Aaron Winslow’s Jobs of the Great Misery, now out on Skeleton Man Press, is one helluva slow-burn of a science-fiction novel. Not unlike the above image, culled from the pits of an old Redditt thread, Jobs welcomes you to a depraved, mechanized world, wherein all sexed creatures are deprived of their capacity to consent, and are instead plugged into each other, cord to socket, socket to cord, in favor of total functionality. The book follows the course of the drudge-for-hire Schmitt, as he makes his way across an impoverished, nuked landscape that’s populated by factory-made WarGIANTS, mechanical dogs, and deranged surgeons bent on accelerating productivity by turning all their patients into mindless Flesh Cubes. Unlike in our world, where (at least according to Monster.com) there are three signs that make a job not just bad, but actually miserable, the world of Jobs is littered with signs that make sure that you don’t ever forget it. And yet, despite this, Winslow’s prose is equal parts arch and promiscuous, completely unsettling how the effects of genre and tone are registered so as to make even the most brutal, bleak scenes of bodily malfunction and mutilation somehow both entirely erotic and entirely hilarious.
Winslow and I recently talked about his novel and about a lot other things: what he thinks about omnidirectional sex-acts, about The Purge: Election Year, The Thing, and Alien, about what it means to negotiate the limitations of genre, of world-building, and of publishing “weird fiction” today.
Our conversation is what follows.
Shiv Kotecha: Aaron, my friend. I hate to go there right away, without even any flirting or anything, but that’s a common problem for me. Despite Jobs being about work, about shitty, bad jobs, each of these jobs involve, for better or worse, the possibility of giving or receiving pleasure. Whether the job is to learn about the genesis and social behaviors of the wretched Meat Punks, or to provide, as the Meat Punks do, useful sockets for bio-tainment, or to heal, or to feed, or to tell a story—as the narrator, Schmitt, does to his precious foundling, Plant Boy—every occupation in Jobs, despite being mundane and dehumanizing, also works as a conduit for pleasure. Take for instance Sex Ceasar, who, holding his sacs open on the docks of his Pleasure Pontoon, doing his part to relieve the burden of the makers of feed-flesh, pauses to say, “in a low, breathless whisper, ‘that’s right, get on in and huddle up, just like a big old baby.’ But was he talking to us, or to himself?” Some kind of pleasure occurs here, but it isn’t mediated by its agent or its direction; it’s either distributed in no direction, or in all directions at once, and any semblance of a “proper” sex-act or claimable position within a sex-act, is shattered in favor of mutual dispossession. I’m reminded, as I often am, of Jack Spicer’s “Unvert Manifesto.” Have you read it? Check out the first two tenets:
- An unvert is neither an invert or an outvert, a pervert or a convert, an introvert or a retrovert. An unvert chooses to have no place to turn.
- One should always masturbate on street corners.
I find a similar sort of cutting out of identifiable “pleasure parts” in your book, wherein any sort of focus on specific genitalia, for instance, is rendered impossible, if only because each of the bodies within the book are covered with slits and orifices, protrusions, swampiness, slick nubs. I like thinking of sex this way: not as much perversely as much as diversely. Don’t suck my dick, but sniff my pits. Don’t go down on me, but lick me all over. That sort of business, m8. Does this make sense? Perhaps this is a question in regard to character development. How is it that you make them?
Aaron Winslow: Wow, you’re taking us deep down into the dregs right away. I wouldn’t expect any less from you. I actually have not read Spicer’s “Unvert Manifesto” before, but I like the pairing of exhibitionist sexuality with one who “chooses to have no place to turn.” That choosing to have no choice—the choice of being trapped—is very appealing to me.
The set-up of Jobs is, of course, that sex and desire have been rendered entirely non-consensual, part of a bio-machinic production process, which I think is both dystopian (because, you know, how fun can machine sex be? Or, rather, how fun can machine sex be?) but also, to me at least, strangely utopian, because it’s a ‘have a your cake’ kind of situation—you can satisfy your sexual desire without having to worry about the contingencies of sex and/or desire. The trauma of sex is entirely externalized and, in a way, made rote, controllable, manageable. Middle manageable. I know some readers have found the world of Jobs frightening or sad, but I think I was just describing my own personal utopia.
