Lazy Fascist Press has recently published the second and final volume of Noah Cicero’s Collected Works, so I took the opportunity to ask him some questions about it.
Caleb Hildenbrandt: Your work is intensely autobiographical, and The Collected Works Vol. II, particularly the main novella in it, The Insurgent, seems to be no exception–the protagonist lives in Youngstown, like you have, and even works as a dishwasher, like you have, and expounds on the deadening influence of American culture, like you have. But his name is Vasily and he’s a Russian immigrant who got shot in the leg climbing over the Berlin Wall, which I don’t think you have. Why create a Russian voice to speak through? And why, having done that, put him in the very specific location of Ohio?
Noah Cicero: I want to say, I wrote this book seven years ago and won’t remember the specifics. It all seems very blurry. Also I am a very different person now, the person that wrote that book is dead and has been reincarnated twice. The latest avatar of Noah Cicero is answering these questions.
I think I had the main two characters be a Russian and Chinese immigrant because I thought it was funny, the whole book is very funny to me. All my books are tragicomedies. It is like a silly folktale that makes no practical sense. At that point in my life I had read and was reading a good amount of Russian literature, I haven’t really read any Russian literature in six years, I just tried to think of the last book I read by a Russian and my mind went blank, now I read all Asian things and feminist lit I think.
The idea of the Russian and Chinese character came from two sources from real life, my sister in law is a Polish immigrant who jumped over the Berlin wall or something, very painful real story. And I saw a documentary about Chinese immigrants coming over in the bottom of boats shitting in buckets or on the floor, can’t remember, and then the next day I was eating at a Chinese buffet just staring at the Chinese people wondering if they had to shit in buckets in the bottom of a boat. All those experiences, going over a wall, getting shot, sleeping next to your shit are very ‘real’ as opposed to going to high school and college, putting on make-up and jerking off to internet porn. I wanted to write using characters that experienced something horrific and then had to live in easy-ass America. And also children who had to be raised by parents who lived in the ‘real’ for decades, and my love for narrative goes nuts when I hear that Eastern European accent tell a story, like last summer when I worked at the Grand Canyon, they brought over a bunch of Poles and Romanians to work for the summer, and one woman about 25 knew history pretty well and she would tell insane narratives about Russia and how it split Romania and she would get real serious, and say things like, “Then the Russians split my country in two, taking away our Moldovian brothers.”
I have always felt like the midwest of my youth was very Russian (note, the Russia of my literary imagination based off Dostoevsky / Pushkin / Chekhov / Grossman, I have never been to Russia), just a very bombed-out place, no cares about anything, no one is trying to help themselves, just a lot of helpless people who have no desire to stop suffering, no desire for ‘liberation’ or moksha as Eastern Religion calls it. Out west in America people try to eat healthy, exercising is very common, attending some eastern or Native-American spiritual events are considered cool, people hike in the mountains, people talk about different types of trees and cactus. In Ohio or Pennsylvania people don’t even bother to talk, almost like conversation is “dead on arrival,” no reason to even discuss anything. People will loudly voice opinions but not discuss anything, and the ones that do enjoy discussing things either leave or just feel awkward and lonely their entire lives.
CH: You seem to fall into that latter category–those who leave. How does that coincide with the twice-over reincarnation you refer to? (I remember in an interview with Tao Lin you said you’d “hit a bottom” during the events that The Insurgent describes, and after writing it, things “picked up.”)
NC: After I wrote The Insurgent I decided to go back to college and get a political science degree, it was weird, the night I decided to go back, it was at a bar in downtown Youngstown, I was drinking with a girl and it started to rain really hard, just pouring outside. The girl told me to go back to school, she told me how to get my loans out of default and then we started making out in the rain, also the girl was Greek-American and gave me my first shot of ouzo that night, and ouzo has since then been my favorite shot. My loans were horribly defaulted, I had to pay $124 for nine months before they let me back in school. I got back into college and it was a lot of fun, I had such luck because I met a group of the greatest people who were going to Kent State, it is strange I didn’t have any Youngstown State friends, but I would drive to Kent and hang out with people, and we partied and danced, and I am so thankful for the kids in Kent. One of the kids in Kent she is a poet Sarah San was the reason I ended up going to Korea, really thankful. College for me was actually ‘a blast.’
