Spreecast “Mistakenly Deletes” Countless Videos from Users

Spreecast was supposed to be the perfect social video platform. Launched as a public beta in November 10, 2011, it did not care if you signed in through Facebook or Twitter. It had raised $4 million in seed money from the likes of Viacom’s former CEO Frank Biondi and The Capital Research Group’s Gordon Crawford. In September, it found $7 million more. Young alternative poets and romantic entrepreneurs saw Spreecast making hard waves in the vast online ocean of multiuser possibilities. With the man who sold Stubhub to eBay for $310 million at the helm, what could go wrong? The videos you made would always be there. They’d have to be, wouldn’t they?

But this week, an untold number of content creators discovered that most of their videos had disappeared. They had toiled long hours to prepare for their shows. They had made new friends. And now every trace of those bright burning months had dried up in the heat of negligence.

“I think I was one of the first people to find out,” said Logistic Viewpoints‘s Adrian Gonzalez. “I submitted a customer service ticket Tuesday morning when I noticed that my video wasn’t accessible.”

On Wednesday night, Spreecast sent a mass email to some of its users:

This is Jeff Fluhr, CEO of Spreecast. I am deeply sorry to deliver this news. Recently, Spreecast made an internal error and your video files were mistakenly deleted. You will not be able to play your spreecasts created before Thursday, November 22, 2012.

Through one remarkable act of technical incompetence, Spreecast permanently destroyed countless videos from its users. It was an accident not altogether different from Caesar’s infamous stratagem against Achillas.

Historical precedent aside, why would a company with $7 million in Series A Funding not have basic data security measures in place from the beginning? While Fluhr told his users that “we have taken steps to ensure that this never happens again,” including correcting Amazon server settings and improving disaster recovery plans, he hasn’t said anything about how or why such a rookie mistake could go down on his seemingly experienced watch. Maybe the the truth is too embarrassing.

I left multiple voicemails with Fluhr and Spreecast representatives. None of them were returned. However, a public relations assistant named Nicole Brunet wrote back. “Yes,” she said, “an error was made and some video files were accidentally deleted. We thought we had backups, but it was not working properly. This is a very unfortunate situation and we are truly sorry. We have taken steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future.”

But why wasn’t the backup system tested? How could a highly fallible system remain running for so long? Why wasn’t there a way for users to download their videos?

Brunet did not return my calls or followup emails.

Earlier in the year, Spreecast was quite eager to talk with people and get them to use their service. I spoke by telephone with Jenifer Daniels, a communications strategist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She had been courted by Spreecast reps at a conference. Daniels was looking for a way to get together with people more frequently than twice a year. Three to four weeks after her meeting with Spreecast, Daniels started Ask a Sista, a Spreecast which gave African-American women an opportunity to discuss politics, pop culture, and scholarship.

“In some weird way, we were both upstarts,” said Daniels. “We both knew that we were taking a chance.”

Still, Daniels believes that the Spreecast boosters were sincere. The idea was to take Ask a Sista to a bigger platform. Yet because there were so many producers on the show, she had not received Fluhr’s automated message.

“I was trying to explain this to my husband,” said Daniels. “How would you feel if you showed up to work and the last four years that you’ve been there had been erased?”

Daniels says that the decision to place her faith in Spreecast was made more on emotion. But the intent was always to take her efforts to a bigger platform.

For Stephen McDowell and Josh Spillker, proprietors of I Am Alt Lit, Spreecast represented an opportunity to have fun and mimic the success of a friend. McDowell and Spillker used the service to host the literary interview show, I Am Alt Lit Confidential. But on Thursday morning, the duo posted Fluhr’s notice on their supplemental Tumblr, I Am Not Alt Lit, along with the following sentiments:

there’s some type of feeling in my body right now, mebbe like a ‘sinking’ feeling ???

those were ‘good’ times

remember when noah ‘cancelled’ the spreecastx and ‘typed’ everything ???

remember when we had that ‘non-rapper’ on ???

remember when you found out who I AM ALT LIT ‘rlly’ was and then immediately didn’t ‘care’ anymore ???

“When I initially thought of a live, video interview series,” wrote Spilker by email, “I had thought about recording a Google hangout or a Skype conversation, and then uploading the file to YouTube. But the interactive part was key to the community. It does seem more difficult to share Spreecast videos than YouTube, but I just thought that would be part of the growing company.”

“A friend of mine named Steve Roggenbuck, who’s a poet and has kind of gained a lot of underground literary clout, started doing a Spreecast,” said McDowell by telephone on Thursday afternoon. “Illuminanti Power Hour. It was regular, a large amount of hits.” (Roggenbuck did not return our requests for comment through email and Facebook.) [SEE 11/30 UPDATE BELOW.]

“It seemed like a natural place,” said Spilker, who pointed to other literary readings and groups on Spreecast such as Daniel Alexander’s efforts. “The only other service I was familiar with was Ustream, but I had not used it extensively. I guess we should have explored a couple of other services as well.”

“I don’t know who specifically is responsible,” said McDowell. “Generally I don’t put a lot of emotional energy into expecting things that happen on the Internet to be retained for long.”

But even before this week’s disaster, McDowell did consider the need to backup his shows sometime around early November, just before his program took a brief hiatus. He made efforts to download the raw files directly through Spreecast, but there was no clear button or link available. He figured that at some point his work could be downloaded, but soon began to realize that this was impossible.

“I just have a Flash file downloading app on my browser,” said McDowell. “I was checking to see if that worked.” While the app allowed McDowell to download YouTube and Hulu videos, Spreecast had erected an intermediary interface which didn’t provide access to the Flash files on its site. Yet while McDowell says he doesn’t “feel any immediate disdain or antipathy” towards Spreecast, figuring that any emerging streaming startup is likely to go through a few scrapes, he does feel “a mild sense of loss because I did enjoy doing the shows.”

But as of late Thursday afternoon, Spreecast still hasn’t explained in detail what went wrong.

“Spreecast needs to disclose more information about what happened,” said Gonzalez, “because considering the background and experience of the team there, I find it impossible to believe.”

“It is horrific,” says a filmmaker who asked to stay anonymous. “I am completely shattered about it. My audience can never go back and watch those sessions ever again.” This filmmaker’s videos were not backed up. During a phone call with Spreecast, a representative told her that they were working on a backup feature, but that it would only be available to premium (that is, paying) customers. “Mistakes happen, but I have no clue how something of this catastrophic level can occur.”

And while Daniels says that she’s not upset enough to threaten a lawsuit, she did tell me that she’s inflexible on at least one point.

“I’ll never do a show on there again.”

11/30 7:00 AM UPDATE: This story previously reported that Roggenbuck “declined to comment” about Spreecast, because one of our sources informed us that he wasn’t sure if Roggenbuck was interested in commenting. We should have written “did not return our requests for comment” and apologize for creating that impression. As it turns out, Roggenbuck did contact us on Thursday night through Facebook, telling us that he had been in touch with a man named Greg Wacks at Spreecast. Wacks claimed to Roggenbuck that one of the engineers screwed up a line of code and that many of the Spreecast archives were deleted and that there are “changes to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Roggenbuck elaborated on his enthusiasm for Spreecast: “i know their intentions are the best and really i love their product for 95% of things, so im willing to roll with the bugs. they are doing awesome stiff i havent seen from any similar service.” I will make efforts to get in touch with Wacks to corroborate this story.

11/30 9:45 AM UPDATE: Greg Wacks contacted me by email on Friday morning. He directed me back to Spreecast’s Nicole Brunet, who, of course, has failed to answer any of my questions in depth. Wacks has not yet corroborated his telephone call with Roggenbuck. He has also not yet offered any clarity on the issue of Spreecast engineers screwing up a line of code, along with the lingering question of how a multimillion dollar company did not have greater safeguards for its data. It remains my hope that he will stop being opaque and answer the many questions I sent him, as this investigation has revealed quite significant insights into Spreecast’s relationship with its users and its failures to preserve and archive content that are difficult to ignore.

Why the Block Button Encourages Fear and Threatens Community

[2021 UPDATE: I have since recanted this position. But I leave this essay up for any dubious historical value it may hold.]

On Monday night, I discovered quite by accident that a midlist author had blocked me on Twitter. Not unfollowed, but blocked. This had come after nearly a year and a half of mutual help and steady correspondence. In recent months, this author confided to me about his problems. I made several gestures to meet up with the author on his next trip into the city so that we could talk about this in person. I believed in his talent. I knew a few people who could help him out.

After I had interviewed the author before an audience, we pledged a get together. He didn’t respond for weeks. He had secured what he needed. Now I could be dropped. It was probably impetuous of me to conclude this, much less assume that the author was capable of responding to email or even following up on his many pledges while on the road. On the evening that the author next rode into town, the two of us exchanged hostile words through that woefully unsubtle and impulsive form of communication known as email banged out on smartphone keyboards. Neither of us came across very well. Shortly after this, the author’s wife, who had a much wiser head about the way men emote than the two foolhardy men here in question, sent a diplomatic email trying to find out what happened. I thanked her for her email and explained my frustrations, apologizing for my part in the exchange, and pledged a cooling off period. Weeks later, I discovered that the author had blocked me on Twitter. He had also blocked my longtime partner, who had no role in the dispute whatsoever.

I know that I behaved badly and the reasonable email from the author’s wife helped me arrive at that conclusion. I also recognize that nobody is under any obligation to follow anybody. But isn’t blocking over the top? Pushing the online world’s answer to the big red button is something one reserves for a cyberstalker, a full-bore troll, a spammer, or a truly dangerous individual, not a former acquaintance that you had a vitriolic spat with.