One of the things that animated Jobs was my engagement with Samuel Delany’s work. He’s my favorite living writer of anything, in any genre. His books deal, largely, with sex and the profusion of sex in society—in particular, sexuality that is considered ‘deviant’ or fetishistic by normative society, from plain-old-fashioned gay sex to coprophilia. But one thing that’s always bugged me about his work is that there’s never any trauma attached to sex—sex is always possible, plentiful, and, if not the best thing ever, at least engaging and amusing (the exception is of course Hogg—and I happen to think that’s his best book, after Dhalgren and Stars in my Pocket). While this is a nice idea it is not particularly reflective of my own experience. So I wanted to think about a world in which I could explore a perverse amplification and expansion of the sexual realm while still getting at the underlying horror of sex and desire.
This relates to character development in the sense that Jobs is basically a series of set-pieces that describe strange, mutant-sexual Rube Goldberg machines. The characters—such as they are—follow almost entirely from the environment and action. Characterization, in this book, is created from object interaction, in a Karen Barad sort of way, rather than from a pre-determined, transcendent set of traits. It runs counter to realist characterization and plotting; as in the traditional Zola ‘experimental’ novel, where you have a character who has an essence, and then explore how she reacts in different situations. It’s also a pastiche and an amplification of the tendency in science fiction novels to populate its world with new objects that humans can use to make themselves different. Here, the tables are turned.
And now, to turn the tables on you, I’m actually interested in how your own work relates to objects and the evacuation or at least repression/sublimation of desire. Let’s start with EXTRIGUE, which is a shot-by-shot description of all the objects in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. There’s no plot, no character, no drama, no action. Just things. And the crazy part is, you had to sit there and watch the damn movie and list the damn things. It’s a brilliant rendition of the film, stripping the clues—the heart of a film noir—from their context and making them meaningless. It’s so utterly nihilistic, I love it.
To turn this into an actual prompt: EXTRIGUE, like Jobs, is really about the way in which objects create and/or impede narrative and characterization. At the same time, you so much more completely repress narrative, so you win that one. At the same time, the desire that drives the plot of Double Indemnity (or, really, any narrative) is also completely stripped away. So I guess I’m looking for your take on the role of the object within poetry, art, narrative, desire, the world. I’m also interested in genre questions—because, even though EXTRIGUE is clearly written under the sign of conceptual or post-conceptual poetry, it’s also very much a play on genre, the film noir in particular. What role does genre play in your work?
There’s so much I wanna say. You’re a patient man though, Aaron. You love hanging out for hours like Plant Boy does with Schmitt, and as I do with you, despite your crass narrative tendencies. TBQH, I love long narratives. The longer the better. Which is why watching Double Indemnity on pause wasn’t such an unpleasurable thing to do, even if I didn’t do it, while “writing” it, for a lot of the time that I did. I put it off until I had to, like I would any job.
What I’m interested in, at least in terms of genre, is finding ways of working within a genre’s given conventions so as to paralyze its function; to disrupt, via direct contact, the superficial, or the otherwise “working” mechanisms of a given genre so as to make those mechanisms stop working. I guess you could say it’s about identifying the sphincters and protrusions—those things that compel us to enjoy genre to the point of needing to talk about it or to write about it, and then riding those nodes out to the point of exhaustion. What attracted me to film noir, and to detective fiction more generally, is that the psychologies of its characters always end up getting totally externalized, unverted. Narrative tension in noir begins when we see a body whose perimeter is traced, or at the moment at which blood puddles and stains the floor: everything’s really already on the surface. Our purpose as viewers is to just sit there and wait for the characters in the film to see the same things that we see. In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff can’t see that Phyllis Dietrichson is his weakness; he gets too close to her and because of that, for the duration of the film, Neff can’t see anything beyond her/it. Then he dies. I guess writing EXTRIGUE was a way to zoom out and to flatten both femme and fatality equally, doing away with noir’s insistence on tenebraism in favor of an overdetermined sort of clarity. That’s what might make its generic coordinates—what you describe in the book to be either “meaningless or utterly nihilistic”—to me, otherwise: elastic, or, at least, able to be removed and then either fucked or fucked with.
