We’re currently living, as the wonderfully named podcast Aufhebunga Bunga puts it, at the “end of the end of history.” Had we actually arrived at the end of history, according to Alexandre Kojève, the dean of this philosophical idea, “men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts.” While there is certainly something beastly in our culture, leaders don’t discourse in the “language of bees.” They rather say things like their business dealings are “very legal and very cool” and their political program is to “unleash something that’s going to be terrific.”
Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha is a brilliant account of the end of the end of history and it’s mad poets – Trump, weird Twitter, and the deranged descendants of failed techno-utopians represented in the terrifying figure of Birdcrash. The book follows Rachel, a reporter who is tasked with writing a piece for the reconstituted New York Times Magazine on internet humor at the end of the world. That last part is not a spoiler – the novel’s bravado opening section has Trump setting off the nuclear event from aboard his luxury zeppelin, the titular Trump Sky Alpha.
It is surely a bit pretentious of me to lead with Kojève, but it is not inappropriate, as Doten’s novel is equally punctuated with philosophical insights and epic memes. I recently spoke with him about his uncanny ear for the language of our time, the art of the deranged monologue, and what he finds funny at the end of the end of history.
Michael Schapira: I learned about the book when I was visiting Jacob Silverman to see his new child. He was preparing to interview you and said, “Just read this first set piece. It’s incredible.” There are two or three big set pieces, which seemed like an odd choice when you are writing about humor at the end of the world, with pithy pieces of text from Twitter. What drew you to putting these massive set pieces in the book?
Mark Doten: The set pieces you are referring to are the opening one where Trump blows up the world, the Birdcrash monologue, and maybe the internet humor section…
…I was thinking more of Trump’s monologue at the end.
I wrote that first set piece right after the election. The second Trump piece was actually the first thing I wrote, the summer before he was elected after the Republican National Convention, when he briefly pulled even or just ahead in the polls. At that point I was well into this book, but was holding a space for the idea of what internet humor would be like at the end of the world. I wanted it to be set as close to the current moment as possible, so I was holding a space to figure out if it was going to be Hillary that was going to be president or Trump. Obviously the novel would heave been very different if Hillary had won because Trump is so central to the book. In her own way Hillary would have been central, but it would have been quite different.
I wouldn’t say I freaked out at that point where Trump pulled even, but I had this sense of dread and I wrote that first monologue. At that point it was set in a bunker and not aboard a zeppelin.
The first piece I wrote right after the election in just a few weeks because I was extremely distraught. It was just a way to distract myself from the awfulness of reality, to write a satire that outstripped reality.
Where did the zeppelin come in if that first version of the monologue was in a bunker?
Before the election and during the transition there was a lot of attention paid to his stake in the Trump Organization and these various hotels. The question was whether things like the Trump D.C. Hotel and Mar-a-Lago would become conduits for money from people who wanted to influence policy, including foreign governments to suddenly start booking huge banks of hotel rooms to get on Trump’s good side. Which of course is exactly what happened. David Fahrenthold was doing good reporting on this in the Washington Post, on the emoluments clause issue.
I wanted to create a situation that Trump would not be able to actually catch up to in reality. No matter what he did or what the Trump organization did, I figured if you had a worldwide fleet of zeppelins, all piloted by Trump, that would not actually come to pass in the next eight years. That’s a real problem with Trump. He’s always outstripping you. He’s so unpredictable and strange and big that trying to find a level that he won’t be able to reach is a challenge, and something that I was aware of because there were already limits to Trump satire. We’ve seen a lot, some good, and a lot of not very good Trump satire. So that was a pitfall I was trying to avoid, to have something that was just replaying the daily news in a way that he would be able to leapfrog by the time the book came out.
In terms of the zeppelin specifically, I’m not sure. There is certainly a Hindenburg association, which Graywolf picked up on in their cover design. But I’ve always kind of liked zeppelins. There is a great Archer episode I’ve watched a bunch of times set aboard a rigid airship, and I think that might have been bouncing around in my mind. As a kid I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade many times and there is a scene set on a zeppelin — if you remember, “No ticket!” and Harrison Ford throws the Nazi off. So I can’t say exactly why zeppelins, but there is a constellation of associations that appealed to me.
There was and is a lot of satire and people doing imitations of Trump. You have some really nice details, like his hand movements that are described in the first part, and certain verbal tics. From a formal, aesthetic perspective did you start collecting these things at a certain point? Did they catch your interest for other reasons, or was it only after the project started?
