Mike: People in your book are on young and on the go, self-consciously rootless and, if not mistrustful of all communal structures (whether they’re anarchist or familial or even romantic), at least more skeptical about staying put than straying off. You yourself have moved a lot: Florida, Oregon, NYC. Can you talk a little bit about moving/moving on? Is your experience of life horizontal or vertical? Can you not appreciate a blade of grass—as the old O’Hara saw goes—without a subway/Subway nearby?
Justin: It seems to me like rootlessness is necessarily self-conscious. Rootedness, staying put, can be the result of deliberate action, or else it can just sort of occur passively. But movement is always self-directed, and as such can only ever be self-aware, must wonder at its own motives, attempt to plot its next move and—perhaps—its endgame, because truly satisfied rootlessness is very rare. Most people—certainly most of my characters—are looking for somewhere to take root, and simply not finding it. Or anyway that’s probably how they would see it. Maybe they are really the ones casting themselves out of the various gardens of their lives.
I’ve been in New York since 2005, when I came here for graduate school, though now there’s the city itself to move around. Changing neighborhoods in New York is like moving to a new city, and changing boroughs is like changing states, so in a way it’s more of the same, but I’ve lived in my current apartment in Bushwick for going on three years, and on this block for nearly four years. So to try and put this in terms of your question, I guess there are horizontal and vertical elements of my experience of life. Movement feels very linear—“I go here, I go there”, to paraphrase O’Hara, since you mentioned him. But now the time is just piling up in this apartment, a great big stack of time, and that’s fine too. I take great joy in the pastoral, and in small towns, but to me the countryside or whatever is a place you visit, or escape to. My real life is here, and I’m not sure whether that will always be the case, but I don’t see it changing soon. Among the many incentives to stay here, a big one is that I hate driving. Well, I used to. I’ve sort of come around to it, but I still don’t want to own a car or operate one very often. I don’t want the responsibility, or the expense. I like riding on trains—let a union man earning a decent wage take care of getting people where they need to go. I’m gonna read the New Yorker.
Mike: Many reviewers have talked about your book’s fearlessness toward sex/sexual themes, which some categorize as “uncontemporary” or “unusual for right now.” Kevin Killian talks about “murky” bisexuality in your work. What is your opinion on sex in a narrative sense? Sex in the literary landscape? Sex on a lawn?
Justin: I am interested in the way we conceive of desire, and how we go about pursuing the ostensible subject(s) of that desire. I like exploring this territory, and I wouldn’t want to do it in some flowery, abstract, allusive way—that feels morally derelict to me. I am not interested in promoting the lie of a world where sex is odorless and perpetually out of focus, and all relations between people are self-contained and definitive. If I wanted to be sold that bill of goods, I would turn my TV on and watch Nick at Nite. The contemporary, really-existing world is a murky place, and if you want to know anything about it, starting with what it feels like, you’re going to need to get your hands dirty. But I have to say that I’m surprised to hear this characterization of my work—who said this about me? I mean, they’re entitled to their position, but I think I’ve been criticized much more for being too contemporary, of this moment, or whatever. But neither charge is one I can answer. My work is born out of my understanding of and interest in the world around me, in all its complications and indeterminacy and rare moments of clarity, only some which prove to be welcome. It comes from that understanding and it is an attempt to enhance, complicate, or otherwise develop that understanding. Anyway, “fearless” is a compliment I’ll gladly accept.
Mike: Your new novel is going to be about punks in South Florida, right? I remember one night at your house with Mathias Svalina and Julia Cohen when we were listening to Against Me! and throwing shit around and breaking shit, but definitely in a more buttondown way than any of us might have thrown/broken shit “once upon a time” or “in the starry cascading throbs of our youthen days.” A related point: I am only a few years younger than you, and I am from the other coast, but when I was growing up, Against Me! was already acquiring a reputation as “sell-outs” and, perhaps, plummeting on the “punk scale” of “punk authenticity.” That is fast erosion, and rather sad to think about. Can you talk about your new novel, breaking shit, and “the scale of punk,” if such a thing means anything to you?
