Sentence by Sentence: Talking with Nicholas Mancusi

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Nicholas Mancusi’s debut novel A Philosophy of Ruin confronts the anxieties of free will and fatalist determination. Oscar Boatwright is a professor of philosophy who learns in the opening pages that his mother has died unexpectedly. Adding to his grief, his father has been left penniless. His parents have given away their life savings to the guru Paul St. Germaine. Oscar’s quiet life is upended when he sleeps with Dawn, a student, the night before the term begins. He finds himself caught up in a major conspiracy while dealing with his mother’s death.

Nicholas Mancusi grew up in the suburbs of New York City, but he now lives in Brooklyn. In May, a few weeks before his novel was released, I met up with Nick at his apartment in Crown Heights where we discussed the novel, aging parents, philosophy, and more.

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The Rumpus: Did you ever live in the places where the novel takes place?

Nicholas Mancusi: Decidedly no. California, where most of the book takes place, has a kind of interesting appeal to me because when I was a kid on Long Island we flirted with the notion a few times of moving to LA because my mom was a screenwriter. We went on a few trips there to feel what it would be like if our family lived there. It had this mystique to me—the book really draws heavily from my own childhood. And during one of those early-twenties, nothing-else-to-do periods, I did take a six-week, cross-country road trip.

Rumpus: Is that where the Midwestern element comes from? I’m thinking of the passage: “So many artists had been inspired by the quintessentially American melancholy of the Midwest, but as a young man Oscar had found the landscape oppressive in its openness.”

Mancusi: Absolutely. That passage you read is certainly from my time driving through Iowa—so flat, it’s as if you aren’t moving at all. At the really flat sections you can see a silo that’s barely moving, and you look at the speedometer and you’re doing seventy-five or eighty miles an hour, but you feel sort of like you are in this odd stasis. Seeing the Iowa corn fields was as mind-blowing to me as someone seeing Times Square for the first time. I truly couldn’t shut up about it. I can’t get over how flat this place is.

Rumpus: The characters themselves to me come across as very Midwestern, but I say this as an East Coast elite.

Mancusi: It definitely came from a kind of outsiderism. As a writer, I tend to admire Midwestern writers. I think it was fun for me to sort of wonder what they have that I don’t. It is one of the reasons why I decided to place this family there. If Oscar’s family was from Long Island, that would have been too close for me to write about. I had to refract the place a little bit.

Rumpus: One of the anxieties you are playing on here is the anxiety of a person our age with parents who find themselves dependent on their child. Have you come across that yourself?

Mancusi: Not with my own parents. They are both young and healthy and we have a great relationship. These parents are not mine. When I handed the galley to my mom—Oscar’s mother dies in the very first sentence—I made it very clear, “Mom, this mother is not you; you might recognize certain mannerisms but I promise it’s not you.” It is interesting for people our age—we are still certainly very young, but our parents are not. And our grandparents—do you have any?

Rumpus: They’re all dead.

Mancusi: I’m down to one. I think I was initially started writing the book I was twenty-two, and I chose what felt like a mature age for Oscar—I made him twenty-seven. I’m thirty-one now. I’ve seen my parents deal with their aging parents so I think I transposed a bit.

When you’re young, your parents are so elemental, and at a certain point they move from elements to humans. I tried to draw that out in the book. I’ve become friends with my parents in a way you can’t be when you’re five. But it also allows you to see their fallibility and their fears.

Rumpus: When started reading the novel I thought it was a campus novel and a family novel and then all of a sudden, something changes and becomes an action novel. I was turning page after page, and then we come back to the family novel at the end. Was it your intention to merge these genres, or was it something evolved naturally?

Mancusi: It happened very naturally. The first thing I wrote was the very first sentence, and I wrote it not knowing what was going to happen next. It was like I was entering the wilderness. At one point I had written the entire first half of the book—the campus section—and that was it. I had no idea there was going to be any sort of drug plot or action plot. I knew I wanted something interesting to happen, but I didn’t know what that was.

