The Rumpus Interview with Ron Currie, Jr.
Much of what you hear about the newest novel from Ron Currie, Jr., Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, is how the narrator shares the same name and some biographical facts with the author. Some readers will become giddy with metafictional glee. Ignore all that. This book is better than a trick.
A theme explored here is the nature of “true” stories, and in that way, the metafiction has its purpose. Add to that a character who is full of misguided bravado (endearingly so), a story of unrequited love, heartfelt meditations on the death of a father, and speculation about singularity theory that highlights contemporary metaphysical predicaments, and you have a book that spins wildly and tightly on what it means to interact with each other earnestly today.
In this interview, Ron references the movie Jurassic Park and I reference Dude, Where’s My Car?, but despite the frivolity of these pop culture references, we landed on some sophisticated shit. That’s kind of like Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles: you’ll ride into long drinking days and brawls with Ron only to find yourself reeling in genuine emotion. Like singularity theory stipulates, this book contains and connects it all.
The Rumpus: The two storylines in Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles concern the death of Ron’s father and the pursuit and loss of his girlfriend, Emma. How are these relationships related, beyond, obviously, having the main character in common?
Ron Currie, Jr.: The reason why they’re so prominent in the narrative is because they’re the two most important relationships in his life—one of which, for all intents and purposes, has ended, and one of which—how should I put it—is problematic. They are on a level in terms of importance to him. Of course, with his father it’s all recollections and with Emma it’s in real time, but there’s a mercurial aspect to his interactions with those people. One is a romantic relationship and one is a paternal relationship, so they’re different in that way, but the relative intensities of the relationships are on a similar plane.
Rumpus: Ron describes how all men who run across Emma fall for her. How much power does Emma actually have over all men? Or is Ron projecting his weakness for her onto others?
Currie: Certainly my conception of her is that she has a very powerful and palpable allure for all men. It’s never anything that they can put their finger on, which is usually the case with something that we’d refer to as “alluring.” You can’t define it, you can’t explain it, and if you could, then it probably wouldn’t be there. It’s sort of like how in a certain light you can see an object out of the corner of your eye, but then when you look at it directly it disappears. That’s what Emma is. Or at least that’s certainly where her draw is. Its power is derived from its mysteriousness, I guess would be the way to describe it.
Rumpus: That reminds me of a line in the movie Dude, Where’s My Car?
Currie: I’ve never seen it, you have to explain.
Rumpus: It’s a classic! There are these aliens that control a “continuum transfunctioner” and its mystery is only exceeded by its power.
Currie: Well I’m glad to know that Ashton Kutcher—it was him, right?—I’m glad to know Ashton Kutcher got there before I did. Perfect. But it just goes to show there’s nothing new under the sun.
I remember when I was writing my second book, Everything Matters!, in which the main character is simultaneously haunted and guided by this sort of Greek chorus that tells him how and when the world will end. Then I saw Donnie Darko when I was in the middle of writing Everything Matters! and I was like, Shit. I had a very similar experience with my first book, God is Dead, which is a collection of short stories and owes a lot to, certainly Vonnegut, but also guys like John Barth and Pynchon. Despite their influence, though, I still felt like I was mining my own vein, and then I picked up a copy of Pastoralia by George Saunders, and again I was like, Shit. This was around 2001/2002, and Saunders had made a big name for himself, at least in literary circles, and I thought everyone was going to accuse me of ripping him off, but the fact was I’d written most of the book before I had read a single story of his.
Sometimes we make assumptions about influence when similarities between two writers’ work are so strong, but they’re still just assumptions. Some things are sort of zeitgeist-y. There’s a collective consciousness and we’re all drawing from it.
Rumpus: Ron certainly gets plenty of female attention himself, from adoring fans and even from beautiful teenagers. In a way, this is similar to Emma’s power over men, but it is also an element of his hyper-masculinity, and pairs well with his hard drinking and willingness to fight. I wonder if you can discuss a little about how the hyper-masculine man as an archetype fits into narratives, and the necessity of Ron in this love story to be such a masculine force.
