Cigarettes and Wittgenstein: The Rumpus Interview with Sean Thor Conroe

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In Sean Thor Conroe’s novel, Fuccboi, we amble along with an intelligent and hapless character—a writer also by the name of Sean—through the streets of Philly (and to a lesser degree, Los Angeles), as he struggles to make money for rent, ruminates on philology and poets, wrestles with his mental and physical health, and connects and disconnects from his various relationships, indulged with names like “ex bae,” “lil sis,” “autonomous bae,” “ex-roomie bro,” and “V,” among others.

Conroe’s novel is a mélange of cheap beer and philosophical musing, of millennial daftness and struggle, loneliness and imagination. Written in lines more than chapters, one can’t help but feel they are descending a ladder when reading this novel, in both a visual and proverbial sense. Conroe’s words trek down the page with frenetic speed—a linguistic hustle, of sorts. Fuccboi is part poetic rambling, part postmodern travelogue.

Born in Tokyo and raised in Los Angeles, Conroe now lives in New York City. Fuccboi is his first novel. Through a combination of video chat and email chain, I was able to catch a glimpse of this caffeinated and vibrant new author.

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The Rumpus: Regarding the style of writing in Fuccboi—jazzed, clipped, energetic—I loved it. Is this your general signature writerly style, or is it a choice for this particular book?

Sean Thor Conroe: Glad you loved it. Insofar as whenever I write, I write line-by-line, in a way that feels energized and spoken and charged, then yes. But I don’t think I’ll know for sure until I’ve finished writing my next book. Things are always changing.

I think for this book I was writing a sentence at a time, trying to write with a type of immediacy. Amy Hempel would write her sentences in stacks like that individually and then later decide how to put them into paragraphs, or not. You gotta earn the reader’s goodwill to keep reading, with a type of immediacy that is accessible. That was a big focus of this book.

And I often write like that—I write individual sentences. You can see every one of them. There is an energy to it.

Rumpus: I think you’re touching on one thing that I noticed in the book. There are moments when the paragraph is indulged, the language more classically prosaic. But then there are many others where you break the prose quite deliberately. Single lines are isolated paragraphs—not even full sentences—in many cases reading like enjambments on the page, seemingly rather conscious of white space. It has a poetic sensibility, like the syntax and line are reflecting the pace of the speaker, whether mentally or physically. You speed the language up in moments where it feels like the narrative deserves to be sped up, either in the interiority of Sean the character or in the world—there’s a lot of movement through Philadelphia, when Sean is on the bike traversing the city.

Conroe: Yeah. That is big for me, that makes writing propulsive to me—the turns of the form. I think there’s a lot of poetry—line break stuff—I was reading. Like Eileen Myles, Gina Myers. Some of Nietzsche’s aphoristic stuff works like that, or even Wittgenstein, trying to write in a mode of thinking. What can you put down, what can you set down? Which declaratives can you set and be okay with? And then sometimes, it is more of a riff-like mode, just trying to have as much movement as possible. And yet, at other times you want to earn the reader’s goodwill, and you want to make them slow down.

Rumpus: It seems like you’re really interested in philology; you mentioned Wittgenstein. How important is that, because you do bring it up, and it emerges quite a bit throughout the book. Why do you think that’s important for this particular novel?

Conroe: It’s interesting. Sometimes I feel like the novel moves like fiction and then sometimes it feels more like travel writing, and then obviously with the line breaks it moves like poetry. Trying to remember the seminal moment of what made the book move—at the core, it is most like philosophy because in order for a thing to really move and be propulsive, it has to have a tangible question being asked.

Rumpus: Why choose autofiction for the book, then? Why not make it a memoir or a personal essay? What liberties do you think that affords you, if any?

Conroe: Why do you think it’s autofiction?

Rumpus: Well, for one, the protagonist’s name is Sean Thor Conroe, and yet the book is referred to as a novel.

Conroe: I’m not sure if it’s “autofiction”—that’s up to others to decide, according to their experience of the book and their definition of autofiction. What I can say is it is a novel. A novel, to me, in the context of Fuccboi, means everything in it is justified by something else in it. Things repeat and are turned. Everything in it serves the conceptual whole. As far as naming the narrator the same name as the author, that creates a sense of intimacy that I’ve enjoyed in books I love, and wanted to recreate for my reader.