It was taking this character Oscar and piling on pressure after pressure, basically to see what would happen. I spent a lot of time—one of those six-month periods when I wrote nothing—thinking about pushing further into an area where I would be unfamiliar with, something unrecognizable to me, something to draw out these ideas about free will and death, way beyond anything I could see controlling my life.

It struck me to have Oscar engage in an illegal activity that would get him on the road. And so then I that’s where that came from. It never really changed the project of the book for me or what I was interested in or even how I saw the book. I knew something was going to happen because that was important to me. I wanted it to be interesting and readable, but I didn’t know what it was.

Rumpus: Was there any concern of genre?

Mancusi: The fiction that I love and am drawn to most takes itself seriously in terms of the ideas that it lay claim to—the human soul, the fall of man—but there’s still some sort of plot. Something happens. This is always the simple way I define plot: things happening.

I’m thinking of Denis Johnson. I’m just like an incurable super fan of Denis Johnson, but there was one book in particular of his that doesn’t get discussed much, and it was a touchstone for me in that it made me realize such a thing is possible, that such a thing is feasible, that’s his book Nobody Move. It was actually serialized in Playboy. It’s almost pulp satire. There’s not a drug plot, but there are gangsters and guns and car chases but it never abandons Johnson’s deep intelligence and his literary attention to sentences. I basically thought: a story like this is worthy of seriousness.

Rumpus: You do have beautiful sentences. When you’re putting those together, is it speaking out loud or is it pushing sentences together in your head?

Mancusi: My writing process, and I’m trying to speed this up, is wildly slow. If I write for two hours, and I get three sentences, that’s probably fine. And If I get a paragraph it’s great. And I cite that as a fault. I wish I could churn out the story and then hone it on another pass. Sentences come out the way they come out and I can do certain trimming of words, and sometimes I’ll flip or invert the structure of the sentence. But I wrote this novel sentence by sentence.

I think once it’s on the page or out of my brain it’s hard for me to conceive of it in another way. And again, that’s a fault of mine as a writer. This is a thing you are not supposed to admit to. You are supposed to say: oh, I wrote this five different times, at first I did it in third person and then I wrote it in the first, and then put it all back to third. I even heard once some writer say that before they wrote their novel, they wrote a different novel for each character in the novel just as back story. That couldn’t be further from my process.

Rumpus: Oscar is an academic philosopher. And he exists in this academic world. There is a connection between philosophy in the book and what happens. How did you construct this?

Mancusi: In college, I was an English and philosophy double major, so I have some cursory—well, I’ve been in a philosophy class. I know what an excellent philosophy professor looks like. I know what a philosophy class looks like. I know what it feels like in your brain to be doing philosophy at a certain clip. And I loved it. I really did love it.

There was a route at one point that I might have seen my life taking—the only way to pursue philosophy after college is to go to graduate school. That’s literally it. Or you can be a hobbyist and read the professional trades. I didn’t pursue that route for various reasons. I leaned more toward English. I thought I would go to a creative writing MFA for a few years. Oscar is sort of a shade of myself I can imagine—the version of me that might have pursued philosophy. I definitely understand that the philosophy in this book is not rigorous. The ideas are there, but I don’t really want a philosophy professor to read it as a philosophical text.

Rumpus: You offer a comparison here between the pop philosophy of a guru, Paul St. Germaine, and the rigors of academic philosophy. Oscar’s poor and desperate for money and Paul St. Germaine is, if not living the high life, living a comfortable life.

Mancusi: St. Germaine is the pleasures of philosophy that I enjoyed as an undergrad—set free. He is essentially saying whatever he wants knowing there won’t be a grade, stumbling into this A+ he gets from his acolytes.

Rumpus: In creating St. Germaine’s videos—essentially dialogue—were you pulling inspiration off of other pop gurus, do you have a stack of philosophers?

Mancusi: I have a stack of philosophy books. There are so many great cult leaders and figures in fiction and in movies and in life, down to guys like Tony Robbins, who I wouldn’t want to call a cult leader but who is a charismatic speaker. And refracted through the sheen of philosophy to lend itself some credence. St Germaine definitely draws on arguments for determinism that fascinated me when I encountered them. The appeal of his kind of system is appealing to me. Or it appealed to me in the years after college when I had no job and I was fairly confident I wasn’t going to be a writer despite telling everyone I was going to be a writer.

