Christopher Bollen’s sophomore novel, Orient, is the kind of book that seems like it was written in a war room. Reading it, you can almost see the big board: an oversized map of the North Fork of Long Island, a margin of suspects, leads and alibis, motives and crime scenes, all connected with string. Structurally, this murder mystery is a throwback to classic suspense writing. In execution, however, Orient abounds with high lyricism. Long Islandese is rendered as “a saxophone of vowels.” When tragedy is recounted, it’s with “a sharp tug in his voice, like Christmas lights yanked from a tree.”
Christopher has been Interview Magazine’s Editor at Large for the past seven years. For the past ten years, he’s been in conversation with the world’s most interesting artists—Eric Fischl, Michael Stipe, Ai Wei Wei, Errol Morris, Ed Ruscha, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Patti Smith, Roman Polanski—and developed a master’s hand at rendering biography with a few brushstrokes. Take these examples from Orient: “Paul looked tired without his glasses, like a man forced to row a boat at sea with a spoon;” “Vince had something of the owner of a vicious dog in him;” “August Floyd watched with the bleary enthusiasm of a farmer who had survived a decade of near-death alcoholism… His slackened face only blinked when the wind swept the rain against his broken nose.” This skill, painting character in a sharp and swift enough way that it stays with the reader for hundreds of pages, is essential in a murder mystery where everyone assembled at the town hall is a possible suspect.
Though the mystery recalls black-and-white Hitchcock, the description of the art world in Orient is bright and now. In both reality and fiction, a handful of wildly successful young artists have left downtown’s long nights for the relative calm of rural life, upsetting real estate prices and whatever psychic calm is to be found in the suburbs. Tension between native residents and the suburban colonizers pulls the conventional ‘stranger comes to town’ trope in new directions that seem prescient in a world where cities are too expensive for anyone who works outside of finance.
Christopher and I met twice—once before I figured out whodunit, once after. After a lengthy discussion on the nature of spoilers, we concluded that our personal inability to look away meant that our first conversation would be better for readers.
The Rumpus: When did you know you had a murder mystery in you?
Christopher Bollen: The murder mystery was the first form of literature that I fell in love with. In fact, it was the gateway drug to all of my reading and writing. So, in the back of my mind, I always lionized the murder mystery, but I didn’t think I would get around to writing one this young. It seemed like something I would do, maybe with a pseudonym, much later.
Rumpus: Was there one mystery novel in particular that got you going?
Bollen: It was Agatha Christie. I was in sixth grade when I began my Agatha Christie obsession. I would say the book of hers that influenced me the most was Ten Little Indians—which is so brilliantly structured. It’s basically the archetype of horror movies: one by one, people are dropping dead in an isolated, secluded environment.
Rumpus: Where is it set?
Bollen: It’s set on an island off of England. The host, U.N. Owen, invites ten strangers to his mansion.
Rumpus: Like Clue.
Bollen: It’s really like Clue, but also like Friday the Thirteenth. So many stories can be traced back to that book.
Rumpus: In suspense writing, and maybe just in writing, there seem to be two ways of generating interest from the reader: withholding information, like in a whodunit, or by telling the reader on the first page exactly what’s going to happen—the mystery being how we end up at our known destination.
Bollen: Yes, I have a lot to say about that. The whodunit is a lost art. People aren’t doing whodunits anymore. It’s all police procedural now, and that’s what you’re talking about with the latter form of suspense writing. Whodunits went out with Murder, She Wrote. And now, it’s watch this person, usually a police officer, solve this crime. And it’s never really a surprise who does it in the end. Rarely. Occasionally there’s a good twist. But for the most part it’s simply a number of steps they take, and that can be interesting, but it’s not what I wanted to do.
I find it interesting that our culture prefers the police procedural to the whodunit. Is it because we ran out of abilities to surprise the reader or audience with a twist, and everyone’s a suspect? I mean, it’s literally impossible to write a book that hasn’t already followed some other game plan of how to surprise or shock the viewer, audience, or reader. So instead, we’ve turned to the biography of the detective or the police officer.
Rumpus: That puts us in a comfortable realm where we have no chance of being a criminal ourselves, right? Whereas if the story was open-ended, then we could be complicit in our sympathies, as readers, with someone whom we shouldn’t be identifying with. We’d be implicating ourselves in the murder. But the police procedural seems to free us from guilt.
Bollen: It does. Speaking of complicity, there’s a book by Agatha Christie called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which is a Hercule Poirot mystery, but told from the perspective of a doctor. It ends with a beautiful twist: the narrator and protagonist ends up being the killer. You get this amazing Christie twist, where you’re relating to, of course, your storyteller. And your storyteller ends up being the murderer.
