The Rumpus Interview with Noah Cicero


Noah Cicero is the author of The Human War (Fugue State Press, 2003), The Condemned (Six Gallery Press, 2006), Burning Babies (Parlor Press, 2006), Treatise (A-Head Publishing, 2008), and The Insurgent (Blatt, 2010). Since its release, The Human War has become a favorite of the literary underground and is being adapted to film. Best Behavior (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2011) is his sixth novel.

I have read a lot of Noah Cicero’s work. I read The Insurgent six times. His latest novel, Best Behavior, I have read twice. I rarely re-read books because I am a slow reader, addicted to new experiences yet prone to overwhelming feelings.

But Noah has this natural ability to make you think. Maybe it is his familiar tone, the conversational way he makes sentences. Maybe it is about how he simplifies profound and complex ideas. I feel that I am learning from him. That this knotted up mass of confusion and anxiety in me unravels a little more each time I read his books and essays. That’s partly why I recently asked him to join as a contributor for We Who Are About To Die. It’s not that I always think the way he does or always agree with what he says, but that I somehow more easily resolve my own thinking through reading his.

Something about how he comes across in writing warmly invites dialogue, so I took the invitation and asked Noah some of the many questions that Best Behavior stirred in me. As it turns out they were just questions about life.


The Rumpus: How autobiographical is Best Behavior? I recognized elements from your life, or whatever I know of it. If it’s memoir, why not call it memoir? I feel like many of us write about our lives but we take advantage of the freedom of fiction. Do you feel that way? Like, on an existential level there really is no fiction or truth, just your perception of events, your retelling of them and your imagination. But in a sense, those things are all “true.” How do you feel about fiction, memoir and truth?

Noah Cicero: Best Behavior is completely autobiographical. Probably the situations happened, but some of the conversations never happened. Also I gave histories to people that were somewhat made up or totally made up. The life story of the journalist is completely made up. I didn’t know anything about the journalist, I just went off what she seemed like. I based her more on people I know in Youngstown that are in college and very career driven.

I don’t think there is any real truth, only interpretation. Philosophy and religion are just interpretations of data. Scholarship is interpreting interpretations. Best Behavior is pure interpretation. My theory has always been that if I am completely honest, then I will be able to tap into a larger consciousness, because I am like everyone else living in this society or Western culture. I am no one special, just another body, another person, a particle amongst particles.

Concerning fiction I will go with the Sartrean idea that the artist is not separate from their art. Even if it is a vampire novel, the novel arises from who you are, what country, era, social class, and race you resonate from. I use the word resonate, because we are merely sounds that come from the vibrating string.

Rumpus: I know that you often think on a large scale because you think about, and study, things like history, philosophy and politics, but how serious are you in the introduction to Best Behavior when you say you wanted to write a book that would define a generation? Sometimes I feel like if I think about these things too much I will be crushed under the weight of the world. If it is possible to define a generation, what gives you the hope or idea that you could be the one to do it, and how do you handle what seems like such an amazing responsibility?

Cicero: I went on the trip to New York without any intention of writing a novel about it. Then I got back from New York and thought, “Oh, there might be a novel here. One that takes place in Youngstown and then moves to New York. That would describe a lot of different characters from different parts of America.” Then it occurred to me that would be what one would call, “A Great American Novel” or something. So I had a unique experience that I did not expect and decided to describe it the best I could.

I feel that handling that responsibility is not easy. I feel very stressed out to the point that my body is having problems, I have headaches all the time, psoriasis from stress, hemorrhoids from stress, I smoke too much, have to lay in a quiet room a lot to calm down. I have to not be scared. In the mountaintop speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I’m not fearing any man.” I am no longer afraid. But this leads me to internalize a lot of these emotions which leads to physical problems.

I just read that back and thought, “I look cocky.” I don’t really know what “novel that defines a generation” means. I don’t even know if that matters to anyone that isn’t involved heavily in literature. It is fun though to say and give things that title. Defining a generation is something Americans do, probably because we are obsessed with ourselves, like Roman historians. The Romans were obsessed with themselves. Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius and Plutarch wrote all these histories in honor of the beauty of Rome. Americans are obsessed with their greatness, their empire, their beautiful rights. Americans are a lucky people, not because of their democracy, but because the British landed on the best piece of the Americas, it is really the only part of the Americas that is easy to cross, has good weather, and has lots of potential for growing food and raising livestock. Several countries in South America have land to grow crops but they aren’t easily traversable. Americans live on fertile land which has led to greatness. A book that attempts to define a generation is a love song to oneself.

