Jarett Kobek’s novel ATTA reads as a relentless laceration of the fear and disaster mythologies of globalized empire.
I was late getting to Kobek’s reading at Book Soup in West Hollywood. I was late and somehow dreading it, knowing how readings go, that is, poorly. When I finally arrived a half hour late, they were just beginning. Seconds into the reading, my fears blew up. It was perfect. Almost an anti-reading, the event was a fascinating talk and memoir interspersed with Kobek reading pages of his taut, terse prose. ATTA is 95% fact, 5% invention, says Kobek, but that invention belies its numerical limit by its staunch lack of restraint. I understand this mix of fact and invention to reflect something of our media-saturated reality. The more wild the invention, the more true it becomes, and the more weight that truth has. Think of the invention of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify America’s entry into war. A rather small but wild invention with real, massive, and durable effects.
Kobek’s writing is splendid. A concise mix of intelligence, humor and socio-political insight, the elegant sixteen chapters of ATTA read like a countdown to doom. Drawing a psychological portrait of the hijacker Mohammed Atta in the weeks prior to September 11, the novel tells of his years in Germany as an urban planning student, unveils his crusade against modernist architecture, recounts some uncanny cross-dressing incidents, and performs a hallucinated rewriting of the current state of the American dream.
A story repeats itself. A man, or his parents, or his parents’ parents, come to America. Hard work, toil in obscurity amongst unknown wretches. Great open land. The one who works hardest reaps eventual reward, rises to prominence, achieves great things, makes himself a name. This also is my story, thinks Mohamed Atta. I too am an immigrant success.
I wanted to hear more, so I met Jarett about two weeks later in a somewhat loud cafe in the San Francisco Mission District.
Noura Wedell This book, compared to your first, is a more traditionally genred novel about the American dream and what constitutes success in today’s America. How did you come to find this hero of this perverted American dream, and why did you write about Mohamed Atta?
Jarett Kobek The American dream part came a little bit later. About a month or two after 9/11 there were news stories filtering out about how these guys had spent years preparing. The pilots had been in the country for two years. Atta and the other pilots attended flight school. Only Atta received his FAA certification. But when the big day came, he almost missed his flight. That fascinated me, because it didn’t fit with the widespread media narratives about how we’d been attacked by a group of evil geniuses. When you get into the nitty gritty, here’s a guy who almost missed his flight. If he had actually missed that flight—I mean his life was going to be over if he made the flight—his life would have been over in a much more significant, much more severe way. Success offered the known result. Failure was the great disaster.
NW How close were they?
JK They came really close. There were two flights. The first was a flight from Portland, Maine to Boston and the second was the one they hijacked, the Boston flight. They almost missed the Portland one, and then, as a result, they also almost missed the Boston one! When I read about that, I thought to myself, this would make an interesting book. Years later, at the end of 2009, I found out that someone had written it. The author is named Terry McDermott, and the book is called Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It. It tells the lives of all the hijackers and of some of their supporters. Because many of these guys were younger and most had come out of nowhere, there wasn’t much biographical detail. The one on whom there was the most biographical detail was Atta, partly because he was the oldest, partly because he came from Egypt, partly because he was from an upper middle-class family.
NW What do we know about him?
JK McDermott talks quite a bit about his academic career. Atta went to Cairo University in the engineering program, and when you do very well, apparently, they move you into their architecture subdivision. That’s what happened to Atta. He got his bachelors in architecture and then bummed around Egypt for a couple of years. After that, he went to Germany where he enrolled in a masters program in urban planning. He finished all of his coursework, but didn’t write his thesis. It was only two years after finishing his coursework that he finally turned in a thesis. It was called something like “The Islamic-Oriental City.” The known chronology indicates that he wrote the thesis after radicalizing.
NW There is an appendix at the end of your book which looks like an excerpt from Mohammed Atta’s MA thesis. The section is prefaced by a title in German, Atta’s name, and the name of the technical university in Hamburg that he attended. Is that part of Mohammed Atta’s real thesis?
