Here in Berkeley, a gallon of regular is edging up on $4.50 a gallon. How close are we to a breaking point? Do we reach a critical point before $200 a gallon? What will be the result?
NC: The price of a barrel of oil today is 138 dollars. It keeps rising and rising. This is bad. Now don't look at the oil directly. Don't think about changing to machines that run on different things. We have to look at the resulting problem which is inflation. We get our goods transported by semi-truck, plane and boat. Which all use oil. This raises production cost. When production cost goes up the first step is to raise prices. But there's a problem: people are spending their extra dollars on gasoline. You don't think it is much because it has gone up slowly over ten years. But if gas was 90 cents a gallon you would have at least an extra 100 dollars to spend from each paycheck. That depends on the size of your vehicle and how much you drive. So the businesses can't raise prices because they are already struggling and people don't have the money to throw around anymore. Which leads to the next step for the business to cut production cost problems, they stop giving good raises, they stop hiring new employees, they start cutting hours, they lay employees off and finally they close. This all causes inflation because if the price of transportation continues to rise, then the production cost continues to rise. When things get more expensive but how much people are getting paid is not, that is inflation.
Another thing causing inflation is every time a house forecloses it sends whatever money the person didn't pay back into the system, the money is literally floating in space. People do not know this, but our money is created by debt. And if a large amount of people aren't paying their debt back than that money devalues the other money in the system. There is too much money and not enough labor being done.
The inflation is enough to kill us. If a barrel of oil hits 300—200 would just make a really bad situation—and keeps rising—because if it hits 300, of course it won't stop. We will know for sure then that something is wrong—that will cause our money to mean nothing. There is enough oil to run semi-trucks for a while. I mean if we chose to only to run the semi-trucks. But our system depends upon purchasing goods. And if you cannot purchase then you don't get anything. When a barrel gets to 300 someone said, I can't remember where it was, but that would take up to 15 percent of our GDP. And that would cause total inflation, a total monetary meltdown. The shipping costs would be absurd. Gas would be like 12 dollars a gallon. To get to work and back I need two gallons of gas. That would be 24 dollars for a 50 dollar shift. Even if my employer stayed open, which no restaurant could do. I couldn't purchase anything but food. I couldn't pay any bills, I couldn't leave the house and just get some ice cream. And an ice cream cone would cost like 10 dollars if gas was 12 dollars a gallon.
America has two problems facing this situation... Design: Our economy swirls around oil. Watch that CNBC stocks channel. All day they talk about how if oil goes up, then everything falls. If oil goes down, then everything goes up. We get everything from oil based products. Everything is transported by diesel and gasoline. We've designed our whole world around cheap oil.
World view: Americans are obsessed with their own individuality. We love being individuals, we love having our own style, doing our own thing. We grew up with friends going to the same school, taking the same classes. But we all go on to different jobs in different locations. Life was not like that before oil. You grew up with your friends and probably ended up working alongside your friends. There was a sense of unity.
Because we are such individuals our opinions don't matter anymore. Everyone just talks endlessly and nothing gets done. In other parts of the world people are already unifying to make things better. Milk farmers in Germany are unifying. We aren't unifying, we don't do anything in a group. Look at those riots in France a couple of years ago. We don't even have national health care and we people murdering each other in the ghettos and I would bet our situation is much worse. But we don't riot. We don't do anything but worship Bill Gates and act like asses. 2008 Americans don't do groups. They don't unify. Read the peak oil forums, they are all hoarding guns expecting no one to unify. No one is expecting any unification. There is no sense of 'group' in our current culture. There are sports teams, but people only join the teams to show how good they are. They say, "I wanna be like Mike." They don't say, "I wanna be like the Chicago Bulls."
I see no one talking about the fact that if money means nothing, then we are going to need non-ownership collective farms. We are going to need to unify for the sake of each other and not money. That free market capitalism will create nothing but a Steinbeck nightmare if we do not unify. We don't have the psychological processes to deal with a horrible situation on any long term scale.
Treatise is available from A-Head Publishing.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Miles Newbold Clark's first novel, None of That Will Do. Now What?, was compared to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Denis Johnson. He is the Founding Editor of No Record Press. He splits his nights between a leather couch in Berkeley and a broken boat in the San Francisco harbor. In the Fall of 2008 he will matriculate at Cornell Law School.