Andrew Ridker wears many hats: he is a twentysomething millennial, a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the editor of a well-received anthology of surveillance poetry , and most recently, the author of a hugely funny and heartbreaking novel NPR has called “an unusually promising debut.”

Days before The Altruists hit the shelves, I spoke with Andrew about capturing the essence of baby boomers, avoiding the pitfalls of cancel culture, and suburban kink.

Rebekah Frumkin: There is certainly no shortage of books about middle-aged white men, but The Altruists stands apart in its thoughtful and frequently comic exploration of Arthur Alter’s contradictory thinking. How did you choose this character to be at the center of your novel’s orbit?

Andrew Ridker: Growing up, I read a lot of these great postwar novelists – the Great American Narcissists as David Foster Wallace would call them – and it’s just a very interesting thing to read those books and be a twentysomething in 2019. I find the artistry to be phenomenal, they had a huge impact on me, but there’s no question that some facets of those books haven’t aged super well. And now we find ourselves living in very different times with different people around us. For me, Arthur was a chance to take a character you’d find in one of those books and place him in a context that was alienating to him, to decenter that patriarchal figure without completely jettisoning him. I wanted to drag that kind of writing into the twenty-first century against its will.

Some of the characters in this book – I’m thinking in particular of Maggie and Arthur – traffic in white saviorism, justifying their patronizing attempts to help marginalized communities as noble and non-superfluous. What inspired you to populate this novel with so many white saviors?

I wanted to implicate myself. Jonathan Franzen has an essay on what he calls “contract novels” versus “status novels.” The status novel is a work of high art done by a genius who sort of lives above the masses, and the contract novel presumes a specific audience and is in a sense paying back the reader for the attention the reader gives to the novel. I feel very warmly towards my audience, and I’m not particularly interested in catching them out or playing a gotcha game with them. What I am interested in is playing gotcha with myself. I grew up in a progressive, preponderantly Jewish suburb. In my high school you may have taken a year off summer camp and gone and built houses in the Dominican Republic. And there’s nothing wrong with that on its face. But oftentimes when the impulse to “do good” is coming from white people of economic privilege, an almost comical and possibly tragic set of circumstances seems to follow where the presumed do-gooder finds themselves in over their heads. The presumed do-gooder discovers that the best thing they can do is get out of the way. I feel personally that I am caught in these impulses of wanting to do good and not knowing how. And that is first and foremost what I wanted to tackle in myself.

You have written a novel that manages to be both incisive and compassionate, highlighting your characters’ faults without humiliating them. How did you manage to strike up this kind of relationship with your characters?  

I feel an immense amount of warmth towards my characters, not despite their failings but because of them. I am the type of reader who is not interested in reading about a character who saves a kitten from being stuck in a tree. But if that character puts a kitten in a tree, I’m hooked. I am drawn to what I think some people would call “unlikable characters,” which is a label that drives me crazy. It’s fun to send someone like Arthur through the ringer, there’s no question about that, but I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t think that somewhere inside me there weren’t a number of Arthur-like tendencies. Instead of throwing Arthur under the bus, I’m throwing myself under the bus. I highly doubt most writers are inventing fictional characters just for the sick pleasure of beating up on them. We’re all inventing people out of thin air and we’re all inventing conflicts and problems out of thin air. I personally find it would be more distasteful to invent a noble person and heap a ton of shit on them than to invent flawed characters who heap shit on themselves.

That definitely rings true, especially given how close-to-the-chest some of The Altruists feels. What about Maggie’s moral purity? She seems like the kind of person who would rush to cancel someone for a problematic tweet.

I’m fascinated by the idea of moral purity, in part because I think it’s noble and in part because I think it’s impossible. There’s no doubt that a number of highly cancelable figures have been justifiably canceled over the last few years, and I take no issue with that. But some of the times I feel the most estranged from members of our generation are when I see that running wild. And it’s often the most morally grandstanding people who have something to hide. I have this kind of obsession with goodness and good behavior and being a good person and living a good life while realizing it’s impossible to be perfect all the time. Maggie is me now but more extreme and less willing to accept something that challenges my worldview. To me at least, the role of art is to try to get at something true and not be a work of public relations for anyone or any group — that includes the author, that includes the author’s demographic categories.

We haven’t talked enough about Francine, the Alter matriarch. You really have a gift for capturing baby boomer dynamics, which I recognized immediately because it’s something I’m preoccupied with as well. Tell me more about Francine and why on earth she decided to marry Arthur.

Francine is based in broad biographical strokes on my own mom who lives a much more fulfilled life and is not, fortunately, married to an Arthur. But I do think that there are legions of insanely smart, educated, ambitious women who, whether it was because of the social pressures of the time or even just the fact that they were dating or married to even more ambitious men, ended up being the ones to make the move for the husband’s career or sit in the back seat for a bit while the husband drove the family in one direction or another. It seems to me that if Francine were born today, she would not put up with that kind of thing. But I found it entirely plausible that someone as smart and ambitious as Francine would make compromises for a partner who is undeserving of her.

This book has queerness and kink in it, which is once again unusual for a story centered around a straight, middle-aged white man. I really liked that the people who are getting kinky are these St. Louis suburbanites who want to wear rubber dog masks and entertain a little light subversion before dinner. Are the dog masks and hot candle wax another way of updating midcentury characters for our generation? 