I purposefully didn’t want to write a book, this time, where the detective was an outsider who comes into a community after the murder because he—let’s just say he because it’s usually a he—has nothing to lose. There’s no risk involved other than possible embarrassment or loss of his job—because he’s never really invested in the community. I wanted characters who have something to lose if they don’t figure out what’s going on.
Bollen: Safety, reputation, their lives, their friends, and their world. Writers typically try to avoid that because it’s not expedient. When you have a private eye, you can set the murder on page one, and the private eye comes in right away and begins investigating. The chessboard’s already set up. But when you do it the other way, you have to set up the chessboard in the early chapters, so the reader cares and understands why these residents will end up investigating the crimes—because that’s not a normal thing to do. So, it takes a little longer.
Rumpus: Some of your residents are artists who have moved to Orient after leaving New York City. What struck me the most about your depiction of the art world is that same sense of investment. You talk about art, it seems, from the inside rather than from the outside.
Rumpus: You’re critiquing the art world, playfully, but the people who issue the critiques and receiving the critiques both have a lot at stake.
Bollen: Well, I had worked in art world. That’s actually sort of what I did as my job after I left college. I couldn’t write novels when I got out of school. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have the courage to, and I didn’t know how. But I did start writing art reviews for Artforum, and Time Out, and that’s sort of been the backbone of my magazine work. Most of my friends are artists and not writers—visual artists. So it’s a world I knew really, really well. I approached it from an inside vantage. I didn’t want it—we’ve talked about this before, and I’m curious about what you have to say—I didn’t want it to be a parody of the art world, which is so often what happens with contemporary art. You know, it’s an easy way to read the art world: it’s just a mockery, a money making scheme, a bunch of brats who don’t really have any, you know, talent, they’re just twisting things, blah blah blah. What about you?
Rumpus: Well, you create fictional artwork in this book, right?
Rumpus: Nathan is a conceptual artist and you describe his work, which is a little different than writing about paintings, in a way that reads as fictional conceptual art.
Bollen: He makes art that I always wanted to make. I also think I was creating work with Gavril’s sculptures. There’s a chapter that gets really into the art world, that you haven’t read yet, but where it’s all the art world. And you know what’s so funny is that, very few people have read the entire book, because it’s not out until tomorrow, but one artist said, “Oh, God, Gavril’s work seems so awful,” and I thought, I almost took it personally, like, Excuse me? I worked really hard on that sculpture!
Bollen: But I understand how some people could think it looks awful. It’s really hard to write about art in general. But it’s exceptionally hard to fictionalize art and make work that isn’t a parody, or is something that could withstand critique and exist in the art world as a valuable object, or a true piece—I’m gonna ask you, you also made art in your book.
Bollen: So how did you—and you’re not from an art background, per se, like I was. So, how did you approach that?
Rumpus: I was making conceptual art with weak concepts. But then in executing a concept, in selecting material, designing form, planning logistics, sculpting, a few really weak concepts died off. Actually doing it allowed me to better understand a world I didn’t know. I didn’t start as far as you did with the right material for each piece—like how you envisioned the boiler suit artwork in Orient, right?
Bollen: Boiler Spoiler.
Rumpus: And Boiler Spoiler is potentially a real work of conceptual art—whatever that twisted phrase means. It’s more than just an abstract idea. It has this sense that it could play out in the world. But, we’ll talk about that later. I want to get back to murder.
Colin Wilson. He’s the first person I read who drew a parallel between the mind of the artist and the mind of the criminal. I think he went further than drawing a parallel and said it’s the same worldview. Orient puts us in that frame of mind. We start to question what’s permissible in art, the role of transgression in art, possibly even the necessity of transgression in art. We begin to suspect that not only are the artist and the criminal similar, they may be one and the same.
Bollen: But the story is also in that moment when these artists are moving into a more culturally mainstream, acceptable situation—they’re basically being funded by billionaires and moving into these bourgeois, or rather conservative, environments. At the same time there’s that criminality that’s always been attached to artists as outsiders, artists as transgressors, it does seem like an odd time. Which artist do you know who is an actual transgressor?
Rumpus: Well, this is kind of the problem. Colin Wilson’s comment works best for failed artists, right? Pent-up artistic frustration is close to the sense of a criminal as a pressed-down spring that eventually springs. Are there any failed artists in Orient?
