"I do bad sex very well. In life and in the novel form": Gary Shteyngart interviews Adam Thirlwell

As Thirlwell's "Lurid & Cute" arrives, two of our most vibrant novelists talk sex, violence, Hollywood and politics

Published April 14, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

Adam Thirlwell, Gary Shteyngart       (Macmillan/Eamon McCabe/Random House/Eamon McCabe)
Adam Thirlwell, Gary Shteyngart (Macmillan/Eamon McCabe/Random House/Eamon McCabe)

Adam Thirlwell is one of the few literary writers I know who seems genuinely pleased to be alive. Put him in a party with other writers and he’s not sulking on the margins talking about his mental health care deductible with a fellow sufferer while sipping ever so slightly off a Dixie cup of bad Chardonnay. He’s out there, joking, proclaiming, elbow-rubbing, and, strangely enough, not aging (or aging in reverse if you care to look at his author photos).

And for those who don’t party with Thirlwell on a regular basis, the good news is that he writes the way he lives: gloriously, ecstatically and sensually. Here’s a sentence fragment from "Lurid & Cute," his latest novel: “Hiro and Wyman and I pursued sprezzatura pastimes like getting fat, or fatter, eating peanut-butter waffles and vanilla shakes, or sometimes both together, in some deliquescent form of sundae.”

Reading Thirlwell is like going into the happiest, cholesterol-clogged form of literary existence. Whether he’s writing about the decline and fall of our civilization or a guy who thinks he’s accidentally killed his lover, the prose bounces us into a state of fulfilled happiness and wonder. But, hey, I’m just this guy. Listen to what Milan Kundera wrote about The Escape, Thirlwell’s previous novel: “A novel where the humor is melancholic, the melancholy mischievous, and the talent startling.” And that’s Thirlwell for you. He makes the lightness of being slightly more bearable.

Gary Shteyngart: I love "Lurid & Cute," it’s one of my favorite books of yours and you’re one of my favorite authors, I’ve been a fan since fiscal year whatever. It’s been many decades.

Adam Thirlwell: A fan since before the crash!

Before the crash, even, I liked your work. Now, Hollywood and film people always say, “What is this crazy novel, can you summarize it in one sentence?”


Well, you can’t make it in Hollywood.

In one sentence? This book is the story of a descent: emotional, moral, philosophical, you name it.

You see? In Hollywood I would make no impression. And I really amn’t sure if you can talk about a novel at all, it just increases this misconception that the words in a novel are interchangeable for other words, when in fact of course only that configuration of words should exist, and if there’s a meaning at all it’s produced on the surface of those words, as the reader proceeds first forwards and then in whatever zigzagging way she wants.

We could stop right now.

No no! Where was I? So yes: and also the narrator who undergoes this total collapse is anonymous. Because I do always like giving the audience the opportunity to believe that the boundary between what’s fictional and what’s real is maybe non-existent, that the I is me… So this narrator spirals from more minimal moral crimes, like waking up with the wrong woman in the wrong bed, to the larger realm of lying and gun violence and a whole host of immorality. There’s something for everyone: even dog violence as well. It’s Marcel Proust Breaks Bad. There’s your sentence.

What I was amazed by, when I pick up an Adam Thirlwell book, what I’m really dying to read is sex. You do great sex in your novels, I’m sure in real life as well. Wonderful sex. But this one had quite a nice level of violence as a complement to all the sex and I thought: did you enjoy writing violence? Because I know you love writing about sex.

I do bad sex very well. In life and in the novel form. So this was an unusual novelty for me, that there’s a high level of blood in this. More bodily fluids! More base materialism! I think for me it’s always interesting to write about extreme experience, or experience that’s not really meant to be written about, that’s on the edge of the linguistic: where it merges with, I don’t know, brute noise. Extending the frame of the novel, this is something I like doing. But also I guess one of the things that interests me is almost the opposite, the idea of the everyday. So one of the philosophical jokes in this violence-description, like the sex-description, was to describe these apparently extreme experiences exactly the way you’d describe the average conversation: with people worrying about how they look, being impudently interrupted by extra thoughts coming into their mind. Because in the end the sex and violence are dwarfed by the giant spirals of this character’s thinking. The plot’s just background spectacle, just pretext.

Speaking of, do you get worried about grand themes? This is the era of the small cute novel dealing with someone’s break up in Brooklyn or whatnot. But from "Politics," through your novel "The Escape," and now "Lurid & Cute," I think you have the same obsession recurring in different disguises – the question of what’s valuable: is it the intimately personal or the grand historical? Does that make sense?