Rumpus: Besides Tao Lin (who I think you agree is a possibility) is there anyone else right now you think could define your generation via literature with you (or even not in literature, maybe in music or something)?

Cicero: I think Tao, Sam Pink and Scott McClanahan have written amazing books and will continue to write more. Ana Carrete and Kendra Grant Malone’s poetry books are incredible also. You have to remember we are all young. We are all 32 and younger. We are all living in the moment and thinking with our ADHD American brains, “I want this now.” But there is 30 good more years of writing that will come from those people and hopefully from myself.

Rumpus: Being an oversexed young woman, I could not help but notice that many (all?) of the girls in Best Behavior are described in terms of what they look like, particularly how nice their butts are. I think it’s hot, and to me it just feels like girl’s butts are an important aspect to you, like red tape to Kafka or cats to Murakami. But other people could easily ignore the rest of your awesome treatment of female characters and accuse you of sexism. Did you notice you were doing that in the novel and did you think about how it would be perceived? Did you ask your girlfriend what she thought about it maybe at some point during the writing or was it not even a thing you thought of?

Cicero(‘s girlfriend): This is Brittany Wallace, Noah’s girlfriend. He wants me to answer this question. I wasn’t with Noah when he wrote Best Behavior. I’ve mentioned to him before that I could see how readers may be offended by certain parts in his books. He responded with a concerned look on his face, “I’ve already written it. It’s out.” I think Noah thinks about the human body a lot, and for him, the endthought of that thinking lands on women’s asses. In his writing he tends to portray every character, including himself, as kind of asshole-ish, regardless of gender. In real life, I’ve never seen him display any behavior that would lead me to believe he is a sexist.

Rumpus: Do you ever think about movements? Sometimes when I think about you, Tao Lin, Sam Pink and others, I think about the Beats writing letters to each other, or De Beauvoir and Sartre strolling down the Champs-Élysées or something. Seems like Dalí and Picasso each defined a thing individually, but they also had common interests and became friends and now we call it a movement because it sparked something. Sometimes I think that for things to happen there has to be a group, it doesn’t have to be a big group, just a few people that each cover their own little areas but overlap like coaxial circles. Do you ever think you are in a movement? Do you think that attempting to start or be in a movement is pretentious? Do you think Tao wants to be the leader of a movement? Who else would be in your movement? What is a movement? (Feel like I said movement so many times it lost meaning.)

Cicero: I think this is a movement. It started out small but slowly started to grow. I think that would mean movement, moving toward something. A movement spreads like a plague infecting people exponentially until it reaches its limit. Considering that it has grown to a size where HTML Giant gets thousands of hits a day and where, when the The Human War came out it sold barely any copies and now when I release a book it actually sells some copies I think proves it has grown. Literary movements can take a long time though: Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg met each other in like 1942 and their books didn’t sell on a large scale until the early 1960s, it took about 20 years for them to accomplish it. What made them accomplish was that they were relentless. It is really the question, “Are you ready to devote your life to something?” I think that a good amount of people surrounding the Internet scene have.

I don’t think Tao wants to be the leader of the movement. I think he wants to be helpful, I think everyone wants to be helpful. This movement is based off Adam Smith and his idea that, “If everyone helps everyone then wealth will come.” The thing that really defines this movement is how helpful everyone is, Blake Butler and Gene Morgan have been so helpful to everyone involved. Michael Schaub from Bookslut has been helpful. I think everyone knows that we are up against a culture that worships celebrity and consumerism. This movement is against that which terrifies them. We are a terrifying group of people, most of us are into sustainability, veganism, and living simply. Sam Pink’s novel PERSON is just a simple little existential novel about a nameless person in Chicago, it is about lighting this culture on fire and starting a new one.

Rumpus: It is really easy for authors to talk to their readers today, probably much easier than previously because of the Internet. I know I have emailed you some embarrassing emails after reading one of your books. In Best Behavior there is a lovely part about some of the characters wanting to be friends and chill with Emily Dickinson rather than getting a book autographed by Stephen King. I related to that part a lot. How do you feel about that, or like how do you deal with people wanting to be your friend that maybe you wouldn’t really ever be friends with? Does it ever get weird?

Cicero: People can email as much as they want. I don’t care. Most fan mail comes in terms of, I get an email, it says something nice. I respond and then they never email again. Only a few times did the person keep emailing and Gmail chatting me.

Rumpus: In another of my favorite parts of the book, four people (writers and artists) are talking to a journalist and you sort of jokingly but not jokingly I guess, talk about them all being potential suicides and the journalist being what some would consider normal: i.e., ambitious, career-driven—someone with a future. I have a job but I don’t feel ambitious and I think and talk about suicide more than some people but I know I most likely won’t do it. Why do you think it’s important for us to talk about hopelessness in terms of suicide, does it take some of the power of death away to be like, yeah fuck you, I could end it all right now (but I won’t! but I could!)? I guess what I want you to talk about is suicide, how you feel about it generally, in terms of yourself or others.