JK No, that’s my creative approximation. The thesis exists, but it’s locked in a drawer in his advisor’s office. And the advisor won’t let anyone see it because he’s worried that Atta’s father, a lawyer, might sue. There is some information in circulation about the thesis. We know that it’s about the Syrian city of Aleppo and about the way that urban planners transformed the city for the worse by putting up western high-rises and giant western highways. In the thesis, Atta proposes to replace modernist western architecture in Aleppo with what he termed “The Islamic-Oriental City.”
NW Atta seems somewhat confused about what Orientalism is. Is he making it into something that is both Western and Eastern?
JK Yes, it’s a very strange name. And, unfortunately, I haven’t seen the thesis. But just on the face of it, it’s incredibly weird. McDermott never editorializes. He never says: “Well, here’s a guy who composed an entire thesis, who sat around for however many months writing this 100+ page document about removing high-rise architecture and then two years later takes part in an attack on the world’s most prominent example of high-rise architecture.” But when I read McDermott, I knew this was my angle, a new way to examine an event that undergone media saturation and become blurry. And perhaps looking at 9/11 architecturally makes a lot more sense than looking at it through the lens of religion. Atta had no religious training. He hung around mosques, but when he tried to teach classes it was a flop. He alienated the majority of his students because he was so harsh and unforgiving. His nickname amongst his students was Ayatollah.
NW At the same time, we find what might be interpreted as the Voice of God in this religious context. Something egging Atta on, and that takes the form of a droning Z sound which he hears through buildings. This sound actually drives him crazy and might even be what pushes him to the final act. I took this as an ironic reading of the kind of truth that is supposed to emerge through modernist architecture, our Western ideology of progress.
JK There’s an encoded meaning in some of those Z sounds, once they appear in alternate case. They’re the first lines of great works of literature, transcribed into Morse code. The last three pages, which are completely in Morse code, are a cypher for Fire & Ice by Robert Frost, repeating over and over. Which I think is a pretty decent literary approximation of death, or at least death of the ego. A droning buzz that may or may not have meaning. But on another note, reading McDermott—although he would never editorialize like this—you get the sense that Atta is crazy. Not that he is fanatical, which he was, but that he was mentally ill. There is this story—which I use in the book—where the hijackers were living in this flop house without furniture, and Atta just one day showed up wearing a lot of make-up.
NW That makes for an interesting, and hilarious, read of the idea of progress which underlies a lot of literary and architectural modernism. When I encountered that scene, I figured it was fiction. So it’s a real story?
JK Yes, it’s real. He was wearing a lot of make-up, but he was such a rigid person that everyone was afraid to ask why. So they all went about their lives for some period of time with Atta wearing make-up. That seems like a significant breach. The only explanation I can come up with is that he was genuinely mentally ill. He was crazy in a way that the others weren’t, although it’s arguable that at least one of the other pilots, Ziad Jarrah, was a sociopath. Anyway, the voice that talks to Atta through the book—which is described as the voice of stone and earth and sometimes manifests as talking buildings—was a useful device to dramatize two things. One is madness. And the other is an issue I had with writing about architecture. How could I make architecture compelling and not just produce long boring passages of someone thinking about a building? The way I combined both was to have buildings talk to Atta.
NW You seem to do quite extensive research in preparation of your writing, and you are also extremely inventive. As a reader, it’s difficult to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not in this book. What are your thoughts on the slippages between fiction and non-fiction?
JK Well, a good 90 to 95 percent of the book is true. The five percent that’s not is wildly untrue.
NW Maybe that’s a way to counteract the fictive power of reality.
JK As to whether the book is fiction or non-fiction? That’s a question I’d love to have a pat answer for, but I don’t, because I’m not sure. You do get to a point where if 95 percent of the book is true—or is factual or has sources for it—how much more do you need to be non-fiction? And what’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction? If you look at something like McDermott’s book, or the oral history of Bin Laden called The Bin Laden I Know, how much of those are true? So that’s why I’ve invented the only slightly pretentious term “psychedelic biography.”
NW There is also a fictional aspect to reality that often belies our attempts to out-fiction it. I mean, the two episodes we mentioned, Atta almost missing the most important flight of his life, and the fact that a very rigid Islamist fundamentalist would wear make-up in a religious community without anyone mentioning it for days, these seem absolutely unbelievable!
