The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #193: C.J. Farley
C.J. Farley’s Around Harvard Square is a book best read aloud. Just short of three hundred pages, it’s a side-eye retort to a certain institution that takes its earned seriousness—perhaps, too?—seriously. Set in the nineties and narrated by a Jamaican-American freshman with a torn-up knee from hooping and straight-ahead Lampoon writer dreams, Around Harvard Square is a tumult of talk: of cracks, counter cracks, arguments, debates, weed- and Zima-boosted “shitchat,” high-brow discourse and self-aware, pop-laced wit. In all of this, perhaps around it, are profound oral histories of Harvard: the American ideal/idol, cultural shorthand for merit.
A gifted and versatile writer, lover of lists, research pro, and polymath, Farley also happens to be an alum of the institution. He knows the world of his story, and understands the muchness of concerns, the challenge to self-assurance carried by many students who make academia’s center stage in an atmosphere that tempts them to take comfort on the margin.
Protagonist Tosh and his friends Meera, Zippa, and Lao are immigrants. None of them are white.
C.J. Farley has worked as a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine and is the author of several novels including Kingston by Starlight and My Favorite War. He is a former editor of the Harvard Lampoon, and is currently an executive editor at Audible.
The Rumpus: You’re really funny in this novel. Funny on the page isn’t easy. Should we talk about your approach to comedy? Let’s.
C.J. Farley: I like to make fun of things that people aren’t talking about that they should be talking about, especially the excesses, missteps, and outrages of the rich, powerful, and privileged. If the butt of the joke is more about the disadvantaged in society, I usually cut it—unless the target of the joke is actually me, or the person really deserves it, or the joke is so funny I can’t resist.
I like to go after the unseen and undiscussed assumptions and injustices of society. David Foster Wallace once told a joke about two young fish who swim by an older fish who nods at them and says “How’s the water?” and the two young fish look at each other and say “What the heck is water?” I like to point out the water—the important things all around us that we don’t notice and take for granted but are vitally important to our lives.
Rumpus: As far as satirical works and writers go, make the case for your top five. No—let’s outdo Chris Rock. Top ten.
Farley: I don’t actually keep a running list like that, but let me name a few off the top of my head, with the caveat that this list is ever-changing and that, although I would never say it, every writer secretly puts themselves at the top of every list of writers they make, at least in their own heads.
My list of great satirists: 1) Ishmael Reed, 2) Ralph Ellison, 3) George Orwell, 4) Zora Neale Hurston, 5) Kurt Vonnegut, 6) Douglas Adams, 7) Dorothy Parker, 8) David Foster Wallace, 9) Langston Hughes, 10) Dr. Seuss, 11) Thomas Pynchon, and 12) Terry McMillan.
Rumpus: Writers often write their defining autobiographical work early. You’re several books into your career. Why now?
Farley: Authors often deny that their autobiographical works are actually autobiographical and then they engage in all sorts of tortured reasoning to throw critics and readers off their path. That said, although Around Harvard Square is about a Jamaican-American Harvard student who tries to get on the staff of a magazine very much like the Harvard Lampoon and I’m also a Jamaican-American who went to Harvard and served on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon, the protagonist of my new novel really isn’t me. For one, the narrator of my book is a much better writer than I am.
Sometimes it’s a good thing to write about your youth right away, while the passions are still burning; other times it’s better to wait, and get some more perspective and experience. I waited about thirty years after graduating before I published a book about Harvard.
Rilke once wrote:
For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning … For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
I figure if it takes that much just to write a poem, it probably takes even more to turn out a novel.
Rumpus: What were some of the technical challenges of separating your central character Tosh from yourself?
Farley: The biggest technical challenge was locating the “find/replace” option on the drop down menu and substituting the name “Chris” for “Tosh.”
Actually, it wasn’t much of a challenge at all—I really didn’t consider the main character to be me, or a representation of me. I think if you start identifying too strongly with a character it can hold you back as an author from having that character make hard choices and go through difficult experiences. Sometimes, for example, characters have to die. If you’re too close to a character, writing a death scene can be problematic, or possibly fatal.
Rumpus: Around Harvard Square is at once, philosophical, political, absurdist, in some ways romantic, and deeply engaged with interrogating histories. It’s rhythmic in a profoundly entertaining, page-tuning way. I sense the influence of, among other things, serialized Victorian novels, 90s hip hop, and 70s reggae.
Farley: I am a fan and student of serialized literature. I’ve long been fascinated by the fact that writers like Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, and Tom Wolfe published some of their works piece by piece, drawing readers into the narratives and leaving them breathless for new installments.
Music is another important element of Around Harvard Square—every chapter is named after a song from the 90s, and there are references to reggae, rock, rap, country, and world music lyrics threaded throughout the book.
I was a music critic in the 90s, interviewing artists like Beyoncé, Radiohead, Lauryn Hill, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Nas, Aaliyah, Shakira, Bob Dylan, Jay-Z, U2, Ziggy Marley, Snoop, and too many stars to name here, and all the concerts I went to, all the things those artists told me on tour buses, in hotel rooms, backstage or in their homes, are still bouncing around in my brain.
