The Seductive Nature of Faith: Talking with Alex McElroy

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Like the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday, Alex McElroy’s debut novel, The Atmospherians, has something for everybody. It is a feast for the reader, seamlessly weaving influencer culture, toxic masculinity, self-mythology, cults, and more—all while delivering truth hidden in discomfort. My copy is already displayed on the bookshelf reserved for books I revisit the most, ready for when I go back for seconds, thirds, and so on.

After a confrontation with an abusive troll online takes a horrifying turn, Sasha Marcus, social media darling and creator of a high-profile wellness brand, loses everything overnight—her friends, followers, and job. Sequestered to her apartment while the furor of men’s rights protestors surges outside, Sasha reaches out to her oldest childhood friend Dyson, a failed actor with a lifelong struggle with body issues, who proposes a new business venture: a cult.

Based in an abandoned summer camp in rural New Jersey, The Atmosphere is conceived as a rehabilitation community for men that operates under the guise of a workshop for job training. With little choice but to accept Dyson’s proposal, the disgraced influencer joins her childhood friend in leading a rigorous program with the goal of reforming twelve middle-aged white men. But ridding a crew of desperate men of their toxic masculinity and attempting to heal them physically, emotionally, and socially does not come without its challenges—or horrors.

I caught up with my fellow New Jerseyian to talk about cults, faith, and the malleability of selfhood, among other things—but not before we first bonded over malls.

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The Rumpus: This is the appetizer sampler of books: it has everything I could ever want—humor, suspense, absurdity, tenderness, flair, poignancy, and, of course, cults. Which element—or elements!—served as the impetus for this book? 

Alex McElroy: The appetizer sampler was always my go-to order at chain restaurants, so it’s an honor to have written the literary version! Truthfully, I’m a big fan of work that is able to move through a variety of tones and styles, and it’s always been the type of thing I aspire to write. Of all the aspects you mention, tenderness was most important to me, hard as it may be to believe during certain moments in the novel. This book began with the friendship between Sasha and Dyson—the earliest iteration of this book was pages and pages of them talking in an empty room. Everything else you bring up, humor, suspense, etc., all grew from the friendship at the core of the book. 

Rumpus: There is only one thing I love more than meeting a fellow New Jerseyian, which is the thing that characterizes us as New Jerseyians: MALLS. Ugh, I can smell the sweet marriage of Auntie Anne’s and Bath and Body Works typing this. Malls loom in this book. What influence did malls have on your life growing up in New Jersey?

McElroy: Glad to be talking to a fellow appreciator of malls! They were a huge part of my life growing up. I was raised in a rural town in Jersey where the most exciting things to do were build decks and hunt. It wasn’t really my scene. But going to malls, even those that were forty minutes away by car, was my favorite way to blow through a weekend. I loved piling into friends’ Civics and rumbling off to the mall and the movies and all the fast-casual restaurants orbiting the parking lot like greasy moons. A lot of my senior year of high school was spent drifting through the mall, listening to Elliott Smith on a green iPod shuffle, trying to appear interesting, before I drove over to Borders and skimmed through books I couldn’t afford.

Rumpus: What makes the malls a crucial element in this book? 

McElroy: In this book, the malls instill Sasha and Dyson with a sense of nostalgia—as she points out—and that’s why they reappear in the novel. Thematically, malls serve as a tactile example of the glitzy decay that saturates so much of the world of the book. Before Instagram, we went to malls to mindlessly drift past beautiful people and stress-buy products that promised to change our lives. It made sense for these characters to have grown up around malls. Similarly, as malls continue to fall into ruin, they have become creepy graveyards of commerce. Ling Ma writes about this wonderfully in Severance, and the mall has been a home for the dead since George Romero [writer and director of Dawn of the Dead]. My novel is in conversation with those texts, and others that call attention to the wonder and the horror of malls.

Rumpus: Wait, is the mall that serves as The Atmosphere’s headquarters later in the book based on Cherry Hill Mall? You know I know it also has three floors.