JK You’re right. Most of the crazy things that people have thought are fictional are actually true, or at least sourced. Like the Bin Laden volleyball episode. I don’t know if Atta played volleyball in Afghanistan, but Bin Laden loved the sport. Everyone who spent much time around him mentions it. So why not use it? You know, it’s a book that serves several masters. One of the masters is trying to make it readable and trying to have a narrative fluidity. Mostly, the fictional parts of the book are rhetorical devices to keep the story going.
NW What about the trip Atta takes to Disney World?
JK Oh, well, okay, that’s not true. The trip to Disney World—and this is where we get back to the American dream—is, one of two things I would say are truly confabulated, created out of whole cloth. The thesis extract, by contrast, is an attempt to replicate something we know exists. But even the Disney World visit has a certain basis. Immediately after 9/11, a large number of Floridians came forward with stories of having known Atta. A woman said she dated him for two years; another guy said Atta used to come into his strip club, and another said he used to rent him movies. It was all false. People who decided that they wanted to be part of this big psychic rupture, after the fact. Or who just wanted attention. Whatever. All these stories were untrue. But I liked this one story about the hijackers casing Disney World.
NW Atta makes some quite harsh judgments about Disney World. Were you trying to address something about America through what Disney World might represent? A collusion between reality and make-believe? Some form of fascination with childhood and adolescence? The entertainment landscape?
JK The book is organized as a series of first person and third person chapters. In the third person chapters, I wanted Atta to engage with America specifically in 1999, 2000, and 2001. This was a strange time, when the nation’s military-industrial complex was slightly adrift as it wasn’t clear who we were going to blow up next. Everything was ephemeral and fluffy. Originally I wanted Atta to engage with Jennifer Lopez. But—and this was before her recent comeback—I thought, who remembers Jennifer Lopez, who will remember her in 10 years? Around the early stages of writing the book, I visited the new Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio, an enormously expensive complex dedicated not as much to Disney’s creation but rather emphasizing his life and the lives of his family. I’d also been thinking a lot about Disney in the months prior to that visit because the very first Disney studio is located in a storefront on Kingswell Avenue near my old east Hollywood apartment and is presently occupied by a copy shop that I visited maybe twice a week. The shop is decorated with off-model paintings of Disney characters. And perhaps most importantly of all, the only film which anyone knows Atta saw was the Disney version of The Jungle Book. So through all of this, the idea of Disney as the representative figure clicked.
NW There’s a moment in the book when both you and Atta engage in research, when he reads a biography of Walt Disney. That’s a fascinating and really funny section.
JK Yes, he reads Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, which I checked, and which is in the library near his apartment in Florida. It’s the most salacious biography of Disney, a little like the Hollywood Babylon version of his life story. It’s also badly done. There is no reason to suspect that Atta ever read it, but if I was going to have his fictional counterpart read a book about Disney, it makes sense to go with the craziest possible book, because scandal mongering works are the richest in material. And so through that, we come to the demonic Disney, an irrefutable symbol of America, of American pop culture, and of the American dream.
NW At one point Atta, when he is visiting Disney World, thinks of it as a mix of “modernist architecture theory and European sorcery . . . A Magic Kingdom under the rule of a despotic king [in which] six false theories of reality, each base and untrue, seep out from the castle . . . Cultural imperialism of the strangest, strongest kind.” These six circles of reality correspond to the six themed areas of Disney World. Walt Disney, obsessed with progeny, begets all of Hollywood culture, and further, contemporary American cultural domination. We return here to the question we’ve been talking about of fiction and non-fiction and of false theories of reality that actually become real. Or is this simply what Disney World is like? I’ve actually never been. (laughs)
JK Oh, you should definitely go. The Magic Kingdom is really good. But the further away you get from Uncle Walt, the worse it gets. Epcot, which opened in the early ’80s, is significantly less sensational, and then each subsequent theme park grows increasingly less interesting. But the Magic Kingdom is fascinating because although it wasn’t finished before Disney’s death, he designed the whole thing, and he designed it as a response to the perceived failures of Disneyland in Anaheim. It is one person’s ego dominating an enormous chunk of land.
NW Is it a space of inherent decline?
