The Rumpus Interview with Justin Taylor
2012, Y2K, internet porn, the world has always been coming to an end. Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy (Harper Perennial, February 8th) focuses on a disenfranchised college drop out in 1999 Florida taken in by a band of psuedo-religious anarchists. The protagonist is thrust from a secluded, academic life staring at computer screens and masturbating to a mosh pit existence, living in a house full of punks living life loudly, sexually, no apologies. Seduced by the religion of lawlessness, the book explores just how far faith (or the lack of it) can take people. Though I usually prefer getting my interview subjects drunk, Taylor and I connected over email to puzzle through some big questions. I electronically encouraged him to have a few beers before he answered.
Royal Young: How is internet porn affecting human relationships?
Justin Taylor: The internet didn’t invent pornography, but it did make it ubiquitous and free. My book is set in 1999 in part for the pre-millennial fever that was in the air then, but also because I wanted to capture a time when high-speed internet was just beginning to make itself felt on a culture-wide level. Pornography proved a usefully charged way of exploring the larger phenomenon of constant, limitless access. Of course, it is also interesting in and of itself. The camera is not a dispassionate observer. It demands, for example, a certain amount of lighting in a room. It values what can be seen over what can be merely felt, which is the exact opposite of how real sex works. So if you want to make pornography, as more and more private citizens seem inclined to do, then you have to do it on the camera’s terms. It’s extraordinary how much home-made, non-commercial porn finishes with a guy masturbating himself while his girlfriend kneels on a bath towel, willfully maintaining her good cheer with the patience of a saint. I’m not suggesting that the internet invented the facial, and I’m not saying that it doesn’t have its charms as a finale, but the logic is purely technical: the viewer has to be able to see the money shot. As a result, the image of the copulating couple collapses into a bizarre repetition of the viewer’s own experience, which is of a guy jerking himself off.
Young: And what do you think the impact is when your protagonist, David (and people in general) go from that to a highly sensory, vigorously human environment?
Taylor: If people are using and/or making pornography on their own or with consenting partner(s) for pleasure and to explore their sexuality, then I think it can be a very positive thing. But there is a risk to the individual of forming a solipsistic feedback loop that will eventually make him or her unsuitable company for another live human partner. Which is obviously not a good thing. I don’t think internet porn itself causes that problem, but it can exacerbate it for someone who already has it. Show an alcoholic a bottle of vodka, he’ll drink until he finishes it or you take it away. Show him a swimming pool full of vodka, he’ll drown. In the book, David finds that his taste rapidly refines and narrows into categories he hadn’t even known existed. He gravitates toward the amateur stuff I was talking about a minute ago, because he’s ultimately less interested in the acts documented in the images than in the level of trust (and/or indulgence and/or naivete) that makes the documentation of such an image possible. At one point, he describes himself as a “hyena of intimacy.” So even from the depths of his solipsism he’s yearning for a connection–his attempt to escape those depths inaugurates the main action of the novel. David goes very quickly from an intense level of isolation to an intense level of connection, which is a common experience for converts in general, and that’s part of why the first chapter, “The Confessions,” takes its title from Augustine. David “confesses” his life, to himself and therefore to the reader, and this somehow primes him for an intercession. In another chapter, a character named Liz reminds herself that “for repentance to emerge, a person first must despair with a vengeance.” She doesn’t attribute the quote, but it’s Kierkegaard, from The Sickness Unto Death, and he’s talking more or less about the same thing.
Young: Is 2012 the next Y2K? And why are people so concerned about gospels and the end of the world anyway?
Taylor: Yeah, probably. People have always been concerned about the end of the world, I think fear for the end of the world is a screen for a much deeper fear: that of a world which persists in your absence. When people imagine the Apocalypse, they typically imagine themselves as the hero of it, somehow. Y2K or 2012 or whatever are just convenient cultural pegs for the general fear. When there’s nothing ready-to-hand like those, someone will make something up, like William Miller and his Great Disappointment. He had decided through some calculation or other that the world would end on October 22, 1844. As good a guess as any, I suppose. Cannier fellows, like the hate-filled creeps who wrote the Left Behind novels, insist on the imminence of The End but won’t commit to a date, so they can never be proven wrong. A lot of millenarian movements are political. The Left Behind guys are mostly looking to gin up anger and violence on the far right, but the energies themselves are a-political; it’s a question of who puts them to use.
Young: Why Florida?
Taylor: Florida is my bones and blood. It’s where I’m from. I grew up in South Florida, and went to college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where the book is set. The time-period and particulars of the novel don’t match up with my own biography, but a few things are close enough to raise some eyebrows. To write this book the way I wanted to, I had to delve deeply into to my experience of the place and the land. A lot of it was written from memories, but I also went back to Gainesville while I was working and visited a lot of the places and things I was writing about: The Devil’s Millhopper, the bat house, the planet statues. I was with my mom and my sister, so we didn’t go dumpster diving, but neither the restaurant nor the dumpster are imaginary. Both are right where I say they are, and if you do what Thomas and Liz do, you’ll eat.