Currie: I disagree with the notion that he’s a hyper-masculine character, honestly. He definitely drinks too much and fights more than the average American man, I would say, but to reflexively characterize those tendencies as “masculine” is, ultimately, too simple and a bit dismissive. Maybe I’m just not seeing it accurately because I wrote the book, because you’re certainly not the first person to bring it up. People have invoked the ghost of Hemingway quite a few times in writing about the book. I could get into sticky territory here if I let myself go on about this subject. The more I hear it, the more it rankles, frankly.
I think this is a person who is no more confused, conflicted, or fucked up than the average, but most of his confusion and conflict manifests itself physically. Unlike most of us, men and women alike, he’s not afraid to make a mess of things. I think it’s a mistake to characterize that as masculine. It just happens to be the case for him, and he just happens to have a penis. I’ve known women for whom their troubles manifest physically, as well. This idea of the character being hyper-masculine may have more to do with cultural gender norms, as opposed to being an accurate view of who he is. Whether you’re talking about sex or violence or drinking, all of these things for him are quite physical—they’re visceral, sometimes literally.
It’s probably a question I would have answered differently six months ago, but having been presented with this idea of the character as hyper-masculine as often as I have, I started to realize that’s not how I picture him at all. I don’t think that bloodying somebody’s nose or having your own nose bloodied is particularly masculine. If you do it to the degree that he does it in the book, it’s certainly fucked up but it’s not inherently masculine. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and I’m perfectly willing to accept the possibility that I am wrong, but that’s my perspective on not just the book but life in general.
Rumpus: As is mentioned in the novel, singularity theory for Ray Kurzweil gives him hope that he will be reunited from a loss—the death of his father. Ron in the book is somewhat obsessed about the Singularity for perhaps the same reason. It will not only reunite him with his father but also with Emma. How did this obsession arise, and is it a sort of faith that looks to the nearer future than those more traditional faiths that see reunions in the afterlife? The novel mentions that the only difference between Scripture and the Singularity is that people will experience the Singularity regardless if they believe in it or not—but that is how some true believers feel about Judgment Day. What is it about the inevitability of the Singularity that is so appealing?
Currie: Singularity is seen as an event horizon. There’s everything that comes before it and everything that comes after it and never the twain shall meet, in much the same way that Judeo-Christian theology presents its notion of the afterlife—there’s a very clear and impermeable demarcation there.
Whether he knows it or not, Ron the character is more interested in singularity as a concept than as something he believes will come to pass in his lifetime. I don’t think he even takes direct comfort from the concept, even though he claims to in the book. For him it’s more of a mental exercise, which ends up morphing into an emotional exercise.
That may be a convenient answer because it’s closer to the way I personally perceive and interpret singularity theory. It’s something that I do believe will come to pass, sooner or later, although whether or not in our lifetime I don’t know, and I’m not sitting around waiting for my father to be resurrected. Readers probably have the impression from the book that I’m a lot more a of a techno kook than I actually am. It became a convenient fulcrum in the story, sort of a kaleidoscope through which to address religious and spiritual questions.
Which sort of brings us to the second part of the question. You mentioned some people believe that everyone will experience judgment day. But it’s my understanding that the Judgment Day or Rapture that I’m going to experience, as a nonbeliever, is not going to be the good part. That’s the essential difference between the Singularity and what we’re usually told about the fate of our eternal souls. Regardless of whether you believe in the Singularity, you will most likely experience the benefits of it. But we don’t really know. Ron mentions several times in the book that the Singularity is a moment that surpasses our intelligence. In other words, it is literally something we can’t conceive of until it happens, in the same way that a groundhog can’t understand what motivates human beings. By definition we just don’t have the intellectual capacity for it, since the Singularity represents an intelligence beyond our own.