JK It depends on your definition of decline! One thing about the Disney people, they have never shied away from throwing money into upkeep. On the other hand, in my metaphorical realm, Walt Disney becomes the Fisher King and the park his Wasteland. The Fisher King guards the Grail and is wounded in his generative organ. The wound infects the kingdom, creating the Wasteland, and makes the land unable to bear crops. The Magic Kingdom is not a reflection of reality, but of Disney’s weird desires for a world without adult consequences and where everything is trapped in perpetual adolescence. It’s not an adolescence that anyone’s ever had, but rather an old man’s view of a simpler time, of the misremembered innocence of childhood. The future is simple and Main Street, USA is simple. And so Disney’s great success, his complete achievement of the American dream, offers a parallel with Atta. To explain that parallel, let’s first mention that Atta was the only hijacker from Egypt. The other pilots were Lebanese and Yemeni, and the muscle were all Saudis. That Atta was Egyptian separated him from the rest.
NW He was also educated in a different way, with his background in architecture and planning. Are you saying that he inhabits a different cultural space than the others?
JK Yes, and one reason is that Egypt has had a relatively easier interaction with modernity than other Arab countries. In the Middle East, people with no experience of modernity were introduced its various ideas and forced to realign themselves around that in the midst of violent colonization. A concept like nationalism is a 19th century European idea, which is imposed on the region—what does it mean to be Iraqi, for example? Iraq is a line drawn by the British around three major groups and a dozen or so smaller ones. Egypt is somewhat different because the Egyptians have a richly preserved architectural and cultural history that offers a constant reminder of an earlier idea of being Egyptian.
NW And they were able to maneuver the transition to cultural modernity, with the great Egyptian modernist cinema for instance.
JK Turkey is similar in that sense. There was always a nebulous idea of a Turkish identity embedded within the Ottoman Empire. But to return to the specificity of Egypt, Atta being Egyptian meant he would have been exposed to what we know as the roots of Islamic fundamentalism. As I understand it, its ideology emerges with Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who came to the USA and attempted to engage with American popular culture. He found it so horrible that, after two years, he radicalized and went back to Egypt. There’s an argument to be made that, like all 20th Century religious fanaticism, the roots of Islamic fundamentalism are American.
NW So Atta must have had that in mind. He was working through these different notions of America, Egypt, and himself in between?
JK I don’t go into this in great depth in the book, but you must imagine that he was well-read enough in a certain type of literature to be aware of Qutb’s journey. Atta in America is an experience of the anxiety of influence. He’s thinking about Qutb—it’s not on the page, but it’s there—and trying to come to terms with being in America himself and what that means. To go back to the American dream, this book offers the great myth in its most perverse possible interpretation. A dark mirror of the American dream. Atta comes here, works harder than everyone around him, and achieves profound prominence. It’s done in the worst way imaginable, but it’s only marginally different than the broad outlines of the myth’s more wholesome iterations, which may say more about the way in which mass communication has warped that dream than it does about the dream itself.
NW He becomes a superstar of unbelievable proportions. It reminded me of Virilio’s writing on the relation between art and war trauma, or Baudrillard and Stockhausen on 9/11 as an aesthetic experience. A terrible reversal of the American dream.
JK The aesthetic dimension of 9/11 is something I’m very uncomfortable with forming concrete ideas about—that’s one of the reasons why ATTA ends where it ends, before the attack. I think that 9/11 has become an incomprehensible event because there are so many different interpretations. It was photographed from every imaginable angle, people have been speaking about it for ten years, and it’s been used as justification for abominable ideas, big and small. It’s as transparent as a Hollywood star. I mean, how can you really think about Jennifer Lopez? The same thing happened to Atta. He’s been written and lied about so much that even the people who knew him can no longer remember him. People remember what they heard on television or what they read in a magazine. The statements Atta’s father made in public immediately after the events were, give or take, reasonable. Five years later, they had become totally crazy. Suddenly Atta is lost.
NW So where does your Atta come from? It’s an indelible characterization.