I’m reminded of what Delany, with whom you read with at the Segue Reading Series says in regard to the “textual unit” in his essay “About 5,750 Words.” He asks, “Precisely what sort of word-beast sits before us?,” which he then tries to answer by attributing it to a “level of subjunctivity” within the text; science fiction, he says, deals with a class of “events that have not happened”—that which, in terms of our conversation, happen on the level of object interaction—and which Delany says works in opposition to a naturalistic register of “events that could have happened.” For Delany, this leads to what he calls a “boundariless plane” or a “roiling ocean.”
I’m reminded of a moment in Jobs, which, in its own way, mirrors the labyrinthine world of Delany’s Dhalgren: Schmitt looks up to see nothing but “various metal grids of unknown provenance, unknowable function, clutter[ing] its course.” But, overall, I think your work does something entirely different than Delany’s work because it’s entirely unclean with the way that it approaches either object or genre. Jobs continually slides between genres, not allowing any one of their tropes to become dominant—and sci-fi is no exception. To put it another way, Jobs makes submissive to its arch sex-machine any kind of narrative trope that genre, and its development over the course of a text, typically requires. I made a list of the different nodes or effects of “genre,” or should I say, various “sub-genres,” literary or otherwise, that I was thinking about while reading the book:
Science-fiction; instruction manuals; body horror; erotica; biological inquiry; westerns; the realist novel (thinking more about Conrad than Zola here); Tom of Finland; (and even more than ToF) the drawings of Mike Kuchar; detective fiction; the post-apocalypse saga; Berghain; et al.
Unlike in Delany, the generic construction of Jobs is totally shape-shifty, as are its characters, whose bodies endure perpetual modification, mutation or “update.” It’s because of this that I’m unable to believe you when you tell me you think you’re attached to narrative. I don’t think you are, buddy. Everything that’s learned about the world you construct in Jobs is subject to an equal (if not more) amount of unlearning. “Let a habit form,” Schmitt tells the father-flesh. But every time that I do, the generic habitat I’ve established in regard to Jobs is fucking ruined. You, like your Meat Punks, give me nothing but a “scorched earth and pornographic memes in [its] wake”—it’s all spoilage and simulacra. How, if at all, are you thinking about the effects of sub-genre in relation to world-building? And what it means to build a world that is as crippled as it is critical toward either allegory or satire as viable modes of access to the work itself? Jobs of the Great Misery somehow fucking skirts this process and its effect is mind-boggling.
The short answer is that I am fascinated by trash, and waste, and any kind of surplus or excess. My dog almost died a few months ago because he ate a piece of plastic from the recycling bin, and the first thing he did when I walked him from the vet hospital was try to eat a chicken bone off the sidewalk. While it wasn’t the decision I would have made in his position, I nevertheless found the complete nihilism and thanatos of that act to be very noble, and admirable.
I like—and, I hope, make—art that operates with the same sort of death drive and determination, where the trash and garbage generated by the project stops being an unintended offshoot but really the central effect, the work’s guiding principle. That’s a defining feature, to me, of challenging art—where it resists the very allegory or the world that it establishes. In fact, the failure of allegory, the part where art stops being able to adequately represent the phenomenon it depicts, is also often the moment that where art starts to be a part of that world.
One way I’ve been thinking genre lately is as a viral form, with infiltration and replication as one of its defining features. As a set of formal parameters and reading practices, genre can attach itself to and feed off any content and embed itself within any other form. There’s no purity to genre form, and, hence, no sense in making a canon, no sense in making evaluative distinctions, no sense in establishing a hierarchy, even though people do all the time and it continues to be a major source of irritation in genre-writing communities, particularly science fiction and fantasy.
Genre operates in a most perverse manner, intermingling with other genre forms and traditions. It’s impossible, really, to isolate any sort of ‘pure’ genre formation—even the most traditional science fiction books, like a space opera, is invested in the form of the Western or the 19th century adventure novel or even the romance. Horror usually owes a debt to, of course, the Gothic, but also the detective novel or even the police procedural, which itself borrows right back from horror or even science fiction and fantasy, not to mention the chivalric romance.