Young: Why the attraction to punk and what have your personal experiences with punk been?
Taylor: Punk isn’t like a person you’re dating, or a city where you live. Or maybe it is to someone involved in a really coherent, codified scene. I know those scenes exist, though I’ve never been part of one. Like a lot of people, I went through my high school punk phase; because of when I came of age, this included a lot more regrettable ska-punk than it otherwise might have. Somewhere (not on the internet, thankfully) there are some pictures of me at like fifteen with my hair frozen in spikes, wearing a homemade Bruce Lee Band tee shirt–that kind of thing. My favorite shirt I ever made, actually, wasn’t for a band, but said “Support Freedom Firebomb a Walmart,” in red and black Sharpie. How punk is that? And do I sound like an old person if I say it was a more innocent time, pre-Columbine, when you could go to school in your “Firebomb a Walmart” shirt and nobody even looked at you sideways? But this was a relatively short-lived phase for me, in part for exactly that reason–nobody cared if you wanted to play dress-up with your clothes or your politics, and I didn’t have it in me to do anything truly anti-social. At the end of the day, I was a book nerd. In college I got involved in activist politics, and that has a natural overlap with segments of the population you might as well call “punk.” Local music was a big part of grassroots/DIY culture, and Gainesville has always had a very vibrant music scene. I went to a lot of shows.
Young: Will punk ever die?
Taylor: Lynne Tillman once described punk as being a very Catholic movement. I’m not certain, but I think the full quote is in Up is Up But So is Down, Brandon Stosuy’s book about the downtown NYC literary scene in the ’70s and ’80s. Anyway, Tillman is right-on in terms of punk during that period, but I think it’s equally clear that latter-day punk has conceded its status as a movement and become something more like a sensibility (or in its debased form: a pose). For what it’s worth, I think punk is more interesting as an elastic, evolving, and purposefully inchoate designation than as another failed opposition movement, musical or otherwise. Think about it this way: big-c Communism can die, and may already have, but small-s socialism and small-a anarchism never will, because they represent inherent human urges for justice, freedom, decency and mutual aid. You can call them anything you want, but that’s still what they are. Whatever punk represents in its broadest philosophical sense is similarly inherent–there will always be a segment of people who want what it has to offer. What they’ll do with that offering is an open question, but watching them try to answer it will always be interesting.
Young: I had a cousin who rode the rails for years, spending her summers in Tompkins Square Park and her winters down South. Then she got pregnant and now works for NPR. What do you think divides the people who leave this life and those who stay in it forever or self-destruct?
Taylor: I’ve known a lot of people like your cousin. There was definitely something about them that was–different. It was mysterious and enchanting to be around them, hear their stories, though it also must be said that a lot of them were truly fucked up in un-enchanting ways. Some people are living the drop-out life because they are looking for something, or because they believe it is the only way to live without blood on their hands. It’s very monk-like, or it can be. Others are using concepts like anarchism as ideological cover for serious personal problems that they don’t want to deal with in the straight world. Substance abuse, psychological trauma–you name it. But you can really only judge people as individuals. Just because a guy is a drunken schizophrenic it doesn’t mean his moral critique of capitalism is invalid. It just means you don’t want him crashing on your couch. I also have an old friend who quit trainhopping after she got pregnant. She struggled incredibly hard to make her life into something where her child could live and flourish–and she did it. Other people either got a little older and got tired of running around, or their politics changed, or they died. Some OD’d. One died of an asthma attack for want of an inhaler, but that’s the insurance industry for you. As far as I’m concerned, pay-to-play access to medicine constitutes class warfare; his death was a war crime. Anyway, it’s easier to re-boot your life if you have money, and family and friends to support you, but what isn’t?
Young: What has been your most religious experience?
Taylor: Truly transcendent moments seem to lose something in the re-telling–they tend to be fleeting, and rooted in some feeling of extreme presence: a stronger or better sense of self, or of synchronicity between the self and the universe. When writing is going very well it can feel that way, and this is what Katy has in mind when she goes to the Devil’s Millhopper in chapter two. Art is not a religion, but the making of it and the reception of it can both qualify as devotional acts. The earliest draft of this novel, which was really more like a long short story (twenty thousand words, give or take) was written in one sitting in a cafe in the East Village. This was about four years ago, on a snowy day around Christmas. It took ten hours and a whole legal pad, and there are no words to describe how powerfully good and right it felt. When it was over my arm was killing me, and the draft itself was utter junk (next to nothing from it survives to the finished book) but what I salvaged from what I wrote was far less important than the experience of the writing, and having the memory of that experience to draw on when I sat down to re-write it and re-write it. The most amazing part of this anecdote, it seems to me, is that the baristas let me hang out for that long when all I’d bought was a small coffee in the morning. And granted, I was a regular at that place, but still. If you’re looking for evidence of things not seen, I’d say start there.