JK A lot of it is educated guess work. I started with the assumption—based on an observation of Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter—that most of this violence is rooted in sexual frustration and difficulties with women. Men are horrible until they are taught humanity by their lovers, who may not be any better than them, but something about the process softens the individual. Hasan, like Atta, was at an age when culturally there is the expectation for marriage and due to his personal failings, couldn’t figure out how to get the job done. I think the Fort Hood shooting is best understood as a failed suicide attempt. This basic idea was refracted through the work of journalists like McDermott and post-attack research done by the FBI, which produced a “Hijackers Timeline,” that compiles every detail about the 19 hijackers for which the Bureau could find a paper record or other corroboration. The timeline runs in columns going for 300 pages. You get a lot of hyperspecific detail. For instance, there’s a point in my book when Atta calls home. That’s from the timeline—the dialogue is invented, but there was a quick succession of calls, to his mother, his father, his sister, all on the record.
NW But this wasn’t a tapped phone? This was a payphone? He wasn’t being tracked.
JK It was a payphone. The FBI have the calling card number. There’s no way to know what was said during the conversation, but it’s not hard to imagine. It’s the same thing that happens when anyone of a certain age calls their Middle Eastern relatives. When I call the folks in Turkey, the conversation always ends up being a discussion about when I’m going to be married. So with Atta, if you assume that he’s sexually frustrated and has issues with women, and that he’s calling home because he’s lonely, this is his family approaching from the worst possible angle.
NW Can you talk about the way you constructed your narrative? There is a very coherent structure to the book as a whole, but then there are temporal and spatial lapses. At one point, I realized, as I was reading what I took to be quite a seamless narrative, that Atta had suddenly appeared in Portland whereas he had just been in a completely different place.
JK There was an argument with the proofreaders at MIT around a particular word usage. At one point, Atta refers to someone as “middle age” rather than “middle aged.” I wrote a long, tripped out defense of this, because the whole book is meant to be in the present tense—there’s a little future tense, but there’s no past and past perfect tense, so an adjective that references the passage of time would’ve broken the whole scheme. I wanted a book where everything happens simultaneously, where it’s as if Atta is in the fifth dimension looking down at the spatial and relative dimension of time and seeing his own life as not a series of events, but as one simultaneous uninterrupted chain, where each link connects to every other link, forming a giant fourth dimensional hyperball of events. I’m interested in narrative rupture, in a time rupture within a text. This is a book that’s a book. It’s a question I have: How do you signal to the reader that it’s okay to just go with it, that it’s not worth getting too concerned with true or false? How do we signal the artificial nature of a text?
NW You make interesting use of the word “brother” in that regard. As a direct address, it opens the book to the reader, although it is always clear that we’re reading something that can only mimic address. This is complicated by the fact that your readers, presumably, are ideologically opposed to any kind of fraternal ties with Atta. You play around with this question of inclusion and exclusion, reality and artifice quite a lot. What is a sign? What is not a sign? There is a moment in the text when you ask the reader to close the book and to listen to the sound of buildings. As I was reading, I did that, and I realized, Yeah, you always hear something; there is always this kind of humming. This technique somehow brings the conversation Atta has with buildings into reality. What’s talking to him is actually talking to all of us. We’re all participating in this hallucinated reality that he’s participating in. Reality is crazy by dint of being so reliant upon perception and on the strange nature of signs. We’re just not blowing up buildings.
JK Yes, well, that’s part of it, right? It’s a book narrated by someone who is dead. What I was thinking about is Sunset Boulevard, how it’s all told from beyond the grave, and begins with William Holden face down in Gloria Swanson’s pool. The great unanswered question of the film is from where does Holden’s narration emerge? Heaven or Hell? Or is the answer more literal, is the character of Joe Gillis an entity created by Billy Wilder and his co-screenwriters that speaks from the fifth dimension about a string of three dimensional events presented through a two dimensional medium? I couldn’t see any other way to do ATTA than to have an equally artificial narrative. I wasn’t sure how else you could do this book and have it seem genuine without also acknowledging the basic strangeness of the project.
NW Can you elaborate a bit on what that basic strangeness is?
JK I’m going to be careful when I say this because I have a bad tendency of naming other writers as counter examples . . .
NW You’re very careful. You don’t have to be so careful. I’m not the police.
