"Style, jokes, slapstick, serious ideas, and shit-talk"
A Flash Book Review of "The Apology" and Brief Interview with Christian TeBordo
When you work in an office (or maybe any job, but in my experience, especially in an office) something changes in your mind. A voice arises. It's your voice, but it's new, slightly off, a little more cynical, sharper. It seems to comment on everything, it can be deviant, mischievous, perverted, negative or rude, it mocks things, ignores things, easily drifts off in fantasy, spooling together plots of narrative. Sometimes this narrative reflects tropes like the office romance, and you catch yourself having daydreams about a person in another department you know nothing about. Or it's visions of the office best friendship. Sometimes it's more paranoid, stranger, darker even. This voice becomes a sort of passenger, riding alongside you through your office life. This voice is rarely portrayed in movies or books, I think because it would reveal an underbelly of human thought––to expose this voice would mean admitting that most of us have stranger, sometimes darker inner lives than we'd care to admit, or showcase publicly. This is the kind of voice at the heart of Christian TeBordo's novel The Apology, which makes it feel entirely new, and refreshing. There's a kind of secret recognition shared between the narrator, and the reader's most private, intimate self.
Set in an office, The Apology follows Mike Long, aka Michael Rider, aka Knight Rider, whose an office manager. The kind of office or company is kept perfectly vague; all we have to go off of are references to cubicles, email, supply closets, paper cutters and whetstones, paper cups, coffee runs, and an accounts Payable department. It is here, in Payable, where there's a "new girl" April Curtis in the office who is at the center of Mike's obsession and this apology, that leads him, or rather pushes him through, one terrible week. April is a surprising character; she always does the opposite of what's expected, which makes her more fully realized. TeBordo uses the office romance trope as a set-up, a sort of Trojan horse for something deeper. The Apology is less an office comedy, and more a philosophical argument. This isn't to say the novel isn't hilarious––it is, filled with wordplay, black humor, and slapstick. There's just a lot more happening under the surface.
From the start, Mike Long is a seductive narrator––he's charming, sarcastic, witty, funny, honest––but you're not quite sure if he's totally deplorable. After all, the first sentence of the novel starts with, "I'll explain the chemical weapons later..." Mike Long falls in a line of narrators with the likes of Humbert Humbert or Patrick Bateman, though, obviously less severe. On the back of the book, there are blurbs that reference Nabokov and Pynchon, but to me, TeBordo is more in the vein of the early novels of Donald Antrim. I see more sadness in Mike, some past grief tugging at him as he tries to not only make sense of the world, but also be good in it.
Mike is more than an office manager; he's a self-proclaimed philosopher. You get these little bits of delicious philosophical debates happening inside Mike's head, where sometimes he makes great leaps to justify his and others' behavior morally, logically, and philosophically, and other times his thoughts and perceptions turn against each other, doubting and questioning what he sees, forgoing what is happening for what could be happening. In this way, Mike's thoughts reflect a sort of hyper-thought problem, where one could spend much time debating an action in one's head, rather than acting. This is contrasted nicely by Mike's coworker and nemesis, Kit Carson (or KC) who seems to have no such issue. While Mike is constantly reanalyzing his world through a philosophical lens, the beer-guzzling, MMA-fighting KC seems to be representative of an unwillingness to change beliefs, to not be swayed by philosophy. He is grounded in his world and how he moves through it. Between the two of them, Mike and KC, there's the sort of dichotomy of being in the world (KC) and being of the world (Mike). This is where Mike seems most vulnerable. His world is constantly changing––or, rather, his view of it through language is––which is probably what makes him susceptible to April's charm. Where KC is attracted to April in a superficial way, Mike's attraction to her lies in the balance of the world existing or not. I'll spare you a lengthy Philosophy 101 type unpacking of what this means––the novel does this well, with a surprisingly profound depth in its short 177 pages. Instead, I proffer this: in Mike's retelling and reanalyzing (at times, reshaping) of the events of that week, The Apology is a reckoning with truth and how the idea of it and the pursual of it matters. That words matter. And to reject nihilism and find meaning in both language and in truth opens the world up to you. I found this message to be comforting, optimistic even, in these strange, dire times.
The Apology is chameleon-like; any reader going into it will get what they want from it. A comedic satire, a tender reconciliation with one's past, or a new philosophy in how to live. These are the things I've always gone to fiction for, and TeBordo has taken them to new heights.
My conversation with Christian took place over a series of emails where we talked about bringing metaphors to life, playfulness in philosophy, Kierkegaard, writing with constraints and tropes, and a dream happy hour at Chili's.
Could you talk about the genesis of this novel? Did it start as an office comedy, or philosophical argument first? It's such a perfect melding of the two.
I've mentioned this elsewhere, but I usually begin with a first line — something I like the sound of — and go from there. In this case, I started with: "If you really want to get to the bottom of this stalking business you should talk to Kit Carson, the computer guy." The "really" sounded too much like Holden Caulfield (though he's an obvious reference point for this narrator), so I cut it. Then, two pages later, when the poison came up, I went back and added "I'll explain the chemical weapons later, but..." As I went on, I realized the voice was using a lot of philosophical terminology and ideas (often overconfidently or incorrectly), so when it came time to give him a past, I decided he was an office manager for money and philosopher by avocation, which meant I had to keep using that kind of language and build on it. That was convenient, because it was something that I wanted to do because it's fun for me.
When we were younger, my friend Salvador Plascencia and I used to talk about our tendency to take ambient or abstract or symbolic aspects of a text and then make them very literal and concrete. (Sal did this beautifully and constantly in his novel, The People of Paper.) He called it killing the metaphor, but I always thought it made the metaphor seem more alive.