Yet the power to block people on social media over pedantic offenses has encouraged many otherwise sharp blades to push down their capacity for tolerance and ratchet up the fear. It’s a remarkably contemptuous response to the paradoxical nature of existence. For who among us hasn’t uttered rash words or muttered moronic quips? The block button is free speech’s answer to the gun-toting libertarian who holes up in his bunker, claiming that he doesn’t need government services to put out the fires or stop crime or service the highways or take out the trash or maintain the sewers. It is an ideal that sounds noble in theory, but is precipitous in practice. As Jacob Silverman argued in Slate back in August, offense or disagreement doesn’t have to be toxic.

In writing this essay, I don’t wish to make the same mistakes that New York‘s Nathan Heller did two weeks ago, approaching this complicated subject from a privileged and blinkered position. Back in May, Richard Cooper pointed out how Twitter media bigshots shut down their critics. This was followed in October by a lengthy post from Neil Bomb’d about how comedians employed their fans to bully detractors in numbers. This week, Chris Brown and his followers attacked Jenny Johnson on Twitter with deeply misogynist remarks. There are also Laurie Penny’s ongoing reports about the sexual bullying of women and girls online, the IDF’s recent aggressive use of Twitter to foment ideological conflict, and sites which pilfer pictures from social media in the name of scummy extortion.

The block button is the very instrument which has permitted these many unpleasant online conflagrations to flourish. It is a poor and inefficient mechanism that has deigned to place judgment in the hands of the users, but that has mostly encouraged our worst instincts and clearly not learned from history. It was the hideous phrase “blocked for stupidity” which attracted Cooper’s notice. Bomb’d reports that a user named MissSpidey tried to report abusive users to seek understandable redress. She became suspended from Twitter for “aggressive blocking.” Not only does the block button incite users to feel anger and retaliate when on the receiving end, but it can’t even be properly used in its native mode.

I believe that getting beyond all this will involve either extirpating the block button from our social media interfaces or resorting to more enduring human qualities that don’t require any particular software platform. As I noted back in August, it isn’t an epidemic of niceness that’s the problem, but a paucity of kindness and respect. If we can stop erecting massive edifices that get in the way of conversations and we learn from the free flow that has permitted a thousand cat videos and a million animated GIFs to bloom, there’s a chance of improving how we communicate.

* * *

Before the block button granted every individual the power to stub out any vaguely offensive viewpoint from a timeline, there were comment moderators. The comment moderator had the thankless yet invaluable duty of sifting through tens of thousands of comments each month in an online forum, flagging highly offensive or disruptive remarks that went over the line. Not only did this system create a third party that arbitrated disputes and explicated motivations in a respectful and relatively neutral tone, but it permitted users and moderators alike to strike an acceptable compromise between preserving distinct voices and perpetuating a healthy community.

Lessons from 11 years of community (my SXSW 2011 talk) from Matt Haughey on Vimeo.

In a video adapted from his 2011 SXSW talk, Metafilter founder Matt Haughey smartly outlines some vital maxims he learned during eleven successful years of community moderation. He suggests that community moderators refrain from being overprotective. “I mean, we’ve come to the conclusion,” says Haughey at the 4:15 mark, “you know, putting up barriers when necessary, only after they’ve been permissive for years and years. And I like to think of this as a concert. You know, you don’t want your security at the front, between the band and the crowd, pushing the crowd back. That’s not really what you want moderators to be. You want them to be kind of part of it. Participants in it.” Haughey also mentions in the video that the burnout emerging from constant complaints from users causes moderators to turn into bad cops, losing sight of the initial reasons why they organized the community in the first place. Haughey also says it’s helpful to give users a forum to vent and offer feedback.

But as comment moderating power has shifted from third party mediators to individual users, the distinctions that retired community moderator Elliot Guest observed between someone who deviates from the accepted norm, someone who hasn’t read the full context and who enjoys tossing out acronyms like “tl:dr,” and someone who sets out to instigate chaos for chaos’s sake have become mangled. As individual users block with their emotions, anyone even remotely belligerent becomes a troll. Negative feelings perpetuate additional negative feelings. And instead of a thriving democracy, online community deteriorates into little more than a collection of volatile city-states perpetually at war with each other.

It didn’t help when many of the Web’s rosy pioneers encouraged the block button as it became a more prominent part of online existence. In 2010, Derek Powazek wrote:

I propose that blocking people on sites like Twitter or Flickr should not be interpreted as an insult. I propose that it’s simply taking yourself out of someone else’s attention stream.

If I block you on Twitter, my tweets no longer show up in your timeline. If I block you on Flickr, my photos no longer show up on your contacts page. In these settings, this is the only way for me to remove myself from your attention.

Not an insult? With all due respect, what could be more egomaniacal than Powazek’s “one strike” policy?

If you post a tweet that bothers me for any reason, no matter how small or petty, it’s extremely likely that you’ll do it again. It’s so likely, in fact, that I’m going to save myself the annoyance and just unfollow you now. After all, you’re not on My List of People I Must Be Okay With, and I’m not on yours. I’m just choosing to have one less brief annoyance in my day.

I’m bothered by all of this, but it would never occur to me to put Powazek on the same level as George Lincoln Rockwell. That’s as preposterous as forcing some drunken lout in a bar to vanish into thin air using a Samsung Galaxy and a pair of chopsticks. It’s simply beyond the laws of real world physics, yet faith in online simulacra has us thinking we can bend the rules. Well, it didn’t work for gamification advocates like Jane McGonigal and it won’t work for social media. The human spirit is too muscular and manifold to be packed into a digital valise.

Moreover, the willingness to write off some figure who tells us something we don’t want to hear, and to do this over a mere 140 character message, is nothing less than an irrational and unhealthy fear which fails to account for the distinct possibility that there may be some positive quality contained within the petty annoyances. It is a declaration against outside-the-box thinking, representing a growing incapacity to reckon with vital human realities or topics we may need to think about.

Nobody wants to be told, for example, that the global temperature could rise by 4 degrees Celsius as early as 2060, but it’s a very real consideration that even a neoliberal organization like The World Bank has warned against. Suppose that something like this or, for those who still think climate change is a hoax, the indisputable scientific fact that the carbon atom has six electrons is a petty annoyance for someone like Powazek.

At this point, the common fantasy expressed on Facebook and Formspring of being able to block people in real life takes on a more sinister and anti-intellectual quality. It becomes no different from a creationist attempting to block Darwin from being taught in the classrooms or an NYPD sketch artist resorting to racist stereotypes because he has blocked out the possibility that a suspect who killed three Brooklyn shopkeepers is some guy with a moustache. Perhaps most perniciously, it has the result of reducing thoughtful adults to oversensitive sixth graders plugging fingers in their ears and barking “La! La! La! I can’t hear you!” at every opportunity.

I’d like to think that most people, including the author I described at the beginning and me, are better than this. Online culture is disastrous in accepting people’s faults. It encourages a scorched earth mentality with a single click. What would happen if the people we disliked were allowed in our timelines? Perhaps if other people we trusted were retweeting and referencing these debauched or hopeless souls, we might reconsider our opinion. We might come to know them better, or at least as well as online communication will allow. We might see, as we often do when hanging out with somebody in real life, that one’s time on this earth is too short to roll out the howitzer over something small or petty. Kurt Vonnegut once suggested that the most daring thing for young people to do “is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” I can’t think of a more deliberate cancer to court than blocking somebody over a stupid tweet. But until someone comes up with a better idea to manage the trolls, the button remains irresistible.

Report from The Gary Shteyngart Roast

There were nearly one hundred and fifty souls at the Harvey Theater two nights before Thanksgiving. Outside, it was just a few degrees south of fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, the writer Gary Shteyngart waited to be roasted with the heat of a thousand suns and the pain of a million overwrought metaphors.

Shteyngart was introduced by John Wesley Harding (aka Wesley Stace) with a slideshow of great Russian writers as “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” played over the speakers. Harding, who may or may not have been pretending to be British, had big gray eyes bulging with murderous suggestion in the dark. Presumably, this was one pivotal characteristic which had secured his role as host. He was keen on nouns which connoted human tragedy.

“And what has this incredible legacy of suffering,” boomed Harding into the mike, “what has this incredibly legacy of suicides, what has this incredible legacy of gulags, repression, this legacy of bubonic plagues, of famines, of forced labor camps calling for a revolution? What has this legacy given birth to, ladies and gentlemen?”

This was followed by a slide of Shteyngart, with a bottle of champagne and a pig. Yet there was neither Dom Perignon nor a prize porcine specimen circulated on stage. The audience learned later that animals were forbidden. It was believed that some clever person at the Brooklyn Academy of Music had induced this prohibition because someone would have to pay these wild beasts a performance fee. Whatever the reason, this callous ban had prevented Shteyngart’s beloved dachshund, immortalized through an endless concatenation of photographic pride on Twitter, from making his stage debut.

The four panelists emerged from their hidden positions: Kurt Andersen settling into a seat on stage right, followed by Sloane Crosley in a purple top, Edmund White in dapper suit and cane (the only figure among the quartet who came with a prepared list of barbs, which including a funny blurb for Mein Kampf that he let loose later in the evening), and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman in red boots so striking in hue that one wondered if she had spent half the day kicking in the teeth of MFA aspirants who hoped to enter her estimable pages.

Then there was Gary Shteyngart, clad in an evening jacket a few sizes too big and purportedly donned for the second time in his life. This ostensible target of wit and no-holds-barred barbs seated himself in a tiny wooden chair designed for a small child. He remarked almost immediately on his ass. This was an understandable fixation, given the chair’s regrettable physical dimensions. Mr. Shteyngart was to mention his backside two additional times over the next hour.

