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Jordan Castro is a Novelist

The Novelist, by Jordan Castro, is a novel about a pre-novelist—in other words, it is a book about someone in the process of writing a novel. Castro’s novel is a glimpse into the fleeting digressive thoughts and introspective moments of the unnamed pre-novelist, ranging from Weird Al Yankovic lyrics to Instagram stories of men with ‘thick necks’ to Kierkegaard to reflections on addiction and human will, as he attempts to write over the course of a single morning—the entire book spanning from 8:14 am to approximately 10:30 am.

In a time that autofiction reigns, particularly in the alternative literature scene (think books such as Fuccboi, Leave Society, and Motherhood), Castro chose to write a novel that inserts a distinct distance between himself and the narrator. In doing this, it loses none of the self-referential metacommentaries on fiction, the novel, and our relationship to contemporary technology and media, that typically come with autofiction. Wired claims that it is one of the first novels that has properly captured the ‘online experience’ due to its depictions of reflexive, semi-addicted internet-usage, and the ways the internet inexorably bleeds into consciousness.

The book follows the pre-novelists’ efforts to resist this internet-consciousness and his semi-addiction to it (which can be seen as a stand-in for, or at least partially analogous to, any life-draining addiction). The unnamed pre-novelist wants to direct his will towards writing and self-improvement while eschewing the habitual need for the virtual world and the hyper-cynical orientation towards life that comes with it.

Castro’s novel, as he makes clear in this interview, largely centers on the will (in the sense of anti-passivity): the will to contend with failings, the will to change, and ultimately the will to a kind of truthful creation—in this case, to write a novel.

Teddy: I’d like to start with a foundational question: The Novelist is concerned with literature and the act of writing. Towards the end of the book, the narrator explicitly notes that novels are relegated to their “political, historical, or sociological” qualities in reviews; novels are reduced to political statements instead of their literary or novelistic elements. This is something I agree with, and it left me wondering: Severed from these things, what are novels? What do novels do that these other types of writings (essays, academic writing) cannot achieve?

Jordan: A novel is a book-length work of fiction. We have this whole swarm of readers who were trained to crinkle their noses at novels, analyze them through some lens or another, trying to trap them in a cramped little box. But in a novel, you don’t only encounter ideas, and you don’t only encounter one lens—you encounter characters, personalities, and so on, which relate to each other dialogically. Good novels should claw at and break out of these boxes. Novels are polyphonic, which is what Bahktin pointed out so brilliantly in his essay “Epic and The Novel.” There is an open-endedness inherent to the form; it can do a bunch of different things at once, and more.

Bahktin said that laughter is what made novels possible. He places the novel in the tradition of the parody, and other “serio-comical” works, which grew up alongside other genres to mimic and poke fun at them. In these works—unlike the genres they were parodying, in which the speaker straightforwardly addresses the audience—the words on the page are not straightforwardly coming from the author; rather, they relate with him in an ironic, dialogical way, such that the novel is also a representation of itself. A parody of a sonnet, for example, is in dialogue with the form of the sonnet, specific sonnets, the author, the audience, the speaker of the poem, and more. Cramped ideological readings do a complete disservice to the inherent play and contradiction of the form of the novel itself. Many novelists do novels a disservice too: they mash their keys with gruesome earnestness; trying to write everything other than a novel. In the novel, you encounter the world in its state of becoming. And so it’s best to let the text reveal itself. It’s important to leave room for surprise.

I have an idea for your audience. Next time you read a novel, try to read it like you’re hanging out with people and charitably getting to know them. You’ll learn more about the novel by doing that than by sucking in your cheeks and squinting down.

Teddy: Long passages of the text—that some have called ‘scatological’—seem to be a kind of commentary on the sometimes-trivial nature of auto-fiction. The most banal, and even abject scenes are expanded in the book. Yet, these are some of the most epiphanic moments of “The Novelist.” I’ve always personally liked the idea of finding divinity in the most overlooked or even abject places. Why are these scenes that are the most private or even abject the most revelatory?

Jordan: It’s easy to slip into a kind of “mysticism of shit” when talking about this—like so many of our literary perverts and pseudo De Sades—and so I want to get something out of the way: I emphatically do not think there is anything especially holy or divine about abject human behavior. Humans can be depraved. There is no mystery there. It isn’t interesting. The mystery is that we can recognize it as depravity. That alone is a kind of grace. And the mystery is always grace. Evil is stark and obvious.

Abjection is only abjection from a perspective outside of it. Which is how the overlooked places can be revelatory. A light must illuminate some aspect of it. Christ was born in a manger, to a teenager out of wedlock, and he ministered to the prostitutes, shepherds and lepers. But he didn’t say, “Wow, you guys are epic and perfect, just keep doing what you’re doing. Maybe let’s just aestheticize it a little bit and make it cool?” Christ’s love reaches down into the dark, hidden places. It reaches down into Hell. But the power comes from the fact that the revelation of grace, truth, and so on, reaches unexpectedly into precisely the places where it seems to be absent. It’s also just funny – the low being made high and vice versa — there is a cosmic irony in that which never gets old.