McElroy: Haha! It isn’t, sadly—unless we have different names for the same mall. The mall in the book is actually a composite of two malls: the Bridgewater mall and the Rockaway mall, the latter of which was my main mall as a teenager. 

Rumpus: We, as a society, are obsessed with cults. I blink and there’s yet another documentary that I will inevitably devour in one single sitting. Tell me about your interest in cults. 

McElroy: I don’t know if I’m interested in cults, per se, so much as I’m interested in obscure forms of belief and the seductive nature of faith—a lot of which drives another excellent cult novel, R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries. When writing the novel, I did a ton of research into cults. I watched the documentaries and the movies and read the appropriate books. The more I researched, the more cults seemed to offer an eerie parallel for American capitalism, even as so many cults were formed to escape capital. The Atmosphere is a neoliberal talking point brought to its extreme. Dyson views cults the way many people view corporations in a neoliberal society: great structures occasionally mismanaged by bad individuals. This is similar to the bad apple narrative used whenever another cop murders an innocent person: the problem, we are told, is not policing as a whole but one bad cop—and then the next one bad cop, the next, the next, the next. In applying this language to a type of organization most people would agree is harmful—a cult!—I was attempting to bring these ideas to an absurd extreme.

Rumpus: I’m obsessed with anything relating to persona and self-mythology, so I obviously zeroed in on this aspect in the book. Sasha contends with this most: she doesn’t even want to be seen drinking in public because it could hinder her carefully curated online presence. Why is presentation of self important to your interrogation of toxic masculinity?

McElroy: In its most toxic forms, masculinity is a constant performance that demands the elimination of all vulnerability. Ironically, there is something deeply vulnerable about this performance—it belies a great deal of fear—as it implies that men must work tirelessly to prevent anyone from ever truly seeing their full humanity. That is, of course, a very sympathetic read of the situation, and I don’t mean to center men’s experiences. Because this ongoing performance most often hurts people who aren’t cis men, the women and trans people susceptible to the wrath of men desperate to appear invulnerable.

Rumpus: What are some things you think are missing from the cultural conversation around toxic masculinity? What should we be talking about more? 

McElroy: It’s hard to say there’s anything that isn’t being talked about now! That said, I really admire the work of abolitionists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Mariame Kaba, who are advocating for alternative modes of justice outside of the carceral state. Though much of their work is larger scale, like considering ways to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, I’m curious about how their ideas can be applied interpersonally to bring justice and peace to people who have suffered due to male toxicity.

Rumpus: Sasha’s insufferable ex, Blake, says something that made me pause:

“That’s because names are chains to the people we aren’t,” he said. “I wish I could throw Blake Daynes in the river. Every time I say Blake you think of every Blake you’ve known before me. I’m not those Blakes, but those Blakes shoulder in alongside me. I say we abolish permanent names. Everyone we meet should assign us a name of their choosing.”

Are you suggesting that selfhood is—or even some parts of identity are—more malleable than we thought?

McElroy: Oh, Blake. One of the novel’s preeminent blowhards. I like your question a lot, because I think it’s accurate—selfhood is extremely malleable and contingent, though I’m not sure I like the idea of taking sides with Blake. It’s hard to fully accept that his theory of nominal personhood holds water. I do think that personality is something that shifts all the time, I’m not so sure I would say that identity shifts—even though identity when expressed through something like race is largely a white supremacist construction. I identify as trans nonbinary, for instance, which is different from how I used to identity, as a cis male, though it’s difficult for me to say that I identified as a cis male because, in reality, I had just accepted the identity given to me. Does that mean that my identity shifted, or that I merely found the appropriate words for an identity that I could not previously name? I don’t know.