I think the Singularity will be an opt-in scenario for human beings, especially as we draw closer to it—that’s something that Ron the character believes and something that I also tend to believe. The more that we have the opportunity to interface with and combine ourselves with machines and machinery and electronics—those will all be opt-in moments. Would you choose to have some sort of brain implant? Would you choose to have Google Glasses installed in your eyes? It’s all an approach; it’s all a glide path to the moment of genuine singularity; genuine artificial intelligence.
Rumpus: Is it the belief that people will opt-in instead of opt-out?
Currie: For the character? Yeah, I think so. He takes great pains near the beginning of the book to explain that from his perspective, this isn’t going to be some sort of near-future dystopia, Terminator-like scenario, and so it will have a great appeal to a large number of people for various reasons. The question ends up being, as he ruminates throughout the book: what form is this going to take? What’s this going to look like? Are we, for example, going to upload ourselves onto hard drives and be free of our corporeal selves?
Oscar Pistorius is now infamous for reasons that I think everybody knows about, but when I hit on his story and put it in the book, what I found fascinating was a description, from one of the scientists who helped Pistorius, of what the Paralympics will become. Because they don’t place any restriction on enhancements for athletes, in the very near future the Paralympics will bear a closer resemblance to NASCAR than to the traditional Olympics. There will be a human-machine melding that will result in crazy feats of athleticism.
I think this is inevitable. When people express doubts about it—and they do often—it reminds me of a line in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum’s character says to the old rich guy who owns Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And that is a fairly accurate way to describe pretty much all of human history with regard to technological advancement. Why should we think that this will be any different? We’re going to forge ahead with it, and you’re already seeing the evidence.
I think of this a lot in the terms of books. Of course there’s a big to-do culturally about e-books versus print books, sales models. The paradigm has changed but my perspective on it is that there’s not going to be another paradigm to alight on because everything will continue to evolve so quickly that our brains won’t be able to keep up with it. We weren’t built for such rapid change. We didn’t evolve for it. And that’s just one indication of how technology is moving beyond us. In terms of business models for publishing going forward, there are plenty of people who will tell you they know exactly what’s happening, but I think they’re full of shit.
And if you expand that to take into account the whole of human endeavor, I think we’re seeing the same pace and scope of change in everything we do. We’re not cognitively equipped to deal with it. And it’s becoming a problem, frankly. It’s part of the reason why I quit Facebook. We all hear these things and read reports about how our attention spans are shrinking. It makes me wonder about the generation growing up now, how it will affect their brain development. When you’re a child—and my understanding of it is very basic—but when you’re a very young child, the stimuli around you prompt your brain to form synapses. Once they’re there, they’re there, but if they don’t form by a certain age, they’re not going to.
I bailed out on social media for a while, and in short order I found I was able to sit down and read a book again. For the first time in a couple years I could read more than three pages without my brain wandering off into the ether. I drew a direct causal line between all this sort of ratta-tat-tat staccato stimulation that we get from the Internet and my growing inability to sit down and read anything that was longer than 500 words. But for me it came back because those synapses were already latent in my brain. And I wonder if kids growing up now are actually going to have that—if they’re ever going to be able to unplug and have that ability to concentrate, or if it’s just never going to happen for them. It’s a little unnerving, frankly.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you bring up attention span and the inability to read multiple pages because this book is made up of brief sections, which are sometimes only a paragraph long and sometimes multiple pages. Where did that structure come from?
Currie: My inability to concentrate—is that the right answer? Whenever someone asks me craft questions like that I feel like I can give one of two answers. I can give the academy answer and say that it was very deliberate and I had a plan in mind and I executed that plan exactly to the letter. But this isn’t the case.