The evening wasn’t really a roast. The format was more Q&A, with Harding asking questions of the panelists, often unfolding an inquiry into a biographical multiple choice option which permitted an audience member to stand on stage with a winning raffle ticket that had been painfully extracted from the staple in the top right corner of the program. The queries felt more like vaguely invasive biography rather than outright ridicule. The barbs, if they can be called that, were mostly kind. Much of the time was devoted to apparent outtakes from Shteyngart’s two book trailers for Super Sad True Love Story, although it was noted early on that the artifact-laden footage had been shot on an iPhone.

This was a pro-Shteyngart crowd. When the collected spectators were asked if there had been anybody there who had never read a word of Shteyngart, a few handfuls of people raised their hands. Gary Shteyngart proved to be a brand name. One does not have to read his books to comprehend his imposing and often cardiac arrest-inspiring influence in the literary community.

The evening was mostly pleasant, especially when Shteyngart was presented with material to react to (such as his physical recreation of the non-Jewish walk from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, that fabled first book that Shteyngart referred to as The Russian Debutante’s Handjob). Shteyngart appeared to be grateful for the company, both on stage and off, and talked largely in his natural métier rather than the clueless immigrant character who had charmed half the world on YouTube.

This was also the first public event in which Shteyngart’s prolific blurbs were given an official tally, although the number was as suspiciously pat as a late career Tony Scott film title. Presumably, the paying crowd had earned the right to learn that Shteyngart had blurbed 123 books. Shteyngart had not remembered the first book he blurbed, but he believed that his maiden blurb involved California in some way. The massive screen behind the stage mimicked Shteyngart’s blurb prolificity by running a rolling set of credits with the blurbs and the titles, although this reporter noticed several key blurbs missing (such as Benjamin Anastas’s Too Good to Be True). It remains unknown if the people who put this show together had obtained the vital details from Jacob Silverman’s invaluable Tumblr or an independent investigation. This reporter is too occupied to summon his inner Seymour Hersh. He is, in fact, trying to thaw a turkey at the last minute while writing this report.

Of the four ostensible roasters, Kurt Andersen was notably the weakest, peeling off easily observed details about Shteyngart’s height, his immigrant experience, and early pictures of Shteyngart on the Web without bothering to build a story around this. Crosley was surprisingly laconic through much of the night, but she did call Shteyngart a hack with the relish of a dear friend. The clear star of the four was Edmund White, whose sharp and ribald wit led him to take more risks and elicit more laughs. When the conversation shifted to teaching, White said, “I teach at Princeton, where the students are too smart to actually go into writing. They all go into finance.” In describing the details of Shteyngart’s forthcoming autobiography, White said Shteyngart had called himself “the leading Eastern European pimp with a stable full of Russian whores built for all tastes.”

We leave more vulgar minds to speculate on the vital question of Shteyngart’s underworld connections. One thing was certain: wild horses couldn’t keep the appreciative crowd away from BAM on Tuesday night. Perhaps in five more years, the second Shteyngart roast will permit room for a dachshund.

Kim (Modern Library #78)

(This is the twenty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Room with a View)

Three years ago, my jocular compadre Lydia Kiesling pointed out that Kim‘s festering reputation as an imperialist watermark had hindered her from a serious plunge. She rightly identified a “Post-Colonial Burn Index” for this type of literature, whereby enduring high and mighty white males braying in turgid and self-congratulatory sentences about their entitled position was an experience about as pleasant as being repeatedly kicked in the teeth by a herd of Thoroughbred racehorses that had been paddocked too long without option of rotary gallop.

While Lydia found Kim to be a pleasant surprise, I felt Kipling’s “masterpiece” to be largely repugnant: the kind of pernicious slog that turns good people into Aryan crusaders if they don’t move on quickly to something else. The book’s enticing aesthetic of geography, esoteric terminology, Arabic names, Jainist neologisms, and now commonplace food wasn’t enough to shake the deeply unsettling feeling that Kipling, despite his welcome overtures, really wanted all of India to remain subservient to the Anglo way, perhaps because this was the only way he could reckon with his nostalgia for a time long passed. This novel was his swan song to India. And while the book is sometimes an engaging adventure, it is too fraught with covert condescension.

Among many disgraceful stereotypes, Kim is a novel which describes how “Kim could lie like an Oriental,” how “[a]ll hours of the twenty-four are alike to the Oriental” and describes both “the Oriental’s indifference to mere noise,” how “Orientals understand speed,” and how a project “[falls] back, Oriental-fashion, on time and chance.” There is a Russian agent who announces late in the book, “It is we who can deal with Orientals.” (This sentiment of “dealing with Orientals” is later echoed by Hurree.) But the fun doesn’t stop there. There’s an odious drummer-boy from Liverpool who badgers Kim when he “[talks] the same as a nigger.”

This is far more insidious than Kingsley Amis writing of Kim‘s problematic meticulousness, “if he says coriander when he means cardamum I will let it go.” As my homeboy Edward Said wisely observed in Culture and Imperialism:

…yes, Kipling can get into the skin of others with some sympathy. But no, Kipling never forgets that Kim is an irrefragable part of British India: the Great Game does go on, with Kim a part of it, no matter how many parables the lama fashions. We are naturally entitled to read Kim as a novel belonging to the world’s greatest literature, free to some degree from its encumbering historical and political circumstances. Yet by the same token, we must not unilaterally abrogate the corrections in it, and carefully observed by Kipling, to its contemporary actuality.

The depictions of residents from the Far and Near East as lesser beings have been held up as criticisms of racism by some Kipling scholars. But given that the novel goes out of its way to grant thirteen-year-old Kimball O’Hara, “burned black as any native,” the luxury of swinging both ways as sahib and a boy capable of disguising himself in “native-fashion,” there’s a decidedly privileged feel to Kim’s picaresque adventures which gives any 21st century reading experience a sour and regressive taint.

So what is Kim‘s appeal? For me, the lama is the novel’s high point. He finds Kim in Lahore. He sets out with the boy to seek the physical manifestation of their respective visions (for Kim, a Red Bull in a green field; for the lama, “The River of the Arrow”). He serves as a remarkably patient patriarchal figure throughout. The novel felt more honest when Kim used the lama’s otherness to skimp out on train fare or when Kim was free to get into wild adventures without obligation or mimesis.

The sympathetic socialist critic Irving Howe is perhaps the closest in describing why the novel is still worth a soupçon of consideration. Howe observes that Kipling was “a jingo and a bully, or defender of bullies,” but identifies Kim as a work that involves seeing the world “as an apprehension of things as they are” and “accepting, even venerating sainthood, without at all proposing to surrender the world, or even worldliness, to saints.” But one of the chief frustrations about Kim is that, for all of Kipling’s erudition about India, he is blind to his own inherent prejudices.

No matter how liberated Kim may be, he is still identified by how he is seen or how he is “suited”:

The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.

Is not Kipling complicit in how his characters are seen by the reader, who may be an “English observer” of another sort? In the gnarly opening chapters, we see Kim “flat on his belly” while a tall man stands “erect as an arrow.” And this is hardly the first time the novel resorts to a descriptive style where “erect” positioning is so closely identified to social station or caste.

Unlike Edmund Wilson, who complained about how the novel doesn’t live up to “what the reader tends to expect,” I don’t have any particular problems with the book’s inconclusive finale. Fiction has no obligation to answer everything. Kipling’s efforts to reconcile the book’s spiritual side (the Buddhist idea of the Wheel of Things, as introduced by the lama) with its espionage side (the Great Game of geopolitical conflict “that never ceases day and night”) smack of a desperate effort to sandwich disparate ingredients into a luncheon that cannot possibly satisfy everybody, let alone account for the complexities of a massive nation. It is fundamentally impossible for either Kipling or Kim to make a dichotomous choice when there is, quite literally, so much territory covered on the Great Trunk Road, on board the “te-rain,” and along the “long, peaceful line of the Himalayas.” (In deference to the lama’s portent, there are quite a number of “rivers” in this book, often through rail and road.) The Middle Way may be the “path to freedom,” but the river that the lama does eventually find cannot be found on any map.

But I am with Wilson in calling out Kipling’s failings to confront a very real crisis. I am hardly alone. Even the enthusiastic biographer Martin Seymour-Smith was to confess, “Kim is not, for me, quite the masterpiece that it is for many critics,” believing the problem to stem from the novel being simultaneously a children’s book and an adult’s book. Seymour-Smith also posits the interesting theory that Kipling’s failure to return to India and confront its considerable change is one of the reasons it is not quite right.

Kim lacks the imagination and the deft command of Kipling’s shorter fiction. But this novel was such a despondent read that I don’t think I’ll be reading this blustery Nobel laureate again for at least another decade. If I want a Great Game, I’ll drag out Cranium or Twister from the closet.

Next Up: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake! (This will take a very long time!)

Remembering Lucille Bliss (1916-2012)

I was 23 years old when I first spoke with Lucille Bliss over the phone. I was shy and uncertain and rudderless, toiling nine to whenever at a San Francisco law firm with two very friendly Russian women who laughed at my jokes. I was good at my job: good enough to earn the right to hit the second floor balcony every hour, taking seven minute breaks for the cigarettes I inhaled with the Plan B desperation of someone who wanted to be somewhere else.

I read fat books and scribbled doggerel into notebooks and worked an endless string of unpaid film shoots. I had no idea if I could ever earn money doing something I loved. In those thin-skinned days, I thought that I was a fairly reprehensible human being — in large part because people continued to suggest this. I was cursed with a mellifluous yet idiosyncratic voice that always seemed to offend someone and still does to this day, no matter how benign my intentions.