This is definitely very grand.

It’s true that there’s always been a slightly old-fashioned element to these books, however hyper they look on the surface. This question of where value might be located, or in other words, how to spend one’s time – this is something that’s always exercised me in literature. But then, why shouldn’t you reach that kind of theme through a break-up in Brooklyn too? Why be snobbish, Shteyngart? It’s true, though: the question of where the novel stands in relation to politics is a constant dilemma. How political should a novel be? Can the novel be a protected space, and can the self be a protected space too? I just don’t know. Because of course most of life is the total intimate – thinking and marriage and sex and desire and walking the dog and eating – but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t immediately raise the basic problem of how to live. It’s true, in "Politics" I tried to investigate this in the actual form – with its manic digressions. You got this dirty novel about a threesome, collaged with the whole history of the twentieth century: not to ironize everything but maybe do the opposite – find truthfulness everywhere.

You write about politics more explicitly than almost any other writer of our generation. You have a novel named "Politics" and Milan Kundera loves your work and he’s the grand man of the old political novel, the thinking person’s political novel.

But then there you have the same problem all over again, because in Kundera’s novels the political content is always smaller than the philosophy – as if it’s just a minor branch of more vast moral problems. That’s certainly how I used to think. Maybe in "Lurid & Cute"it’s different, but in "Politics" and "The Escape," these grand themes of history and politics were mischievously seen as equivalent to more apparently minor problems like sleeping arrangements in a threesome, or premature ejaculation. Maybe it’s not so mischievous in fact. It’s the total sincere.

But premature ejaculation and politics intersect quite a bit.

Well that’s certainly true.

Let’s consider this narrator, whom I love. I could listen to this guy go on for, how long is this book? 368 pages? I could do 600 pages of this guy. That’s how invested I am. Would you say that you, Adam Thirlwell, the human being, are a) more likeable, or b) more ethical than this narrator of yours? Bear in mind, I know you well, I’ve seen you in bars and restaurants and other dives, so what gives?

I guess you could confirm that I am not as ethically minded as my narrator…

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing with writing is to invent these alter egos, these toys to play around with, where the question of what’s you or not you no longer applies. It’s always seemed to me an uninteresting worry – to get hung up on the problem of autobiography. There’s a carnivalesque quality to the kind of novel-writing I like. You get to be your own stunt double – what greater pleasure is there? Which is also why I’ve always enjoyed, from "Politics" onwards, letting these novelist-narrators talk to the reader, too. As if the more you use this precarious boundary between the reader and the narrator, and the narrator and the novelist, the more deliciously risky the whole thing becomes. As for this particular narrator, I guess he must be a cartoon version of myself. Or I hope, a cartoon version of everyone… I mean, one of the things that I rather like about this narrator is that he’s constantly worrying morally about the effects of his behavior, and yet always ending up in compromised and corrupted actions. An amoral moralist! – with an incredibly rarefied moral sense, which constantly leads him to incredibly immoral acts.

So – and I ask this because so much of fiction and television is so anti-hero based – would you qualify your narrator as one?

Well, you are the maestro of the antihero.

I’ve never written a real hero.

But also: what does an anti-hero even mean? I guess behind it must lurk this dark question of the likable, of the nice, and while that might be a question for real life I don’t think it’s a question for literature. In literature I want the total spectrum. And that is going to mean that no hero is pure heroism. Maybe all we mean by anti-hero is character. There has to be a certain amount of corruption and self-betrayal and horror if a novel is working correctly. So, sure, this narrator represents an anti-hero, because however entertaining he might be, you sure wouldn’t want him as a friend. Or not a close friend. But then there’s also a lovely Philip Roth line somewhere where he says: who’d be friends with an imagination? I love that. Imagination always has something blood-soaked and nasty about it. I mean: who’d want to read a novel where every character is nice? This interest of ours in the likable, it reveals a certain cuteness to our current thinking…

Although we can also get a little personal, because on this subject of maturity and cuteness, when we first met you looked a lot older than you do now – which is awful because I’ve aged about 30 years in the 10 years we’ve known each other. What’s your secret? How do you keep getting younger?

A lot of moisturizer. I think moisturizer is the key to every novelist.

In fact, I’m just remembering, this is one of those ways I digitally manipulated the narrator to look like me: he says somewhere that he looks younger than he is. But you say this wistfully, whereas I have a theory that people who look young are actually far more devastated by the passing of time than the gravely aged. I think there’s a certain kind of terrible speed with which they suddenly wake up to discover that they’re far older than they thought they were. I think the young face is not necessarily the paradise that it’s meant to be.