It’s such an intuitive process for me, and becomes ever more so the longer I write. The most honest answer I can give you, as daffy as it sounds, is that’s the way the book wanted to be written. If I had to speculate about why that is, I think it’s because there are three main thematic threads that run through the story: you have the narrator’s relationship with Emma, you have the narrator’s recollections of his father’s illness and death, and you have this curveball, which is the Singularity. And he oscillates among those three things. To try to cram that into a more traditionally structured, linear narrative would have seemed haphazard and it would have been tough to try to draw all those things together.
I ended up structuring it in very small doses—as you said there are pages that are only a line or two long and then moving on to the next theme, sometimes without any sort of obvious connection between the two. Hopefully by the end of the book, the aim was—insofar as I can be said to have had an aim—the aim was that they would start to inform each other in some intuitive way, disparate as they seem to be, sort of like a lace pulling together a shoe upper. It would pull tighter and tighter and tighter, so by the end of the book the reader would start to surmise, maybe without even being able to articulate it, what the relationship between the three things is.
Rumpus: Can you explain the logic of how the sections were structured, or did you just alternate between them?
Currie: In the first draft I tried to be more deliberate and deterministic about it, and then, as is often the case with a first draft, it just wasn’t working, and I realized I had a lot of material that I wanted to keep but I didn’t know where or how it fit together. It was kind of like throwing a jigsaw puzzle on the floor and just going to work at that point because I had all the pieces, or nearly all. A lot of the subsequent drafts of the book were to rearrange those passages in much the same way you rearrange a sentence. It’s not just about what the words mean but it’s also how they sound next to each other. It’s the rhythm and the cadence. It was a lot like rearranging a sentence, just on a much larger scale.
Rumpus: Why did you take Ron in the narrative to Egypt?
Currie: I grew up in Maine, and anyone who knows about Maine knows that the summers are beautiful for the three or four weeks that they last, and the rest of the time it’s quite cold and quite miserable. I never really liked winter as a kid, and now I loathe it. There’s a passage—I always forget who wrote this, it might have been Somerset Maugham—he said that there are certain places we go to that we’ve never been before but at the moment of arrival, we feel like we’re home. The desert has always felt that way to me. It doesn’t matter what desert I’m in, whether it’s Arizona or Egypt, whenever I’m there I feel at ease and at home. The Sinai definitely felt that way to me. It is a particularly desolate place, even by desert standards. The first thing I thought when I went there was, This is the holy land? This is what everybody’s making such a big deal about? Because it’s nothing but dirt and rock. But there’s something poetic about that, too. I fell in love with the place. I got off the bus somewhere on the border between Egypt and Israel and it was nothing but nothing and I felt immediately at ease, like I was where I belonged, and I had never been there before.
I was talking about this with a friend yesterday, with all the things that are going on in Egypt now. One of the reasons I think it’s incumbent upon us to travel is because if I had never been to Egypt what’s happening there now would have been just another item on the ticker, another abstraction in the news—in other words, something from which I’d have enough remove that I wouldn’t really care much about it. I’m not that empathetic. I know some people who are. For me the news is just that: the news. But in this instance I did have an emotional reaction to it and I continue to. I find it depressing and upsetting. Even though the intellectual part of me likes to believe that these are the inevitable paroxysms of an embryonic democracy—these things are going to happen. But it doesn’t feel like that at this point. It feels like murder.
It reminds me of conversations I tried to have as an idiotic American kid in Egypt about Mubarak. We’d be sitting there having a casual conversation, and then by hook or by crook I would bring up Mubarak, and they would look at me like, What the fuck are you talking about? Shut up. Again, sort of an object lesson for me. Being a stupid American kid who grew up being able to say whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, the brick wall that I ran into when I tried to bring up Mubarak was instructive. This is real for these people. They can’t have these conversations.
So anyway, I really do love Egypt and I want to go back—I keep promising myself I will.
Rumpus: The reason I brought it up is because the narrator’s Bedouin guide’s death is a startling invasion of international politics into this very personal narrative. An invasion in a really satisfying way.