One morning, my day job duties required me to locate an audio facility to clean up a murky recording. Being an especially tenacious and thorough researcher, I located a recording studio that not only did the job very well, but that offered a surprisingly swift turnaround time. Because of this, I tried to throw them as much work as I could. The guy on the phone, perhaps sensing the vocal exuberance I would later put into The Bat Segundo Show, took a shine to me and asked if I was interested in voiceover. I said yes. He told me about Lucille Bliss, who I learned was the voice of Crusader Rabbit and Smurfette, and intimated that I should get in touch with her.

But I had no money at the time. I was still smarting from a vicious tax bill on the installment plan because of a previous employer’s scurrilous math. My extremely amicable roommate had moved out, leaving me with an additional share of the rent to pay. Did I want to learn from Lucille Bliss? Absolutely. But I had no financial cushion. I had no idea how much Ms. Bliss would charge. It would probably be astronomical.

I called the number that the guy had given me. A very kind and cheerful woman in her early eighties picked up. She asked me all sorts of questions. What did I want to do? Where had I gone to school? How long had I lived in San Francisco? I told her that I was thinking of going to this conference I had heard about called South by Southwest, but I wasn’t sure I could make it. “Oh, you should go!” she said. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t afford her lessons, especially when she told me later that she could teach me all sorts of ways to enhance my voice, which she called “amazing” after I had performed, with her quiet encouragement, an improvisation of a nervous squirrel seeking nuts in a park and an on-the-spot cheerful narration of a fictional documentary on Stalin, in which I recall making some especially bleak yet cheery jokes that made her laugh. We talked for hours. I never got the sense that Lucille’s main motivation was to sign up. She was more curious about who this young man was.

I concluded our conversation telling her that I’d think about voiceover. But I think Lucille had picked up on the fact that I was a dessicated husk when it came to money. I never thought I’d hear from her again.

But a few months later, Lucille called me out of the blue to see how I was doing. I was very apologetic. I told her how much I wanted to work from her, but intimated that I was still going through some financial difficulties. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “We all go through that.” But despite this, she talked with me for more than an hour. The one thing she said was that I should take any creative opportunity that came my way. I wasn’t sure what it was she sensed in me, but she was absolutely certain that I would go somewhere.

In hindsight, it seems strange to have received a much-needed confidence boost from Smurfette. I had never had a mentor. For most of my life, people looked to me as if I knew all the answers. Having someone as formidably talented and indelibly quirky as Lucille declare that I was capable of something more meant a good deal to me. And I took her advice. A few years later, I would go to war against my diffidence: working at magazines, writing and directing odd plays, talking my way into idiosyncratic gigs, dispensing quiet help where I could. If it hadn’t been for Lucille’s much needed words, I doubt that I would have taken as many chances as I have.

We don’t always know how our enthusiasm lifts another soul, but Lucille taught me that life is too short to stay silent.

2012 National Book Awards: An Evening for Readers

Despite the slight efforts to amp up the glam factor, Thursday night’s National Book Awards was an evening for readers. The readers — whether authors, publishing people, journalists, or people who sauntered into the swank ballroom from the street — drank vast quantities of alcohol and scarfed down canapés and danced to butchered remixes of “Staying Alive.” While dodgy slices of cheese pizza went largely untouched, this reporter observed pigs in a blanket traveling down dark gullets well after the midnight hour. This reporter also participated in this snacking, inspired in part by numerous shots of scotch downed not long before.

More importantly than these stray gustatory observations, the readers won the awards. William Alexander name-checked Ursula K. Le Guin upon winning the Young People’s Literature award for Goblin Secrets. He was so startled at his victory that he had modest difficulty exiting the stage, moving left and right and left and right until he figured out this Hanayama chain puzzle writ large with a bit of instinct. The awkward cue from Robbie Williams’s “Millennium” which played throughout the evening vexed certain audience members, but Elmore Leonard’s stirring speech for a lifetime award was a rousing corrective to Tom Wolfe’s rambling nonsense from two years before.

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do in my life is have a good time writing stories,” said Leonard to a very appreciative crowd who offered him a standing ovation. “This award tells me I’m still at it.”

Leonard’s presentation was buttressed by an introduction by Martin Amis, who declared, “The essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.” Amis may have been toying with the audience. His bowtie was crooked. He read Leonard’s pulp prose with a modest froideur. And while he didn’t sprint from reporters like Dave Eggers, Amis was out the door before the ceremony was over. Several observers I talked with hoped he would take this cheeky act on the road. But this banter halted when it was understood that more important matters needed to be considered: namely, the titles up for consideration.

Katherine Boo’s Behind Beautiful Forevers trounced veteran historian Robert A. Caro in the Nonfiction category. “If this prize means anything,” said Boo upon accepting the award, “it’s this. Small stories matter.” This reporter felt that it was more than a bit boorish to offer superficial questions to a first-rate journalist who had spent years of her life earning the trust of those who lived in the makeshift settlement of Annawadi. I told Ms. Boo how much I had loved her book. She offered me a hug.

Upon winning the Fiction award, Louise Erdrich thanked the tuxedoed throng for giving The Round House “a wider audience.” Both Erdrich and Boo were spotted on the dance floor having a very good time, with Erdrich sneaking into a Kobo kiosk to take silly photos.

To gauge the level of literary enthusiasm, this reporter danced virulently on the mezzanine floor, bouncing up and down with preternatural energy. Through the use of sense memory from his clubbing years in his twenties, this reporter was able to sway his arms excitedly in the air and spin on his heel in a matter approximating John Travolta in his peak years. These efforts were received with considerable hoots and hollers by several women on the floor — in large part because this reporter was one of the few men dancing.

But some of the poets, despite their advanced years, were also busting some moves. Earlier in the evening, this reporter was perturbed to see the poets rebuffed by the smug know-it-alls at Book TV. In an effort to correct this oversight, this reporter chatted with them.

“I’m told by the publisher that it sold some books,” said poet David Ferry about being nominated for the Poetry award, “which for a poet is a surprise and a pleasure.” The 88-year-old Ferry had been writing poetry since he was 25. One of Ferry’s best friends was fellow nominee Alan Shapiro. “We sort of whisper endearments into each other’s ears.” When I discussed the state of poetry with both Ferry and Shapiro, pointing out that Judi Dench had recited Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in the latest James Bond film Skyfall, Shapiro observed that poetry was the first “technology of feeling.”

Ferry would go on to win the Poetry Award for Bewilderment. He was tongue-tied and bewildered on stage, but he was grateful to be recognized.

Dave Eggers, National Book Award Finalist, Refuses to Answer About Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s Violent Assaults

Dave Eggers is running away from the truth. And we have the video to prove it.

In 2009, Dave Eggers self-published Zeitoun, a well-received nonfiction volume which told the story of a hard-working Syrian-American painter in New Orleans who emerged as a hero during Hurricane Katrina. Eggers relied heavily on what his subjects, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, told him while working on the book. As he claimed in a Rumpus interview, “I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time.”

Recent developments have revealed that Zeitoun is a misleading feel-good hagiography running against this apparent commitment to accuracy. The New York Times Book Review‘s Timothy Egan suggested that Eggers was a modern-day “Charles Dickens, his sentimentality in check but his journalistic eyes wide open.” But Eggers has glossed over a good deal more than what Egan has insinuated. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is not the calm and peaceful man that Eggers portrayed.

On November 8th, Zeitoun was indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation of first-degree murder. Kathy had suffered abuse from the beginning of her marriage to Abdulrahman. In court, Kathy testified about being beaten with a tire iron and being “[choked] so hard I felt the pressure in my face.”

Last August, when we reported on the Zeitoun Foundation’s questionable finances, we discovered that at least $161,331 (during the year 2009) was siphoned off to a shadowy organization named Jableh, LLC. We reached out to various representatives from McSweeney’s by telephone and email, but they refused to speak with us. (We did, however, receive a threatening email from an attorney. We responded by asking the attorney to provide us with specific evidence that would clear up matters. He did not return our email.) Throughout these developments, Eggers has remained silent, save for a statement that appeared on the Zeitoun Foundation’s website which has since been deleted.

On Wednesday night, we decided to question Dave Eggers at the National Book Awards in person, where he was being feted as a finalist for his latest novel, A Hologram for the King, hoping that Eggers would break his silence and provide us with a clear-eyed statement on these serious mistakes and moral indiscretions.

But Eggers ran away at the name of “Abdulrahman Zeitoun.” The video can be seen below:

Eggers’s silence (along with that of mainstream literary outlets) is baffling. Even Norman Mailer famously declared during the Jack Abbott affair that culture is worth a little risk. If Eggers is interested in culture, should he not come to terms with his mistakes? Should he not own up to the negative impact that his book and his involvement may have had on the Zeitouns’ lives?

John Simerman’s helpful dispatches in the New Orleans Times-Picayune illustrate why staying silent or taking the rose-tinted path is a blatant and irresponsible disregard for the truth. On October 18th, Kathy Zeitoun testified in court about the abuses:

He starts beating me in the back with this tire iron. He lets go of the tire iron and starts punching me, then he started ripping the flesh from my side through my clothes.


He was choking me so hard I felt the pressure in my face. I thought I was going to pass out. He grabbed my face and dug his claws, his fingernails, in my face.

This is a far cry from Eggers’s glowing depiction of Abdulrahman as a tranquil hero. Eggers describes how “Zeitoun felt at peace,” with “an odd calm in his heart.” Abdulrahman’s origins as a thirteen-year-old fisherman involves a concern for quietude, where his compatriots “would whisper over the sea, telling jokes and talking about women and girls as they watched the fish rise and spin beneath them. Eggers even describes Abdulrahman telling Kathy, “Please be calm. Don’t make it worse,” while approaching a bus station.

It was Kathy’s testimony which led to Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s indictment for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation for first-degree murder during the late afternoon of November 8th. Abdulrahman has remained in jail, with the bail set at more than $1 million. A gag order has prevented Kathy and Abdulrahman’s attorney, J.C. Lawrence, from saying anything beyond their remarks in the courtroom. Eggers is certainly in a position to say something and emerge from this contretemps with some integrity, yet he wishes to pretend as if nothing terrible has gone on. At least that’s what we see on the surface. Under the seams, it’s a much different story.

Back in August, we reported on how The Zeitoun Foundation was not being transparent about the way it disseminated funds. While The Zeitoun Foundation is now listed as “in good standing” with the Louisiana Secretary of State (as of September 10, 2012, which is when the last annual report was filed), our search through several nonprofit public databases have not unearthed any new 990s. Furthermore, there isn’t any new information about Jableh, LLC. As we noted in August, Jableh was incorporated on July 16, 2009. It listed Dave Eggers as the registered agent. The 2009 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation declared that $161,331 was due to Jableh, LLC, which exceeded the $145,476 in revenue taken in by The Zeitoun Foundation for that year ($84,044 in royalty income from the book, $50,000 in film rights, and $11,432 in “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received”). According to Eggers’s book, Jableh is where Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born and lived for a while.

In our efforts to answer these questions, Michelle Quint, the accountable director for Zeitoun, refused to return our phone calls or emails, nor did anybody at McSweeney’s. Eggers had initially released a statement with Jonathan Demme that he and the filmmaker had been “in daily contact with Kathy since the incident on July 25,” but it has since been deleted.

We also received this threatening email from attorney David J. Arrick on August 17, 2012:

Dear Mr. Champion:

The attorneys and accountants who initially set up and continually consult with the Zeitoun Foundation have been made aware of your website.

They would like to clarify that there are two components to The Zeitoun Foundation’s charitable purpose: (1) to aid in the rebuilding and social advancement of New Orleans and (2) to promote understanding between people of disparate faiths around the world, with a concentration on relations between the United States of America and the Muslim world. Therefore, not all of the organizations receiving grants from the Zeitoun Foundation are dedicated to Katrina relief projects.

They would further like to clarify that the Zeitoun Foundation does no active fundraising. The Foundation was created to disburse proceeds from the book, Zeitoun, and to bring attention to the exemplary nonprofits to which it awards grants. To date, outside donations have accounted for less than 10% of all monies disbursed by the Foundation. All other funds have come from proceeds from the book.

While it is believed that The Zeitoun Foundation has been as transparent in its operations as comparable non-profit organizations, it does intend to update the Zeitoun Foundation website in the near future, and will also update all filings deemed necessary and appropriate. The website will provide more detailed information about the grant recipients. The grant recipients are outstanding organizations and the website will share more details about the great work that they’re doing.


David J Arrick
David J. Arrick, Partner
Boas & Boas LLP
101 Montgomery Street, Suite 1250
San Francisco, CA 94104
Telephone: 415-956-4444
Fax: 415-956-2158
E-mail: darrick@boascpas.com
Website: www.boascpas.com

As of November 14th, the Zeitoun Foundation website has not been updated. Nobody is talking. In two corners of the world, there are more important events going on. A man faces charges of attempted first-degree murder, with his wife still frightened for her life. Another man awaits news over whether he’ll win a prestigious book award, but he has nothing to say about the troubled couple who helped him at a pivotal stage in his career. Without them, he may not have made it inside this swank Wall Street ballroom.

11/18/2012 UPDATE: The Times-Picayune‘s John Simerman reported on November 16th that Eggers and McSweeney’s representatives have refused to answer the newspaper’s questions about Zeitoun.

Review: Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond film series has experienced growing pains during its five decades: the awkward political correctness in the Pierce Brosnan era (Tomorrow Never Dies‘s “Filthy habit!”), Sean Connery’s dubious high-priced return to Diamonds Are Forever for a very silly moon buggy chase scene, the preposterous gadgets in Die Another Day, and the failure to figure out what to do with Timothy Dalton. Quantum of Solace, with its return to convention and its ridiculous title, threatened to attenuate the good will established by the series reboot, Casino Royale.

But I’m pleased to report that Skyfall is a sharp, thrilling, classy, and rich-looking installment announcing a confident trajectory for the Daniel Craig iteration of James Bond. While it’s somewhat alarming to see Craig transform from the new double circle on the block to aging agent in six mere years, he remains an enjoyably chilly and crisp Bond, preferring to unleash his quiet fury when his car is destroyed rather than when the people around him die. He’s good enough to ask about agents who have been killed, but this is more of a functional than a empathic query. He’s willing to rip shards of depleted uranium from his chest to ID a sniper. When given little more than a radio transmitter and a pistol responding to his thumbprint from Q or the family hunting rifle for a final showdown, he’ll make do with the Spartan setup. He’s the James Bond for the “too big to fail” age. If he wasn’t busy strangling henchmen with his legs in icy water, he’d have a bustling career as a corporate efficiency expert.

You could say that Craig’s Bond is the closest to Richard Stark’s Parker. Like Parker, Craig’s Bond is focused and economical, even when he’s holding onto the bottom of an elevator to pursue a sniper. Yet Bond’s commitment to professionalism extends beyond money. He isn’t against vacation. But his duty to his country, perhaps anchored by his reliance on pills and alcohol, hinders him from becoming a full-fledged sociopath. “Orphans make the best recruits,” says M to Bond. And the price for being a double agent is extirpating your need for family. It’s a distinction that former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem, playing the baddie here), fails to understand, which may be one of the reasons Silva insists on calling M “Mommy.”

We’re informed early on that not everybody can make it out in the field. But while a lesser action film would drop this idea after the handsome actors deliver the details to advance the story, Skyfall actually follows up on this idea throughout its fast-moving two and a half hours. Aside from the many literal missed shots informing the narrative, Skyfall is smart enough to show us M’s poor pistol marksmanship when away from the office. We also see an injured Bond lose his aim after a serious injury (with Silva taking advantage of this later on an island in a very gripping William Tell moment).

Here is a Bond entry in which the best people don’t always make the best decisions on the job. But in Skyfall, there’s the suggestion that real world know-how is no match against technology. It isn’t just the service door that refuses to open in the Underground when there’s an oncoming train. The creative team here understands that Bond has always been steeped in an old world approach. By pitting MI6 against a vengeful hacker who would throw an Ugandan election just for kicks, the human intelligence — the way Bond has worked and seduced a room — that has always buttressed the series is given an intriguing trial. But if being a double agent is “a young man’s game,” there’s surprising adaptability for the old dogs in need of a shave. As Bond tells a man who attempts to seduce him, “What makes you think this is my first time?”

We even get to see M reciting Tennyson’s “Ulysses” during a public inquiry. Beyond this unexpected literary reading (not without precedent, given Simon Raven’s contributions to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), there’s also an unexpected cameo from an obnoxious CNN anchor. The priapic qualities of the old world may gave us James Bond, but it also saddles us with Wolf Blitzer.

I suspect these sly nuances — which have much to do with John Logan working with the established Neal Purvis and Robert Wade screenwriting team this time around — may cause Skyfall to hold up slightly better than Casino Royale‘s darker edge and Guantanamo Bay-inspired torture scene. While it’s tempting to compare the three Daniel Craig films with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Skyfall allows us more room to settle in. It’s possible that the delay in production caused Skyfall‘s creative team to tighten what they had. Because the exciting opening train chase, Silva’s indelible parable of the two rats, and the new Q trying to hide his sneaky work from Gareth Mallory are the types of moments that emerge from artful and well-considered entertainment.

It was also a brilliant move to get Roger Deakins on board as cinematographer. His ambers and umbers give this film the glow of fifty year scotch. There’s one especially coruscating scene in a Shanghai high rise, where Bond dukes it out with a sniper against the dazzling backdrop of endless glass and projected lights from the outside rolling slowly into the dark.

While Adele’s theme song is marvelous, Thomas Newman’s pulsating score is a major disappointment. Newman’s music here seems more at home in a forgettable action movie playing on HBO at three in the morning. I don’t know if John Barry can ever be replaced, but if the Bond films are going to step it up with installments like Casino Royale and Skyfall, then the Broccoli-Wilson team needs a composer to match.

At times, Skyfall is a little too reliant upon Silva’s theatrics, which threaten to overshadow the film’s mild efforts to deepen the relationship between Bond and M. This may be because Silva is one of the best Bond villains in years. When Silva tells Bond about what he did to get where he is today (with director Sam Mendes wise enough to hold this performance in a long take), Bardem instantly commands your attention. But the film flags a bit just before his first appearance, even after it has gone to the trouble to destroy a pivotal base in a gas explosion. We all know that the James Bond films tend to require the bad guys to inform us of their vile plans in person.

But these are pedantic beefs. I enjoyed Skyfall a great deal. I even found myself blurting out “Awesome!” during a particularly sinister exchange between Bond and Silva. And if that is the measure of whether you should see this movie, Skyfall more than lives up.

J. Robert Lennon (The Bat Segundo Show)

J. Robert Lennon is most recently the author of Familiar. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #300. This conversation was recorded live at McNally Jackson on October 3, 2012. This is also the final episode of The Bat Segundo Show. Thank you for listening.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with five possible endings to his existence.

Author: J. Robert Lennon.

Subjects Discussed: Attempts to disseminate chocolate chip cookies in a bookstore, parallel universes, being confident in the rightness of not knowing, getting inside other people’s heads, how Elisa’s conditional ambiguity created a deeper connection with the reader, whether framing shops can exist after the Great Recession, why guys named Larry tend to sound sexy, Stephen Dixon’s “The Frame,” art and self-therapy, Wilhelm Reich as influence and huckster, technological reliance and memory, a digital camera in which nobody bothers to offload the photos, being a photography nerd, the multiverse per Brian Greene and William James, Lennon’s affinity for characters with bare feet, subconscious calls for New Age aesthetic, the Stephen King aesthetic of everyone wearing blue jeans, casual Fridays applied to novels, when a character can be associated with both Hugh Hefner and Hephaestus, spending far more time revising than writing, a definition of insanity of finding meaning when there is no meaning, needlessly close reading, Reevesport, Lennon’s secret shadow map of central New York, Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, physically impossible floor plans in fiction and films, labyrinths and labyrinthine structures, how the question of identity is a trap, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, The Funnies, comparisons between Silas and David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Blow, revision revelations, Braid, advice Lennon received from Tom Bissell, video game titles that aren’t dumb enough, Lennon’s efforts to write a draft without internal monologues, Richard Matheson, The Twilight Zone, the thin line between insanity and genius, the stigma against unusual perspectives, broken and corrupt institutions, crackpots, impostor syndrome, Capgras delusion, Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, similarities between Familiar and Nine Princes in Amber, the Nine Princes in Amber Commodore 64 ROM, cell phone addiction, how smartphones reveal mundane lives, Infocom text adventure games, and fictional vs. video game description.


Correspondent: We have a lot of cookies and they have to be eaten. So please pass these along.

Lennon: These are the very same cookies you saw today on Twitter in the form of uncooked dough.

Correspondent: In the form of uncooked. And then there was a picture of them being cooked. So now we see the transmission from digital to reality. Sort of like your book.

Lennon: You see the baby pictures. And now they’re graduating from college. And now they’re all going to die.

Correspondent: Yes. And they need to be sent away to your stomachs. So please. Anyway, John, how are you doing?

Lennon: Hey, Ed, I’m doing very well. Thank you for having me on the show again. And thanks for sharing your swan song with me.

Correspondent: No worries. So in this book, you have this 46-year-old woman and she’s named Elisa Brown. She enters another life very early on in the book. She’s put on some weight. She trades in this cracked Volvo — or cracked Honda; there’s a Volvo that comes later — with a Dodge Intrepid. She sees her son Silas, who has died in her previous life, suddenly alive in this new one.

Lennon: I think what you’re not explaining is that it seems to be a parallel universe.

Correspondent: It seems.

Lennon: All this happens instantaneously. And she’s transferred into this apparent other world.

Correspondent: Yes. Apparent. Which leads me to my initial question. I mean, she could be inhabiting a parallel universe. This could be a psychological projection. This could be a maternal fantasy. It could be any number of things. You leave this up to the reader. I’m wondering, as author, if you knew with any certainty what this was all about.

Lennon: I aggressively and definitively refuse to know.

Correspondent: You refuse to know. It’s a hell of a way to write a book.

Lennon: Like I’m very confident in the rightness of not knowing. I’ll put it that way.

Correspondent: Okay. But how do you get inside the head of a character when you don’t exactly know what the condition of that head is? Or do you?

Lennon: Does anyone know the condition of their own head? Or the meaning or the circumstances?

Correspondent: Do you know the condition of your own head?

Lennon: Of course not! No! I think it’s an arch sci-fi metaphor for the feelings of dislocation that all of us have in the less obviously nerdy way.

Correspondent: Well, it seems that the very ambiguity of Elisa would allow, as I suggested, the reader to find her own way into what this is all about. And I’m curious. Were you thinking more about the reader in mind with this book? Some of your other books have dealt with minutiae or quotidian life — such as Mailman, to very alarming degrees in that wonderful book.

Lennon: Alarming quotidianness.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. In the case of Elisa, I’m wondering. Did that uncertainty allow you to connect with the reader perhaps more than your other characters?

Lennon: That was my hope. I mean, my goal in presenting this conceit or this unsolvable dilemma to the character — she ends up quite logically, because she’s a scientist, searching for both the meaning and the cause of what has apparently happened to her. But in the process, it forces her to do other types of searching of the self that she was previously unwilling to undertake.

Correspondent: Got it. So there’s this framing shop in the book run by a guy named Larry. And this intrigued me quite a bit. Because I said to myself, “Well, how can a framing shop exist in a small town after the 2008 recession?” It leads me to wonder, hmmm, I wonder if this is possibly a fantasy.

Lennon: (laughs) You’re onto me.

Correspondent: I think there’s something romantic about a guy named Larry. I think you and I can both agree about that.

Lennon: Sure. Sure.

Correspondent: But I wanted to ask you where this came from. Do you know of a framing shop in a small town that is financially successful? Or does Larry have another business of some sort? And, of course, Elisa as well does all sorts of naughty things with him and we only really see him through how Elisa observes him in that Korean cafe and so forth. So I’m curious about the origins of Larry and how you stuck your thumb in the nose of present economic realities.

Lennon: This is a curious thing to fixate on, I must say.

Correspondent: Well, I’m a curious person. And you’ve written a curious book!

Lennon: Thank you. There are several functioning frame shops in my town. It didn’t seem terribly unusual. But the framing bit is — I don’t know why he’s in a frame shop. Maybe…has anyone read the Stephen Dixon story “The Frame”? It’s essentially a joke about a framed story. And a guy goes into a frame shop. And this reminds him of something that happened with his sister in the past. And the frame of the story is a frame. Maybe I had that in mind as a goofy meta device. But in any event, the plot device that you’re talking about is that, in her old life, what she considers to be her real life, she is having an affair with this guy Larry from the frame shop. Whom she met because she brought some art that she was trying to make to be framed. And the art was therapeutic art to deal with the death of her son. And in this new world, where her son never died, this guy doesn’t know her. And so she tries to get it on with him. It doesn’t go as planned. But I like the idea of a quiet business. That the whole point of it is not about the content. It’s about the context.

Correspondent: Yes, it’s about the framing.

Lennon: Exactly.

Correspondent: I see. So the artistic aspirations that Elisa has in this book, which aren’t necessarily totally fulfilled. We sort of see a little bit toward the end. But basically she has this studio. She’s not really doing much about it. Why is it that art — represented of course through Elisa’s painting and then transferred later onto Silas and his video game company — why is this the benchmark for these characters who are in such disarray to try to find themselves? I was curious why this seemed to be the motive for these characters.

Lennon: Well, I’m always kind of interested in this idea that creative effort is a form of therapy for people. And that usually doesn’t create good art necessarily. That the kind of self-criticism required for making…

Correspondent: True art.

Lennon: Yeah. It’s maybe not compatible with the needs of a self-therapeutic process. So in each of these worlds, I gave the creative output to one or the other character as one of them is dealing with the death and her possible culpability in it. And the other is dealing with his horrible childhood, for which he blames her. And she doesn’t get to do art in the world where he’s alive.

Correspondent: Yes. But it’s interesting that you call it therapy in light of all of the Wilhelm Reich references throughout the book. There’s some sly quotes. There’s this crazy family therapist named Amos, who is using very Reichian-like techniques. The whole idea of “blame yourself first,” which comes from Reich. And it’s interesting that that exists side by side with art. And it makes me wonder, well, is Larry, who we were talking about earlier, is he offering a form of therapy in terms of his sexual escapades? But I’m curious about where the Reich interest came from. I mean, he’s known as both one of the most important therapeutic forces of the early 20th century. But simultaneously, he’s also something of a huckster.

Lennon: Yeah. And I haven’t read him extensively. I’ve read some of the book that that quote comes from. But I read enough to use him as a motif. But not enough to know what the hell I’m talking about. But the entire book is about ways of perceiving experience and the extent to which people choose, no matter how hard we think we’re working, to understand the truth about our lives. We’re engaged in a form of self-serving narrative making. And so this whole process, which I think is hidden from us a lot of the time in real life — I’m sort of foregrounding this book by giving her an extra life and an extra version of her life to compose. And she seems to be screwing it up just the same way she screwed up the other life, which I think is what we would all do if we were given a second chance.

Correspondent: But is she entirely screwing it up? I mean, this book has some fairly damning things to say about technology, starting from the first technological implement we see. This camera, that has about a year worth of photos on it. And there is an interesting domestic dispute when all of the photos disappear. And the fact that these photos have not been transferred over says something about what our relationship is to memory through technology. And we see later on, of course, she sees a guy whose looking down at his phone over the last dregs of his meal. And of course there’s the video game motif as well. So I’m wondering why this notion of technology is almost defining many of these characters. Do you think we’re just now in this realm and fiction has to wrestle with this vital point of living?

Lennon: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think of technology as a motif that’s sort of extrinsic from psychology and emotion and that which has to be addressed. Rather, I wanted to bring it into the fabric of the book in a way that it might not naturally do so for nerdy people like this family. My wife said she was very proud of me with the camera thing. The deal with the camera is that they just never print the photos or put them on the computer or anything. They’re just all on the camera. And so everyone, they want to look at pictures, they just look for the camera and they pick it up and they just go like this for a while. And then Elisa’s mother-in-law appears to have deleted the photos of the child who has died. And for whatever reasons we don’t really understand.

Correspondent: Or did she? She just could have been messing with it. We don’t know.

Lennon: Maybe not. And Elisa ends up — she realizes that if she really wanted, that the files are still on there. That all, when you delete a file from, say, a hard disk or a memory card or something, all that changes is the bit of information that tells the computer or the camera that the photo is there. It’s still there. It just can’t be seen anymore. So this for me was kind of the metaphor for things that we try and put out of our heads that are still there. And the reason my wife is proud of me is because I’m a photography nerd. And I would never in a million years treat photographs like this. I’d have to download them to my computer and then edit them and disseminate them into a million different places and print them out and flog them in front of people. And I think it was really a stretch for me to realize that not everyone is like this.

(Photo: Sarah Weinman)

The Bat Segundo Show #497: J. Robert Lennon II (Download MP3)

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Chris Ware (The Bat Segundo Show)

Chris Ware is most recently the writer and illustrator of Building Stories.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Learning how to wash his hands.

Author: Chris Ware

Subjects Discussed: The significance (or lack thereof) of the date September 23, 2000, technological reliance and its intrusion upon existence in Building Stories, the amount of time that humans presently stare into screens, the virtues of shapes and forms on paper, coming from a family of journalists, Ware’s decision to self-publish, the materials used in Building Stories, Ware’s affinity for small rectangular panels, the buildings that inspired the building, Charles Burns, losing track of time and space while drawing, temporal drift, Ira Glass and accusations of cliche, the pleasant frustration of not knowing the names of the Building Stories characters, people not saying Chris Ware’s name in his dreams, when characters are too defined by their names, flowers that grow along Illinois railways, SoundCloud, whether comics can compete with technology to encourage imagination, comics as a visually reductive medium to create a new language, Brandford the Bee and his influence as a narrative spirit, a fondness for circles, understanding other people, looking at animals for a very long time, empathy, Ware’s insistence on visual clarity, typography, operating from a place of uncertainty, Acme #20 and a character aging one year for every page, working with and without deadlines, how the Oak Park Public School system determines how much Ware turns out, observing the human world, parents who aren’t allowed to see their children as often as they need to, being in a privileged position, failed or aborted forms, Ware’s experiments with television, Ware’s difficulties in working with other people, cartooning as a singular art, whether there is an ideal medium for explicating or portraying human behavior, non-objective painting, representing a multilayered consciousness in comics, the physicality of doing the work, the frequency of Ware characters with afflicted or amputated legs, the creative inspiration which emerges from breaking legs, human frailties, and whether the human soul can be contained through illustration.


Correspondent: Is there any specific significance to the date September 23, 2000? I do know that a baseball player named Aurelio Rodriguez died that particular day.

Ware: Is that true? I didn’t know that. No, I picked it simply because it seemed like a date that didn’t particularly have any meaning to it. It’s just sort of a random day.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the role of technology in Building Stories. I mean, we see that you have a concern for its effect on everyday life, ranging from the Facebook searches for lost boyfriends to this one page stark illustration with this unnamed woman with the leg. She’s standing naked before her husband and her husband is there with the iPad, also naked, not paying attention to her at all. Then of course you have this really terrifying last page augmented reality future, where they can’t even spell “fuck” right. So this would suggest, I think, a deep pessimism on your part for how technology is affecting life and so forth. And here you have a collection of fourteen various pamphlets ranging from something very small to almost a newspaper size. Is this really what we have to do now? In order for literature and comics to survive, do we now have to create massive physical palpable forms in order to get people off of this highly addictive technology that has encroached itself into culture all around us for the last five years?

Ware: No. I don’t think so. I mean, it is a little disturbing. The amount of time that we spend increasingly staring into these glowing pits in front of us. Just simply standing out on the street here, the number of people who are looking at the palms of their hands. There’s probably a higher percentage of people doing that than actually looking up. And I think the gesture for trying to remember something now has changed from looking above one’s head to slapping one’s pocket. But it’s really not that different from what adults do anyway, which is not necessarily looking at the world around them, but looking into their own past and thinking about their future and simply just kind of navigating in a world. Just trying to get through the world while worrying about the past and thinking about the future. I don’t think it’s necessary to try to make something — I don’t know what word I could use here. It’s elaborate, I guess. That’s what I tried do. But at the same time, why not? I mean, paper can do things that screens cannot. And I’ve tried to take advantage of that with the book. And we’re at a moment right now too where certain experiences and the way that we get knowledge about the world has been attached to certain shapes and forms. And those shapes and forms are disappearing. And it seemed to me just like a possibility for a slight sense of poetry in using those shapes and forms as a physical way of imparting a sense of life or everyday experience.

Correspondent: So shapes and forms in the form of paper. Old forms are the way to counter the conformist technological forms. That the housing of the form is probably going to get through to people more than the elaborate Tuftean graphs you’ve often had in your work. So you think this is going to be a solution? You think paper will persist? Do you actually have to change as an illustrator, as a cartoonist, as an artist in order to woo people’s attention?

Ware: Well, no. I grew up at a time where I read everything on paper. And I don’t have a sentimental attachment to it. I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper in my life. I’ve always read the newspaper either just simply on the Internet or picked it up here and there. Even though I come from a long line of newspaper editors and publishers. My mom was a reporter and an editor. My grandfather was an editor. My great great uncle was a publisher who actually won a Pulitzer Prize for an essay in, I think, 1911. So it’s in my blood. I feel that it’s no longer the most efficient way of disseminating important up-to-date information. Newsprint was for a long time. It was almost a fiber optic cable. But now it’s not. It’s great for art though. So I think art needs a certain kind of containment. And it needs a certain kind of containment to it because so much of the things that one writes about as a novelist or tries to get at sometimes as an artist are so ineffable and uncontainable that they almost need a certain form to stop them or something. Or freeze them.

Correspondent: So this leads me to ask, I mean, did you have to learn a lot about materials and publishing for Building Stories? Or did you have someone shepherding this for you? I mean, how did you decide upon the forms for Building Stories? In which you’re essentially collecting things from the Acme Novelty Library as well as a few new things as far as I know. How did you decide upon the forms? And what research did you do in making sure they would stick together or would be lasting to counter the end of newsprint era that we now have rolling?

Ware: Right. Well, everything in the book is made out of the exact same paper. Which is intentional. And they’re almost all coverless, with the exception of a couple. And that’s also intentional. I didn’t really have to research much. I’ve been self-publishing my own hardcovers now and comics for a while. And I’ve actually dealt directly with printing companies. So I’m more or less familiar with how those things are put together. But for this particular project, the production manager at Pantheon handled all of that for me and was able to make it work. But I just simply gave him very specific parameters for the size and paper that I wanted to use. And he accommodated me essentially. He was a very nice guy. Andy Hughes.

Correspondent: So why did you move to self-publishing? I was always curious about that.

Ware: I was sort of uninspired, I guess, at a certain point. And I felt more that if I published something myself, it would feel closer to art. The way it had early on. And I felt like I was taking the whole risk myself at that point.

Correspondent: You wanted to be a control freak.

Ware: Well, somewhat. Yeah. But at the same time, if there are any mistakes, they were entirely mine. I was solely the product of my hand. It just simply felt more like art. I was making something specifically, giving it to someone. I didn’t go through a publisher. It was less of a product and more of a thing.

Correspondent: So when you’re creating an elaborate — well, there’s tons of questions I have to ask you about layout and so forth. But let’s start — I was always curious about your small microscopic rectangular panels that are often in your work. I’m wondering if part of your attraction to this is because you’re interested in communicating the maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of detail. Is this the allure for you?

Ware: Yeah. Somewhat. Yeah. And the reason I use square panels is simply because the page is square. It’s reflective of the shape of the object itself in the same way that a leaf of a tree is somewhat reflective of the shape of a tree itself. But that’s not unusual. That’s the way all cartoonists work. I think it’s the way it’s been handed down to us.

Correspondent: So the building that is at the base of Building Stories, was this based off of any particular building?

Ware: It’s a synthesis of two buildings that I lived in in Chicago before my wife and I moved to Oak Park, Illinois. But the inhabitants are completely imaginary.

Correspondent: Are they based off of floor plans and layouts that you wandered through or lived in?

Ware: Yeah, it’s a combination of the exterior of the second building that we lived in and the floor plan of the first that I lived in. Which really means nothing to anyone except me.

Correspondent: How much did the building dictate the dimensionality of the characters? Like, for example, there’s this couple who’s unhappy. And of course, we see that pretty much all the walls are painted blue. And I’m wondering if the blue room or perhaps a yellow background may have influenced where you were going with the characters. And had you thought many of them out in advance?

Ware: You know, I thought them out. But I did not think of the colors as having any influence on the narrative. I guess, if anything else, it was just simply a way of color coding the various floors of the building itself. I find — Charles Burns and I were just talking about this recently — that, sometimes when we sit drawing, we realize that we completely lose where we are in space and time. When I’m sitting at a table, sometimes I’ll forget what room in the house I’m in. Or if I’m even in the house that I’m in. That I’ll even imagine for a second I’m in the apartment that I used to live in. And Charles was saying that he would recently find himself thinking that the sister’s room was right around the corner the way it had been when he was a child. And I’ve experienced it. Everyone has certainly. I mean, it starts off. Proust. And when you fall asleep, you tend to lose a sense of where you are when you wake up in the morning. Sometimes you don’t have any idea where you are. You have to recalibrate yourself.

Correspondent: That temporal drift, I think, informs many of the stories that are in here. Especially the thin stripped one where there are no words whatsoever. It’s all about motherhood and how we see the passage of time throughout that. And I’m wondering. Does this often inform how you organize a story along those lines? Do words often get in the way? Is time sometimes more of an allure than words or dialogue or even blank speech bubbles?

