On Saviors and Superheroes: A Conversation with Adam Nemett

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We Can Save Us All is many things. It’s a climate change apocalypse novel. It’s a love story—or, more specifically, a love triangle story. It’s a fabricated history of drug-addled college students who form a kind of cult, the USV (Unnamed Supersquadron of Vigilantes), whose beliefs and practices are based in the mythologies of superheroes. It’s a lot, but the magic here is in the maximalism. Reading We Can Save Us All is like getting high at a crowded party where they’re blasting a mashup of Pink Floyd and some super-contemporary band you’re not cool enough to know. You feel so smart and yet so dumb. You’re having fun, but you’re not quite sure what’s going on. You see connections everywhere.

I met Adam Nemett in just such an environment, at Princeton University in the early aughts, when we were both undergraduates. Because We Can Save Us All is set at Princeton, reading his novel was like a trip back in time gone wrong. If in the pages of this book I did get to revisit those heady four years, all Foucault and marijuana, my time-traveling did not end there. The book catapulted me forward from that nostalgic place into a different future, a future not ahead of our time so much as adjacent to it, when climate change and war have increasingly conspired to catapult us toward inevitable apocalypse.

I recently sat down with Adam to discuss this alternate reality, along with his novel’s other delights.

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The Rumpus: Part of the premise of your novel is that time may be collapsing. The scientific community has been using the term “chronostrictesis” to describe the way that days—and with them hours, minutes, seconds—seem to be getting shorter. Time misbehaves in the narrative, as well. You have some metafictional fun with the way you introduce flashbacks, for instance—with the word “Blink”—and the way the chronology of the story jumps around. Of course, all fiction writers necessarily manipulate time, but in a story that’s literally about time, that manipulation becomes more meaningful somehow—or cheekier, at least. Can you talk a bit about metafictional time management in fiction, for you as a writer and in the context of this book specifically?

Adam Nemett: Chronostrictesis is a speculative conceit, but the idea kinda feels plausible to me. Like maybe seven years from now the scientific community will prove the Time Crisis is a documented phenomenon, or maybe it’s just how we all experience temporality as we grow older and gain more responsibility. When we’re in high school and college, life seems crazy busy, but then you add a career, marriage, kids, house, etc., and the feeling of life “speeding up” becomes increasingly palpable. I imagine it maintains that trajectory through the empty-nest era and retirement, and then, right when we seemingly have more time to spare, the clock of mortality starts ticking more loudly.

I’ve been working on this book for twelve years and my life has changed dramatically during that period, as has the world around me. The pop culture references all had to be updated. America is a very different place, or else an unmasked version of what it’s always been. Certain aspects of the book that felt highly speculative or insane ten years ago now feel totally reasonable.

In terms of time within the structure of the book, there are essentially four unique timelines/arcs: 1) David’s childhood/high-school/pre-college backstory, 2) his freshman fall semester, 3) winter break, and 4) his spring semester. Weaving these four timelines was the bulk of my revision work over the past five years or so. Frankly, I felt it worked in multiple configurations: straightforward chronological order starting with childhood vs. starting with the fall semester vs. completely non-linear. I’m really happy with where it landed—jumping in during winter break at the moment when the story really differentiates from a typical campus novel. We move around in time, but my hope is that this doesn’t read as gimmicky, and that each shift in time, each “superimposition” of one scene onto another, actually serves the storytelling.

Rumpus: In terms of the superhero stuff, you are walking in some pretty respectable footsteps. Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman, comes to mind, and I thought more than once of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. What did you read as you were writing We Can Save Us All? What did your research look like? Are you one of those guys who’s always been a superhero fan?

Nemett: There’s a line in the book where David says “My relationship to superheroes is mystical, not fundamentalist,” and I think that accurately describes my connection to the genre. I grew up on Christopher Reeve Superman and Michael Keaton Batman movies and I wore a homemade Superman cape until I was about five years old, but I was never a massive comic book guy. I had a period when I went deep on Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, but sometimes comics and graphic novels feel like really beautiful storyboards for feature films that I want to watch, so my allegiances lie more with superhero movies, especially the gritty ones and (intentionally) comedic ones, as opposed to the glossy CGI alien-fests that take themselves too seriously.