I wanted this novel to move to the beat of the music of the time period. There’s a connection between serialized literature and the soundtrack of this novel. I liked the idea of writing a book that’s like a deejay trying to keep you moving all night, without a single song that clears the dance floor and sends you back to your seats.
Rumpus: The international cast of major characters—Tosh, Meera, Lao, and Zippa—are like deejays themselves in their dialogue. They cut and mix references competitively but in good sport.
Farley: My experience in college was very broad—I knew people from places ranging from South Korea to South Africa, not to mention Montana, which is pretty much another country. I loved getting to know people from all over. Unfortunately, the way America works these days is that for many people, public school and college are sometimes the last times they have regular, intimate contact with people outside of their socioeconomic group—other than maybe their kids’ nannies. I wanted my novel to really revel in the joy of knowing people who know things outside of your circle of experience.
Rumpus: I enjoyed this book, yet I’m a grown up, and the work is positioned as YA. Am I just immature or are you throwing elbows at the folks who guard categories and genres?
Farley: I wanted to write a book for older younger readers, a book that kids could call their own and that adults would also enjoy reading without shame.
C.S. Lewis once said that “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.”
A lot of books that I love, really formative texts for me, could be categorized as “YA books”—like The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of The Rings, Animal Farm, The Bluest Eye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I don’t care if people see me reading comic books at Starbucks. If you don’t like it, fight me.
Rumpus: There is death in this book, some violence, many metrics tons of mischief, but maybe half a gram of sex.
Farley: I think most students would rather have more sex and mischief than death and violence in their undergrad years but you can’t always get what you want.
Rumpus: Tosh is interested in some complicated ways to two very complicated women—a fellow student, Zippa, and a member of faculty, Professor Bell. What do you find narratively interesting about the shape of his attraction to them?
Farley: In an early draft of my book, Tosh has an affair with Professor Bell, but I cut that out when I realized the professional woman sleeping with her student was a kind of antifeminist male fantasy. I think male writers have to constantly interrogate our artistic impulses to make sure they’re expressing something deep and true, and not some storyline or characterization that’s been twisted by some patriarchal craving that’s infected our surface desires.
Rumpus: Tosh has a social class and a Harvard class, and they are not in sync. What opportunities did this present you when it came to giving him voice and concerns as a character?
Farley: I saw a fascinating off-Broadway play recently by Jackie Sibblies Drury that’s closed now, but let me give a spoiler alert in case anyone plans to see a future production. The play starts off as a kind of wholesome, upper middle-class black sitcom, before becoming experimental, when fictional, non-black members of the audience crash into the play as characters, sending the plot veering off into stereotypical situations—suddenly there are things like unpaid bills, drugs, gangsta rap, etc. At the end, a black character breaks the fourth wall and enters the real audience, sending all the real white audience members onto the stage, and asking everyone to consider the ways in which non-black writers, gatekeepers, and crowds warp the way we see people of color.
The lead character in Around Harvard Square navigates between working-class reality and the world of the intellectual Ivory Tower. It’s not a space that black artists get to investigate too often, and it doesn’t match the vision of black people that the non-black gatekeepers of the literary establishment would like writers of color to write about.
Rumpus: Do you remember when or how the character Meera came to you?
Farley: She came to me fully developed and already armed, like Athena bursting out of Zeus’s skull. I’ve always been interested in the ways in which men, through video games, have created a fantasy space that’s even more sexist, racist, and oppressive than the real world, which is plenty sexist, racist, and oppressive already. Meera is a rebuke to that, and more. The funny-sad thing is the first computer programmer—Ada Lovelace—was a woman and the guy who invented the video game cartridge and set the stage for the billion-dollar video game market—Jerry Lawson—was a black man, but they’re too often written out of history. My novel tries to write the contributions of men and women of color back in.
Rumpus: “College is a rigged game—it’s more about money, family, and geography than merit.” Zippa says this. What do you believe?
Farley: Google the tuition for any major college—it’s not about what I believe, it’s just the truth. Throughout Europe, going to college is free, but in America, the power structure has priced college out of reach for most ordinary people, unless they take on crazily burdensome loans. Instead, the ultra-rich work the admissions system and the biased standardized testing racket and act like they’re natural born geniuses.
Around Harvard Square was talking about the scandal of college admissions before the real-life college admissions scandal broke in the news. I met some incredibly smart people at Harvard, and I loved going there. But the idea that there are smart people out there who didn’t get into the college of their choice because of economics, or social bias, or because some rich family’s kid took their slot—that’s a nightmare.
Social mobility is the circulation system of a fully functioning body politic and the ability of people from different economic levels to be able to get to college is a vital part of that. Then again, there are a lot of terrific colleges out there, and that’s part of why I wrote my book. My parents were longtime professors at the State University of New York at Brockport, and I used to take summer classes there during high school—SUNY Brockport set the stage for me becoming a writer. Whatever college a kid gets into, he or she can have a great time, learn a lot, and go on to incredible things—they should never have FOMO. If they want to know what Harvard is really like, they can read my novel—or go there for grad school.
Photograph of C.J. Farley by Kate Simon.