There’s been a push the last few years to revive the ‘weird fiction’ category, which I generally like because of its implicit acknowledgement of cross-genre virality, but maybe it would be better to think of genre literature as ‘pulp literature’–which I like because it ties the formal history of science fiction/fantasy/horror/crime/noir/Western/romance/pornography to its emergence in a certain economic formation within publishing—first in the 20s and 30s and then again in 60s with the paperback revolution—that allowed authors to publish and get paid practically as fast as they could churn out a novel. It created work of uneven quality but at least there was a lot of it, so the sheer odds themselves produced amazing material. Pulp is accelerationist literature at its finest.
In a way, Jobs is a homage to that pulp sensibility within which all the different modes of genre writing intersected in one insanity-producing cauldron. And if genre literature is a series of literary assemblages, the world created is less a reflection of the real world than one created entirely by genre types. So, basically like the real world.
There’s not really a pulp market anymore—in the sense that nobody, least of all me, can actually make a living writing pulp books—but I feel like maybe the closest thing we have now is poetry in its Troll Thread or Gauss PDF iteration, where the priority is producing as much text as possible guided by whatever insane idea has motivated it in as short a time as possible. Since you’ve just put out a new book on Troll Thread, the Unlovable, perhaps you’d care to comment on this. And at the same time, provide some insights into the text, in which you take the perspective of Lord Shiva who’s both an all-powerful god and a petty tormentor responsible for your singular humiliations and discomforts. There’s a great play of scales between this immortal god and the anxieties and hang-ups and obsessions of the individual. I see this doubled at the level of the poem’s form, which has the breathless tone and repetitive syntax of something like EXTRIGUE but also a lyric verse quality, with lots of very beautiful and alluring poetic flourishes of language.
You know, reading Jobs (and especially hearing you read from it) was really helpful for me in developing a way to write something like the Unlovable. One thing, in particular, I find really exciting about Jobs is how any dominant voice that is established within its narrative (Schmitt’s, or Dr. Scab’s, say) derails the normal mechanisms of “narrative” so as to make room for, among other things, lots and lots of weird description. The way that these speakers jam their own narrative authority is really cool to me. Similarly (or not), the Unlovable claims the speaking personae of my namesake, Lord Shiva, God of Destruction, and it’s definitely more interested in establishing a kind of “lyrical” or “super-subjective” voice than something like EXTRIGUE was. I wanted to make a poem that doesn’t just execute a kind of “totalizing” or “conceptual” gesture (such as “a poem that is a destruction fantasy,” or “a poem that renders Double Indemnity shot-for-shot”), but instead one that tries to drag that gesture through various other procedures that might be disproportionate to it: like with description, dialogue, or apostrophe. Lord Shiva’s a weird guy, you know. He’s not even all guy. He’s often represented as an autosexual mutant, a bunch of incommensurate body parts cobbled together, male and female, bright blue, and dripping with snakes, and I wanted to animate that, both poetically and pornographically. I’ve recently been reading Robert Glück’s essay collection, Communal Nude, in which he says that pornography is always in search of “structures or roles,” but only ever in order to overwhelm them, and that the effect of this is complete “when the characters become animals themselves, abandoning life’s starched collars.” Much like your dog’s mouth, Aaron, Lord Shiva’s gullet became the perfect place for all kinds of undesirable images to pass through—what it’s like to shower with your dad for instance, or to fist yourself, or to fall in love. I wrote the piece mostly as prose and then cut it up into pentameter, which resulted in lots of ugly line breaks and word breaks. I liked that. And, yep, Troll Thread put the book out as a $4 POD, which you can order from Lulu, or as a $0 PDF which you can download directly from their Tumblr.
The work on both of the presses you mention, Troll Thread and Gauss PDF, has always been great for me to learn from and often times great to work against. And I think you’re right about them, that they’ve carved out a space for the distribution of really exciting work that is completely at odds with the ways that other institutions and/or presses that publish capital-P Poetry usually do it. The preciousness of a small-pressed edition (that would go for what, like $16.50?), the money and the actual labor that go into publishing one of those editions, and the residual posturing of literary mastery or genius that those editions help foster are, with these presses, pretty much eliminated. Both TT and GPDF get that poetry’s not really there to make anyone—its makers or its readers—any real capital. Well that’s not entirely true. You can for instance, on Troll Thread, find and print out Money, by Maker. Or, if you too want to start your own poetry press, Joey Yearous-Algozin, co-editor of Troll Thread says Go Ahead, and literally tells you everything you have to do to get it going.