That’s great to hear. That’s my happy thought of the day. You’re aging inside at an even faster rate than I am.

I’m wasting away.

I have so many favorite passages but there’s one at the beginning of the book that I really liked. I love comedy, obviously, I like comic writing and you crack me up. This is about a guy who works behind the desk at a London hotel.

‘His name was Osman, and Osman, I was definitely thinking, seemed to conceal a deeper pain. He turned round to find a stapler or other office accessory and there was a dark scar behind the ear, as if from some bayonet or saber or machete. Maybe in the heyday of Osman he had once been a fearsome Caucasian warlord, but events had so conspired that Osman was now here: in a chain hotel, taking calls. While at home he kept his videos, perhaps videos where he surveyed his troops and I hoped that he did, because it’s important to keep some kind of link to your past.’

Wonderful passage, very London. Could be New York-ish, too, but very London for me and very, very funny. You and comedy, best friends forever?

I guess I never trust a piece of writing unless it has a certain comic edge. But the comedy is there to make the darker investigation more gruesome – the way chili brings out chocolate. I mean, what I like in that passage is that it’s funny because of its cute disproportion, this weirdly sweet affectlessness, and so that links to some of the wider philosophical aspects of the book, this problem of how to think about other people. Here we have a person who is always worried about how he’s treating the minor characters in his life. This narrator of mine is like some colonizing power – constantly trying to pretend that he doesn’t have this power, as if to worry about it might be enough to wipe out the guilt of possessing it in the first place. Maybe that gets back to what you were saying about politics. To be born into the realm of the Internet and pop tarts and intricate books is a terrible temptation – it makes it so difficult to imagine how we could ever give these pleasures up. This narrator of mine definitely wants to believe that to have a rich moral interior life might be enough to excuse his everyday crimes… He has this genuine tenderness, in amongst his ruthlessness. And I’m a sucker for that kind of comic contradiction. I think this is why I love the Central European novels or Russian novels. They have a savage comedy that makes me happy.

Speaking of Russia, this is basically the greatest novel about ennui since "Oblomov." Have you ever read "Oblomov"? Has anyone except me read "Oblomov"?

I’ve read "Oblomov." We may be the only two people in the world.

Russians read "Oblomov" and also live "Oblomov."

I’m sure that novel was in the back of my mind. That idea of someone for whom life is just too exhausting – even getting out of bed.

I’m still in bed, I spend my whole day in bed, in fact.

Because sure, "Oblomov": it’s a good example of a comedy that’s also a philosophical joke. It’s a comedy that goes so far that it then becomes kind of frightening. As if "Oblomov" is wiser than everyone else, in his utter exhaustion – as if only he has realized precisely how exhausting life is, because he’s seen how infinite it is as well. One of my favorite passages in "Lurid & Cute" is where the narrator suddenly says, and I think he means it seriously: you think this is no way to reach the dark metaphysical, that I squandered my parents’ money? It was dark enough for me. Because even this will allow you access to the vast abyss, if you only examine it closely enough. And that sort of reminds me of "Oblomov" – the idea that it looks sweet on the surface but the moment you persist like that, then something terrifying happens.

That’s the thing with "Oblomov," it’s all fun and games until you soil yourself on the couch. Absolutely. Can I ask a question that I hear a lot but usually one has a glass of chardonnay before one asks it? Is literature dead?

Because we’re the only ones who have read "Oblomov," so literature is dead?

That’s the first sign of the apocalypse of literature, right?

I think there’s two ways of thinking about the death of literature. There’s a theoretical way in which a lot of writing has thought that literature was dying. Almost every avant-garde writer of the 20th century thought they represented the end of literature, as if they’d reached a place outside literature. For us mini latecomers, I still think that’s an ideal position. I know that when I was inside the writing of this book, this monologue that unfurls, I got worried that somehow what I was doing wasn’t literature – it wasn’t neat – but then that sense of formlessness became exciting, and I began to increase it wherever I could, like this refusal to give the narrator a name, into the mess of confession and other collapsed boundaries. There can be meaningfulness in mess, after all….

But then there’s the other much more practical thing of whether it’s dying because of other, much more popular media – like TV or film or video games. Man, I have no idea. One thing I think the novel does really well – and this is obviously not an original theory here – is thinking. You can show the whole mad flora and fauna of the inside of someone’s head in a novel that you cannot do in film. But also, I’m sure these other forms are there lurking in our brains while we’re writing, no? Like I’m sure there’s a game going on with filmic convention in this novel, because OK you have these thought processes where language takes over and where what it means for an event to occur at all is constantly questioned. Yet at the same time, there’s this B-movie plot going on of heists and killings and blood. It’s like what we were talking about way back – about the important and the unimportant. In fact it was with that kind of idea in mind that I’ve written a mini film, a 15-minute thing, which we’re shooting soon, where the events of "Lurid & Cute" are happening in the background and there’s this whole new, small melodramatic plot in the foreground. Like that’s a way of continuing the same argument or train of thought.

