“The Novel Is Not A Moral Compass”: Letters After Trump: An Interview With Andrew F. Sullivan

by E Martin Nolan

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s Interviews Editor at The Puritan. His work has appeared in Lemon Hound, Arc, and The Rusty Toque, and Canadian Notes and Queries, among other places. His collection of poetry, Still Point, will come out with Invisible Press in Fall, 2017.

E Martin Nolan: After Trump was elected, I listened to Eminem’s “White America” and thought, “damn, did he predict Trump?” I was particularly struck by the first verse:

So many lives I’ve touched, so much anger aimed
in no particular direction, just sprays and sprays,
and straight through your radio waves it plays and plays
’til it gets stuck in your head for days and days.

Now, we have to be careful, because Eminem is always messing with his audience at some level. The “I” here is not Marshall Mathers, the man, but is Eminem’s public persona. That persona is similar to Trump, but Eminem is conscious of it, and manipulates it deftly (the song ends with “I’m just kidding America, you know I love you”—a statement we cannot trust).

Both figures frame rudeness as authenticity and are loved for voicing the taboo. There are major differences—on “Campaign Speech” Eminem mocks Trump supporters for wanting a “loose cannon who’s blunt with his hands on the button.” Being a loose cannon as a rapper is different than when you’re president and have access to nuclear buttons. Still, without a doubt phrases like “lock her up” and “build the wall” signal an aimless anger that has been stuck in many American heads for too many days. When you listen to that song now, what do you hear?

Andrew F. Sullivan: It does speak to some of the bewilderment you see in the media about the rise of Trump, this bullshit anthropology of communities they can’t fathom. The same thing exists with Juggalos, with all kinds of White America that flew under the radar for a long time. A fear of what’s on the other side of the mirror and inability to cope once it’s broken through to the other side. And an immediate rush to contain it; you get reporters running fashion profiles on Nazis. An attempt to normalize something vicious and hateful, to bring it into the fold.

It’s a spasm of hate and fear that Trump tapped into, but it’s always been there, and it isn’t just the realm of the poor, it’s the realm of people who believe they were promised something greater, entitled to some future they never received and they are looking for someone to blame. It’s beyond money, it’s about status, about maintaining their position.

Eminem is the aged-out jester, he’s winking, he’s probing old wounds while he’s laughing, he’s the fool spitting a truth no one notices until it’s too late. Also, this song is how old? 2002. None of this is new. This is something that’s been part of America for a long time, a legacy of the powerful turning of groups against each other to protect themselves. Eminem does get to have it both ways. He recognizes race in America, its power as a divider, and his own power as a white man with a line like “Let’s do the math, If I was black I woulda sold half.”

Without the jester aspect, Trump is just the tyrant. He’s glowering and raging alone in a room with the TV blasting. He’s pointing to his ‘sea of love’ and reciting numbers he’s pulled directly out of his sagging ass. He’s a deranged king with a court of sycophants and yes-men hoping they can cull a few hundred thousand more off the poor by cutting healthcare, dump out a few million immigrants with an executive order, fracture thousands of families in the process, and then turn around and force a woman with a miscarriage to hold a funeral for the cells no longer inside her.

This is a sickness that has been coming for a long, long time. And it’s finally here. It’s like a brutal fever, a spike in temperature that fries the brain. Eventually, the fever passes, but the damage is done. White America is attacking the host body and killing itself in the process.

 

EMN: Before President Trump, there was WASTE. Before both, there was a hugely destructive long-term economic shift away from labour-intensive industry in North America. WASTE is a dark, exaggerated depiction of the kind of post-industrial rust belt city that has struggled to thrive in the new globalized economy. And though this is not a realistic novel, it does capture a very real sense of despair—the kind that can very easily turn to alienation. Things have fallen apart in Larkhill, and it’s gotten twisted in the fallout.

The hate is performative until it becomes real, and I think that is where it gets tricky.