And then there’s Gauss PDF, which I open once a week to find work by young writers and artists that forces me to forget the ways in which I’ve encountered work on Gauss PDF before. I mean, it’s always a free download, sure, but then: how the fuck to listen to a 00:00 second .wav? What to do with a Word file? Or a Google Doc? The experience of visiting Gauss PDF isn’t unlike what visiting PC Music’s soundcloud was once like (a label that came long after Gauss PDF, and has since sold out to a major label), where weird AF tracks with lots of dissimilar styles were uploaded daily, rabidly for a bit, and all for free. As a press, GPDF’s aesthetic is so entirely “hands-off” that I’m forced to establish new rules for what constitutes a work’s necessary autonomy; any rubric that might tell you “how to read” one piece gets entirely fucked up with the next, as Gauss PDF is teeming with work that combats or corrodes the legibility the work it is put next to it in really complex, indeterminate ways.
Jobs of the Great Misery was put out recently by Skeleton Man Press, which also distributes across platforms and engages the text itself in a lot of different ways: it’s a physical book, sure, but also an Instagram feed, an audiobook, etc. Can you tell me a little bit about that, and what to expect from Skeleton Man? And tell me, what’s next for Plant-boy? And for you?
Just to be perfectly clear and up-front, Skeleton Man is my own press, so surprise, this experimental pornographic science fiction book is self-published. But it’s also going to be a ‘real’ press that focuses on experimental genre fiction. I’m putting out horror/eco-science fiction chapbooks by Kristen Gallagher and Ed Steck in September. They’re going to be great, so stay tuned for those.
I’m excited to start Skeleton Man because, as a great fan of genre writing in all of its manifestations—science fiction, horror, fantasy, crime—I feel that we are, unfortunately, in a rather conservative era in terms of form. Genre publishing, because of the same economic forces that have constrained/destroyed almost all arts industries, has become pretty constricted in terms of how it approaches literary form and writing.
Looking back to the Sixties and Seventies, the field is brimming with weird cross-genre experimental forms, from Delany to Joanna Russ to Barry Malzberg…really an endless list. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like mainstream genre presses are very interested in pushing boundaries these days—but, this means that there’s lots of room to cultivate, as science fiction or horror, writing that would otherwise be thought of as “conceptual or post-conceptual poetry.” I guess it’s partly a rebranding exercise, but I hope it brings some of the amazing work that experimental poets and fiction writers are doing to a new, different, expanded audience while widening the horizons of contemporary genre fiction.
So, tl;dr: buy these books.
As for myself and Plant-Boy…I have two sequels to Jobs finished and ready to go (the series is planned as a tetralogy). Crimes of the Great Misery follows Schmitt’s erstwhile partner Rochester on his life of crime, while Murders of the Great Misery is a mystery in which Dr. Scab gets murdered (or does he…) and Schmitt and ace detective Crip Gridley are hot on the trail of the killers. Plant-Boy does make an appearance. So I’m just waiting for the ‘right time’ to drop those.
I’m also feverishly at work co-writing a comic crime caper/art mystery novel, the details of which cannot be divulged at this time but rest assured you will find out about it soon. Beyond that, I’m co-developing an animated horror series, but, again, it’s too soon to talk turkey about that project. I’m also finishing up a multiverse science fiction detective novel, and a horror movie screenplay about an interdimensional alien breeding experiment on a tech mogul’s yacht (partly based on real-life experiences!). I guess that’s a lot of projects but, then again, distraction is the key to survival in the great misery.
Shiv Kotecha is the author of the Unlovable (Troll Thread, 2016) and EXTRIGUE (Make Now, 2015). Other work can be found on Gauss PDF, Troll Thread and elsewhere online. shivkotecha.com / IG @heyguyhere
Aaron Winslow’s novel, Jobs of the Great Misery, is available from Skeleton Man Press. His fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals such as Theme Can, P-QUEUE, Smallwork, and Jacket2, among others. Additional information and writing can found at aaron-winslow.com.