Woven into the thread of the monologue part there are some actual quotations from Trump. I don’t know if I could go back now and point out all of them. A lot of it is about word choice and rhythm. That’s something you can replicate, but also to get into the true strangeness of Trump’s locutions and the syntactical weirdness of the man, the odd digressions and so on, it’s helpful to get little blips of actual text from him as markers to build towards and away from. But it’s really about rhythm and using certain words and having a reactive surface. Everything comes out of reaction from him, which is why his sentences go in so many strange directions. Whatever he’s talking about, he’ll think of something from the last half sentence he said that triggered something in his mind that makes him angry about something else and suddenly he’s off in another direction. In that way he can move in this very strange, skittering pattern across a lot of different topics in a short period of time.
There was a funny article in the Guardian a year or two ago about the challenges that translators face when he’s at these summits, which may be a challenge if your book is translated in other languages.
It has been translated into Italian and finding equivalents for the meme section and internet humor was challenging. The meme culture in Italy is just different than it is here. It doesn’t all translate, so in some cases they would do literal translations and in two or three cases they replaced a meme with an Italian one that captured some of the essence of the earlier one, which I thoroughly approve of.
You mentioned musicality earlier, and that’s something I had a question about. You wrote a libretto for an opera, and I found the monologues to have a real rhythmic quality. I saw a production of Dr. Atomic, this opera about Oppenheimer, and it reminded me of that.
There is a lot of the fiction and theater with dramatic monologues that I’m interested in, that the book draws on particularly. I’d say Beckett for the Birdcrash monologue and the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard also for Birdcrash, but just in general for conceptualizing monologues. Bernhard speaks often about the relationship between the monologues he creates, which are book-length, generally un-paragraphed monologues, and the influence of Bach’s Fugues – the way one returns to themes, ideas, words, etc., and how music can be a model for that. I certainly think that’s true when you are working in a non-narrative form, or a less plotted form like the Birdcrash and Trump monologues. Certain terms should recur, but in some additive way or kick things off in new directions in order to create momentum in these places where you don’t have a conventional plot. Whereas there are other parts of the book like the Rachel sections that tend to be more conventionally plotted.
In terms of the relationship between writing the libretto and this…The composer, Ted Hearne, who did the music for The Source selected me in part because I hadn’t written a libretto before and he didn’t want anything that was too poetic or that had any traditional libretto hallmarks. What I was doing was collaging together primary source texts from the information that Chelsea Manning delivered to WikiLeaks, as well as a few other adjunct things related to that story – chat logs and news reports and so on. That was actually really useful to me in putting together that center section on internet humor at the end of the world, where I was weaving together all of these different lines and memes, some real and some that I invented from Twitter and Reddit and Facebook. The libretto experience was useful for that section, but I think it was other fiction writers that draw on musical traditions that might have been more of an influence, on the Birdcrash monologue for instance.
What about other influences? You had this little bibliography at the end that I found interesting. Alexander Galloway was here recently and I saw him speak. How did some of these philosophers and information technologists influence the architecture of the book?
The book credits a number of books about the history of the internet and some of the deeper, protocological workings of the internet. I believe I had already started thinking about this internet humor as the world was ending question, and my partner gave me the Galloway book Protocol and said I should read it. That to me was completely fascinating. We use the internet all the time and see the surface level of it. I do at least. People who work on computers and networks think about [these protological issues] all the time, but for the rest of us our experience by design keeps us from what happens beneath. I found that very interesting as I read Galloway’s book and read these other books afterwards, in terms of thinking about how the internet concentrates and uses power even as it seems a center-less and diffuse place, a place of freedom, the idea that we had in the 90’s and early aughts. In fact it is a distributed network, but at the same time with rigid protological controls which involve choices that benefit some people and disadvantage other people. On a global scale it can become a kind of colonialism by other means.
This is an odd question, but I lent the book to a friend who is actually one of these designers – maybe part of “hacker culture,” to date me as a nineties kid. He said the book gave him nightmares.
You’ve been going on book tour and reading in different places, and I’m wondering if people have ventured that reaction to the book. It’s unsettling in some ways.
First of all let me say that I’m very happy that your hacker friend didn’t tear it to shreds. I did work closely with a couple of professionals to both help me with generating ideas for this hack that is in part responsible for how the end of the world would happen, and also kind of vetting it and looking at it afterwards. There are a lot of challenges with this, but I wanted it to at least pass the smell test, where someone in that world would say, “Well, okay, good enough.” Which is often not the case with depictions of how internet hacks work. I’m happy if it cleared that hurdle.
I had a high schooler write to me the other day. I haven’t responded to it, and I’m not sure that I will respond. He said he had started it and decided to stop because it was giving him too many nightmares, and basically, why did I write it and is there something else he can read that is similar but isn’t going to make him as anxious. I usually respond to emails people send, but I’m not quite sure how to respond to that particular one.