Rumpus: How is a novel different from these other forms we’re discussing: poetry, memoir, travel writing, or a philosophical text? What truly distinguishes it from these other forms?

Conroe: I wonder if, at a certain point, a book is a novel because the writer intends it to be and calls it that. The narrator of Rob Doyle’s Threshold says something like that, which I felt when I read it:

For my purposes, a novel is simply a long chunk of prose in which whatever is said to have happened may or may not have actually happened, even if the author doesn’t bother to change his own name, but changes the names of others, or invents these others wholesale. In the same token, whatever I point at and call a novel, is novel—even if it looks like memoir, travelogue or naked confession. This is an old argument, endlessly renewed.

But that conflation of forms you’re describing in my novel is fitting since, writing this, the tradition I was most interested in partaking in was the shishosetsu, or “I-novel,” which reached its height in early twentieth-century Japan. The I-novel followed these conventions: the narrator shares the name of the author, some autobiographical details between narrator and author overlap, and the tone is sincere and confessional. Some telling differences between the I-novel and contemporary autofiction are, for one, “shosetsu” doesn’t mean “novel” but rather just “story,” with no distinction between it being poetry, short story, novella, essay, or fiction. So that sense of uncategorizability you’re talking about is fitting.

Secondly, the “I” part—the “shi,” or “watashi” part—is also an inaccurate translation insofar as, in Japanese, there are a half-dozen pronouns for “I,” depending on the gender of the speaker and the relative age or status between speaker and listener—in short, depending on the context of the specific performance of the speaking self. There’s no Western notion of the self as some fixed, sovereign thing being “revealed” to the reader, due not only to those linguistic factors—if the self changes according to context throughout the day, one version being told in story form is but one of many—but also given the relation between the self to society (the individual is bound by duty to serve the group) and even to “god” (Buddhism being polytheistic).

Western critiques of the “I-novel” were also that they lacked a telos, a “lesson to be learned,” that the realist novels that influenced the I-novel—like those of Henry James or Flaubert—had.

I think Fuccboi straddles those outlooks. But the porousness of which literary form it clearly coheres with,and the belief in the self as something capable and requiring continual change and redefinition—due also likely to my upbringing, moving every two years into vastly different cultural and linguistic spheres, having to continually adapt to new groups and languages—I share that malleability with the I-novel.

Rumpus: There are a lot of opinions about what a fuccboi is, but typically he’s a self-obsessed party boy who runs away from commitment and gets into relationships just to satisfy his sexual desires. Do you feel that Sean the character is a true fuccboi? How much is your tongue planted firmly in cheek here?

Conroe: Do you feel like he is?

Rumpus: I don’t know. He sort of has, especially in the beginning, a swagger that I attribute to a fuccboi. He has a little bit of the language, the multiple “baes,” the frivolity. I don’t know, though. The way I understand fuccbois, especially in context to skater culture, Sean has a bit more substance. Maybe I am bringing a misguided perspective to the idea of a fuccboi.

Conroe: If I knew the answer to that—or if I answered that question in the book—it would likely not be a very good book. It would stop being an investigation. Wondering whether Sean the character is or isn’t a “true fuccboi” might be missing the point. He’s just a character in a novel.

Rumpus: Fair enough.

Conroe: The more interesting questions might be, Are you, the reader, a fuccboi? Have you ever been? And how do you know you’re not?

Rumpus: Is that one of the big questions you want to ask with this novel? What other questions do you feel this novel privileges in its inquiry?

Conroe: The main question would be, How does a man stuck in resentment and anger at others and the world, who lacks a sense of belonging and sense of his usefulness in the world, find his way out of that? The furthest I got with that might be: He needs a task. He needs to find a way to make himself of use. To serve in some way.

How that question gets answered on a larger, societal level, or even just a personal one . . . I’m still asking myself that question.

Rumpus: I couldn’t help but think that the skin complications—some type of pustular psoriasis—in the book signified something about Sean’s self in the story’s world, overall. Can you speak to that, or if you see/intended a connection?

