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February 14, 2013 | Interview

An Interview with Ron Currie Jr.

Matthew Simmons (@matthewjsimmons)

An Interview with Ron Currie Jr. photo

Hello, readers. This is the first of two interviews with writer Ron Currie Jr. on the occasion of the publication of his new—and positively badass—novel Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. Why two interviews with the same guy for the same book? I had finished mine when Kyle Beachy sent us his, and reviewing both, I felt like they were different enough to run near each other and not seem redundant. So I believe you will get something out of both conversations. 

There's that, though, and then there's this: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is an amazing book. And it's Currie's third amazing book. So the opportunity to use this space to give you a reason to read this book—and God is Dead and Everything Matters!—is irresitable to me. I want you to read Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. I want you to react to it like I did. I want it to hurt you a little, and I want you to love it for that. So I'm going to use Hobart to give attention to it for two days in a row.

It's going to work. You're going to read the book. You're going to love it. I'm certain.

—Matthew Simmons

Can you say a little about the format of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles? That's it made up of lots and lots of sections, most a bit under a page, that begin at the top, scroll down, end, get followed up by white space until the bottom of a page, break, and then begin again at the top of the next page? Why the book sort of looks like hundreds of banners of nonstandard lengths hanging from the top of a bunch of blank pages?

As is often (maybe almost always) the case, this was less a conscious decision on my part, and more a choice dictated by the story itself. I wanted to write about three seemingly disparate themes—romantic love, the death of a parent, and (here’s the curveball) the technological singularity. Although my hope and aim was that the three would begin to inform one another as the book went on, sort of like laces drawing together a shoe upper, there was no way to work them all into a more conventional narrative and still have it make sense. It would have done a disservice to the reader, to conventional narrative (which I respect, even if I don’t do it particularly well), and to the story I wanted to relate. So instead I went with the format you see here—the three storylines, told discretely on the page, each interrupting the last without chapter breaks or any other evident structure, elbowing their way into the spotlight for two or four or six hundred words, then exiting stage left as the next takes its turn. But (again, it’s hoped), as they jostle with one another, they also end up in situations when they almost inadvertently share the stage with one another, at first maybe only for a moment, then for longer and longer stretches as the book goes on, and hopefully culminating on the last page when they stand hand-in-hand and take a bow before the audience. I think I’ve probably beaten the living shit out of the stage metaphor at this point, so I’ll stop while I’m behind.   

Well, since the metaphor is already down and probably can’t fight back, I’ll give it a swift kick, too. How did those three end up on stage together to begin with?

The first two--romantic love and the death of a parent—were dominant themes in my own life at the time, and since I’d become preoccupied with our cultural obsession with true stories (memoir, sure, but also reality television, celebrity and political scandal, etc.) it made sense to interrogate that obsession by using my own life as a template. In this way the book is a roman-a-clef, of course, and it takes great pains to make that clear about itself. Imagine A Million Little Pieces, except that in this instance I admit to the hoax up front, instead of waiting until the ruse is discovered and Oprah dedicates a full hour, minus commercials, to my public crucifixion. The third element or theme or whatever—the Singularity—is both an intellectual and para-spiritual interest of mine. There’s a passage in the book where I write about the parallels between the Singularity and the popular Judeo-Christian notion of salvation or Heaven: both promise an end to suffering, being reunited with dead loved ones, eternal happiness, the sloughing off of the physical form (and its attendant ailments and frailties), and so on. Within the context of grief over the loss of one’s father and the impossibility of being with somebody for whom one has an almost molecular-level longing, these ideas have great and obvious appeal, the same appeal they’ve had for people ever since we started telling ourselves stories about how, through a magical post-mortem transformation, we will be relieved of all the things that make us miserable in this life.    

In your writing, how often do you leave something like discovering the cohering principle to hope? Or is it that multiple threads, multiple themes in human experience, will inevitably, given a thorough enough exploration through the creative process, find points where they do cohere? And did the play between memoir and fiction present itself in the exploration? Or was that a fourth theme that bullied its way into the story?

Well, insofar as the book is actually read by people, there will no doubt be some debate about whether or not the multiple threads actually do cohere. But that said, yeah, I think that if we noodle around long enough about things in the human experience that seem, on their surface, to be disparate or unrelated, the connections between those things will begin to reveal themselves. Then, once that happens, of course, it’s the author’s obligation to revise, revise, delve deeper, highlight and refine those connections. Which is where, ultimately, the sense of having been told a story that has universal relevance comes from.