You said that writing was a way for you to cope with events. What was your emotional state?
For me, those few weeks after Trump was elected were as I said very emotionally distressing and writing that first big set piece was a place to put all of my concerns and preoccupations. Rather than just sitting around and feeling horrible I was at least doing something. I did find that the long Birdcrash monologue was quite difficult to write and emotionally taxing in a way that other parts of the book were not.
There is pretty extreme, visceral violence in that section.
There’s a lot of violence and it gets into some weird violence and sexuality stuff that was challenging.
I was in New York right after Trump got elected too and I remember riding the subway the next morning and it was the opposite of how these events are processed on Twitter. It was total silence, something bad had happened and no one was looking at one another and it felt like this real sense of gloom had descended over the city. Which is in such contrast to the way that these horrific events play out of Twitter. When Notre Dame was burning it was the same pattern you see in the book…people dunking on Notre Dame.
Yeah, it’s fascinating. Then there are these ping-pong reactions and people are policing other people who are criticizing Notre Dame as being part of a corrupt institution and part of a colonizing force. And other people are like, “can you not do that for a while,” and it goes back and forth and people are making jokes and people are crying and people are serious.
The example I always use, and I might have even used this in the interview with Jacob, was in December when there was a transformer explosion in New York that lit up the sky this unearthly blue. Everyone on Twitter was just making jokes about the Aliens being here, or there was a nuclear attack. I remember sitting at my computer and trying to think up a good tweet about it that would be funny, and then feeling, I shouldn’t post this tweet until we know things are okay and nobody’s dead, but at that point it was too late, someone else made the same joke I was planning on making. It’s just absolutely bizarre that that was what was going through my mind at that point. It was fascinating to watch how it played out and look at the jokes people were making, some of which were very funny. I absolutely think that if there was an impending nuclear attack there would be a significant number of people doing exactly that, and blaming the other side, and so on.
Your first book is back in the Bush years, and it seems like we’ve lost some perspective and forgotten how weird and messed up the culture felt at that time.
People will say that Trump Sky Alpha is a portrait of a deeply deranged man and this really deranged time, but are we forgetting very recent derangements?
We’re absolutely forgetting very recent stuff. There are a number of ways in which Trump is significantly worse than Bush, but Bush, abetted by the media, started a war in the Middle East that killed a million people. Trump has not done that yet. The fact that people are now looking back with nostalgia at the Bush years, and that at a funeral Michelle Obama gets passed a cough drop and that the Obamas and the Bushes and the Clintons are all relatively chummy, it’s disgraceful and it’s a huge failure of cultural memory. And it’s a very American type of forgetting. We love to forget the past.
It’s maybe a healthy forgetting.
I’d say it’s a deeply unhealthy forgetting. It’s self-preserving in the moment.
That’s what I mean. It’s deeply unhealthy from the point of us ever having any reckoning with our deeply unethical and destructive role in the world. Otherwise the society might collapse with a trauma that is un-faceable.
You’ve written two novels that are directly engaged with pathologies of the Right and the weird figures they produce and the ill effects that they have in the world. Have you been fascinated by the Right for a long time?
I was leftish, but wasn’t super political until after Bush was elected. Then I was reading political blogs from the beginning of them existing. A lot my brain space and free time was spent thinking about those things and consuming those types of news sources.
If Hillary had been elected this book would have been a critique of the technocratic neoliberal moment that she is a figurehead of. That would have been an interesting book to write. At some point writing that is more centered on the left will happen. That hasn’t been the case with the last two books, but there is a long Obama section in The Infernal.
I read in other interviews that your next book will be a collection of short stories. Are you going to keep extending this monological form, or will you toggle back to some more conventional narrative forms?
It will be a mix, I think. In terms of the newer pieces I’m working on, I’d say it’s about half and half. I’m certainly interested in continuing to work with characters who can deliver these disordered monologues. But I don’t want to only do that. Building up some chops in the more straightforward short story world is something that’s interesting to me because I’m a huge fan of the short story in general. The short story is great because even in things that might in some ways feel more conventional there can be such a humming weirdness underneath it all.
Ben Marcus’ last book, Notes from the Fog, has more surface accessibility and closeness to convention than his first book The Age of Wire and String, but there is also this deep churning weirdness underneath it all. That’s something I’d like to learn how to do.
One last question. Do you find Twitter humor funny?
There is an interesting intersection between the weird end of Twitter and the left political end of Twitter. The influence of accounts like @dril across the left political sphere is interesting. That strange disingenuous idiocy is a very funny mode to work in.
Michael Schapira is an Interviews editor at Full Stop and teaches Philosophy at St. Joseph’s University.
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