My research extended over that same embarrassingly long period of writing time, so there’s a huge amount of material that informed the novel in large and small ways. Grossman’s and Chabon’s books, as well as Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, were important touchstones in terms of upmarket superhero novels. I love pre-apocalyptic fiction like White Noise, and watch far too many dystopian movies and TV shows. I also read a lot of nonfiction about how different religions and cultures envision the end of the world, including current day theories on climate change. I researched collectives, communes, cults, prepper communities, and other “ensembles”; campus novels; nonfiction focusing on the 1960s student movements, especially Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution—anything that depicted a slow slide from noble intentions to tragic implosion. I studied psychedelics and pharmaceuticals. And a hugely influential book was Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which makes the historical case that communities actually take good care of each other in times of disaster, as opposed to the Mad Max hellscapes we’re conditioned to expect.

Rumpus: Your book is a goldmine of literary and historical references here, from Thoreau and Whitman to Hitler and the Polish to Eloise and Superman—and beyond. The book is so of its time: a tale about time collapsing, written in our Internet age of mashups and flat-Earthers and revisionist history and rampant whataboutism. Sometimes it does feel as if time has, in fact, collapsed, and the hierarchies of what’s Important-with-a-capital-I have all but disappeared. Still, it seems to me that under all the noise in your book there is a clear historical-philosophical thruway, from the transcendentalist movement of the nineteenth century through the superhero craze of the twentieth century to the USV of your fictional twenty-first century. Philosophically David and Mathias and the other members of the USV are clear successors to Whitman and Thoreau. Give me a little history lesson, if you wouldn’t mind. How would you describe this history, and its contemporary effects? How would you characterize the American relationship to saviorhood?

Nemett: I’m no expert on transcendentalism (or anything else, for that matter), but the piece I’ve always liked about its ethos was summed up in Lawrence Buell’s anthology: that the core of transcendentalism is “the idea of a divinity latent within each person, whose ordinarily underactivated potential is not to be reasoned into being so much as ignited.” [p. xxiii]. I love that.

Without getting into the weeds of what writers like Emerson and Fuller and Thoreau were reacting against, I think there was a shift away from accepting an all-knowing God completely controlling humanity’s ups and downs; and a belief that individual and collective humans can take an active role in the co-creation of their lives (and also the idea that nature is maybe a closer embodiment of God than is an anthropomorphized, insecure, vengeful father figure living in the sky). The transcendental notion of divinity—an “underactivated potential” that can be “ignited” via some direct mystical experience—resonates with me. But transcendentalists also focus on practical considerations of how to live in society, such as Thoreau’s opening chapter of Walden entitled “Economy,” which addresses the “necessities of life for man in this climate…Food, Shelter, Clothing and Fuel.” There’s plenty of philosophy in there, but it also offers a detailed accounting of the cost of all the materials he used to build his ten by fifteen foot home in the woods.

Transcendentalism wasn’t dogmatic or orthodox, at least not at first, and incorporated elements from other spiritual traditions, especially polytheistic religions like Hinduism. I was a Religion major in college, and I enjoy exploring different traditions—each one has concepts that make spiritual sense to me, and each has elements that feel horribly archaic and stupid and dangerous.

I think the characters in my novel feel that there are many valid modes of personal spirituality beyond the handful of ancient religious traditions. This idea of “divinity latent within each person” manifests in the USV’s superhero tropes—individuals discovering and cultivating their inborn powers while joining forces with other complementary power-beings to fight for what’s right. There are other religious elements peppered in here, too: especially Zoroastrianism (Good vs. Evil), Buddhism (the concept of “right livelihood” underlying each superhero persona), and Hinduism (the destructive Kali Yuga followed by the Satya Yuga, or “Golden Age”).

In terms of saviorhood… for better or (probably) worse, we’re dealing with a lot of the same social and religious issues today, where some people are hungry for authoritarian power while many others feel safer giving their power to that authoritarianism and its charismatic figurehead. Dominant vs. submissive. I thought it would be interesting to play with this idea in the novel—that a group of people gather around the concept of humanism and individual accountability/power, but ultimately devolve into hero worship and hypocritically abdicating their personal responsibility. I also thought a lot about the transcendentalists’ concept of the divinity of nature in terms of the realities of climate change we’re now facing—a vengeful god in the sky manifesting as hurricanes and superstorms.

Rumpus: Probably my favorite thing about this book is the freedom of the narrative voice. It’s super casual and playful, but also highly literary. It varies between close third, in the POV of several different characters, and relative omniscience. You also use a rather delightful, deceptively willy-nilly system of capitalization, reminiscent of the nineteenth-century English literature that your main character David is so smitten by. How did you come to this voice?