The teenage skinheads at the centre of your book would be into Trump (probably Eminem, too). He dominated the racist demographic. But to simply call these kids “racists” would be insufficient. They’re acting out, rebelling against the genuine shittiness they see in their family, jobs and city. Being skinheads is their shitty, ill-conceived way of doing that.

Do you think these characters should be forgiven for the hate they spew? Is it possible to reject the hate but acknowledge the hurt?

 

AFS: WASTE is definitely a hyper-real, over-the-top nightmare, but I did want that despair and alienation to feel very real, to feel very present. The hate that the kids in the novel have developed is definitely misdirected, but it gives them some kind of purpose. People like to have a purpose, a reason behind their mayhem. Lashing out to get a reaction, to stand apart, to identify purely as trash, but your own beautiful trash. You’ve nailed it that it’s a shitty, ill-conceived version of lashing out—taking up the mantle of ‘skinheads’, something they don’t even really comprehend, can only lead them down to some terrible end.

I think based on their age alone, they do deserve some measure of forgiveness. They are not fully formed yet, barely entered puberty, they have very few role models, they are bent on unleashing a reaction from the people around them, negative or positive. The hate is performative until it becomes real, and I think that is where it gets tricky. Once Moses, their leader, acts out with violence, a very real line is crossed. There is a consequence and a death. And then intentions don’t matter as much, whether they truly meant it or not. Someone innocent is dead. Someone’s life is gone, and for what?

I don’t think there is much room for forgiveness there. Actions define who we are, especially our omissions, the things we don’t do, the times we don’t decide to step-in or speak-up. Our inability to act can be just as damning as wrong action. So in the case of these kids, I don’t think you can forgive the acts. They must stand as what they are—expressions of hate and death, even if they are misdirected. But you can’t just write them all off. You have to confront those kinds of expressions when they happen, before they manifest into action. Words can be erased, or ignored or minsconstrued, but the action remains. Awful people still exist.

People underestimate hate. They underestimate self-interest and fear and greed. They attempt to make moral choices based on how they spend their recreational time, the media they consume, what they put into their stomach, and they think it is enough. But that doesn’t mean those other, angry people just disappear. They are still present. They are still breathing.

And they are very, very real. They vote.

There’s often an assumption on the left that if we’re morally superior, we’ll win. We deserve it.

And that’s a lie.

Also, there’s an assumption that “the white working class” voted for Trump, but that’s not really true. A lot of them did, but what you’re seeing more are isolated enclaves of white people, white communities, voting indiscriminately for Trump. A lack of connection to the other diverse communities in their country, where the Other can still be construed as a terrifying alien concept. Some of the most hardcore white supremacists I’ve met live in places with very, very small groups of minorities. It lets the fantasy fester. It lets them imagine a monster under the bed when there is nothing there, but they enjoy the illusion.

 

EMN: That makes me think of Amy Maria Kenyon’s Dreaming Suburbia, a cultural history of American race relations, with Detroit—an industrial city like Larkhill—serving as the immediate focus and lens. Kenyon focuses on the role of spatial separation in the creation of racial fictions. She argues that violence is a “narrative interruption of abstract space.” That abstract space is created by separation, which allows “the fantasy to fester,” as you say. If a group isn’t seen as real, is seen as an abstraction, and isn’t present in another group’s reality, then it’s possible to fill that void of real knowledge with a fiction that scapegoats or otherwise condones violence and hate against that group.

So we have two perspectives on the use of fiction here. The one I just described has fiction facilitating big, blanketing forms of hate and violence. But I would argue that a work of fiction like WASTE might work the opposite way, by acting as a bridge to understanding people you don’t know. That’s not guaranteed with WASTE though, because the book forces the reader to look past the exaggeration to identify that reality.

Our closets are just deeper; they are forests you can’t even drive through.

