Operation Ivy existed for about two years in the late eighties and yet their name is a hallowed one; their limited discography is a consecrated ska-punk treatise and they’ve left an enduring imprint on a generation of punk rock optimists. It’s easy to forget that at the time they were just a bunch of kids making catchy, thoughtful, and positive music, and that has kept their legacy untarnished and celebrated despite their lack of commercial success. (One fan, Nick Courage, wrote about his own experience as a life-long Operation Ivy faithful here.) Half of the band’s members went on to form Rancid, one of the most successful punk bands of all time.
Lead vocalist and chief songsmith Jesse Michaels didn’t end up in Rancid. He’s been in a few other bands throughout the years, but his aspirations go beyond music. He is currently carving out a new vocation as a novelist. His first book, Whispering Bodies: A Roy Belkin Disaster is excellent, a proverbial doozy. It’s a murder mystery and an absurdist adventure story that navigates sacred shared spaces: faith, language, sanity, and legacy.
Our “hero” is a late forty-something by the name of Roy Belkin. He’s a damaged and grumpy shut-in that both fears and deeply dislikes the outside world. The novel opens with Belkin in his element, partaking in his one true delight: trolling religious message boards. But Belkin is no run-of-the mill misanthrope; just a few pages with him and you find yourself fully immersed in his paranoid foggy existence, fear and contempt of the outdoors (he refers to the horrors of the outside world as “The Pounding”), homemade protective totems, and half-insane rituals that purportedly grant great power (one such ritual, the “Prometheus Vow,” involves a bathtub, candles, and a war of attrition with his subconscious). And so this killjoy crackpot finds himself embroiled in a murder/arson mystery, and that’s where the novel achieves lift-off.
Whispering Bodies is a brisk 206 pages, and in that time we meet a ludicrous assemblage of personalities, including possibly the dumbest cop in all of literature, a lascivious crime photographer, mysterious employees of a secret government project, and of course the damsel in distress who has her own spiritual baggage to haul around. They circle Belkin like disorganized vultures and force him into increasingly strange directions. The resulting anarchy is pitch perfect and weird, weird, weird.
Michaels is certainly not the first writer to try his hand at the subversion of detective fiction or fiddle with the tropes of noir, but he is without a doubt the funniest. And when I say “funny” I mean it in the best way possible; I’m talking about humor with teeth and guts in the tradition of erudite brawlers like (pre-Nazi!) Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Bill Hicks, the Coen brothers, and especially the brilliant Charles Portis.
I corralled Michaels into answering a few questions via email about his writing methods, (not) writing for his established fanbase, and about the effect his famous father had on shaping his own path as a writer.
Alex Siquig: Some of Belkin’s online activity seems eerily realistic. One of his only joys is to troll religious message boards, an activity he refers to as “The Service”. Did you perform a Service of your own or know someone that did?
Jesse Michaels: I have definitely typed nonsense into comment threads, but I have never gone as far as Belkin did, or engaged with people. I am too shy and paranoid to evoke the wrath of strangers. I think I got the original idea by watching other people in action, especially people who troll religious threads. That kind of activity can actually get pretty stupid but every once in a while there is some genius-freak out there who is actually funny.
What came first? The crime caper or the faith and religion angle?
I think the religious angle, or the joke about [Belkin] making these fake threads. The internet does nothing if not create literature. I mean, is it good literature? Or is it just psychic garbage? The answer is, it’s just psychic garbage. But some of it is funny. Some of it is good material. So I just tapped into that, or my own version of it. The religious stuff emerged naturally. I almost always have religious themes in my writing. Not religious, more metaphysical. I think most writing that goes beneath the surface does, even writing by avowed atheists. Look at Bukowski, Douglas Addams, Burroughs, Lovecraft, etc., etc. All atheists. But all of them deal with huge metaphysical issues. I don’t think you can think deeply about life or even just tell a good story without addressing the problem of how little people know about anything. That naturally leads to talking about “the search.” I don’t mean this in any kind of pious way. But it always comes up. Douglas Addams famously puts meaninglessness at the very beginning of his masterpiece. But it is a vast, all-encompassing meaningless that almost looks like a grand metaphysical idea. Also, it’s hilarious, which is much more important.
Language plays a big role in your novel: there’s Belkin’s paranoid me vs. the world vernacular, obscure forgotten languages like Cave Urdu, the deciphering of codes, and even internet gutter colloquialisms such as “lol”. What inspired this preoccupation with language?
Well, what happens is I write a story and try to make it good and in this case try to make it funny. Then, ideas and themes emerge as a side effect. For example, in this book there is a huge theme of language and also obsession. There is also a big theme of miscommunication. However I never put those things in intentionally, I really only notice them afterwards. Not that I am analyzing my own text, but they are just there. I think if you try to do anything other than just write a story and make it work on that level, you are getting into artificiality and trying to be “smart” which leads to contrivance. However, to honor your question, a lot of the language stuff is about humor. Language is absurd. Cave Urdu, for example is not meant to be making fun of exotic foreign stuff, because that kind of thing always borders on racism (not that you were implying this) but more just making fun of the way people communicate. It could have just as easily been a joke about old English or cowboy talk.