JK I’ve been scolded! But anyway, what is strange about ATTA is that, although I call it a psychedelic biography, it’s well within the tradition of literary fiction, and most recent literary fiction has distanced itself from the wider world. There’s a disengagement with bigger topics on the part of young writers. The model is very small books about very specific things, much of it experiential. People have written books about 9/11, but it’s mostly older writers, people with a certain literary respectability. It’s odd that there isn’t more engagement from younger writers about how terrible the last ten years have been. Young people are the ones who will spend the rest of their lives dealing with the fact that the Bush years were so incredibly fucked up. But maybe that’s the consequence of a decade when everyone was yelling at everyone else to stay inside, stay inside, stay inside. And this shows in the scale of the books being published, both in the mainstream and on smaller presses.
NW I guess people took it as a given than there was no possibility for a real political horizon, apart from self-defense, fear, and the rhetoric of fear. As you say, stay inside.
JK Stay inside and you’ll write a book about sad people in sad apartments. Maybe fiction no longer has a functional validity. I don’t know if there’s a literary culture that can support something like ATTA beyond its obvious immediate audiences, but I should say that lots of people have been very kind and enthusiastic.
NW Maybe we have to build a public for that type of discourse, or find that public. There was an obsession, I guess, with subjectivity in terms of politics, and maybe that’s what led to this interiority that you’re speaking of. People thought actionable politics was just dead and impossible. People didn’t believe in a grand politics beyond the reactionary.
JK I wanted ATTA to engage a younger audience beyond forty-somethings gleaning potential insights about the perils of married life and parenthood from the latest 700 page book by Jonathan Franzen. It’s possible that it worked—one of the first reviews was five stars on Goodreads.com from a deranged Canadian teenager who calls himself Brosephicles. I guess he sits around playing Xbox 360 Live and then reads Deleuze and then goes back to killing the Borgia in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
NW I wanted to ask you about how this book engages with the decade of Wikipedia. ATTA, at times, feels like a stream of constant references. I think that’s a writing style that renews the novel form through the circulation of information.
JK Do you know the writer Iain Sinclair? He was a street poet in the ’70s, self-publishing his own books. In the ’80s, he turned into a cult novelist. And then in the ’90s, he transformed into an essayist. He’s been in London so long that he became its ultimate authority. He can take you down a random street and say, “This is where the Kray Twins kicked the shit out of Jack the Hat, and that’s where T.S. Eliot used to buy peanuts, and that’s where my friend Rachael put on this exhibit.” I haven’t met him. I tried to arrange it through swinging Stewart Home but failed. I hope when I do meet Sincliar that he has no time for me, that he’s brusque and slightly rude. I want the man to be a dark and vengeful God. Anyway, he wrote these incredibly rich essays. His first really successful book came out in 1997, Lights Out for the Territory.
NW Would you say it’s some kind of situationist psycho-geography? Is that his lineage?
JK He appears to have an ambivalent relationship with the term, but nonetheless it’s psycho-geography taken to an unbelievable level. His books are like what you’re talking about. Every sentence is Iain Sinclair mixing and matching high literary culture with the lowest of the low and everything between. You can go down the rabbit hole with him. Sinclair is a huge influence on ATTA because researching Atta as an individual was impossible. So instead, I explored everything around him. I found out about the buildings and cities where he had lived, as well as all of these peripheral elements and then provided the character with the information. It didn’t seem improbable to me that a guy like Atta, interested in architecture and urban planning, without any social life, would investigate what happened in the buildings that he encountered in his daily life. So there are moments of pure psycho-geography where Atta wanders around and gives the history. Where it blossoms to a mysterious and deadening effect is at the end of the book when Atta considers Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the World Trade Center, an architect whose other major commission was destroyed by the federal government.
NW The Pruitt-Igoe Homes in St. Louis . . . At another point Atta also wonders about the distance to Secaucus from Patterson. You have Atta attending to pop culture and Walt Disney, but you also reference the Objectivist poetry of Williams Carlos Williams. I found that hilarious.
JK The reason that is in there—which I didn’t end up developing, but it’s key—is that some of the hijackers’ support in America was located in Patterson, New Jersey. That never led anywhere in terms of narrative. It’s just this cultural reference.