Conroe: I would hope that the reader is connecting everything that happens to the narrator in the novel to everything else that happens to him in interesting ways. That is absolutely my intention: To create the possibility for the reader to make those interesting connections.

I’m only exercising restraint with how definitively I explain things like that because so much in modern life is about making a snap judgment, clearly defining things immediately. And novels, I feel, are the one medium in which contradictions and counterintuitive connections can be held in that unresolved state, without immediately clearly defining it, only intuiting it. That process seems important to me, and I want the book to retain that.

But the skin stuff he goes through is connected to everything else he’s going through, for sure. In the same way that the state of our bodies is connected to our mental and spiritual states.

Rumpus: Can you speak to that intuition, especially in the context of applying craft? Obviously, both are important for writing a novel. What is their relationship, and how do you balance them?

Conroe: I think of intuition as playing a big role in my writing process: In the preparation I do before writing, keeping the curious side of your mind engaged and active for as long as possible before actually writing, doing all the things one does before writing—re-reading and rewriting what you’ve written so far; researching for as long as possible; and staying sensitive to the possibility of forging ahead prematurely, belligerently, before things seem intuitively aligned. I try to chew on a chapter I’m trying to write for weeks, considering all sides of the question and holding all of them equally, before writing. This process seems tied to intuition, the knowing of when it’s Time. And I don’t think it’s an inherent quality one does or doesn’t have, but rather a skill one cultivates.

Rumpus: Speaking of mental and spiritual states, in this particular cultural moment you may experience criticism for the rendering/referencing of the various “baes” in the narrative, the women that populate Sean’s life—his more “fuccboi” behavior. What’s your response to this possible criticism?

Conroe: I don’t have any expectations about how the book will be received. But I’ll be interested to see if it receives any engagement such that people discuss things in ways that challenge them to articulate and clarify what they think about something, that’ll be a success—a miracle, really.

Rumpus: Let’s open this consideration up a bit, then. What do you think is the resolve of this narrative? What are your ideas concerning that question, anyway?

Conroe: May I ask you that? Does there need to be a resolve in a book? What do you feel is the resolve of this one?

Rumpus: I think for a novel there needs to be a resolve in terms of where the reader travels, but that doesn’t need to be an actual resolve of conflict within the frame of the narrative, at all. Indeed, when a narrative is too neatly resolved it begins to feel much like artifice. It doesn’t feel like it gets to live in the way that I think a novel can.

As a reader of your book, I felt the resolve was more an awareness of Sean the character. He became more self-aware as a result of physically slowing down due to his health issues later in the story. It allowed ideas and thoughts that he obviously had in his wild mind to be more fully entertained.

Conroe: I hope a reader will take something from the book and not just think about it but apply it to the world in ways that improve themselves or those around them. I hope they’ll challenge or clarify what they think they know. Maybe become more aware of something they previously hadn’t. That’s what I read books for.

Rumpus: What did writing this book do for you, then?

Conroe: It made me less able to look at the internet. Less pessimistically, it granted me a short period of time and resources to go in and write another book.

Rumpus: How has that impact evolved since the book was picked up by a “Big Five” press?

Conroe: Writing this book and having a publisher decide it was time to publish it, made it so I could no longer work on it—made it so I had to start writing a different book. It forced me to let go of this world I’d lived in for so long, that had provided me with so much meaning—with a Project. It made it so I now have to start everything all over.

Rumpus: What’s next?

Conroe: I’m working on doing what I need to do to be able to keep going; keep living; being better to those in my life; and, at some point, should it seem helpful to that life work, writing again in a way that’ll help me clarify just what that means.

 

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Author photo by Al Jacobs


Miah Jeffra is author of four books of prose, most recently The Violence Almanac and the forthcoming novel American Gospel. Work can be seen in StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The North American Review, Barrelhouse, The Greensboro Review, DIAGRAM, jubilat, and many other journals. Miah is co-founder of Whiting Award-winning queer and trans literary collaborative, Foglifter Press, and teaches writing and decolonial studies at Santa Clara University and Central Washington University. More from this author →