After college I went to Korea and that was really exciting, then I came home last March, since then I have lived at the Grand Canyon, Portland, and Las Vegas. I basically came home with a lot of money from Korea and spent it all going to different places doing random things, but it was all really bipolar and weird. It was like after Korea, I couldn’t feel comfortable anywhere, nothing seemed real, I kept expecting to wake up in my apartment in Korea and look out the window and see the Buddhist pagoda I stared at every morning for a year, I was obsessed with the past and trying to replicate it, but I was in the west, and my past was east and well far-east, and everyone and everything was gone. I don’t know if I hit rock bottom, I think I had a nervous breakdown, but now I am on a mood stabilizer and I have anti-anxiety pills to deal with anxiety. I read a lot of Buddhism now and go to chanting events at the Zen Center or to a kirtan, I really love kirtan. I have completely put the Sartre and Wittgenstein away, and now Bodhidharma and Chuang Tzu are my go-to guys. I’m trying to become my adult self now, because I have no wife and kids and I’m 33 which means I have to figure out how to be alone without being lonely / creepy. Like a lot of people in their 30s now who are single and have no kids, well, if you are human you were probably raised by your parents, who were ‘parents’ and lived the ‘parents lifestyle’ of going to work and taking care of you and your siblings. My parents’ lifestyle of being parents did not prepare me to be single and childless in my 30s, nothing about their lives reared me for it, I felt like I was in deep water grabbing for anything my parents taught me, or anyone taught me, but all my mentors are dads and husbands, I was just grasping at wind.
CH: So you’re saying that living with our parents, being brought up with that lifestyle to emulate, gives us a sort of ‘life narrative’ to follow? It’s interesting, because your work also seems to be a pastiche of narratives and narrative forms–The Insurgent‘s structure seems reminiscent at first of Sartre’s and Camus’ relatively plotless novels, but then moves to recall Kerouac’s (and other American’s) “roadtrip stories,” and finally ends with descriptions that remind me of American “nature writing” from Thoreau or Muir. How do you navigate the idea of different narratives, different narrative genres?
NC: Re. being given a ‘life narrative’ to follow:
We are surrounded by narratives. My parents and family and community gave me a narrative: grow up, find a job by 25, get married and have children by 30. That narrative makes sense for a civilization to run, there is actually nothing wrong with that narrative in the grand scheme of things, jobs must be done and children must be born for humans to keep existing. It is like, elks aren’t going to stop fighting with their antlers and having babies at a certain time, it is completely normal. I am not normal and I have to accept the consequences. It is funny all my cousins are married and most of them have kids, and they all have careers of some sort. Every time I talk to my parents on the phone they are telling me about a cousin or one of their friends’ kids who just got a great job or got married or got pregnant. And I just respond, “Today I sat in the pool and taught two African-American six-year-old boys how to swim underwater.” Or, “I went to the Zen Center and stared at the floor for an hour.” Because I have nothing to do, and when I talk to my friends in their 30s, they do nothing too, a lot of them are professors but they only teach a few classes, and basically hang out smoking weed reading and eating chips. The best minds of our generation weren’t destroyed but started doing yoga and experimenting with organic raspberry jellies on their peanut butter sandwiches to pass the time. I texted my friend today, a professor, a well-educated worldly person, and she responded, “Oh, you know, sitting here wearing my big hat.” While other people in their 30s are mowing the grass, taking the kids to sports, figuring out how to make the money last the week, talking about home loans and interest rates, having completely different lives. I just want everyone to know I am not complaining, it is just absurd and really funny that my life turned out like this.
The one narrative that is kind of painful to me, is that you must be in a romantic relationship to be happy or something. A lot of people are incapable of loving and being committed to someone for a long-term period of time because of a plethora of reasons, generalizing on reasons why someone would be incapable of committed love would not be fair to those who can’t, and I feel collecting data on why would be impossible.
Re. plotless / road / nature narratives:
Those three narratives are probably my trinity, I always feel when I am in one place, that everything seems plotless, seamless, not pointless, just without plot. Life doesn’t really offer much in terms of plot, you walk from room to room, walk to the car, walk to the subway, get out of the car, have idle talk at a coffee shop. If things don’t get shaken up, nothing changes, you don’t change. It is so funny, most people when they are in romantic relationships they don’t change, but as soon as it ends, they are back in the gym, reading self-help, doing new things. I just read this thing is a Tibetan yoga book, paraphrased it’s “misery is a guru”–if nothing forces you to recognize you exist, you slowly go out of existence, slipping into a void. But then boom, something happens, and you have to admit you exist again, and have to figure out how to keep going.
Concerning travel narratives, I’ve crisscrossed America at least 15 times in my life by car, the first I crossed it was when I was 12 with my dad and brother in a Winnabago. We went from Ohio to the Salt Flats, then to Las Vegas, then to LA, then to the Grand Canyon and home. I kind of became obsessed with it then, America and its landscape. Two days after I graduated high school I got in my 1989 Caprice and drove to the Grand Canyon to work, ended up getting fired and living in San Diego for a while, then I spent all my money in Tijuana and had to go home. I’ve been to 41 states, there is nothing I love more than traveling by car across America.
The nature writing is vital to me also, I’ve been to 11 national parks I think, and I’ve hiked all over the Southwest. I was very lucky growing up where I did, my yard was connected to hundreds of acres of forest. My favorite thing was to walk in the forest for hours and just sit on stumps and hang out by myself. I would try to find secret things in the forest like old chimneys or abandoned dams. When google maps came out I would scan the area for weird things in the forests and go and try to find them, like ponds or old coal shoots and mines. My mother’s dad part-owned a giant cabin in the Pennsylvania forest on a dirt road with thousands of acres of forest surrounding it. Growing up, my family and their friends were obsessed with four-wheelers and dirt bikes, and we would go and ride the machines around the forest, and they liked hunting too, so they would do that. I never cared about driving the machines or hunting, so I would walk in the forest by myself. I did shoot guns, we would sit on the porch and try to shoot quarters all day, and sometimes we would skeet shoot in my backyard in Ohio.
CH: I’ve heard you mention before that you have a theory on how narratives have changed because of the increasing length of our lives? Can you expound on how you see longevity changing literature?
NC: I want to define literature as any story-telling narrative or poetry, and I include it all MFA-Iowa-style to MFA-experimental-style to alt-lit / horror / pop-lit / TV shows / movies / slam poetry / bad poetry heard at poetry readings, all of it. I saw the movie Silver Linings Playbook, which got nominated for a bunch of Oscars, so it is a series narrative that the popular generalized public took and believed. I got the book from the library and read it in one night, it really got me. The book asks that David Foster Wallace question about redemption, “can literature have redemption?” To use a book a lot of people will know, “The Sun Also Rises,” if that book was made today Jake Barnes would have got Viagra and Lady Bret would have gone to counseling or been put on medication, they would have been redeemed. But I kind of feel like it is just because we live so fucking long now, redemption is possible now, I’m only 33 and I feel like I’ve been redeemed four times, it almost seems silly all this redemption. When you read Shakespeare / Dostoevsky / the Brontes, it is like people either just die of consumption or suicide or waste away for ten years and die of consumption. We can’t kill any of our characters with consumption, seems so unfair. I was kind of happy to kill of some characters in Go to Work […], I never got to kill off any characters, I always wanted to do it, but couldn’t figure out how.
I feel like the show LOST did really good with the longevity of life thing, basically when you live a long time, you can end up some place you never thought you might be, even if you don’t leave your house and are a creepy hoarder hermit, because maybe your daughter will come one day and say, “We are moving to Alaska and I can’t leave your hoarder ass here” and the old hermit goes to Alaska. Which was amazing in LOST, the visual image of Jack being on the island, and then boom, he’s a doctor, I don’t think literature could catch that so perfectly, because you can’t ‘boom it’ so quickly to the human mind with text.
See, historically, before not that many people left their home areas, even if someone moved or got enslaved and brought to America, the white person found a place to live and the slave got slammed onto a plantation and was not going anywhere. Your life was small, you married people nearby, slaves had to become friends or deal with those at their plantation. And I assume there were plantations with very few slaves, could you imagine a life where you had barely anyone to talk with. Your life was super small in terms of people and space and your life was short, which is another form of space.
But now we travel about, we go there and try that and then fuck up and have to over there and try that, it works for a little bit, something weird happens and you end over there. Our lives are insane now.
(I just want to make an observation on Silver Linings Playbook as jest, it is a book about a guy in his 30s who is a convict, he is obsessed with an invisible person that never appears in the book, his mother is super innocent, and at the end he gets redeemed, it’s Bradley Cooper as Jesus lol.)
CH: Wow. I’ve never thought about it that way, but it makes sense—I remember reading The Sun Also Rises in school and everyone was just like, wow, Jake, just see a doctor or something, that was really their reaction, and no one saw Lady Brent as hopelessly as Hemingway depicted her, either.
But that “silliness” that sets in from too much redemption, or I don’t know, the lack of stuff (consumption / successful suicide / wasting away) with consequences almost seems to drive us to simulate that Bronteian / Dostoevskian intensity–I’m thinking of this really interesting passage in your book where Chang, the protagonist’s friend, admits,
“I would sit in my room and listen to miserable music and let the misery overtake me. I would get myself all emotional. All crazy inside. All raving and mad over nothing. I couldn’t even think of something to be miserable about. I would be emotional. I wanted to be emotional. I wanted to feel pain and hurt. Like in some way I was doing a penance. I started to think I deserved misery. That I deserved to be alone. To hate myself. But some days I couldn’t think of any good sins. So I would let the music wrap me up in a little ball of tender emotion and force myself to hate myself.”
Which is just such an interesting passage, because, I’ve done that, I know other people who’ve done that, I’m pretty sure everyone who’s grown up white and middle class in late-twentieth-century America has done that to some extent, but it still rings so surprisingly true because no one wants to admit that they’ve done it. Are we driven to experience / provoke in ourselves that kind of intensity because we’ve been redeemed too many times, or not enough?
NC: Think about it like this, you could easily do an experiment to realize this: before 1900 there was no radio or TV, sometimes people would hear live music (probably a chanting style of music) but not that often, 99% of all noise that went into a person’s mind was bugs, birds, and the wind shaking things, that was it. And barely anyone knew how to read, imagine how quiet your world would be if you didn’t know how to read. (I’m not saying this was a better world, people were still mean and killed each other, not judging just discussing okay.)
And so before 1900, humans lived in a very quiet world emotionally, but now we are inundated with emotional music, TV shows, movies, video games and marketing all day, our minds are just blasted with white emotional noise. Rock and R&B music are not zen, it is all super emotional, and we just pound our minds with it all day, and at a certain point it becomes toxic. Then we need more and more of this feeling music gives, this is why musicians are always drug addicts because drugs and music are about created altered states in the mind and body. (I think I just repeated Plato, did not do that on purpose lol.)
Music and marketing and TV shows are all about getting us crazy inside to keep us watching, to keep us purchasing, to keep us feeling extreme emotions. In zen, most thoughts are useless, the mind flicks out thoughts the way the kidney helps process liquids, the liver processes food, the heart pumps bloods, the intestines take out the nutrition, etc. The brain like all organs is always working and shooting out thoughts, and for some reason westerners believe that every thought matters, as in the case of Ulysses and stream-of-consciousness literature, most of our thoughts don’t matter, the mind is constantly flicking out thoughts in case we need one, for example if we need to think about how to get somewhere, or what to make for dinner, or how to write an essay or fix your car, those thoughts are needed. But most thoughts are not, like the other day someone mentioned corn dogs and I immediately thought of someone I knew who loved corn dogs and how I will never see them again, then it hit me, I don’t need to be sad about these thoughts, it was just my brain flicking them out. My brain gets some info like “corn dogs” and accesses all corn-dog-related information really quickly, and then I have a choice, I could get sad or just recognize the natural function of my brain, which is to flick out thoughts endlessly.
When I read a lot of twitters, there is such an obsession on useless thoughts because people think they are ‘real thoughts.’ Those aren’t real thoughts, they are just mind noise generated by world noise generated by money noise. Just turn everything off and stare at the floor, listen to the bugs and wind shaking things, and if you listen to music go with something old like Amitabha chanting or Native American flute music, if you persist in listening to music and doing drugs that aggravate the emotions, you are basically punching yourself in your own genitals over and again.
CH: That’s interesting, on a couple different counts. For one, you’re often grouped with “alt lit,” a group of writers usually focused on recording the minutia of everyday life–“KMart Realism” to use Edwin Kenney’s derisive label—which often devolves into twitter-like catalogs of passing, inconsequential thoughts. But in taking another look at your fiction, I’m seeing that while you maintain that dirty minimalism of the genre, your characters’ inner monologues are largely absent, or at least pretty confined to stuff that advances the main themes of the book. But I’m also intrigued by how you associate toxic music consumption with drug use–the central plot device of The Insurgentis, after all, a found bag of Oxycontin in a Denny’s bathroom which Vasily and Chang sell to strippers to finance a cross-country road trip. Interestingly, neither of them consume any of the pills themselves. How do you see drug use playing into the lives of working-class people, vs. the lives of so-called “artists” and “creatives”?