I am fascinated by the ways that our personalities shift depending on context—just as I’m fascinated by the impulse to codify personality through online tests. I lean more toward shifting personality, though. It seems obvious that around lifelong friends, we can be wild and glib and sentimental, but in front of our partner’s parents, it’s best to appear respectful and gainfully employed. The rise of a term like “code-switching” in everyday conversation has made this pretty clear: we’re often asked to adjust to our surroundings in order to fit in or survive, and this surface level of our identity—patterns and content of speech—can shift fairly rapidly and with ease. 

Rumpus: I noted in your acknowledgements that you wrote this book during one of the hardest times in your life. Has writing this book helped you through that?

McElroy: I wouldn’t say writing helped me through that difficult stretch in my life. However, writing this novel gave me something to do when it was hard to think about the future; it helped me envision a future for myself. More importantly, writing this book helped show me how small a book really is compared to living your life. I remain extremely grateful for the friends and family who helped me through that stretch, and I’m grateful, too, to my editors for their patience and generosity. Publishing is often criticized for its money-hungry business model. But I was very lucky to land with a team of people who saw me as a person before anything else.

Rumpus: How have you changed over the course of writing this book?

McElroy: Well, I started this book reluctantly cis, and over the course of writing and revising I came out as nonbinary. That’s been a pretty major change! It would be a stretch to assert some kind of A-to-B causal relationship between writing The Atmospherians and coming out. That said, I wrote a lot of this book while dressed femme, fully made up, wearing dresses I no longer own. Those mornings, I would tell myself I was trying to understand Sasha—insert world’s longest eye roll—when really I was trying to come to terms with my true self. Fictional though they may be, novels require an immense amount of self-reflection and honesty. As I was writing this book, it became increasingly obvious to me that I wasn’t being honest with myself and with my loved ones about who I truly was. I’m very happy that writing this book has coincided with my personal self-acceptance. It’s difficult enough promoting a book—it would have been impossible to promote while also feeling an incredible level of dysphoria.

Rumpus: We’re Twitter friends, so I’ve been keeping up with all the pre-pub buzz for this book. I saw the other day someone called your book controversial. Do you think it’ll be received that way for some readers? If so, what are your thoughts on that?

McElroy: Oh, no! The lesson here is that I should stop recklessly tweeting. I’m trying very hard to not think about the reception of the novel, as difficult as that is at this stage in the process. It was never my intention to write a controversial book—I wrote the appetizer sampler of books, remember? Not the KFC Double Down of books.

In all seriousness, I just tried to write the most honest book I could about wellness culture and masculinity and millennial desperation and scam artists and friendship. But we live in America, a country that hates honesty as much as it hates artists. Perhaps the artist’s impulse to tell the truth is what makes art so undervalued in America. Good art and good literature, I believe, asks us to confront who we truly are. I aspired to write a good piece of literature—whether or not I did isn’t up to me any longer. So, if I wrote something controversial, I only did so insofar as I tried to create a book that would make readers have to confront themselves. It isn’t surprising that controversy might arise from this process.

Rumpus: Conspiracy theories go hand-in-hand with cults on the whole. I need to know: is the ending written as it is because you want readers to form their own theories about Sasha and the future of The Atmosphere?

McElroy: Like I mentioned before, what most fascinates me about cults is how the members all come to believe what might appear, to outsiders, as absurd or harmful beliefs. This is where conspiracy theories most readily interact with cults—as seen in something like QAnon, which is essentially an online cult at this point.

I definitely wanted to leave the ending of the novel open to distinct reader interpretations—and I like how you put it, that I may have turned the readers into conspiracy theorists. My favorite novels are those that leave space for readers to make their own conclusions about the meaning of events in novels.

Sasha is committed to the construction of both narrative and meaning. She is telling a story about her time at The Atmosphere and her friendship with Dyson. It is a deeply personal and subjective story—one that might appear, to someone else, like merely a theory; it might very well appear that way to a reader. I love books that allow for multiple interpretations because they are, in my mind, books that respect the readers. I hope my novel does the same for its readers.

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Photograph of Alex McElroy by Grace Rivera.


Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →