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God Help Me

An interview with novelist Jarett Kobek

This interview with Jarett Kobek is happening because of Twitter, which is deeply ironic if you’ve read any of his books. One of the keenest and more acidic writers of our era, Kobek built his reputation on ridiculing our capitulation to internet oligarchs. I had tweeted out a favorite passage from Kobek’s latest novel, Only Americans Burn in Hell, and soon his enterprising publisher, Serpent’s Tail, was in touch asking if I wanted to interview him. I readily assented.

Kobek, who is based out of Los Angeles, is not active on Twitter. He is the author of a number of novels, including a portrait of a 9/11 hijacker (2011’s ATTA) and I Hate the Internet (2016), a sustained howl against the techno-feudalist order that earned him the status of international best-selling novelist, and positive attention from literary power broker Dwight Garner, despite the fact it was originally self-published. The New York Times write-up, Kobek told me, likely triggered Penguin to offer him a sizable advance for his most traditional novel to date, The Future Won’t Be Long, which was published in 2017.

The novel, which drew me to Kobek after I discovered it at the Union Square Barnes and Noble and devoured it within a few subway rides, was a commercial failure, selling as little as three hundred copies in six months despite the backing of a heavyweight publisher. We know this because Kobek tells us in Only Americans Burn in Hell. His books are metafictional and autobiographical, openly contemptuous of the artificiality of plot, but they do not belong to the ranks of drier, and too often solipsistic, autofiction; he is far more like Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Breakfast of Champions-era Kurt Vonnegut, a comparison he both embraces and mocks, flaying American empire with his scythe-like sentences. Here is Kobek, for a taste, on Trump: “He was great entertainment in a country that fostered a delusion in its poor that they too, someday, would be rich enough to treat other poor people like shit.”

In Only Americans Burn in Hell, The Queen of Fairy Land comes to Los Angeles to search for her daughter. She finds her. They cross paths with a Saudi prince who enjoys enlightened philanthropy and sexual torture, and is the only being in the book, due perhaps to his supreme wealth, who can resist fairy magic. That roughly sums up  the plot, which serves as amusing scaffolding for Kobek’s profane, and always riveting, jeremiads. Trump, #metoo, the Wonder Woman movie, Christianity, the military-industrial complex, Matt Drudge, social media, gentrification, and his alma mater, NYU, are just some of the people, institutions, and concepts that come in for a proper demolition. Except, perhaps, Drudge, who Kobek reviles but deems a genius.

I reached Kobek on his cellphone in early November. We ended up speaking for about an hour and a half. This conversation has been condensed for clarity and concision.

Ross Barkan: One of the chief observations you make, here and in other works, is that progressive activism today is undertaken entirely on the terms of a few tech giants. We organize, argue, and protest on Facebook and Twitter. All we do, you say, is just make a few billionaires more money. Is there a better way? How do we stop doing that?

Jarett Kobek: How do you have anything like a valid political thought when that political thought invariably kicks money up to the people that those political thoughts are critiquing? I don’t really have an answer to it. It’s the question of the twenty-first century. I think people on the right, and some people in the center, are perfectly happy with that state of affairs. If you’re on the left, how can your protest, your political thoughts, your critiques of late capitalist systems have validity if those thoughts, protests, and critiques invariably kick money up to the people you are critiquing? I don’t know what the answer to it is. I’m not on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean I also don’t make money for people I’m critiquing in my work.

Platforms of expression are controlled by a pretty small group of people. We know this small group of people is disproportionately benefiting from a system that pretty much everyone acknowledges is unfair, and to express unfairness there only perpetuates this system. How do you function with any legitimacy in this system? My answer, personally, is I make fun of myself. I point out my own complicity in it.

RB: This is the first book you wrote entirely after Trump was elected. You describe him as a member of the “celebrity branch” of American governance and an example of what Jean Baudrillard warned against: the inevitable moment reality collapses into fiction, the so-called “Hyperreal,” which we are now cursed to inhabit. It can be hard to write a novel right now.

JK: The thing no one ever talks about is the ways in which, during those eight years [Barack Obama was president], celebrity slowly crept into political life in a way it actually hadn’t prior to that, despite the fact that Reagan was president and Reagan was the forebearer of that. My sense has always been there was a wall between this idea of D.C. and celebrity. I’m under no illusions, it was a really porous wall, but it really existed.

That blurring created the possibility. By the time the election came around, I was completely convinced Trump was going to win. In month or so leading up to the election, because I live in a liberal bubble, whenever I had conversations with friends of mine and said I think Trump’s going to win, it was as if I had committed the gravest social faux pas you possibly could.

How do you have anything like a valid political thought when that political thought invariably kicks money up to the people that those political thoughts are critiquing?

I would describe the Trump era as one of constant interruption. You can’t go two minutes without Trump or some after effect of Trump interrupting your life. I really decided I would try to reflect and feel what it’s like to be alive in this moment. Novels are funny, books are funny—they’re such a delayed medium. Even in the best-case scenario, if you finish a book, it’s still going to be a year down the line where anyone is going to see it as a physical object. Given the radical unpredictability of the moment we live in, how do you try to write a book that reflects that unpredictability without getting bogged down in details no one will remember?

RB: What I found fascinating is how you really lay a lot of blame for our suffering, and suffering around the world, on the institution of the American presidency itself—Trump or no Trump. You write that he “won the right to turn Muslims into shattered masses of agony.”