Cicero: I only believe in suicide when it comes to an Honorable Suicide. An honorable suicide is when someone with schizophrenia or cancer, or maybe a banker that destroyed the pensions of thousands of elderly people, kills themselves. I believe that to be okay. If many of the bankers after the DOW fell killed themselves I would have felt fine about it.

The person who commits suicide finds a higher utility in death than remaining alive, they would rather commit suicide than enjoy the wind again, or their friends again, or the sight of the sun setting, or the taste of the food. For some reason they have decided they do not deserve to enjoy the Natural Sweetness of life anymore. Ideas of suicide might start with hopelessness but it must lead to the idea or emotion of, “I don’t deserve to live anymore. My life is too horrible to enjoy anything anymore.” I can see how a person with schizophrenia or a serious disease could come to that conclusion and we should respect their decision. If you still like to go out to eat, hang out with friends, read books and have sex, you still want to live. You might feel hopeless and suicide might be a thought that goes along with that hopelessness, but you probably haven’t arrived to the point where you don’t care about enjoying life anymore.

Rumpus: There seems to be this idea in much of your writing that we are all handed a “lot in life” and that we will have little or perhaps no control over what that is and what it means for us in the world. What I like about you, is that you not only see or discuss the “lot” of poor people, but of all people. Like a wealthy celebrity is just as trapped as we who work at Red Lobster. I feel like you have a lot of compassion for everyone but at the same time feel a lot of hopelessness. If we are all so trapped, what is it that allows or propels you to write? Because it seems like writing was not part of your “lot” which makes me think that in some capacity you really are hopeful of people being able to break out of their cages or whatever (even though I just said you felt hopeless, it’s like you are and you’re not). I guess the question is, do you see us doing it, surpassing our lot? Is that necessary for happiness or can we just exist, and if we can’t just exist, how do we break out of patterns and convince everyone else that we can be things that we’re currently not or it might seem that we weren’t born to be? (I feel like this question is really convoluted and I am asking you what is the meaning of life? Sorry about that.)

Cicero: I don’t think writing really fits into that category. All you need economically to write is a computer with a keyboard and the Internet. But I can’t become a millionaire that is a CEO of a major corporation. I don’t have the social network or funding to go to an Ivy League school. These are out of my range. Concerning writing someone like Foer has the social network and funding to go to a college where he meets Joyce Carol Oates, I did not have those possibilities. But Foer at the same time will never know poverty, he will never know what it feels like to drive a car in the Ohio winter that has no heat, and having to stop every mile to scrape off the windshield in 10 degree weather. He won’t know what that feels like, he would have never been able to write The Insurgent and I will never be able to write Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

We are all trapped to a large extent by our circumstances. But we have free will in those circumstances. Foer could have used his social network and funding to become a corporate lawyer and work for large oil companies finding tax loopholes all day. I have a political science degree, I could use that degree to work for the local Republican Party spending my days trying to bust unions and destroy social security. That possibility is open to me. But I won’t take it. Before writing and getting involved in the Internet literary scene I never knew millionaires except for the ones I caddied for when I was young. I have learned that they do have money but many do not have good social networks, they might be rich for whatever reason, but their families do not have social contacts to the artsy elite of NYC or LA. They could have chosen to use their parents’ money to become business and lawyers and hedge funders and done nothing but asinine shit with their lives, but they chose to write, open websites, and help others regardless of class and gender. Not all people with money are the same. Not all poor people are the same. There are a lot of people who have little money and they aren’t racist, they aren’t drug addicts, they go to work and try their best with what they have. They might say “ain’t” and use double negatives, and not know who Proust is, but they still live worthwhile lives full of virtue. The thing about having money is this: Take a person born lower middle class and a person born upper class, and they have the same exact skill level and they both get business degrees. The lower middle class person becomes the manager of a restaurant or a retail store, the other person goes to a private college, goes to a big city, works for a financial or insurance company and spends their life robbing people. Both are innocent in some sad way, because they are just following what society wants them to do. I think this is one of the main calls of our movement, “Don’t do what society wants you to do, try to find a different path.”

Rumpus: I like to party a lot, I drink and do drugs. In Best Behavior, some of the characters look down on this sort of behavior. I’ve never thought that you were moralistic, but I did feel judged during those passages in the book. Was I being sensitive because I have problems, or do you look down on that kind of behavior and if so, is it because you understand it is not sustainable long-term or you have seen its effects, either firsthand or through others, or something else?