When I approached you about doing this interview, I mentioned that the sections about the death of a parent “punched me in the gut.” And that’s one of those cliches that you hear people use, and then sometimes you might use it and not really mean it. Then one day you’ll find a something that actually feels like it punches you, and it changes the way you look at that or any cliche. There were passages that I read that I had an uncomfortable physical reaction to. (Which is not a bad thing. It’s a thing to be in awe of.) I was wondering if you had a physical reaction to writing it—if any of it took a real physical toll?  

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it, because usually when we talk about the “toll” that writing takes on an author, it’s almost always in emotional or psychic terms. I don’t want to overstate it or otherwise make the process seem more dramatic than it was, but sure, it exacted a physical cost, though most of that was indirect. I mean, I didn’t break an arm or develop pneumonia as a direct result of writing the book. But I did lose sleep and miss workouts and eat like shit and generally not take very good care of myself, especially during a one-month period when I wrote the bulk of the first draft--about 40,000 words came roaring out of me in a roughly 4-week period. I smoked three packs a day during that month, and drank much more ethanol than is remotely healthy for a carbon-based lifeform of my size. Had a lot of bleak wakeups, and felt like garbage, physically. But that’s the price of admission, sometimes. I’m not a bit romantic about it, by the way, and the word sometimes is the operative one, there. I recently read an essay by Francisco Goldman in which he discusses the concept of the libro unico: “(A book) in which it is immediately noted that something has happened to the author, and he has deposited that something in a text.” Also: “A book that was written from inside a delirium.” Both of these are accurate ways to describe Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, I think.

Was this at all new to the process of writing a book for you? The speed at which the first draft appeared and the physical effect it had on you? I ask because I’ve read your other books and enjoyed them very much, but felt something very different reading this one. Felt physically pummeled by it. And I also read it REALLY quickly. And now I’m wondering if it’s possible for a novel to be a telepathic/empathic link between a writer and a reader in a way no other piece of art can be.

Let’s hope so, right? I mean, I think the connection between the writer and reader is the only thing we have going for us, the only goal. If I’m being honest about the experience I’m transcribing—especially in a book such as FLPM, which is at the very least a roman a clef--and you’re at all receptive to it, then yeah, ideally you’re going to feel what I feel, including physical sensations. Really glad to hear you say that, by the way. Not that I ever truly want to beat up on someone, or make them upset. There was an article in the New York Times this past spring about emerging evidence that reading doesn’t just activate the parts of the brain that process language, it also lights up the parts of the brain responsible for physical sensations, including pain. Using the word “fetid,” for example, makes the olfactory cortex spring to life. This is an oversimplification, but you get the idea. It’s not at all unreasonable to think that a physically and emotionally brutal book, if it’s a good one, would leave the reader feeling kind of beat up.  

I wonder, then, about the book’s narrator’s obsession with the Singularity—and, in that the book has so much autobiography in it, one assumes you too have some obsession. If the novel is, depending on its success, anywhere from a crude to a successful attempt to turn my brain into yours—or at least get my neural pathways firing like yours—the moment of the Singularity will give us access to a way to directly share experiences, as we download an experience from one brain to another. Heck, this brings in another of the book’s themes: the memoir vs. fiction tug-of-war, and the way some readers feel betrayed when they find out some of the factual truths in certain famous memoirs was fudged to add drama, engender stronger emotional responses, etc. What will the post-Singularity novelist look like? Memoirist? Will there be a difference? Will anyone care?

I doubt they will, because I don’t think the novel will survive the Singularity. I’m no expert, certainly, but that’s my hunch. If the Singularity occurs, and if it occurs in a way that even resembles the ideas we have about it now, storytelling will endure, but probably not in the form of the novel. Memoir won’t survive, either, both because storytelling will transform fundamentally, and because the distinction between what is and is not “real” will mean even less than it does now. Or rather, reality will be revealed in its entirety, and we will no longer be forced by our comparatively primitive brains to accept and acknowledge only a small fraction of it in order to make sense of our lives. We will see that imaginings and actual, physical events can make equal claim to being real. In a world where we all (potentially, eventually) exist free of physical form, we can literally think it and be it--and that has some pretty serious implications, for storytellers, for all of us.

Not to sound too much like a techno-kook—because I’m really not—but the whole question reminds me of a bit by George Carlin in which he talks about the possibility that the answer to the question “Why are we here?” is quite simple: plastic. The Earth wanted plastic, didn’t know how to make it, so we were needed. It’s silly, of course, but it illustrates a not-so-silly point. And I think maybe, by the same token, we’re here to create genuine artificial intelligence--nonorganic life that evolves at insane exponential rates and never dies and can do so much more than we ever could, with our creeping evolution and finite lifespans. And once we take care of that, we can take a powder. We’ll be gods, in a sense, and can maybe, if we choose, go into a sort of species-wide retirement. Sounds pretty good to me.     

image: Caleb Curtiss