How concerned were you that the book would come off as dismissive of its subjects? How did you conceive, if you did at all, of the proper balance that would allow you to achieve the rich nightmare-fantasy vibe but also render Larkhill and its inhabitants as real and worthy of sympathy?

 

AFS: I felt very lucky that most readers have bought into the world of WASTE and the characters I am selling. There is definitely that brand of rust belt fiction in the States, where it often feels like folks may be taking an easy swipe or lowering their hand into the abyss for kicks. The stereotypes of down-and-out rural American communities are well-known, but it can be a head-scratcher when even urban centres like Cleveland get identified as bastions of the white working class, since the working class is a pretty varied, racially diverse group these days. That kind of fiction can easily become a bucket in which to dump whatever bile you got in you. The easy assumptions are waiting out there and you’ll see a lot of writers resting at that level, half-way up the hill and already winded.

WASTE is a condensed shot of a lot of truth I did see, a lot of research and listening to people; it’s overly ripe and bleeding along the edges, but there is a core there that tries to speak some truth and I think that resonates with people. I think I had a few jitters right before the novel came out, that people might assume I was on the side of white supremacy, but fuck it, you gotta pull the cord and see how it goes. I know what I wrote.

I think we don’t give enough readers credit for nuance, for the capacity to see gray. The world rarely breaks right down the middle. You always have jagged parts that don’t fit with your vision. I feel very validated by a lot of readers from my hometown and other communities who’ve said the book captured the feeling of the place, the sensations rather than any kind of objective truth. Even in the States, I’ve been lucky to get that reception. Some people find it funny, others find it cruel, and the occasional person will call me a fraud. And that’s publishing.

I am not really interested in realism, not quite. I think walking that surreal line is what fiction offers me, a chance to suspend disbelief and have the reader follow me down an alley they wouldn’t walk down alone, to trust where I am taking them. Come and see. Come and see what I found down there, in the place you didn’t want to risk alone.

To get that balance, I tried to make them people. You give them inner lives, relationships where they do care about someone, personal stakes. It’s easy to make your characters villains when they are nondescript or when they are meant to solely embody an idea of evil or some specific sin. Then your reader really doesn’t need to make a choice, doesn’t need to doubt, doesn’t need to question. There is room for that, but not every villain is Voldemort.

The pursuit of realism is a mistake. A novel is not a moral compass.

Canadian literature often makes its bones on the tragedy, the horror, the sin happening elsewhere, either some foreign nation or the mystic realm of the past. The novel then becomes a place for a constant remembering, the present nation a safe haven. And that’s all bullshit. It’s a national fantasy we try to maintain, that there is a safe space here, that memory will unlock and then protect us from the past, from the distance, from whatever was left behind.

I wanted to take the bad, but not evil—the wannabe, idiot racist teen and the crumbling former high school bully—and bump them up against darker things, less moral things, but still characters. I am not really interested in writing about responsibility or hope or righteousness. I wanted people to see these two characters as humans, before they became something worse or tried to be something better. I wanted you to understand the origins and maybe slightly root for the folks you’d normally dismiss out of hand, but then still have the capacity to consign them to their fate when the time came. These people still exist, people who have been written off. I guess I keep saying that. They don’t disappear. So what do you we do?

Sometimes you wake up and the nightmare is still there.

 

EMN: Who’s the “you” there? People have been waking up, and it takes a few moments to remember that Trump was elected. But “you” could also be the people in these down-and-out old industrial hubs—and those people, as you say, are not all the “white working class.” They are diverse. They wake up and the nightmare—no more secure jobs, no program in place to help them transition to the “New Global Economy,” drug epidemics, shorter lifespans—still exists. It’s probably also not a matter of what “we” do with them. It’s what we all do about this new reality in which a past way of sustaining a life no longer exists. And it’s not like all of us big-city-dwellers are killin’ it with our debt-inducing degrees and insecure jobs in the “Beautiful Enlightened Global Economy.” Tough times (or, first-world style tough times) are widely shared.