Ware: Well, in that case, there was an attempt to try and give it a sense of the general activities that one might go through during a day. And if I use words, then the segments would be too specific and seem too much like a slideshow of actual reality. Where I was trying to get more of a sense of a general repetition as well as getting a sense of time passing very rapidly. That the strip was inspired by a comment that my friend Ira Glass, the radio reporter and…I shouldn’t say “radio reporter,” but the producer and inventor and progenitor of This American Life.

Correspondent: Well, This American Life has journalistic standards. You can call him that.

Ware: I mean, he’s a great journalist. He’s broken many stories for which I think he doesn’t get adequate credit. But I was just telling him one day over lunch how quickly it was that children grow up and how fast time seems to pass. And he looked up at me and he just said, “Cliche.” And I thought, “I’m just trying to tell you a story here, you know?”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ware: It is actually true. That it is kind of a cliche. So I tried to write this strip in such a way that maybe it wouldn’t be such a cliche and to try and give it a sense of how the time passes rapidly. How it almost seems like in one day your children grow up.

The Bat Segundo Show #496: Chris Ware (Download MP3)

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Benjamin Anastas (The Bat Segundo Show)

Benjamin Anastas is most recently the author of Too Good to Be True.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling with failure.

Author: Benjamin Anastas

Subjects Discussed: Memoirs devoted to literary failure, Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth, Tom Grimes’s Mentor, being inspired by Notes from Underground, measuring life through the medium of writing, seeking existential symmetry through writing, recurring images of sedans crashing into a tree, the difference between work in fiction and work in nonfiction, Brooklyn Flea vs. South Brooklyn flea markets, being confined to specific areas of Brooklyn, maintaining a literary illusion, staying in denial about gentrification or geographical change, being slow to adapt, “you” vs. “I” in a memoir, living in Williamsburg and Italy, the need to close off the world to get your work done, the pros and cons of needing to notice, the need to believe in the illusion as a creative person, writing as a ontological gamble, the stigma of not talking about the realities of being a writer, standing in a boxing ring designed for Muhammad Ali at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Penguin/Random House merger, publishing with Amazon, talking with Jason Epstein, writing as a life going through self-inflicted hardships, why broke writers aren’t special, parental legacy, adultery as a choice, giant posters of Franzen and Eugenides, the writer’s ego, how book fairs can devastate a writer, the attenuated lifespan of a book, blurbs, why New York is an unhealthy place for a writer to live, a level playing field in which all publishing houses are equal, Brooklyn as the second most expensive place to live in the United States, publishing a celebrity journalist’s Facebook messages, Coinstar machines, the divide between the public and the private, navigating through Facebook posts, the need for reflection, the ineluctable physical demands that come with a Kindle book cover, clearing appearances of the Nominee and Marina with various legal counsel, earlier vindictive forms of Anastas’s letter to the Nominee, Dwight Garner’s hostility to the letter, the true manner in which a prize winner talks, Ali’s “It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” boasting, the blues as a shape-shifting force, writing chapters that cause you to burst into tears, what Anastas had to omit because of personal limitations, money as the stigma that has replaced sex, unknown novels being written about the financial crisis or unemployed men, the Fitzgeraldian association with the Manhattan skyline, and the many holes and changes and rebuilding in New York City**.


Correspondent: There are a number of memoirs that are devoted to literary failures. I think of Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth. I think of Tom Grimes’s Mentor. And I think that there’s something about reading a book about literary failure that’s kind of akin to looking at the mirror and seeing the sagging and aging body and so forth. This leads me to ask what it must feel like to write such a thing, to expose something that is so identified with books and so identified with failure in book form. How do you contend with the notion of shame or humiliation? Or do you have no shame?

Anastas: Do I have no shame? Well, clearly, I actually have no shame. (laughs) I never set out to write a memoir. I actually have always been kind of anti-memoir in my writing life. I’ve written screeds against them. My first novel, I thought of it as a kind of Russian tract against the memoir when I was writing it and publishing it. I was very much influenced by Dostoevsky and Notes from Underground, which was a response to — I don’t remember the name of the tract*, but it was a response to this contemporary political tract. So I was trying to use the novel in my first book as an answer to what I thought then was the memoir craze. But of course the memoir craze has just spread and metastasized. And we live in a memoir society. But anyway, I ended up writing a book honestly because I really had no other choice.

Correspondent: You had no other choice?

Anastas: Well, seriously, I mean, I’d been trying to write fiction for a long time and I just hadn’t been working. I would either abandon projects 100 pages in or I would just edit them to death so there was really nothing there. And the circumstances of my life had gotten so bad that I couldn’t really do the necessary work of imagining. Every time I sat down to write, all I could think about was, well, god, how am I going to pay the rent this month? Or, jeez, is my girlfriend going to leave me because I’m so broke? Or what am I going to do about my child support payment coming up on the 15th? That’s all financial stuff. But there was also this overwhelming sense of “How did this happen to me?” How did I find myself here?

Correspondent: Did you feel that you were a victim and that you needed to memorialize this notion of “How did I get here?” Did it come from a sense of victimhood, do you feel?

Anastas: No. Definitely not victimhood. I mean, what was really interesting to me was trying to figure out — well, the book moves in two directions simultaneously. The first is it moves forward in time, which I was literally writing in real time. How am I going to get myself out of this mess? How am I going to find a job? How am I going to keep my girlfriend? How am I going to keep on seeing my son as well? Because I absolutely want to.

Correspondent: So you weren’t a fact checker at the beginning of writing.

Anastas: No. I wasn’t. I started writing the book in the fall of 2010. And I was just about to hit financial rock bottom. And it was the kind of situation where people had stopped answering my emails. The kind of things that I had done to make money had all disappeared.

Correspondent: You weren’t led past the velvet rope in any form. (laughs)

Anastas: (laughs) Exactly. Exactly.

Correspondent: So why did you feel — I guess you felt the need to grapple to the closest reality at hand. And that was the only way to actually deal with it. I mean, there’s actually one line where you say, “How much of our lives do we write? And how much of them are written for us?” And I’m wondering why you feel life has to be measured by how it is documented or how it is written about or how it is chronicled and how this was a way for you to deal with this really sordid rock bottom existence that is there at the very beginning of the book.

Anastas: Well, it’s funny. I used the phrase “write.” “How much of our lives do we get to write?” Of course, that’s how I think about life. Because I am a writer. But I really meant that metaphorically in the sense of how much of our own lives do we get to control. How much agency do we have? And how much of it is stuff that we’ve inherited? So there were two things simultaneously happening in the book. The first is that I’m trying to figure my way out of this mess and actually find work and try to keep my relationship alive and keep my relationship with my son alive. And also at the same time try to restore my relationship to writing by going into my son’s room with a notebook everyday with a pen. Just writing this book or the pages that began this book. Writing them out in longhand. And the second thing I was trying to do was go back in time. All the way back to the beginning. To my first memories. To try and figure out, well, how much of where I found myself is due to experiences I had when I was young? How much of it can be traced to be formative experiences I had when I was three years old? Including the really bad childhood therapy, which gives the book its title. So more than assigning blame, more than claiming victimhood for myself, it’s a way to try and create connections, to find where the symmetry is. Because I did feel like my life was weirdly symmetrical. Like I had been returned to the state that was very much like my earliest beginnings.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you view your life from this image of premonition throughout the book. The idea of the sedan that’s running into a tree, which then starts to have applicability to other incidents later on. Or even “I lost my marriage going down a glass elevator.” There is a sense of personal responsibility we all have, that we can in fact take action to if not inform that premonition then to also throw a few curve balls at the inevitable. Why do you seem to default, at least in this book, towards the premonitory? Or the “Oh, well my life has this trajectory that’s just going to play out this way”?

Anastas: Because I think that, as I said, I was trying to trace the moments of symmetry and put the pieces of this life that had been broken up into large pieces that were kind of dangling all over the apartment and hung over the railing and all this kind of stuff. I wanted to put it all together and figure out how I got to this place in life. And to me, that’s being active. That’s not being passive and saying, “Oh, life has done these things to me.” I haven’t been an equal part in saying, “Oh, life, how could you!” To me, that feeling never really entered into it. It was more a sense of taking what I do have, which is a knowledge of writing, a knowledge of books, and some measure of talent and trying to use those to knit back together a life that had broken to pieces.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you couldn’t actually approach this dilemma through fiction or that there was difficulty. You said that you were writing fiction that was too edited. Did you just really need to have an extremely broken place with which to turn out something as a writer? What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction to you? I’m really curious about this. Why can’t you approach fiction in the same way that you approach nonfiction? Which is like “Here I am. I’m kind of responding to the broken place I’m in, but I’m going to write my way out of it.”

Anastas: Well, that’s what I had been able to do my entire writing life. Up until the last four or five years. Obviously your life informs your fiction, even if the characters you’re writing about and the time that they live in has nothing to do with where you are. You always have some kind of overwhelming feeling that you’re trying to capture. And the feeling often comes from your immediate set of circumstances. You just lend it to somebody else. But I think just because of the dire state of my circumstances and because of the ways I’d failed as a fiction writer over the past five years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I had to, for this book anyway, I had to write it straight. It was a reality experiment. I was writing about things as they were happening. Which was incredibly rewarding in a lot of ways. But it was also so I could get the immediate satisfaction.

* — It was Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, which in turn was a response to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

** — Please note that this conversation was recorded before Hurricane Sandy.

The Bat Segundo Show #495: Benjamin Anastas (Download MP3)

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