Bollen: Beth’s a failed artist. She’s not a failed artist in the sense that she was making real art that wasn’t real, I mean, maybe. But she wasn’t making transgressive art. One could hardly think of what she was doing as transgressive.
Rumpus: Until she took the knife to the canvas.
Bollen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rumpus: And it was mistaken as being transgressive art.
Bollen: Gavril thinks that’s like a much better move.
Bollen: And it is, probably. The work actually does seem like it would be better.
Rumpus: Not to play the roman à clef game, but when I read ‘Gavril,’ Gavin Brown immediately came to mind.
Bollen: Interesting, I never made that connection. I love Gavin. I can see that, that’s so weird. I never ever connected Gavril with Gavin, but, in a bizarre way, I can see how they might even look somewhat alike. That’s so funny. God, I never thought of that, that’s so interesting.
Rumpus: That suggests to me that you gave yourself complete freedom to invent the work of the four artists.
Rumpus: So this is all you fictionalizing art?
Rumpus: That’s excellent.
Bollen: Yeah, I didn’t want to steal from anyone. That’s the question people keep asking: who were you ripping off? They want to know who I was lampooning. But I purposefully avoided using any individual artists. There are certain moments where artwork might seem like it’s part of someone’s career—if you really know the art world—, but I did my best to prevent that overlap.
Rumpus: In the real world there’s overlap between artists. Conceptual artists’ works overlap with those of other conceptual artists, inadvertently. I think that anytime you start dealing in concept, you start to deal in overlap.
Bollen: Exactly. If you’ve been in the art world for more than eight years, you realize another generation is making the exact same work as the previous generation—but treating it like it’s never been done before. It becomes very cyclical very quickly. But also, Luz’s arrogance is something that I witness constantly with artists.
Rumpus: I’m glad you brought her up. She’s was actually the exact next person I wanted to talk about.
Bollen: I really enjoyed writing her.
Rumpus: She’s my favorite character so far.
Bollen: Me too. I really loved writing her.
Rumpus: She is a perfect example of the kind of critique from the inside that you’re talking about. There’s satire there—
Bollen: A little bit.
Rumpus: But it’s playful in the way that, you know, that you look at yourself in the mirror and satirize your own expression. So, give me a little bit of Luz’s background.
Bollen: You know those people who come off really haughty and very cerebral? They’re tough and belligerent, and your first reaction is to move away from them because they’re so aggressive. But then you realize that a lot of what they were saying is totally correct, too.
It’s interesting, this has happened to me often, with certain personalities in the art world. At first you’re just like, oh, my God, you are insane. Then you realize, when you think about what they’re saying, oh, my God, you’re totally sane.
Rumpus: And that’s in New York. I think it’s important that a lot of the artists in your book have left the city in search of sanity. They’re trying to find a lighthouse.
Rumpus: They’re trying to find something that will anchor them and make sense of everything. Were the artists in your book running from New York with these same hopes?
Bollen: It’s curious to me how people I know in the art world slowly started moving away from the city, and then quickly started moving away from the city.
First the outer boroughs, and now the outer boroughs are too expensive or are limiting— It’s not a very inspiring—I mean, I love New York, but it’s not a very inspiring place for creativity. It’s very expensive, but not even in a Rome type of expensive. It’s like corporate bank expensive.
Rumpus: I think there’s the possibility of reading your title and the city as an imperative, that what’s lacking in New York is the sense of orientation. Orient (yourself)!
Bollen: Exactly. I have a new theory about New York—as New Yorkers, we generate new theories about the city on a monthly basis. My current theory is that New York doesn’t really exist. That it’s not actually a physical place; it’s just a bunch of ideas crammed together. So, that’s why your mood of it changes daily, like, just like your thoughts do. There is no New York—it’s just like a concept that you’ve created for it; it’s like eight million moods.
Rumpus: Lacking orientation.
Bollen: And there is no real orientation, exactly.
Rumpus: The other orientation that’s happening is sexual. Mills, early on in the book, comes out to Beth. And he announces it in this aggressive way. He challenges her—
Bollen: ‘Just say it.’
Rumpus: ‘Just say what you’re thinking.’ To what what extent did the title Orient resonate with sexual orientation?
Bollen: First of all, the whole reason that I wrote the book was because of the word orient. Honestly, that came before any thought of what the book was. It was just the word orient, and the place Orient. I knew that it would be a great name for a book. I knew that it would generate in my head a lot of writing, and I couldn’t not do sexual orientation. It’s just one of the denotations of the word. But, I also felt like I had not written a gay character very well in my first novel, Lightning People. There is an older gay man, but everyone else is straight. That really bothered me that I did that. I didn’t make any of the young characters gay. It seemed, I don’t know whether it was safe, or—I don’t know. There’s like a zillion reasons why characters end up existing that are beyond your control, but that bothered me that I didn’t do it. And I really wanted for this book to have a gay character that I believed in.