I say that because you bring up a reluctance to address the present in CanLit. Am I reading that right, that you would like to see more work that addresses the intractable questions of today, and here, rather than looking to other contexts to draw narratives? Should CanLit, and fiction in particular, act as a check on a dangerous predilection to assume that the present is a good time and place? Going back to what I said about fiction above, this is assuming that rather than creating a fiction of real people—even if that fiction is positive—fiction should destabilize our potentially oversimplified ideas about people we don’t normally encounter so that we see them as more human.

Many readers of that question would surely, and rightly, shout out the titles of Canadian works that do just what I’m assuming you’re wanting more of. So I’ll also give you the chance to count off some titles that you think are doing well to buck that trend.

 

AFS: I think you’re right to say that is not just a you but a very diverse, scared group of people that will only keep expanding to include more and more of us as we descend further into the madness. It’s not just a rural thing; it’s not only a middle America thing. And an autocrat means what he says. No one is joking here. The storm really is coming. The idea that the poor voted for Trump is a pretty big simplification that went on for a while and blinded people to his morbid success. It’s not a horse race between class, race and gender; they all inform each other, they all matter and they all have points to make about how we can create better, broader coalitions for what’s to come.

Unsustainable is a good way to put it. The old ways don’t work; the call to return to the old ways won’t work, or at least not to restore them, but only to consolidate power. How long did we really think this was going to last? How long did we think ‘progress’ was an actual reality, not just a fantasy we propped up on the backs of people we never had to look in the eye?

The pursuit of realism is a mistake. A novel is not a moral compass.

I think it’s a reluctance to address present or recent Canada as a problem, as an unstable, unsafe space for a lot of people, as something beyond a refuge from the wider world. There is an image of Canada as a safe place to be, and that might be true for some, but there is a lot more going on out there. Our closets are just deeper; they are forests you can’t even drive through. If I have to see one more “Meanwhile in Canada” meme while America burns, I’ll snap.

Do you really think you’re safe up here? For how long? And who is already unsafe, isolated, alone and alienated? That’s not just the past, that’s the now.

It’s more a popular literary culture than specific books I would call out for creating this idea of Canada as ‘moral’ or ‘good.’ I don’t even think the books themselves necessarily always want to push this narrative. It’s a bit of a Canada Reads problem, shackling our moral identity to books or vice versa. Which book is the most Canadian or sums up Canadian values? That is a real question that gets proffered year after year and it’s a bullshit question.

It’s a mistake to tether our morality to our literature, to assume an author’s work can speak for their personal morality. And an even bigger mistake to do that for a country or for the work it makes. There are many, many ways to dismantle Canadian literature, but to put it simply, it’s not a monolith. There are lots of traditions, lots of voices, lots of people screaming to be heard, and then there is the narrative that’s imposed on what is supposed to “matter” or “make a statement.”

 

I think Zoe Whittall’s new book does a good job of tackling some complex moral questions without explaining everything away and it’s heartening to see that success. I think Heather O’Neill’s work has often confronted a lot of harsher quandaries within a Canadian context, not a retreat from the past, not a reflection on what once was. Leanne Simpson’s stories offer worlds I can’t show you. I think Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country shows what you can do with your imagination if, you know, you decide to use it. The books are already being written and being published by presses large and small. There are lots of writers doing these things, lots of books being published and even winning the occasional award, but the tone of why a book is important in Canada needs to change.

The pursuit of realism is a mistake.

A novel is not a moral compass.

 

EMN: That brings us back to the value of fiction being in its ability to destabilize. That would seem especially important in this country after the most recent election, when Canada’s “natural governing party” won by promising to bring “sunny ways,” whatever the fuck that was ever supposed to mean. I think it was supposed to mean, “it’s alright, we can just go back to being Canada the Good.” It was a plea not for change, but for stability, some kind of return to a mythical Canadian peace. Which is of course bullshit in that really it’s beside the point of governing. Add to that: Rob Ford is not that far behind us. Like Trump, he took a lot of alienation and turned it into power.

