Daniel Torday’s new novel Boomer1 reads like a classic tale of intergenerational strife updated for the age of late capitalism. Among other profound questions, it asks us to reconsider the notion of for-profit work itself. It’s a radical book that, fortunately for us, appears at this curious and difficult time in our national discourse.
The cast includes Mark, and angry young man forced to move back in with his mother Julia. If their names successfully conjure Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and John Williams’s Augustus, all the better. Mark’s ersatz girlfriend Cassie Stankowitcz, is an extremely compelling character who, by my reading, holds the story together in some ways even as it rushes toward a powerful and potentially apocalyptic finale. Torday’s previous novel The Last Flight of Poxl West won the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for fiction and it will come as little surprise if Boomer1 were to earn him a bit more hardware.
Over a series of emails in August, I asked Torday about the anxiety of artistic influence, current events, and really bad jobs.
The Rumpus: What were your primary literary influences while writing this novel? Do you have to be choosy in what you read while writing?
Daniel Torday: I remember reading an interview with Nabokov where he said he didn’t read anything at all while he was working on a new book. Unfortunately I’m not able to clear the deck like that. So I try to compartmentalize: I read for pleasure, I read for teaching, and then I have my stack of books for research and the influences I want. For Boomer1, I wanted to do something less lyrical, something sharper and more biting than I’d done before. I read a bunch of DeLillo, especially Libra, which I thought would be good for conceiving of a book that builds to a violent conclusion. Oddly it ended being a terrible influence on that front—the narrative momentum of that novel is so fully based on the fact that you know the assassination of JFK is coming, where in this novel the opposite was true. I’ll always be influenced overtly by Roth, so I went back to American Pastoral and Goodbye, Columbus, which feel like a kind of bookends to his work. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain gave me a lot of energy in thinking about what the so-called “novel of ideas” can look like. This was my first time working in the third person at book length, so I re-read Anna Karenina, which I think of as a kind of Rosetta Stone. I also spent a bunch of time trying to become a Joseph Conrad completist, especially The Secret Agent, with its bungled bombing and anarchists, and Nostromo, with its fully imagined fictional country.
I also wanted this to be a deeply overtly American book. I went back to a ton of the 19th century—William James, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Henry James. I re-read Leaves of Grass and Dickinson and Melville. That stuff is such pure pleasure. And then I just filled in with the literary nonfiction that felt most right—for Mark’s rants I read a ton of Emma Goldman speeches and essays, and everything I could on John Brown. Spending that time just sitting in the moral righteousness and prose fervor of those people put me in a state of pique that honestly felt just right for the book. And by the time November 2016 and its elections came around, that pique seemed to dovetail with the culture at large in some weird coincidental way.
Rumpus: One of my great fears is that I rewrite the same story over and over. That’s clearly not a problem for you. Boomer1 presents a serious departure from your last novel. How do you suppose that happened?
Torday: I was on stage for an event at the Jewish Museum after The Last Flight of Poxl West was being honored there for a prize, and I found myself saying, I feel like the model I want as a novelist is Bob Dylan. Dylan would do something new every time it felt like you knew what he was up to—acoustic to electric, protest songs to born-again, iconic soundtracks to really bad reggae. But the spirit there, that spirit of reinvention, of putting your thumbprint on each project—that’s what excites me. Honestly I don’t think it excites every writer—so many of my favorite writers have spent their writing lives on various iterations of a voice, a theme, a sound. But at the same time, some of my favorite contemporary novelists certainly fit something more like the Dylan mold. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead couldn’t sound less like Housekeeping. David Mitchell seems to reinvent some new genre every time he picks up a pen. He’s not a contemporary novelist, but I feel like something of the excitement people have felt for John Williams in re-discovering Stoner was steeped in this move—that book couldn’t be more different than his other novels. My dream is to rethink what I’m up to book to book, if I should be so lucky. To feel like it’s a reinvention each time, a chance to try out a whole different set of chops with each project. And maybe more than that, to get to meet each project on its own terms, and follow it organically where it needs to go.
Rumpus: Many of the writers I know are having trouble getting much work done amid the current political turmoil. Can you describe the effects of the 2016 election on this novel?
Torday: I had a completed draft of Boomer1 the summer before the election. I was sure Hillary was going to win, just like everybody else. I thought this book might be provocative, but not terribly risky. Then a fascist buffoon was elected president. I had to go back with fresh eyes. I was a real mess for months after the results came in. All the epigenetic Ashkenazi Jewish alarm bells were ringing full blare—it’s easy to forget two years down the road how uncertain it felt right then. Kids were getting beaten up on nearby campuses. I found myself in tears, truly terrified of how far it could go, and fast. I know that’s still an open question, but I think it was pure catastrophizing in that moment.
So I went back to the draft, and got back down to work. I think a lot of things that seemed comical or barely plausible suddenly felt tame, verisimilitudinous—real acts of political violence in the streets, that kind of thing. Other parts felt uglier than I wanted them. And all the murmuring of political unrest on the dark web, in particular, needed a new cast. I worried the question of whether the “Silence” guys I’d invented needed to be uglier but in the end I decided that since I was writing about an alternative 2010/11, and not the present moment, the kind of clownishness that the final draft kept felt most accurate. Which I guess is all to say it’s a little hard to believe how much changes so fast these days. It’s also hard to believe that we were knocking doors for the first Obama campaign a decade ago.
Rumpus: You say you want a revolution? We all want to change the world.
Torday: Well we all want to change your [head], too. I’m pretty okay with the idea of revolution in the abstract. I mean, I was born in the US and it will never not be part of the American identity and the American myth. It’s also easy to forget in this moment when a not-insubstantial portion of the electorate is supporting autocracy with their votes and voices that democracy as we conceive of it was born in this country—and violent revolution cannot be extracted from that history.
That said, for this book that I wanted to be so American, it’s also a retelling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. There are some heavy cross-currents. This might be a weird ideé fixe, but growing up in the just-post-Clinton era, I remember this huge question also being posed: is the America we’re living in on the downslide from empire? Is this Rome? And so weirdly using Caesar felt just right. There’s this great anger and energy in the first couple acts of that play, as Brutus and Cassius rally their conspirators to assassinate Caesar. But the rest of the play is really a cautionary tale: where some of their complaints might have been right, they inevitably lose. It’s organic and almost fated—when you take power into your own hands it’s bound to blow up in your face. So in a moment now where a sense of revolutionary fervor almost has be to burbling up, I think I just followed my nose to seeing what it would look like on the other end.
Rumpus: What was the worst job you ever had?
Torday: Oh man I did not like the two-plus years I spent working at TCBY when I was a teenager. At the time it was an acronym for “The Country’s Best Yogurt.” The way you made that stuff was to pour these floppy bags of warm yogurt mix into a huge aluminum machine and then turn it on. But they’d constantly freeze up. The only way to unfreeze them was to reach into the goop, up to your elbow, take out this long tube, and plug it back in. The manager was like twenty-one years old and he’d go out back and smoke, come back in, and dunk his arm into those things all night. I never saw him wash his hands. Not once.