Nemett: In real life I’m a serious person and also a goofy person. The fiction I enjoy reading typically contains some of that juxtaposition, so I think/hope my prose reflects that. I’m working with heavy issues like climate change, mental illness, and sexual assault, and I recognize the risk of this becoming pedantic and depressing, so I like to kind of take the piss out of myself at regular intervals. Sometimes one character undercuts another and sometimes I punctuate a more ornate, academic passage with a dose of trashy/bizarro.

After the book sold, my wonderful editor Olivia Smith pushed me to develop Haley’s voice, writing more from her close third person POV, and I’m hugely thankful to her for that. Moving between a few different perspectives was fun and freeing and I think added devil’s advocacy to whatever David’s going through internally. In general, so long as the playfulness doesn’t break the flow of the reading experience, and ideally adds to it, this kind of lawlessness is the thing I love most about writing and reading fiction.

Rumpus: The young protagonists of this book are devoted to saving the world from apocalypse, which does seem increasingly likely, what with increasingly intense storms and war with China and this hypothetical issue of chronostrictesis. At a certain point in the book, however, a middle-aged character, Professor Zhou, says to David,

You’re still young. You haven’t lived through enough of these so-called apocalypses. Once you’re ancient like me and you’ve been through five or six of them—political, nuclear, weather-related, epidemics—but… no. There’s plenty of future to be had. There always is.

Does every generation go through its own kind of apocalypse? Adam Nemett, how do we save us all?

Nemett: I do think every generation experiences its own reckoning. And I think we’re wired to be scared shitless about destroying ourselves, and this provides the biological or societal brake pedal to ensure it doesn’t actually happen.

In my mild-mannered day job I write nonfiction business history books for a firm called History Factory, looking at the last two hundred years through a variety of lenses. It’s no picnic right now; school children have lock-down drills and and there’s still so much work to do in terms of civil rights and racial justice, but I remind myself that in our parents’ generation kids practiced hiding under their desks to survive nuclear blasts and were then drafted into war. When I think of my ancestors living through the Depression or fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe… I feel like we just need to buck up; that this just happens to be the latest particular brand of shitstorm we’re being asked to survive.

Aside from the historical angle, though, the concept of apocalypse is pretty personal and community-specific. Not to get super dark, but the fear and reality you and I are experiencing right now as well-educated white people in America is obviously very different from folks whose houses have already been leveled by hurricanes or wildfires, or whose children have been taken and put in detention centers, or those living under dictatorships or in extreme poverty anywhere in the world. For a lot of people, basic survival isn’t a vague concept but a daily reality.

When Mother Earth is truly done with humans, she’ll just throw us off. Maybe it’ll be a singular, momentary event like a meteor, but most of the plausible apocalypse scenarios are a result of manmade problems. Which means, yeah, humans are to blame but it also means we can possibly survive and fix things and adapt and improve in the wake of whatever disasters we’re creating. I’m not ruling out some revolutionary scientific innovation or collective epiphany swooping in to change everything. That’d be great. But it’s probably more likely that something will upend our existing lifestyles and it’ll suck for a while and be tough to adapt… but then we will adapt.

No matter the case, I’m not banking on anyone else coming to save me—not my government and not some messianic superhero and not Robert Mueller—so I keep coming back to the humanistic idea of individual people being ignited and then banding together, probably in a hyper-localized way, neighborhoods and campuses and communities, to help each other out.

We’ll probably spend less time staring at technology and more time learning practical skills from each other. We’ll connect in new ways, and hopefully emerge from this scariness with an evolved sense of what it means to be human and how we relate to the natural world. It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine how you’d fare if your electricity went off for three weeks. At some point, you’d likely have to reach out to your neighbors for help, and they’d likely reach out to you. How we react when that happens on a mass scale will probably answer the question of whether humanity can save itself. If we choose to hide in bunkers and kill each other over canned goods, I think we’re done. If we can teach and learn from each other, and find some kind of balance that supports both practical skills and human culture—the music and art that makes life worth living—I think we’ll make it.

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Photograph of Adam Nemett © Jen Fariello.


Rachel Lyon is the author of the novel Self-Portrait with Boy, which was long-listed for the Center for Fiction's 2018 First Novel Prize and is in feature film development at Topic Studios. Rachel’s short work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Longreads, Joyland, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a cofounder of the reading series Ditmas Lit and the Editor-in-Chief of Epiphany. More from this author →