Justin: I don’t remember what we broke, but it couldn’t have been very important, which I think is part of the point of breaking shit—to remind yourself that shit is just shit, and fuck that shit. Which is probably why I don’t remember what was broken; I just remember FUN. I’ve talked a lot about my feelings about Against Me! elsewhere, but suffice perhaps to say that they were a local band when I moved to Gainesville, and were very well-loved, and every time they met with any incrementally larger measure of success, everybody held it against them. Look, if Mike Young in Northern California is going to hear about these guys and be able to get into their music, then that’s pretty much gonna mean they’re not a local Gainesville band anymore. But from the band’s perspective, breaking out is kind of the whole point. Very few artists cultivate obscurity, irrelevance, and a lack of financial success. I think we have a lot of the same problems in our own literary community. A scene will nurture you, but it is more interested in keeping you part of it than in preparing you to move forward to the next thing—colleges love their alumni, but scenes, cliques and movements have very little use for them.
But about the novel. The novel is called The Gospel of Anarchy and it is set in Gainesville, just before the turn of the millennium, in a great sloppy punk rock house of the kind I love very much—and used to live in—but it is emphatically not autobiographical in any straightforward sense, and it is not offered as some kind of paean to being young and dissolute. There’s nothing sentimental about it, no rose-colored take on the halcyon radicalism of youth. Also no recriminations of the values once held and lives once lived, as in for example the (fantastic, hilarious) flashback scenes in Sam Lipsyte’s (brutal, brilliant) The Ask. I don’t know why I feel obliged to describe my book in terms of what it’s not, but those are some of the things that it’s not. In any case, the novel is really more about religion than politics—or it’s about the intersection of religion and politics, the blurring of those lines. I tried to treat my anarchists with the full attention and severity that Flannery O’Connor gives to her Protestants.
Mike: Though I don’t see it as often in your stories as I do in your nonfiction work, you have a palpable, emotional engagement with large-scale political “issues” that often seems as personal and aesthetic as many of our peers’ engagements with the feeling stuff of blow-by-blow life. Not to rehash any old E.L. Doctorow essays here, but do you feel like writers have a “duty” to emotionally engage with political “issues?”
Justin: I don’t think writers have a duty to do anything other than write, and perhaps to help ensure the general health and rigor of the larger literary community—if they choose to see themselves as part of such a thing. My response to some of the outrages perpetrated by an outrageous government in outrageous times is a palpable, emotional sense of, well, outrage. For me, political awareness is part of social and cultural awareness. I don’t see these categories as distinct—or as categories at all, is what I guess I really mean to say. It’s not about obligation; it’s about interest and—again—desire. I have a desire to see a better, saner, more just world than the one I currently see. Why not say so?
Mike: On that note: James Woods says write novels about people who feel things. Have you read either Mr. or Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell? What do you think of this “novels about how the world works” versus “novels about how people feel” dichotomy? Which do you like more: feeling things, or Erector sets?
Justin: No, I haven’t read any Evan S. Connell—or much James Woods, for that matter. I’ll read him if he turns up in a magazine, but I wouldn’t give him a book’s worth of my time. I think dichotomies are useful—albeit of limited use, and potentially pernicious—for critics, historians, and other people whose work is made easier for them (and/or more intelligible to us) by employment of a filing system. Underworld is a novel about how the world works, but it would be insane to say that nobody in it feels anything. Similarly, Virginia Woolf’s best novels are all uniquely concerned with the interior lives and feelings of individuals, but you wouldn’t dream of saying that those books lack reference to how the world works. To the Lighthouse is riven by the first World War; The Waves is at some level the story of the whole English empire in decline. There are literally a million examples out there; I just picked a few off the top of my head. But I feel like I’m telling you something you already know. To describe feelings is already to be part of the world and its workings. But I didn’t grow up with Erector sets. I was a Legos kid.
Justin Taylor is the author of Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever (Harper Perennial, 2010) and More Perfect Depictions of Noise (X-ing Books, 2008). He is also the editor of The Apocalypse Reader (Thunder’s Mouth, 2007), and Come Back, Donald Barthelme (McSweeney’s 2007). With Jeremy Schmall he co-edits The Agriculture Reader, a limited-edition arts annual. He lives in Brooklyn and writes for HTMLGIANT: http://www.justindtaylor.net/
Mike Young is the author of the poetry collection We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (PGP 2010), the story collection Look! Look! Feathers (Word Riot Press 2010), and the chapbook MC Oroville’s Answering Machine (Transmission Press 2009). He co-edits NOÖ Journal and Magic Helicopter Press. Visit him online at http://mikeayoung.blogspot.com.