NC: Everyone in America is on drugs, moms dads cousins uncles bosses cab drivers everyone. I think the cause is that a lot of people can’t tolerate their own minds and don’t feel very connected to their own bodies or one with their surroundings. We have five major ideals pushed on us everyday, just go to a magazine rack and stare at the phrases on them, the four ideals are
1. Justify your existence (which basically leads to the other ones)
2. Keep busy
3. Get money, objects and titles
4. Don’t embarrass yourself by looking stupid, poor, not pretty (for women) and not masculine (for men)
5. Place yourself inside a scale every time you encounter or see a fellow human, as in, figure out if you are ‘better or worse’ than them, and then either feel better about yourself or hate yourself.
Having to maintain these five ideals at all times all day every day is super stressful and causes nothing but anxiety, these ideals, these methods of thought will never lead anyone to happiness, just like maybe momentary and very weak feelings of fleeting happiness.
Listen, just anyone, reading this, next time you go into a grocery store, just listen to the thoughts you have, I bet you have these thoughts instantaneously without any effort, and they will cause nothing but anxiety. So you take the drugs and you alter mind, to relieve yourself just for a little bit from that stress.
Compared to a musician they might do it because they love altered states of consciousness, but they also have those same five thoughts everyone else has. But I don’t think a 45-year-old mom popping Xanax is trying to elevate her mind, she is trying to escape her own mind.
I have heard women say this but not men, women have said to me, “I don’t feel connected to my body, but when I get drunk and high enough I feel one with it.” I think women have all five of those and a lot women have a sixth, which would be
6. How do I look to men, are one of these men going to grope / rape / do creepy flirting, and how do I look to other women.
I am having a hard time saying this because I am afraid I am not phrasing right, but here it goes, I get the feeling that a lot of women’s brains are firing at max capacity and are really struggling with anxiety because of having to be ‘watched by men’ and being ‘watched by other women.’ A woman obviously wants to be her own unique self, but she also has to be something for men and at the same time protective of men, and then she has to be something for other women all at the same time, oh wow. I feel like black people have the same problem, they obviously want to be their own unique person, but they also have to have a personality when they are alone with other black people and then they have to have another personality for white people. Oh wow, three identities to deal with all the time.
And at the same time everyone has to deal with overbearing white male privilege, basically the problem with white males is that the world is slipping more everyday from their grasp and they are acting out like petulant children, basically the brain of most white males is a five-year-old, “Mommy get me the toy.” A lot of white men have an absurd version of themselves in their minds, they assume because they have white skin and a penis they are somehow fucking amazing, but everyday and in a million ways the world around them notifies them, “Dude you are so basic” and it drives them insane, so they seek scapegoats for their inadequacies (they aren’t inadequacies either, most humans are basic, but they perceive them as horrible), and therefore they blame other races and women and poor people and anyone they can for their problems. It is so strange, debating with anyone but a white male over beers is like, everyone talks, says their thing and then it goes on. But if a white male gets challenged, he keeps at it, demanding that he makes sense, won’t let go, the night becomes stuck on this one person’s thought process. I want to say I was that white guy for years, and hopefully I don’t revert back to it, basically I said some stupid things and a woman told me what I was doing, then I started reading every feminism link on facebook and I was able to ‘see myself’ and try to improve.
When I review what we do to each other, it makes sense that everyone wants drugs.
CH: That description of identity roles sounds sort of like your description of Gina in The Insurgent, where Vasily says that “she is always really nervous and high-strung, pissed off, and says things like ‘I hate people’ [and] always has this look of terror mixed with hate on her face.” Which is a bleak enough description of a way to go about life, but then Vasily immediately adds, “I find that very attractive.” What were you thinking about when you wrote that?
NC: If you asked the two people that know me the best, which would be two IRL friends named Bernice and Vince who have nothing to do with the lit world, but they know everything about me and I know everything about them, they would laugh hysterically and probably respond, “Makes sense Noah loves anxiety-filled girls.” I answer it this way because who we are attracted to is deeply personal and not universal at all, I kind of feel like we can’t even help who we are attracted to, and it is impossible to truly even figure out why, one day someone comes into our vision and boom we are hit with the love bug, and before we notice it, we are thinking about them all the time and have linked them in some intractable way in our minds. I don’t like to answer questions that concern ‘romance’ because I don’t believe the answers are ever remotely universal, I just feel weird even talking about those things.
I think I was trying to be honest, movies and pop novels are always stuck in some hyperreality language, there is very little honesty, where real humanness breaks through, I want every sentence of my books to be real, and even if my character says something stupid, I want it to be sincerely stupid.
About the interviewer:
Caleb Hildenbrandt is the author of American Paranoid Restaurant and curator of The Flaneur Interviews.