In Will Boast’s third book (and first novel), Daphne, the titular narrator lives with a neurological condition that paralyzes her whenever she feels strong emotion. Set in San Francisco in 2011, as the city is gripped by protest, Daphne explores both private and public emotions: the vulnerability required for real intimacy, the suppression of empathy in the face of seemingly unsolvable social issues, and the ways our feelings inform almost every part of our identities, including our interpersonal relationships, our work, and our politics.
As Boast’s novel begins, twenty-nine-year-old Daphne is living a highly functional but isolated life. For fear of injury from her condition, she tries to avoid situations that might prompt sudden, powerful emotions: joy, surprise, or laughter can be as threatening as sorrow or rage. Because she remains closed off, friends are hard for Daphne to keep, and lovers borderline impossible. The book is in part about the perpetual fight between love and safety—Daphne meets a younger man named Ollie with whom she feels an immediate but unnerving connection—but its focus is on self-determination and how one makes a life in the face of such daunting obstacles.
Boast, also the author of the story collection Power Ballads and a memoir, Epilogue, has been published online and in print in The New Republic, Granta, The American Scholar, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere.
Recently, Boast and I corresponded over email and discussed Roman myths, emotional control via cell phone towers, and the rise of the neuro novel.
The Rumpus: Is the physical paralysis Daphne experiences when she’s too emotionally stimulated a real thing?
Will Boast: Yes, there’s a neurological disorder, cataplexy, which causes those who have it degrees of paralysis whenever they experience strong emotion. Episodes can be minor: fluttering eyelids, sagging jaw, soft knees. Or major: total collapse. For some who live with cataplexy, it’s a risk to even leave the house. The rest of us rarely think about just how much emotion we process throughout even an ordinary day. For someone with this condition, a sudden burst of feeling can easily lead to serious injury, even death.
The science and the symptoms of cataplexy are complex and still mysterious to researchers, so in Daphne I streamline things a bit and perhaps heighten the metaphorical resonance. Daphne’s condition makes literal the idea of emotional paralysis, something almost all of us experience at one time or another. But I also wanted to present a version of the real disorder as thoughtfully and accurately as possible.
Rumpus: So much of Daphne’s character is built from negative space—the emotions she tries to repress, the texts she doesn’t send, her need to numb her life in many ways, her repeated turning away from her love interest, Ollie. It made me wonder whether the idea of having a character with her medical condition was the beginning of the story for you, or whether Daphne’s numbness led you to a diagnosis.
Boast: I learned about cataplexy through a friend of a friend who suffers from it. I was both immediately concerned for him (thankfully, he has a great life) and deeply fascinated. The condition resonated with me, in part because I’ve so often struggled with my feelings. My upbringing—in working class England, then in the rural Midwest—sort of gave me a double whammy of repression. I actually do think there’s something to be said for stoicism, but I had to learn, the hard way, that it can’t be your only way of facing the world. So things sort of twined together when I learned about cataplexy, and writing through Daphne became a way to grapple with a lot of stuff I’d had on my mind.
Rumpus: You riff on the story of Apollo and Daphne, borrowing some imagery and plot points from Ovid. How much did the myth figure into your creation of this novel?
Boast: The myth came along about a third of the way through, when I first saw Bernini’s sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, in Rome. I saw parallels between the mythic Daphne’s immobilization, her transformation into a tree, and my Daphne’s paralysis in the face of overwhelming emotion. That said, Daphne is more of a re-imagining or a remix, as a recent review put it, than a retelling of the myth. In Ovid, the story is pretty strange and upsetting. It still has incredible power, but I was also interested in the ways poets and artists over the centuries have borrowed from and bent the underlying myth. Bernini really pushes its eroticization—which is equally upsetting—but he also makes Apollo the secondary figure. All eyes are on Daphne and her plight. There have also been artists who’ve portrayed Daphne without Apollo, which I find pretty compelling.
Rumpus: Daphne’s manner of speaking is very clipped and sharp. At times, it almost reads like notes taken on a phone or a series of texts.
Boast: Daphne is constantly disappearing into her phone—on public transit, in social situations—to duck away from emotional stressors. I think we do this more and more now: substitute a stream of information for really dwelling in an experience or a feeling.
I thought a lot about how to represent the surge and suppression of emotion on the page. When Daphne squashes everything down, the sentences are often short and chop off their articles. When she’s overwhelmed—or trying to let go a little—I go more lyrical or stream-of-consciousness. I wanted the style of the book to change as Daphne herself does.
Speaking of style, I’m curious about a move you make in The Answers, where you shift, a third of the way through, from first-person to a polyphonic third-person.