It’s also a funny time. In the course of writing Orient, gay marriage became more acceptable. The world sort of became much more liberal towards homosexuality in the three years that I wrote this book. But, I wanted to create a feeling that there was, that it’s simultaneously much easier and more acceptable to be gay, but it’s not New York City—and it actually isn’t, we’re not 100 percent there, and it is still hard to be a young gay person growing up in anywhere in America, outside of New York City—possibly.
The drifter and the orphanhood of Mills is something of an American trope. The orphan from the west coming to New York. Mills homelessness spoke to me—I think anywhere from twenty to forty percent of the young homeless population in New York is homosexual, and, you know, kicked out of homes because they were gay. Mills didn’t have a home to get kicked out of, really.
Rumpus: Well it fits with the economy of secrets that is it work in this book. With Mills and his neighbor, Tommy, there’s a sense that if you don’t have a secret, then you’re really not a participant in the economy of a place like Orient, which is centered around secrets. Here’s Mills:
Whenever a man Mills presumed was gay, turned out to be straight, the aura about him crumbled, the clues reassembling into the most indistinct of brand of human being. Normal. Hiding nothing. A mind like a weathervane, that moved with the prevailing winds.
Bollen: Oh, that really does happen to me in real life. When you think someone’s gay, and you’re very excited, and you suddenly realize that they’re just heterosexual, it’s so disappointing in a way.
Rumpus: It feels like there are these, you know, these parallel economies happening. What are the economies that work in Orient?
Bollen: With Beth, I wanted to create a secret that she had that was the heterosexual equivalence of being gay. And the only one that I could think of was that’s she’s pregnant, but wants to keep it a secret. I don’t know. It made sense to me.
Rumpus: And she prolongs the secret. There are certainly moments when she could blurt out, “I’m pregnant,” but instead she keeps her secret.
Bollen: It’s like the opposite of being gay; saying you’re pregnant is the most acceptable secret, the most inviting or welcoming announcement, and that’s almost what she fears. It’s like that trap, that obligation of having to enter this community wholeheartedly.
Rumpus: I’m not sure what the real etymology is on this, but it seems like there’s a parallel between secret and security, and that those two are both very much at play in the book. There’s a sense of the impossibility of maintaining security. (The early plot driven by two rival security firms in Orient.) To what extent can secrets be secure?
Bollen: Secrets are never secure because they are always at risk of being found out, but, I really do, and maybe this has something to do with homosexuality, I don’t know, but secrets, in some weird way, are the one thing that are yours alone, and that you need to protect the most—I mean, I don’t believe in this world of letting everything about yourself be online; it terrifies me. So much of one’s identity is about guarding certain things about oneself, or keeping things super private or closed. So, yeah, I think there’s that tension between who you are and what secrets you keep.
I don’t think secrets are a bad thing. I think there’s this idea that everything needs to be transparent in order for it to be free. Okay, but that doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to be completely transparent. There are things that I would hate to have come out that would be embarrassing to me, or are also too private or too meaningful. I don’t operate in this economy of giving away everything.
I was just thinking about this the other day: the more people reveal online, like on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, the less of a person they seem, the less of an interesting person they seem, or a developed person. And the people not on social media seem more intriguing and multi-dimensional. Which is so interesting, that the less you give, the more you seem to have about your own character, right?
Rumpus: You assume a hidden reserve.
Bollen: Exactly, that people who take pictures all the time. It’s not true, I don’t think that’s actually, maybe, accurate, that people who are constantly Instagramming don’t have as developed personal lives or intelligence, as people who aren’t, but there is that feeling.
Rumpus: Yeah, but maybe that’s just a moment in time. Kim Kardashian might get a Guggenheim for her book of selfies.
Bollen: Yeah, you never know.
Rumpus: It’s a Rizzoli book.
Bollen: She’s certainly drawing crowds.
Rumpus: She lives on a tightrope. You’re safe when you’re private, it seems like it’s a, you’re powerful when you’re private, especially in the world of Orient, but there’s a cost. When you create a fence, you keep people out, but you also limit your mobility.