Teddy: Eric, the narrator’s ex-friend, is an absent character that seems to give the novel cogency. He is almost the central figure of the novel that the narrator constructs himself (or is trying to construct himself) in opposition to. In other interviews, you’ve mentioned Thomas Bernhard’s novel, Woodcutters, which is similarly structured. Why did you choose this polemical narrative style?

Jordan: I just love that style. It’s attractive and vital and it sucks you right in. Especially in contrast to the stifled, careful tones everyone uses now. I love a narrator who’s whigging or who’s just barely holding it back.

Teddy: The character Eric has a kind of detached cynicism which leads to anti-natalism. He also seems to be aligned (in a kind of distanced, performative manner) with certain social justice movements that are centered on oppression. Why does the kind of latent hatred that Eric has tend to cling to certain kinds of movements? To you, do these movements consist of typified ‘Erics’? Or do some engage with these social-oriented movements differently (in a more sincere manner)?

Jordan: People all across the political spectrum use “convictions” to mask resentment. It’s not unique to the left. The latent hatred, masked as virtue, can happen anytime one feels himself to be victimized by something out of his control, and straightforwardly blames only that person or thing for his position in life. I met a guy recently who said that he was a part of a “cadre of serious Marxist revolutionaries,” who trained “physically, and intellectually,” and so on, for an armed revolution. He thought that if the entire world didn’t conform to his will that it would literally end in fifty years. But Q people also fantasize about something similar. I don’t think it’s a question of “sincerity.” They are totally sincere—and that’s the problem!

Teddy: There is a moment that the speaker tries to “get all of the social media use out of his system” (124). Of course, he is unsuccessful—he can’t just ‘get his fill’ of social media and move onto another activity. What about social media makes it the object of this kind of “infinite desire” (as you’ve said in other interviews) and why does it seem to undermine or circumvent the will? Or, in other terms, what is the relationship between the will and social media that you seem to be describing in the book?

Jordan: I was eating lunch with a friend the other day, who used to work for Facebook, and the way he phrased it was that social media companies are selling “your behavior in advance.” It’s easy to forget that, on social media, we are not the customers, we are the product—our time and attention gets sold to advertisers. So, in a basic sense, social media is just designed to be maximally addictive. And they did a good job.

There are all kinds of ways to talk about this problem. Luke Burgis calls social media an “engine of desire.” We are addicted to other people’s desires, which is why “influencers” are such a big thing, etc. The problem is that this opens us up to being influenced by anyone and everyone —it presents us with too many potential models, and we become scattered. I was thinking about this the other day in terms of advertising. Advertising used to feature hot, cool people, and if you were ugly and uncool, you could still look at the hot, cool person, and know that “it was just an advertisement.” But in the age of social media, ads have to appeal to us as we are right now, because the distance between people is smaller than ever. Suddenly the person in the ad has a Twitter, and in a few clicks I can be in direct contact with them. I can take them as a potential rival, whereas before I knew my place.

Teddy: In your recent essay on cynicism, published in Praxis, you condemn modern cynicism—and there is a similar sentiment expressed in The Novelist. Of course, as you note in the essay, cynicism is not new. How is modern cynicism distinct from these older modes of cynicism? And, in your view, what elements of culture or modernity made this happen?

Jordan: Modern cynicism is characterized by its passivity. There’s this snide, squirmy quality to it that betrays a fundamental lifelessness. It’s like how, when a worm dies, it shrivels up, but for a moment it still seems alive. The modern cynic is in this perpetual state of shriveling.

It’s hard to say what caused it, though I’m compelled by Kierkegaard’s idea of “the leveling mechanism” in The Present Age. He predicts that the dissolution of differences and hierarchies will lead to an explosion of resentment, but that this resentment will essentially be passive, because we live in a “reflective” age. K blames the media, abstractions like “The Public,” and more.

Teddy: How does one combat modern apathetic cynicism?

Jordan: Praying and lifting weights was a good start for me. Also, if you can, finding friends who aren’t mired in it.

Teddy: You’ve said in other interviews that you had a kind of faith-in-progress while writing the novel (meaning, I think, you were contending with the ideas of Christianity). Now, you’re Christian. The book, in many ways, transcends the individual and interpersonal and is striving for something else that exceeds these things. How do you think your faith-in-progress informed the novel?

Jordan: When I started to become a Christian, all of these disparate intuitions I was having started to cohere in a way that was impossible for me to unsee. Things about the contradictory nature of the will; resentment and the reality of scapegoating; the way that, when I orient myself toward a transcendent model, my thoughts and behavior cohere much more harmoniously. In The Novelist, it isn’t his lack of knowledge, but rather his lack of power that’s the problem. He can know or want something, but choose in opposition to that knowledge or desire. Something about self-will, which tends toward pride, always creates effects opposed to those it seeks. The unaided will is full of self-justification. The Novelist was already “about this” in an intuitive sense, but when I started writing it, I didn’t know that’s what it was. I was too “in it.” So my faith-in-progress helped me “see” what I was writing, how it was all working together.

The Novelist became available in paperback on July 18th.

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