That sounds wonderful, because a book can only be validated by being made into a film or preferably a television series. So there’s a filmable aspect to this?

Maybe not to the novel itself... Because I mean: how do you film a thought process? A thought process isn’t a filmic event… But yes: why shouldn’t a book become a film? I want "Super Sad True Love Story" as a TV series right now! Because it always does something new. Like, with this short film, it’s a way of exploring the novel’s concerns, but in a different way – both the idea of what’s real and what isn’t, and also the way in which every melodrama, while it’s happening, seems to be the only melodrama in the world. Whereas in fact in every café or diner we might enter today, there will be so many melodramas, all oblivious to the other. The film can extend the world of the novel in interestingly melted ways.

Speaking of filming, let’s talk about setting for a second. I always thought you were British because you say things like, “Oy, governor,” all the time and “knickers” and stuff like that, that’s just who you are. Where is this novel set? Has London gone tropical? Because that seems to be happening. Help me out here.

It’s very definitely set in a kind of London suburbia, but at the same time I did deliberately tropicalize it so there are butterflies everywhere, there are weird plants growing, there are palm trees. There was a dream-like thing that I wanted to do, so that it wouldn’t be seen as pure realism. I guess I was thinking of those famous dream narratives – like in Kafka, where a guy wakes up and he’s a beetle. Or a guy wakes up and his wife has become an Alsatian – I think that one’s by Bioy Casares. And in the same way, this narrator of mine wakes up into a kind of nightmare, and the more he tries to rationalize the nightmare, the more nightmarish it gets. So I wanted a clue to the reader that this was on the cusp of being a dream... But also I think I’ve been interested in this idea of what’s a periphery and what’s a centre. I mean, now we’re in this giant global system and 150 years ago, the old-fashioned novel, the British novel, thought it was at the center of the world. Whereas now Britain is just this woebegone overlooked space. You couldn’t place Britain on a map if I asked you to. I know you. You’d be like, is it near Chad?

But I’ve been to it a lot because all the airplanes land in one airport in the world, Heathrow.

And then you fly out immediately! And that, I think, was the basic reversal I wanted. It used to be that Europe was the center and the Americas or Africa were the periphery. Now it feels very much the other way around, that Europe is the periphery. So if this setting of mine were now peripheral it had to be also tropical.

I love it. My final question: how Jewish is the Jewish in this book? One of my favorite lines is:

“ – My problems are psychosomatic! I once said to Candy.

– Psycho-semitic, added Candy.”

I love that, I use it all the time when people say “You’re just psychosomatic.” I say, “I’m psycho-semitic.” I don’t acknowledge that I stole it from you.

Why should you? What’s mine is yours.

I wonder if this is my least Jewish book, in fact. There are two or three moments where the narrator’s Jewishness is mentioned, but I think if there’s an argument about Jewishness in this book, it’s to say it’s much less important than money or class, that class is the more important identity.

I agree.

So maybe it was written against a certain kind of Jewish identity. But then I also think that’s a very British-Jewish kind of thing to do. Any time I’m in America, I’m told I’m not Jewish. And in fact, they’re kind of right, I’m only half Jewish. But that’s not what they mean. They mean that British Jewishness isn’t quite the real thing.

In America it’s: “I am Jewish, hear me roar.” It’s such a huge part of our identity, whereas I think in Britain it’s just: “Eh.”

I think also in this book the Jewishness is a little clue to something wider. I feel like this novel is partly about the various ways in which people self-narrate. They are constantly telling themselves versions of themselves. This novel is a machine of mini narrations. And so the game here is that Jewishness is one available narrative, a noble narrative of persecution. Whereas his narrative is that he’s a crown prince, a dauphin: he’s inherited everything. It goes back to what you were saying about history and politics. And this idea of placelessness or tropicália. There’s a massive world history hidden in this book. But which world history? Sure, the terrible history of Judaism in the 20th century is underneath the book, like it’s underneath all my books. But it’s almost as if this narrator is saying he doesn’t have a right to that. He’s been born into such an estranged position that he no longer has the right to the grandeur of that world history.

I love it.

By Gary Shteyngart

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