JK: One doesn’t want to let Trump off the hook for his unique awfulness. The thing to me that’s been fascinating about the Trump era, we talk about all the awful things he’s doing to the office as if the office hadn’t become inherently awful long before he occupied it. If you talk about all the terrible things Trump is doing to the office, it obscures that the office seems predicated on doing terrible things. It doesn’t matter who’s in it. Throughout the book, the bell that is tolled over and over again is dead Muslims. I think that the most baseline way of describing it is like, since at least 9/11, there is an unbelievable body count that comes from that office. Why would anyone be surprised that after, give or take, eighteen years of true horror coming from that office that someone truly horrible ended up there?

RB: Wonder Woman, everyone’s favorite woke superhero blockbuster from 2017, comes in for a drubbing. You describe it as a “story about the unexamined glory of American foreign policy, of the meaninglessness of war and violence, and a story about how a woman could be like a man in her ability to simulate genocide.”

JK: In June 2017, no one really understood what we had gotten into [with Donald Trump]. People were desperately looking for some bold gesture that would be a repudiation of Trump. We live in a really strange time where there are no bold gestures that aren’t inherently compromised.

Wonder Woman happened to be really freighted with unexamined assumptions of American life, and Warner Brothers, obviously, these people have very sophisticated mechanisms of manipulating public opinion—or influencing is probably a better word. When the movie came out, there were insane articles written about it, the film was some sort of liberating event . . . to have an artistic object presented as though going to see to it was some kind of act of resistance, when going to see it was inherently predicated on kicking money up to the people who you in theory are resisting, is astonishing . . . [Wonder Woman] is just genocide simulation, U.S. war propaganda. 

The danger of someone like Trump is that Trump is so outrageous and so completely toxic in the most literal sense of the word toxic that resistance to Trump—the really easy way to resist Trump, is if you decide to become as awful as Trump. Something about Wonder Woman felt like one of those moments, well, if we just act like Trump, this is an effective resistance to Trump. I don’t think that’s true. 

RB: In the 1990s, you write that no could have known Matt Drudge would be the “only authentic genius” of the twenty-first century. You describe him as something like the godfather of today’s internet because he figured out how to monetize other people’s work.  

JK: I think Drudge is indisputably a genius. He’s wrong about everything, but that does not take away the accomplishment. Drudge is the first person who truly understood what internet was, and he was the first person to figure out how to really make it work. I think because he’s such an institution and he’s been doing it for so long, there’s a way to lose sight of how strange his position actually is. It’s essentially one guy doing one webpage that hasn’t changed in decades who has somehow managed to establish himself in this position, [and it’s] equivalent to organizations that are much, much older and have hundreds of employees. Drudge drives the news as much as anybody.

Drudge is the first person who truly understood what internet was and he was the first person to figure out how to really make it work.

I think Trump probably won because Drudge wanted him to win. Drudge has an enormous influence. It’s one guy who started doing this is in an apartment in Hollywood, where he lived on Whitley [Avenue], which was just about the worst part of Hollywood in the nineties. Whitley still has these bizarre dividers in the street the city put up to stop the flow of drugs and prostitution. I think he’s indirectly set the template for a lot of conservative media that is successful now. They’re all LA people: Breitbart, Daily Wire, PragerU. For all our reputation as the last gasp of a certain type of liberalism, all the stuff really working online has been from conservatives in LA.

RB: Your novel, interestingly enough, opens with autobiography: you reject a hapless fundraising solicitation from NYU, your alma mater, over the fact they built a campus in Abu Dhabi with de facto slave labor. As someone who now teaches there, this really hit home for me. 

JK: Not only did NYU make this enormous moral compromise of having a campus there in the first place, they didn’t do any kind of diligence making sure they didn’t build it with slaves. This is nineteenth century shit, eighteenth century shit. Well, this is also a very good metaphor for the moment. When I first started going to NYU, God help me, in the late nineties, it was funny—it was this also-ran school that was more of a regional school than anything and while I was there, by time I had graduated, I never could have gotten in. It had really changed; the fortunes of the city had really changed. You also have this idea, of like, how do we make a competitive school and the answer to it was, let’s make it as corporate and slimy as possible.

That is kind of a perfect microcosm of a lot of America in the global era. In the nineties, God help me, you could go into cafes and people would have these debates that were totally useless about what globalization meant. The way the argument was always framed, in this incredibly American way, was what are we going to do to other countries? What is American culture going to do to all these countries in the third world? The question no one asked is, what happens to America when we start engaging with countries that don’t have anything like a tradition of democracy or fair labor practices? The thing no one imagined was that America could be changed by people it does business with. I think America really was profoundly changed, and we have not caught up with what that change is.

RB: At NYU, you obviously spent a lot of time in the East Village. In both The Future Won’t Be Long and Only Americans Burn in Hell, you write very movingly on the pre-gentrification bohemia of the East Village in the late eighties and nineties. What drew you to that period?

JK: I managed to get to New York for the last gasp of the East Village right before it really transformed into whatever it’s become. Whenever I go back, I can’t even fathom what it’s become. When I got to New York, the East Village was still kind of dangerous. It was a very, very different thing than what it was even by time I graduated NYU [in 2002].

I always liked Gen X people. I feel like that’s a generation that got hit the hardest by the internet. They were the people, say, they graduated college in 1990 or 1987—you had this entire creative class that really thought what they were doing would happen forever. They’re the people who didn’t see the internet coming in a way that it came. [The Future Won’t Be Long] is a novel about people, two people from very different origins, joining a creative class that starts to erode almost at the moment they join it. In a very indirect way, it’s kind of metaphorical for whatever the hell happened to the East Village.