The Pounding. The Slow Evil. Roy Belkin’s world is hideous in its amplification of world-weary anxiety and ritualized fear and loathing, but ultimately it all rang true for me. Maybe I’m just a terrified and depressed person, but I thought certain passages absolutely hit home. But that’s the finished product. As you were writing, was there ever a moment when you thought you were going too far?
There were some moments where I still wonder if they went too far. The scene where the photographer forces a ridiculous sex scenario, the bathtub ritual — some people find these things abrasive. But I was trying to do something funny and it is always the extreme stuff that is the most ridiculous. So I hope that if it does go too far it does so in a way like Monty Python or like Tim and Eric. As far as the depression and phobia in the story, it would be impossible to write that story without having experienced some of that pathology and sometimes I wondered, and still wonder if it gets too bleak. On the other hand, I am not Belkin and I was exaggerating it to create a colorful character. Ultimately you can only second-guess so much or you will just end up never writing anything, or writing something very safe and dull. So I pretty much just went for it. I cut a lot of stuff, though. The editing process weeds out most of the “too far.” If I wrote another Belkin book, I’m sure it would be a little bit less heavy because I’m a happier person now.
What is your writing process? Do you have strange, involved rituals?
No, I just sit down and write. It never fails. The only thing that fails is when I don’t actually sit down and write, which is often. My ritual is usually one hour of internet procrastination bullshit and then two hours of writing. I hate to start and then really enjoy it and become absorbed after the first fifteen minutes. The big problem is when I read it back and what I thought was good is actually terrible. That’s what makes me dread the first fifteen minutes. But I am getting over myself, learning more and more to just do it. I am lucky that it’s so easy for me — probably because I don’t worry too much about being “good.” In other words, of course I try to create good stuff but I don’t sit there agonizing over it and picturing what all sorts of different readers will think. That kind of thing is what causes writer’s block.
As a musician, you have a fanbase that spans generations. Do you worry about fans of your music not reacting well to the book?
I had some apprehension, but not too much. I want people to like it. My great fear was that it was a bad book and I was making a mistake publishing it. But that is EVERYBODY’S great fear. I am not different from anybody else trying to do this. This whole fanbase thing — I suppose there are some people out there. But I am not Nick Cave or even Ian Mckaye. I’m going to sell some extra copies, which is very fortunate. But a lot of the people who are into my music from 25 years ago are not exactly pounding Google to find out about the book. There is some crossover there, and I am lucky for that, but it is not like a huge throng of people. The thing that works well is that most of the people who are interested are very good natured and supportive. I am fortunate in that way. So there is not too much pressure. The people that are there are a good bunch to try a book out on.
Are there any writers (modern or otherwise) you feel a great affinity for?
I don’t always share the writers I like because they don’t make me look very smart. When I was in my twenties I read a lot of Bukowski and while I understand why he is offensive and just plain stupid to a lot of people, for me his writing is one of a kind because it feels utterly without pretense. Of course there is no such thing as writing without pretense but he creates that illusion better than almost anybody. I really like Hemingway. I don’t always want to read him — it can get kind of cold — but I don’t think anybody has ever gotten rid of words like that guy. The Sun Also Rises is just an astonishing stylistic masterpiece, nevermind the story. Flannery O’Conner and Mary Gaitskill are two people I reference for the oddball mindfuck stuff. Flannery O’Connor is also very funny. I read a lot of Kafka as a kid, though I don’t really like to read him anymore. I do like the absolute alienation of his work, the refusal to ever pretend that things are okay. Paul Bowles is another guy who is like a samurai with the prose. Of new writers, I like William Vollman, Kevin Allardice and Suzanne Rivecca right now. It always changes. Not that I am a huge reader by the way; I am just old. The books pile up after a while.
Your father, Leonard Michaels, was a writer. Did his writing influence your work or your desire to write in any specific way?
Specifically, I read almost everything he wrote. He was a superb stylist. One of the best. I am not just saying that out of family loyalty, although of course that is part of it. But really, he wrote beautifully. So the ways that his writing influenced mine are the following: craft, economy, editing out every extra word, humor and “less is more.” The ways that I diverge from that influence are that I am less careful, the sentences are much less painstakingly constructed, I try to go for a looser and more conversational style. He definitely wasn’t the main influence — in fact, I don’t really have a main influence. But I read his books all through my life and so a lot of his values are kind of implanted in my subconscious. I definitely don’t try to write like him on purpose, or consider his work to be the benchmark, because ultimately he was a much more literary writer than I am. He was a “writer’s writer,” so to speak. I try to do something that’s a little bit easier, more universal, but hopefully not dumbed-down. An example of the difference is he would never use the words “hopefully” or “dumbed down.” Too pedestrian and ungrammatical! I’m lucky to have been exposed to that kind of seriousness, though.
Do you envision continuing the “disasters” of Roy Belkin?
It is possible. It will definitely happen if the book is well received and if there seems to be a demand. I’m writing a new novel that is totally different — a very serious, dystopian thing. If, after this new one is done, it seems like there is an audience for more Belkin, the groundwork is laid for a series. Truthfully, I would like to do more if only because I don’t really love that subtitle and it seems like it would be a shame to have that thing tacked on a single book. I know that sounds like a ridiculous motivation, but most of my motivations are ridiculous.