Bollen: Oh, completely. And that happens to Tommy, for example. That happened to me. My mother was actually—none of the characters are at all similar to my family members, but we did have an alarm system growing up, and my mom also did that thing where she would constantly turn the alarm on, even though we were home. She always had to unset it when you went out, which announced when you were leaving and entering, and it became very much like a police state. I always thought it was so manipulative, like, it announced to the house whenever you were home at night, even though they pretended not to be worried about curfews.
Rumpus: I mean, do you think that the metaphor holds all the way through for an alarm system, kind of, being like the way that you navigate the world that you maintain this fencing that keeps people out and keeps you safe, because people are out, but also limits your interactions? I mean, in your personal life, do you think that’s true?
Bollen: Completely. I’m looking at getting this cabin, and whether or not I will is its own story, but it’s the first time I’ve bought land or bought anything besides clothing or books. I literally don’t own anything at all. And so, I think maybe that with some of my interest in Mills, or my identification with Mills, without even realizing it, was that feeling of homelessness that comes from not owning anything. In a way, he is the freest character. Because he doesn’t own anything, he doesn’t have to worry about protecting anything except his life. But of course, that also makes him a really easy target.
Rumpus: If your character Luz were to read Orient, she might see at its heart a feminist critique of the public/private dichotomy—that women traditionally have been forced into the private realm while men were free to explore the world writ large and public. You have Adam’s security firm trying to push everything into the private. Traditionally, that’s been a place of disempowerment, because when women are confined to the private sphere they, A.) lack opportunity, and B.) are subject to domestic violence, things don’t get voiced in private world.
Bollen: “The private is political.” It’s just as political, what you do in the bedroom is just as political as what you do in public. It’s just as much as open for debate. It’s interesting to think about how Luz would read the book.
Rumpus: Your life seems to embody the same tension: ostensibly, the Editor at Large of Interview Magazine would be extroverted, out and about, you know, at large; you go to a lot of events, talk to a lot of people, but I know you as an introverted person.
Bollen: I’m completely introverted.
Rumpus: I see you as an introverted, private person, yet you have this very public role. How do you resolve that?
Bollen: So interesting, because I know, I think that most people think of me as really extroverted, and I just looked at those pictures, where I’m with artists, and it’s like who?—I don’t even recognize the person that I am in these pictures—which embarrassed the fuck out of me because it looks like this cheesy, happy, person tried to wedge himself into a photograph.
I almost feel like it’s camouflage. I can protect the private part of myself if I seem like I’m really public—sort of out and about. I’m really much better at asking questions than answering them, since asking questions is like a constant deflection of oneself. Listening to other people—and Mills says it, too—gay men are forced to be patient listeners.
Rumpus: He resents that.
Bollen: Right. Well, it’s like, when you can’t talk about your personal life, all you can do is listen to other peoples’, and that’s terrible, I mean, it’s an annoying, tragic, awful thing.
I like to be alone, I mean, I really love to be alone more than anything else, and I don’t really like to talk about myself to death, and I don’t like to share too much, and I don’t really have dreams of extreme fame or even extreme respect. I’d take, ‘I’ve heard of him,’ and ‘Maybe I’ll read that..’
Rumpus: So, one of the writers whom we’ve talked about, whom I know you admire, is Rachel Kushner. In her work there’s this sense of always maintaining freedom, never being comfortable hemmed in, whether it’s in the public sphere, or the private sphere. That’s certainly how I read The Flamethrowers, as being this declaration of independence, and—
Bollen: Yeah, totally.
Rumpus: And I get that with, I think, every character that we sympathize with in Orient: Paul has freedom through the introverted life, or introspective life, in the private realm; Gavril, as more of an extrovert, would maintain that being an artist necessitates being free from scruples. Mills, has a young notion of freedom, and Beth is confronting the fact that she might not have as free of a life as she hopes if she chooses—
Bollen: Whether she can still get out of it, like, suddenly she thinks that maybe I can actually not follow through on this decision. I totally respect that. But, they’re not free like in a Kushnerian sense, like, I think they’re all also trapped.
Rumpus: That, to me, seems like the heart of the suspense in Orient. You have a small town mores exerting pressure against freedom, people fight over lawn demarcations, and it’s the suburbs, so you can’t walk anywhere. Were you conscious of the tension between freedom and security? How important is freedom to crime?
Bollen: Well, I mean, traditionally, the detective novel is considered one of the most conservative forms because it’s about a murder, there’s a crisis of society, there’s chaos, and the detective comes in and saves the day—he tucks everything back, apprehends the killer, solves the murder, and then society continues in its regular game position. But, I don’t know, I don’t think that’s true at all. Murder is the worst crime you can commit, and it does throw everything up in the air, especially if you suspect your own neighbors.