NW I took this as a way to return a political weight to literature. It seems that the political import of writing has shifted since the 1960s, and we leave it to the culture and entertainment industries to produce the bulk of the ideological contexts that we live in. This space of the image—reality TV shows, entertainment idols, even contemporary art—enjoys a much larger public and involves a greater circulation of capital. The move away from language also relates to a crisis in the role of public intellectuals. Your last story, The Whitman of Tikrit, in which you cast Saddam Hussein as Whitman, brought out this anachronism of the literary. Yet at the same time, there are real economic and political issues around information economies, the management and retrieval of data, technologies of surveillance. The kind of research you did for this book, as well as certain inventions on your part, are quite homologous to the workings of anti-terrorist agencies, for example.
JK I’ve been thinking a lot about Norman Mailer. If you take away the sexism, the homophobia, the racism, the unbelievable arrogance, all of his unattractive qualities, he’s a wonderful writer. He’s been overshadowed by Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson because they’re a little more comprehensible and visceral, but Mailer is this Jewish kid from Brooklyn who, out of sheer pugnacity, decided that he would go and wrestle the world. I reread The Armies of the Night a couple of months ago. There’s a section in it called “Why Are We in Vietnam?” It’s one of the smartest things I’ve read. Mailer starts off with, “I know I’m a clown, I know no one takes me seriously, but this is why we’re in Vietnam.” And then he explains the military-industrial complex as the antidialectic irresolvability of America’s Christian character and its love of lucre and then takes the argument further, asking, “How do you get out of Vietnam? How do you defeat the Soviets?” And his answer is, “Just leave it alone, leave the Russians alone. There’s something so fundamentally corrupt and broken internally about their system that they’ll fall apart in five years. Our opposition props them up.” I’m not a wide reader of the political thought of that period, but I’m pretty sure that Mailer was one of the few people actually advocating this. He turned out to be right.
NW How do you think he came to that?
JK He had no training whatsoever in anything that he was talking about. Mailer went to Harvard, but he was in their engineering program. It’s just sheer bravado and literary skill, sitting around and writing, forcibly injecting himself into the debates of his period. Which is still possible, but for whatever reason there aren’t a lot of people who believe in the idea of literature and literary writing as a tool for influencing the dialogue. Not that Mailer himself had much influence beyond a certain set, but he was involved, enough to be noticed. His FBI file is hilarious.
NW He provided an epistemology, which is something that you do in ATTA. You have these great descriptions of the cartoon Tail Spin and the Disney movie The Jungle Book, and even the Odyssey. These are descriptions that are actually images of reality, that say something about how we capture and process reality. The book seems to be a model for how to seize reality in fiction, and to that end, maybe it enables us to see something that wasn’t visible before because of too many conflicting informational threads.
JK Atta ended up being a useful device towards this end, because he avoided as much western media as he could, which means that everything in his eyes is fresh and uninformed by previous consumption. Which allowed me, and hopefully the reader, to embrace wild interpretations of settled fictional and mythological constructs. So it’s possible to look at old things anew, read them textually, and suggest that there’s this whole other way of seeing.
NW In your book HOE #999: Decennial Appreciation and Celebratory Analysis, you describe the pre-9/11 moment which is fundamental to understanding what has happened to New York City since then: gentrification, the Giuliani years, a leveling of culture due to the peaking cost of living so that the city becomes an ersatz of itself.
JK The writing of the two books overlapped. When I was finishing HOE #999, I was starting ATTA. There’s definitely a connection between the two. I moved to New York when I was seventeen, and I was so backwards and immature that it’s like my early childhood was replaced by being in the city, a second childhood. NYC is more like a hometown than anywhere else. Salman Rushdie wrote a book called Fury, which was published a day or two before 9/11. The first two thirds of it are brilliant; he talks about how terrible New York has gotten in the late ’90s, dissects its superficiality, examines how it’s a playground for the rich. I think Fury is the best diagnosis of the transformation ushered in by the Giuliani Era. It could be a perfect book, but Rushie is Rushdie, so in its last third, it spins off into nonsense about an island of misfit toys.