There is kind of a playfulness (and maybe even a recklessness) in how Mike uses philosophy. Like how in the abortion debate he has in high school, he weaponizes Descartes without reading him, only about him. Or how he'll say things like, "So the world's nonexistence was a huge relief..." There's this great scene where Mike is reading Meditations in the park, and April and Bonnie come up to him and he's beginning to doubt the non-existence of the world because of the physical sensations he feels for April, and then it's the book itself that feels dead to him. So, there's this balancing act throughout the novel of being susceptible to philosophy vs. living and acting in the real world. I'm interested in hearing more of your thoughts on that.
I think this is a combination of my personality and my upbringing. I grew up in a rustbelt city the son of two Presbyterian ministers. My father is very outgoing and charismatic, and my mother was cerebral and a master ironist. I also have a lot of brothers and sisters, so at the dinner table you had to be able to talk quick and land jokes. I discovered Kierkegaard in high school, and he seemed like a combination of all that — Calvinism but funny. I took a seminar on him my first year of college, and it was taught by a Hegelian who had a sense of humor about it; it was great. But as I kept reading philosophy, I realized my interest was not so much philosophy as Kierkegaard, specifically his sense of style. I also realized that if I wrote fiction, no one would expect systematic analysis, I could just do style, jokes, slapstick, serious ideas, and shit-talk, and if I put them together well enough, it would resonate, which is a kind of dialectic. For a long time, only a few people liked my dialectic, and now probably several dozen do. I think all my books have this combination, but The Apology brings it to the foreground because the narrator is a self-styled philosopher. (There was a philosopher — Mediocrates — in my earlier novel, Toughlahoma, but that was a five-page punchline.)
Yeah, some readers of your previous work might see The Apology as divergent or something, when really, to me, it's like you stripped away some of the surreality to expose that style, that shit-talking, dialectic heart that's present in all your work. I'm glad you brought up Kierkegaard because aside from Socrates, I think his influence is most present in TA, not only in reference but from a theological and philosophical point of view. For one, Mike, in the Kierkegaardian sense, reminded me of the knight of infinite resignation, and also, the narrative sort of takes on Kierkegaard's repetition and recollection. Fans of your work, I imagine go to it, because of the way you take on these philosophies head-on, and kind of bend them in a new, modern way. And, like in Wittgenstein's Mistress, you present these philosophies in living, fleshed-out characters. How much of that kind of thinking influenced the process of writing The Apology?
I like that it comes across, because it's definitely there, but I don't actually think that way while writing. I mentioned that I started this one (as I start most of them) sort of freestyle. But as I write, I begin to see patterns in what I'm doing and that I didn't initially put there intentionally, and then I use those patterns as a form of constraint to try to keep the narrative tight (maybe a weird word to describe a book built on digression). So, for example, those "random" musings or flashbacks tend to happen in certain sequences, such that when I would get to one of the scenes that talks about a particular philosopher or philosophy, I wasn't so much thinking "here's where I get to talk about Descartes" as, "now I'm describing Mike Long at the time of day he tends to have his big ideas." The exception to this would be the chapter intros. Mike starts each day of the story with a kind of expository thesis statement, relevant to the narrative but not directly to the plot. I wanted each of those to be a joke that becomes funny by going on longer than it should, so in those I would drop names like crazy and make big (often incorrect, but always slant) references and claims, whether about Nietzsche or New Yorker cartoons.
It's gratifying that you think I got Mike to infinite resignation, but also worrying because I don't know how I'll ever get a character past it!
I think that's why it works so well, because it's subtle, it feels naturally embedded into the narrative. You mention using those patterns as a form of constraint, which I wanted to ask you about. Was writing this "straightforward" (putting it in quotes, because it's probably the most straightforward book of yours) a constraint in itself? Also, were there any constraints you set up as far as tropes and writing in opposition to them? There's a few you flip on their heads, the office comedy, the feigned bromance, but one I found most interesting was the character of April, the "new girl" in the office. She was super surprising, and honest; it felt like she had true autonomy in the book.
Absolutely. I've always used constraints, but one of the constraints for this one was that it had to conform to the laws of physics and quotidian life (more or less). My first two novels were very weird, and the third was mostly naturalistic but inspired by real events that just happened to seem unreal. The Apology was the fourth novel I wrote (my shit gets published out of order), and I was focused on making it seem like something that happened in actuality (though it never actually happened). In general, I was aware of tropes (though I haven't, for examples, read Then We Came to the End or seen Office Space) and subverted them when it felt fun, but April and her doppelganger/sister Bonnie were different, in that I wanted them to exist outside of that dynamic. My hope was that I could present complex — I know authentic is a contested word now — humans, who become a little uncanny because the person describing them has no access to their motives.
The apology itself is centered around the events that transpired at happy hour in a Chili's, can you end this by imagining your dream Chili's happy hour?
You've saved the most complicated question for last. This one's tough because it has an inspiration that doesn't explain anything, and an explanation that probably obscures things further. The inspiration is that, around the time I was writing this, I lived in Philadelphia, and most Fridays after work, my wife, my brother, my brother's wife, a bunch of other friends, and I, would meet up at the basketball courts at 15th and Bainbridge for pickup games. After I dominated them (not really — my brother's wife was really good), we would head over to the Chili's near the convention center for beers. I don't know why. The Chili's was not particularly close to the courts; it just seemed like the right place to go in that situation and only in that situation. We always had a nice time. Each nacho chip has the same amount of toppings on it.
The explanation is that, in the novel, I wanted to create the perfect voyeuristic situation. Everybody's simultaneously eavesdropping on, and gossiping about, each other, and most of them feel like outsiders and insiders at the same time. It would be funny to me to be seated at a table of people who work together, and therefore share only that as a common history, and hear what they have to say each other, without being acknowledged, which is the situation I meant to put the reader in.
The Apology is available now from Astrophil Press.