I had a couple years without publishing anything—and in those nights spent racked with dread, I was sure I had ruined my life by this ridiculous attempt to be some sort of serious person. And during those years, I occasionally comforted myself with determinism. The idea that “our lives are set in motion by powers that we can’t control and we never had a chance to control them so we’re just here, basically along for the ride.” And that is a simplification of the idea, basically a longer way of saying whatever’s to be, will be.

Rumpus: Oscar definitely seems intrigued. He keeps watching the videos like someone who wants to follow. Is that you in there wanting to follow St. Germaine?

Mancusi: Yes. The appeal of that is seductive. It releases us from moral judgment. And moreover, it releases us from responsibility for our lives, if we don’t end up doing the things we want to do. It’s not my fault if I don’t have any free will.

That notion is appealing to me. Also, seems far more likely. The argument for free will is fairly fantastical. Another word for fantastical would be hopeful. Although the brain, in my case and in Oscar’s case, breaks towards determinism, free will is linked with the hope that I have and that Oscar has. Not only that we’re in control of our fates, but that it matters. And it matters in a way that is ineffable in the same way that free will is ineffable. If something as indescribable as free will exists, then something as indescribable as love could exist, or an afterlife. Something that binds us to the people we love. The academic arguments for those sorts of things are nil. What we know about those things, we know about because we feel them. That’s not something you can submit for a grade and yet also feels very real to me.

Rumpus: Are you a spiritual person? Are you a religious person?

Mancusi: I’m a bad Catholic. It was what I was raised in and steeped in and I still find it valuable. I consider myself a Catholic because I find it valuable to have several thousand years of thinking about this stuff in an organized way. I’m certainly no large fan of organized religion. There are many problems we would all agree on. But I’m driving around this notion that surely there’s something going on here, like life on earth existing with no further explanation is more bizarre to me than an explanation, so I’m leaning towards religious feelings. Or some sort of confidence that there is something more. That actually comes from my childhood. Both my parents are Catholic. When I first encountered the notion of death or questions of that sort of thing, or why we write, why we think we write, why what we think what is right is right, and why we do that—I learned that in the language of religion. That we have a soul, and there is a God that tests that soul, with various essentially moral challenges.

Rumpus: Oscar’s sister: she goes to New York, she comes back from New York, and she’s very entrenched in the Midwest. “She stayed with the Midwest, and the Midwest stayed with her.” She’s trapped in the Midwest.

Mancusi: I think that’s me as a New Yorker playing out my feelings about what they might think of their lives. I hope I did it in a respectful way. I’m coming from a place of otherness. If I got that accurately, it’s based off certain pieces of art that engage me. There is an American character in the Midwest and the people there that fascinates me. I feel very much that my family and family history has soaked up where we’re from, and I wanted her to be from where she’s from.

I needed her to be a foil. Oscar goes off to a coastal elite institution and engages in this pursuit of academic philosophy that is or could be seen as frivolous by the people who grow the food that we eat. He cuts against what he’s grown up with. Both his parents are smart, but they’d probably prefer he do something more lucrative or at least practical. I like the idea of comparing him to someone who has stayed, even if she left for a while. But she had remained with the family in a way that Oscar has guilt that he didn’t.

Rumpus: The night Oscar sleeps with Dawn the first time there is this element of him that is very dark and sad. He’s going to make a big mistake.

Mancusi: In that moment he’s making a mistake that I don’t know if I’ve made. He’s dealing with his grief in a way that I haven’t necessarily allowed myself to deal with. He’s gone to a level of wantonness that I generally keep myself from. My life hasn’t become novel-worthy yet and it’s for reasons like this. In order for him to get into something worth writing about, I wanted him to make that mistake. I’ve tried in my life not to make those mistakes, but you have to let your characters go a little further.

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Photograph of Nick Mancusi by Sylvie Rosokoff.


Ian MacAllen's fiction has appeared in 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Joyland Magazine, and elsewhere and nonfiction has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Negatives, Electric Literature, Fiction Advocate, and elsewhere. He is the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com. More from this author →