Currie: On a micro level, if we’re not terribly lucky, this sort of thing can happen to us quite frequently—the political becoming the personal in dramatic and irreparable ways. I remember the first time I went out into the desert, passing by all these mine fields and getting the history on them from my guide and realizing all these murderous mechanisms were real, were just sitting out there waiting for a victim, and some of them had been for sixty, seventy, eighty years.
Rumpus: In a way, this book is a call for more earnestness in life. Ron realizes that he was finally completely earnest in his suicide note, which made the note so compelling to a world that is “girded in irony.” But there are several winks and exaggerations in the novel, not least of which is that the narrator shares the author’s name. How is the yearning for “capital-T truth” and earnestness reconciled with the deceptiveness and evasions of fiction?
Currie: That’s a good question; I’m not sure I have the right answer for it. I don’t know.
I haven’t written a whole lot of nonfiction, but what I have written leads me to believe that it’s an entirely different muscle. The ongoing paradox is that sometimes it’s harder to get to the emotional truth of something when you only have the facts at your disposal. It comes back to the question that Ron raises in the book, this sort of Philosophy 101 question of what constitutes truth and what constitutes reality.
One of the lines that I’m most fond of in the book is when Ron says we’re not reportage machines, we’re perception machines. I don’t share everything in common with this character but I certainly believe that that’s true. Any time I’ve had an argument with someone about the particulars of a situation—that is among the clearest evidence to me that we’re not reportage machines. If we were, then we’d never have those arguments. We would never see things from different perspectives. We wouldn’t have people being wrongly convicted of crimes due to the fact that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.
So I don’t know. It’s a very difficult question for me to answer. I could try to delve into it but I’d end up talking over my own head, because I’m not a philosopher and I’m not even a particularly intelligent person. I say that in complete earnestness, it’s not false modesty. I’ve met really smart people and I’m not one of them. I think it was Raymond Carver who said a writer doesn’t have to be the smartest guy in the room, he just has to be the one paying closest attention. But to get back to your question, because I don’t have the language or the education or, frankly, the intellectual chops to discuss it conceptually, I’d much rather approach it with narrative, because that’s where my strength, such as it is, lies.
It’s something that I’m deeply fascinated by as a cultural phenomenon. Our collective obsession with “true” stories. We flock to theaters to see movies “based on actual events.” The conventional wisdom in publishing is that people don’t buy novels, they buy memoirs, they buy historical biographies. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me apologetically “I don’t read fiction,” I wouldn’t have to write fiction anymore. And I share that fascination with the truth. I’m not looking down my nose at it. I don’t know if it’s something that we as a species are hardwired for or if it’s more of a contemporary phenomenon related to technology and rapid dissemination of data. I did know that whatever its cause or nature, I wanted to interrogate this phenomenon. But the only way for me to do that, the only tool I have to dissect it with, is a fictional narrative.
Rumpus: Ron states that he is going to tell the “capital-T truth” throughout the book, but then he does admit to lying. He lies that he doesn’t know what his dying father was apologizing for. Will you say now why the character of Ron’s father apologizes?
Currie: I can’t. No. And that’s something I’ve struggled with. In fact, I was just teaching a group of high school kids in a summer writing camp in Portland, and I was talking to them about the things they were afraid to put into their stories and why, and what our loyalty is to our work vis-à-vis our loyalty to the people in our lives. With this book in particular, for what should be obvious reasons, that was a question I had to ask myself every day.
As far as that particular passage is concerned, a trusted early reader told me I was selling out when I decided not to include that but merely allude to it. Ultimately I disagreed with him. But as is the case with a lot of these things, I don’t know if I was right or not. That was the choice I ended up making. I’d like to believe I didn’t betray the work with that choice, but I’m not certain. In any event, that is the choice I made and I’ve got no choice but to stick by it now.
Featured image of Ron Currie, Jr. © by Lisa Prosienski.