Reading Pure Cosmos Club is an otherworldly experience, which takes you through the absurd, the surreal, the silly, and the unexpected. This was how I felt reading it, at least. Binder’s writing has a certain charm and wit that I’ve hardly seen matched, and it’s coupled with an earnest intrigue; they combine to make his latest novel one of a kind. When I first heard him read from the book at a literary salon, I was already roped in, and just as I expected, I ended the book with more questions than answers. It’s the kind of work where you can tell that the author’s input is going to be the cherry on top of a delectable dish—perhaps a quiche? Right away, I was ravenous for more. What does he think of the art he created? The art within the art? I am excited to have been privileged to pick his brain on that and more.
Jamie Kahn: In Pure Cosmos Club, Paul seems to both play the “straight guy” in the comedy of his universe, but is also a very eccentric character. How reliable of a narrator is he? Is it possible for this story to even have a reliable narrator?
Matthew Binder: Paul’s most fundamental trait is inconsistency. At one point he even admits as much to an adversary: “Don’t tell me you’re so naïve that you believe a man should never contradict himself. Just because I’ve acted one way before doesn’t mean that’s how I’ll always act.” And while Paul’s mind is divided, the successful execution of the book depended most of all on there being a novel set of criteria by which Paul’s thoughts and behaviors are governed. A reader might not be cognizant of it, but the chaos of Paul’s mind adheres to a strict internal logic. It’s what holds the whole book together.
I’ll start off by saying I love Blanche. In a lot of ways, she makes the book what it is. How did she come to be as a character and a narrative device, as it were?
Just before I started writing Pure Cosmos Club, I attended a party at a very fancy art dealer’s apartment in Manhattan. I felt terribly out of place at this party, so I got high and drunk and spent all my time playing with the art dealer’s dog—a little mongrel with bum legs who was fitted with a wheelchair and a jewel-studded collar. I found the dog so charming that I put her at the center of my novel.
Do you have a method by which you balance irony and sincerity?
Paul possesses a radically peculiar perspective, but his account of the world is sincere. I don’t think Paul is even capable of irony. Everything he reports to experience may appear absurd to the reader, but it’s his objective reality.
A word that gets tossed around a lot with respect to my books is “satire.” But I don’t think that’s exactly right. I’m not using humor or irony to criticize anyone. I’m simply showing how people behave in the world, and sometimes it happens to be hilariously awful. But I try to treat all my characters with tenderness and sympathy, never with derision.
My friend Jonah Howell, however, thinks I’m fooling myself. He’s recently penned a three-thousand-word treatise on Pure Cosmos Club in which he claims the book works as a satire at the levels of etymology, humor, and recursion. It’s a brilliant essay, and he makes a compelling case. I hope it gets published soon, and then people can read both the book and Jonah’s piece and decide for themselves.
Do you have any personal experience with new age cults, or anything in particular that sparked your interest in writing about one?
My whole life, I’ve been desperate to feel the spiritual impulse. Sadly, however, I’ve never experienced it. Pure Cosmos Club was my attempt to understand what it must feel like to be blessed with the gift of faith.
In real life, though, I’m afraid faith is an impossibility for me. That’s because contemporary culture has conditioned me to believe that religion and tradition—anything, really, that historically may have provided a person with bearings—are retrograde and backwards, anathema to progress. And where has all this “progress” led me? Just like everyone else I know, I value status and money above all else.
You’ve been compared to Vonnegut, Murakami, and so many other compellingly absurd writers. Which authors would you say has influenced your writing the most?
I like Jane Bowles for her irreverence. I’ve tried to make Romain Gary’s playfulness my own. But the writer who’s made the biggest mark on me is probably Knut Hamsun. From him, I learned how to write a psychological novel.
Can you talk a little about Paul’s art in the book? Some of his pieces are really wild. What brought you to those ideas? Do you think his art is good?
Paul’s artwork can be perceived as genius or terrible. It really depends on who’s looking.
A lot of readers have commented on Paul’s portraits of Gwyneth Paltrow. Throughout the series, she becomes increasingly menacing, culminating in a final painting in which she’s sprouted bat wings and horns, and is holding all of mankind in a saucer of anti-aging cream.
Perhaps my favorite of Paul’s work is the blood painting he makes of himself standing under an advertisement for prescription painkillers, holding a tray of quiche, with Blanche’s silhouette overhead in the window of an apartment building. Paul describes the work as an “archetype of the modern intellectual, racked with anxiety and disquiet.” However, he doesn’t even realize that he’s painted his future guru’s face into the background of the painting.
But if I’m being honest, I can take no credit for the concepts behind Paul’s art. They appeared in my mind fully formed exactly when I needed them, almost like gifts from God.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m answering these questions from Geneva, Switzerland. Normally, I stuff my bag full of books when I travel. This time, however, I only brought one, a galley of James Reich’s A Moth for the Star. It’s an excellent novel, and I read the whole thing on the flight over. Now, I’m bookless. So, for the past couple weeks, I’ve spent every free moment trying in vain to learn French using an app on my phone.
Jamie Kahn is the contributing features editor for Epiphany Magazine and has written for Glamour, Brooklyn Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and others.
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