Anyway, I lived for a semester at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 12th Street. In the ’80s, 12th Street at 3rd was a prostitution parking lot. NYU built a dorm on the lot in 1986, so the prostitution trickled down onto 12th Street. And then one day in ’97, the NYPD did a sting. Every John who tried picking up a prostitute was arrested. And that was the end of that block of 12th between 3rd and 2nd being a prostitution zone. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a different argument, but it’s an example of how you could literally watch the city transform block by block, on its cellular level. In the end, though, Bloomberg was worse. Rudy was too weird and too rough to pull off the full transmutation. Big Mike is a dial tone with a bank account. The ’90s were a time of poor people being chased out of the city, the NYPD arresting minorities and physically torturing them, or forging the formalities and simply shooting them in the street. The Bloomberg years are when those techniques refined in the previous decade were turned on the middle classes.
NW But with the Occupy Movement there seems to be an interest in taking back the city.
JK Occupy is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened. Well, okay, that’s hyperbole, maybe not ever, but at least in ten years. And why was their such an angry reaction? Because they’re the first people in ten years to actually go outside.
NW Ultimately 9/11 emptied out the streets, but I remember that in the days just following, there was this moment of grace, three or four days where everyone was really there for everyone else. It was a beautiful moment. But the emotional assault followed quite quickly, you were supposed to be mourning, you couldn’t say anything that was against American foreign policy, suddenly you had to become a patriot.
JK I read an interview with J.G. Ballard where he talked about life in occupied Shanghai and receiving the sense of someone pulling the curtains back and exposing the entire mechanics of the theater of life: the fact that no one was in control and no one knew what was happening. Manhattan immediately after 9/11 was like that. But I think—and maybe I’m combining hobby horses—I think that one of the reasons why the Internet became so culturally dominant in the 2000s is that our entire society was telling itself to stay inside. The message came from all levels. Board up your houses, tape up your windows in the event of a chemical attack. And if no one ventures outdoors, where’s the natural place to go? One of the things that amazes about Occupy is that it feels like the first thing to happen offline in a decade.
NW The Internet reminds me of what you call “post-pornographic society.” I understand this as having to do with a moment when we become digitized in such a way that we’re gone beyond real bodily interaction.
JK What disturbs and compels about pornography is not the sex, which is always a snooze, but that the medium addresses every social issue in the absolute wrong way. Not long after any social event or trend, a pornographic response emerges. It will be incredibly creepy and wrong headed, an underbelly view of public life via the worst excesses of capitalism in which the answer to every social problem is the commodification of desire. A good example is the 2008 election, where Larry Flynt produced a film about Sarah Palin, Who’s Nailin’ Paylin?. An Obama lookalike nails the Palin lookalike. Or now that superhero films have become enormous cash cows, the porn industry has begun producing deeply distressing parodies. It’s part of a growing dialogue, with the language of pornography seeping out into the greater society. Characters in the new 90210 or Gossip Girl who will throw around terms that emerged from the pornographic lexicon. Blake Lively talking about MILFs. My next book is called If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? which is being published by Penny-Ante Editions in Los Angeles. It’s going to be a collection of short stories that are transcriptions of the incidental scenes from celebrity sex tapes.
NW What do you mean incidental, the kind of conversation that happens at the pool before they go inside?
JK Yes, not Kim Kardashian having sex, but Kim Kardashian hanging out at the pool. Paris Hilton dancing awkwardly and using racial slurs. It resembles Beckett, a language that’s banal and devoid of meaning. But the rub is that many of the people in these tapes are also criminals. And they’re not just the kind of criminals who get busted with pot or for punching a paparazzo. Some have killed people. For instance, there’s a tape of Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe, and another with this actress Rebecca Gayheart. Between them they’ve killed two people and served about thirty days in jail. Vince Neil killed one of the guys from Hanoi Rocks. Gayheart killed a nine-year-old, received a suspended sentence, a $2,800 fine and 750 hours of community service. O.J. Simpson made a sex tape. It’s not just about the nature of fame or celebrity but also about wealth and influence. If I were drunk driving and the drummer of Hanoi Rocks ended up dead, I’d be in jail for at least five years. So the book’s another story about America’s great capacity for the perversion of its most fundamental ideals.