I wonder if it might have something to do with another generational question, which is that when we were in middle school we lived in an undoubtedly more heteronormative world than we do now. We are not in a perfect place by any stretch, but the difference between 2004 and 2019 is shocking with regards to how our society looks at sexuality. I wonder if part of my desire to include queerness and kink didn’t come out of just living in the world and having friends and family who identify in different ways. I’m old enough not to take it for granted that everyone around me is openly, comfortably, living the kind of life they want to live. And it’s funny you should say “light subversion” because that’s the version of kink that interests me. I am interested personally in characters of relative means and comfort dipping a toe in that pool and reacting to it. I think there’s a lot of comedy and a lot of truth in watching people who live in a mostly heteronormative bubble step outside for a minute and see what happens. The idea of someone sitting in their room and knowing that someone somewhere else is having crazier and more transgressive sex than they are and being worried about that…there’s something funny and touching about that.

There is currently a trend among millennial writers towards psychologically intense autofiction that engages questions of identity. You’ve written something quite different: a sprawling social novel that’s half-family saga, half-campus farce. Given your interests as a novelist, where do you see yourself fitting in with writers of our generation?

I grew up reading these sweeping social novels and still do. I have also really loved this autofiction boom. That idea of reality-hunger, though, is not all that strong in me. I sort of see fiction as distinct from real life and I don’t go to it for mimesis. What I love about the social novel is it’s trying to speak to what’s going on outside but it draws on all the rich traditions and techniques of immersive fiction writing. I don’t find my own life, free of embellishment, particularly interesting. I suppose I take inspiration from observing other people and hearing stories about other people and watching how people interact with systems and how individuals find themselves caught between groups. The Altruists takes up the question of identity a couple times: one is where Arthur gives that speech where he says “there are -isms but not -ists.” And another is where Ethan finds himself struggling to connect with the built-in LGBT community at school, not because he doesn’t like the other people in the group but because he doesn’t feel like that’s the number-one facet of his identity. The novel I’m working on now, it’s first person and the narrator has almost my identical biography, but I’m fashioning this big social novel plot for him to engage with. It’s probably as close to autofiction as I’ll come.

Speaking of which, tell me a little more about what you’re working on right now.

If The Altruists is a family novel, then this is a friendship novel. It’s about two childhood friends, one of whom makes a dramatic reappearance in the other’s life, with a very ambitious tikkun olam scheme in the wake of the Trump election. It picks up the themes of The Altruists but it situates them in a more intimate, first-person emotional context where the dynamic is not between four family members who orbit each other, but rather a very fixed, almost obsessive gaze between two people.

The Altruists covers a lot of geographic territory: St. Louis, Boston, New York, Paris, Zimbabwe. Why all these places?

I have a hard time writing about places I’ve never been to or researched thoroughly or have some other personal connection with. I grew up in Boston, went to college in St. Louis, moved to New York after college, and Paris I’ve been to several times and have a family connection to. In terms of Zimbabwe, the germ for that chapter came out of this: my dad was in med school and was feeling that angst that we now associate with millennials but is probably true for all generations. He kind of freaked out and went to Zimbabwe for a year and did medical aid work there, although he doesn’t talk about it like it was some great, world-saving trip. It was more about personal discovery than anything else. I grew up looking at the slide photographs from his time there. My dad was doing my sister and me this great service by saying, “I think it’s important you understand how big the world is.” I think those images really did burn themselves into my nine-year-old brain. I grew up with this fascination with Zimbabwe and the Western gaze on Zimbabwe and on Africa in general. Arthur doesn’t show his kids his Zimbabwe photos with an intent as noble as my dad’s. Instead, he tries to exploit their sympathies with this kind of Save- the-Children-infomercial-thing.

There is a lot of class anxiety in the text, from Maggie’s obsession with social justice asceticism to Arthur’s underpaid adjunct work to Ethan’s out-of-control spending. You’ve clearly done your research on late stage capitalism. Does your lived experience figure into this at all?

There’s a set of class questions that are systemic that I’m interested in politically: How should we redistribute wealth in an equitable and fair way? How should a government take care of its citizens by providing social services? And then there are questions of class that I’m interested in artistically: When you have money and some kind of conscience, what do you do with it? Is it possible to have money and be a good person? What is an unethical salary to have? If you make loads of money and don’t have a problem with it, that’s its own narrative, and if you’re stuck scrounging to make ends meet, that’s its own as well. But what if you have that economic privilege and feel bad about having it? Where do you go from there? Progressive politics and privilege butting heads: that’s sort of where I like to live when I’m writing. When you come from privilege and you’re a millennial, there is an almost 100 percent chance you will replicate and consolidate your family’s privilege, but you will probably not be upwardly mobile. I think that’s interesting too because you have a whole generation that grew up with certain comforts: house, stability, college paid for. But for people our age, home ownership and paying for your kids to go to college is kind of a pipe dream unless you work in finance. There are phenomenal writers on class who deal with the struggle to make ends meet and there are phenomenal writers on class who deal with a certain opulence. I’m most comfortable in the middle ground where people who have means don’t know what to do with it or when people who have means lose those means. People are so unwilling to give up a lifestyle that they have become accustomed to. I know countless instances of people who have lost their source of income for one reason or another who would rather run up six-digit debt than live more frugally. What does that mean for a country where upward mobility is sort of baked into the national promise?

What does the Alters family’s future look like?

They all grow up (a little bit). I think Maggie comes to realize that to live according to her extreme ideals is not entirely tenable. Ethan learns that he needs to let people into his life more. And I think Arthur learns that he needs to accept a sort of second-string role in his family, in society: his time on top has passed him. I think the end of the novel is like a beginning for them, but it’s the beginning of a very long road towards a form of some sort of self-improvement. I wanted to leave the door to redemption cracked open, but I can’t push them through it and I wouldn’t want to.

Rebekah Frumkin is the author of The Comedown, which was published by Henry Holt in 2018. In the fall, she will begin as an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Southern Illinois University.