Cicero: I don’t think I am a moralist. That has never occurred to me. I will just say what I feel about behavior, and if you want to conclude I’m a moralist, that is up to you. I believe in moderation, I don’t believe in drinking and doing drugs all the time. Don’t believe in eating a lot. I don’t care for modern cities and all their conveniences. I believe in self-control, not so much hard work but self-control. People should show up to work on time and try to do their job. If people have kids they should try to raise them to become adults. I believe in buying organic food and locally as much as possible. I don’t believe that people should strive to make lots of money. With lots of money you always find robbery and immoral activity. And the more money you have the more you buy which leads to sucking up more resources. The less money you have the less resources you consume and the more you have to rely on others. From my experience money leads people to a more isolated existence. Christians say, “Poverty leads you to rely on God.” I don’t know if it comes to that, but having little money forces you into a situation where you have to rely on others and yourself. When you take a vacation instead of sleeping in nice hotels you sleep in a tent on the ground, if it be raining or snowing, that makes you stronger, it makes you know what it means to be human. If you restrain yourself from eating fast food everyday and only allot yourself one Taco Bell trip every 3 months, that Taco Bell is so much better. Instead of trying to find indoor activities to spend money on, go outside, start a garden, learn to play an instrument. Don’t be so weak. Of course this is said while I’m on the Internet, which requires billions of dollars in infrastructure to maintain.

Rumpus: I love all of your books that I’ve read, but I think The Insurgent is still my favorite. I developed a great closeness to the main character, Vasily, in part because I related to him but mostly because you wrote out a lot of his internal thoughts, so I felt like  I  knew him. With Best Behavior, I felt it was more externalized, like I didn’t get to know as much about Benny besides sociological facts. Like data. There seems to be lots of data about people in the novel. I feel like you can easily convert someone’s life story into data, or likewise, see the life stories within data. Do you feel that way? Does it affect the way you interact with people emotionally? Did you set out to write a less personal novel, or am I reading it wrong? Are you Vasily and Benny, do you feel more like one than the other, or are they both parts of you (I mean aside from that thing about every character in your novel being some part of you)?

Cicero: I am not Vasily or Benny. They are characters in a book. I’m not even sure if there is a real Noah Cicero anymore. This is probably one of the reasons I write, to make Noah Cicero a real person. I don’t know if he is a real person, if he has a real concrete identity. Noah Cicero wasn’t socialized properly and never fully developed as an adult, and landed somewhere between child and adult, or maybe vertically to the side of what it means to be an adult or child. Best Behavior was an attempt to write a normal novel and not an experimental one. Normal novels are full of data and show things. I wanted to see if I could write one, just to try. It was like an experiment for myself, the hypothesis statement being, “Can I Noah Cicero write a normal novel?”

Rumpus: I have a hard time with endings in general, reading and writing and being in them. The ending to Best Behavior does not feel like an ending in that there are no questions answered and nothing much happens. What made you write the ending this way? It almost felt like life, where things don’t get wrapped up, but in a more meta way, like that you couldn’t actually wrap it up because there was nowhere else to go. Did you plan for that to be the ending, did it happen organically, and I guess this is tied to the suicide question in a way, how do you feel about endings in general?

Cicero: Best Behavior does not end, because my generation has not ended. My generation is young, early 30s and younger. We have a lot of life left to live and a lot of things to do. One of the main points of the book is that my generation is facing the situation of trying to start their lives, as in get jobs, get houses, have and raise kids in a country that is in terrible debt, with political parties that hate each other, the price of oil keeps rising and oil is expected to be depleted by the time we die, a generation that will watch cars disappear, a generation that is forced to deal with climate change, a water shortage coming in the next 20 years, and this generation will have to take care of the elderly baby boomers and their medical problems, meaning our parents. Our lives will be a lot harder than the previous generations’ lives. The baby boomers had a party compared to this: this book could be called “The Last Party.” The collapse of the DOW taught us all, that the party is over. Life is going to be different now. Since the book was written several of the characters have gotten married and have kids. I am graduating college now and trying very hard to get a full-time job that has health insurance. This is one of the reasons I am having a hard time writing another book, because I need to learn to write as an adult now. Oh man, an adult, that’s what I’ve become, instead of getting drunk and reading Kafka, I’m checking price quotes on car insurance and reading Arab histories.

Ani Smith is an American living in London and an editor for We Who Are About To Die. Her Mud Luscious Press chapbook is called this love is office lighting (great and harsh but always off when no one's there). More from this author →