I’m thinking of Emerson’s “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Belief in Canada the Good, or Ford’s “stop the gravy train,” would indeed seem like foolish consistencies. When I think of the American works I love—Invisible Man, Beloved, undun, The Grapes of Wrath—these are all unsettling. They give me joy in that they are beautiful and moving works, but damn are they bleak, complex and unnerving. Cold comfort. It’s hard, though, to live in uncertainty. It’s easier to seek out a novel that can serve as a moral compass, or to relegate uncertainty to some other context.

‘Sunny Ways’ is eventually going to be the name of an oil pipeline.

And we’re talking about the reading public here. A single vote is a tiny slice of power, and with it comes a tiny slice of responsibility. That would seem to require an ability to think critically, to court uncertainty and to challenge set beliefs. It’s naive to think people will vote out of enlightened self-interest (I don’t hold humans in such high regard), but even to vote out of self-interest is hard to figure out these days. I’m not feeling great about this. Is there hope?

 

AFS: The smallest slice. And I think that’s all a book has to really offer—a slice of how you can see the world, of a possibility, of something beyond yourself. I don’t think it offers a way to live or a way to reassure yourself that you’re living a pure life or a true life. People should live with unease, they should be unsure. Shit, most people are. It’s the certain ones you need to be afraid of.

Ambiguity is essential. I don’t think I’m interested in a narrative where every line is drawn clearly. And I do see the appeal of that, I do think there is some comfort to have boundaries and rules. We need structure to get through our days, to take care of each other, to build beyond our own petty inner lives. But literature can do more, it can destabilize as you said, it can fracture what you thought was whole. It can say there is something you don’t know, something you hadn’t considered. A book is not just meant to soothe you. A book is not the conscience of a nation. Your writers will let you down. They will betray you. They will fail you. They don’t deserve your faith.

Canada the Good is a painting of Mike Myers in an attic somewhere, diseased and distended and falling apart. Canada the Good is smiling while wearing a bright red uniform with a polished boot on someone’s throat. Canada the Good is driving out into the fields with The Tragically Hip on the radio to abandon an Indigenous man out in the middle of nowhere in the cold. Canada the Good is sipping a double double while forcing a woman to go out of province for an abortion.

Canada the Good is a nice distraction from the fact that although we look large on a map, we’re really just a remora affixed to America’s upturned belly. Whatever happens below us reverberates up here. We live or die with our host. We’re just along for the ride. That idea of a return to our “values” is a hollow one, yes, extremely. Rob Ford was not an anomaly; he was just the first horseman. “Sunny Ways” is eventually going to be the name of an oil pipeline.

There’s hope if only because people are resilient, people want to survive, people find ways to make things work. We heal from injuries that kill a lot of other creatures. We persevere. People care about their communities and each other, I do believe that. At the end of the day, I am an optimist. I like humans. I think we want a future. But that doesn’t mean a lot of people don’t get needlessly hurt along the way, or that most of those people will be people from minority groups, targeted and attacked for reasons far beyond their control. It’s already happening, and it’s not happening to people who look like me. It is going to get darker first. Like others have said before me, buy a good pair of boots. Be ready to punch a fascist in the face.

A story is not inherently a good thing. It’s a tool. It’s a hammer. It all depends on how you swing it.

 

Andrew F. Sullivan is from Oshawa, Ontario. He is the author of the novel WASTE (Dzanc Books) and the short story collection All We Want is Everything (ARP Books). Sullivan now makes his home in Toronto.


E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s Interviews Editor at The Puritan. His work has appeared in Lemon Hound, Arc, and The Rusty Toque, and Canadian Notes and Queries, among other places. His collection of poetry, Still Point, will come out with Invisible Press in Fall, 2017.

☝ BACK TO TOP