Rumpus: I wrote myself into a situation in which I had to broaden the perspective to get the story across. I ended up wasting a year trying to avoid using a third person, but once I figured out the tone I wanted—something between a surveillance camera and an angry mob—it came quickly. There’s a slightly terrifying commonality in our novels; they both suggest that human emotions are not real. Did you have this idea in mind, or did it emerge through writing the book?
Boast: Yes, I was so struck by that commonality. In The Answers, you have the technicians behind the Girlfriend Experiment manipulating the women’s emotions through electronic devices. The idea that you’re doing and feeling things that seem to come from your innermost self but are, in reality, just someone monkeying with your chemical makeup is pretty troubling.
For me, Daphne’s condition underscores that the psychological and physiological are hopelessly entangled. Emotions are both us and not us. Sometimes we control them. Sometimes we’re at their mercy. And there isn’t much in life—politics, sports, work, whatever—that isn’t all wrapped up with our feelings.
The ancient Greeks thought emotions were affected by different winds. Other cultures have ascribed individuals’ wild, unpredictable behavior to the meddling of gods or demons or angry ancestors. Recently, a taxi driver started telling me all of this conspiracy-theory stuff about the government controlling emotions through cell phone towers. Apparently, it’s a pervasive idea: Feelings come from outside us. We aren’t quite the captains of our own ships.
On a related note, in The Answers, Mary’s body, which is so mysterious in the pain it causes her, becomes a sort of test site for various healers and mad scientists. Everyone wants to manipulate her. Did the Girlfriend Experiment emerge out of the first section, about the bodywork, or did you always plan to connect the two?
Rumpus: The two plotlines were totally independent ideas until I realized they shared a common concern. I was going to Rolfing and acupuncture regularly for back pain, when I realized how intimate and weird bodywork can be. I was consenting to have these professionals change my physicality, which is exactly what you do when you date someone—you allow them to change you emotionally, physically, mentally.
What’s your feeling about the term “neuro novel?” Do you think you wrote one? Did you set out to do this?
Boast: To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of the term until I read the coverage of The Answers. I went back and read the Marco Roth essay, “The Rise of the Neuronovel,” and found it interestingly cranky. But, yeah, I think he makes too sharp a distinction between social/psychological novels and those that explore recent scientific/medical ideas about the self. You wouldn’t want every book to read like Motherless Brooklyn—as brilliant as it is—but why shouldn’t novelists occasionally ponder the mysteries of the human brain? Our society and selves are all bound up with technological and medical changes. Actually, it seems to me that The Answers is a social novel, even if it doesn’t feel exactly like Zola. Is that how you see it?
Rumpus: I guess there is a little social commentary in the book, but I’m personally less concerned about an individual’s place in a society than a human’s place in existence and the natural world. While I don’t shy away completely from setting work in a somewhat recognizable world, I prefer to imagine a reality adjacent to our own.
Boast: I like that idea: exploring a human’s place in the natural world. When I was working on Daphne, I thought a lot about how animal we are, how the impulses evolution has given us constantly run up against the bizarre societies we’ve built up. To me, the oddest notion is that the human brain is routinely considered the most perfect, miraculous thing in all creation. We’re just creatures built out of countless evolutionary accidents, some happy, some just stopgap solutions to survival challenges. Our creaturely selves don’t always know how to respond to the thousands of strange stimuli we constantly receive, almost every minute of every day.
Emotion gets wrapped up in this, too. We feel ecstatic when we orgasm because species survival requires that we keep having sex to reproduce. Or we experience disgust when we eat a piece of rotten meat because it would be harmful for our bodies. The primal functions of emotions are still very much part of us, but they aren’t only, or even mostly, how we understand ourselves. Emotions are cultural, too, and have seemingly infinite shades of subtlety and complexity. A character in Daphne says that he’s “in awe of what it is to feel,” and, obviously, so am I.
Late in The Answers, Mary and Kurt are loose in Manhattan and experiencing what, from outside and inside, looks and feels a lot like the rush of love, yet has been manufactured through various processes. Maybe I’m a humanistic softie at heart, but I think that love and fine feeling can withstand all of our interrogation and meddling. Or do you think we really are designing such things into obsolescence?
Rumpus: I had a few experiences in my twenties in which I felt like someone was trying to make me fall in love with them. I don’t think this has anything to do with the contemporary technological moment. I just think there is a very fine line between love and manipulation and sometimes it’s so fine it cannot be seen at all.
Boast: Yeah, that’s pretty unnerving, too. I also think of all of those commercials where the basic premise seems to be, “This person loves this product so much they’ve actually gone crazy.” They are now the perfect, purely docile consumer. Sometimes it seems like everything is trying to manipulate us all of all of the time. And it works! I remember when I first started crying at movie trailers, which are just pure emotional bombardment.
Rumpus: Was Daphne always set in contemporary San Francisco? In some ways, the implied goal of so many tech start-ups is to make life more seamless, more seemingly perfect. It’s this draining of the complication away from human experience that makes me realize how necessary complication actually is. One could say the same thing about Daphne’s predicament. On the other hand, the problem of how much to experience or avoid one’s life is a primordial one.
Boast: Right! And that app, Seamless, lets us have the barest interactions with other humans to procure the thing that’s always been the most social and communal of activities: a well-cooked meal.
I lived in San Francisco for five years and started Daphne while I was there. There’s a passage I trimmed out where I talk about San Francisco being the culmination, or maybe the endpoint, of Western humanism—almost literally the geographic edge of the Western world, where technology, progressive ideals, sexual freedom, and an ultra-healthy, ultra-sanitary style of living have all been brought to, arguably, their highest points…. Ha, I still wish I’d left that passage in—only it’s a bit too clever and apocalyptic and never quite fit Daphne’s voice.
And, of course, anyone who visits San Francisco is immediately struck by the incredible disparity between all of the wealthy young people and the homeless community, both of whom are highly visible. Probably one of the most gut wrenching things I’ve ever seen was a homeless man standing outside a Wag Hotel in the Mission, gazing in at all of the dogs being groomed and pampered. If that doesn’t make one despair for all mankind… But, then, what did I do about it? What does anyone do?
Rumpus: Coming back to the idea that human beings are asked to process previously unimaginable amounts of information—do you think most people are inured to their lives?
Boast: Especially if you live in a big city, you witness so much just on, say, your regular commute: someone sobbing into their phone, people threatening to kill each other in traffic, countless people in real need. I’d been in San Francisco for two years when some friends up in rural northern California came to visit. We were on our way to brunch, of all things, when we passed a guy sort of wavering on a bus bench. Suddenly, he went down and hit the ground with a sickening thump. I just kept going—it was the kind of thing I saw everyday—but my friends rushed over to help. That really brought me up short, and still makes me feel ashamed.
Most of us just tighten down the screws and get through our daily lives, but Daphne, because of her condition, is especially vulnerable to all of the small and large emotions, both her own and other people’s (we constantly mirror others’ emotions). She develops a lot of coping strategies. But so we do we all. We distract or harden ourselves. And then these strategies, as necessary as they might be, paralyze us in other areas.
That said, I grew up in a pretty small town, and I wouldn’t trade big city life for much. And neither would Daphne. Is The Answers, to some extent, about that push and pull the city exerts on us? I know Mary comes to New York from the rural south. And so did you….
Rumpus: I felt very at home in New York. I wrote all of The Answers there, and while you’re right that in a few moments the book critiques the city, it’s also a total refuge for Mary, the only place she’s ever really felt alive.
The first book of yours that I read was Epilogue, which is such an achingly beautiful piece of memory work. Do you have totally different modes of being when writing fiction versus nonfiction?
Boast: I think I go more smoothly between fiction and nonfiction, short and long-form now, but it still takes a bit of retooling each time. I think the biggest difference between a memoir and a first-person novel is that you’re handling and calibrating the sympathy the reader might feel toward the narrator in slightly different ways. Tobias Wolff once told me you can’t have the narrator of a memoir self-aggrandize or self-abase; you risk putting the reader off. But I think a first-person narrator in a novel can be a bit more performative, can push those boundaries harder. The trickiest thing for me has actually been learning how to be a responsible journalist. Depending on the piece, you tamp down some of the wilder, woolier impulses of a fiction writer.
Rumpus: Would you tell me about some parts of Daphne that got cut? Or are you one of those rare efficient writers who doesn’t have to scrap whole storylines and characters?
Boast: I wrote a lot and scrapped a lot. The first several drafts were from a male character’s perspective. But then I thought, A man struggling with emotional paralysis—not exactly the news of the century. Then I tried to write the book as a murder mystery—like Motherless Brooklyn—but I don’t really have a feel for those kinds of plots. Finally, I came around to a love story narrative—or a sort of love story, as I think the book is really more about self-determination, dealing with your own shit—and a fairly strictly realist approach. The idea being that, for Daphne, even the most everyday situations can be harrowing.
I’m always sort of stunned at how much we have to contend with just stepping out the door every day. It’s a brave thing to open up to all the joy, sorrow, rage, and surprise you might encounter. Yes, we harden ourselves, we freeze up to some extent, but hopefully the bark doesn’t grow too thick.
Author photograph © Bill Hayes.