Performance and Selfhood: Alex McElroy Interviewed by Genevieve Hudson

A richly imagined novel about a rehabilitation community for toxic masculinity.

The Atmospherians2

I met Alex McElroy during the summer of 2017 in Portland, Oregon, where both of us were enrolled in Renee Gladman’s nonfiction workshop for the Tin House Summer Workshop. I was immediately drawn to McElroy’s writing. The language is urgent, honest, funny––glinting and dark. I sought them out on Reed’s campus between our morning workshop and afternoon lectures because I wanted to know more about how their brain worked. This writing is special, I told myself at the time, and after a few moments in McElroy’s company, I knew the same was true of the writer as well. 

I try to read everything McElroy writes. Their first book Daddy Issues is a pocket-sized treasure that explores daddies of all types and how they make do. The Atmospherians (Atria Books), their first novel, introduces us to the former Internet sensation, Sasha Marcus, just after her fall from grace. No longer a social media darling, Sasha is doing her best to rebuild her life and hide out from internet trolls and men’s rights groups who disdain her. Then her childhood friend Dyson enters the scene and convinces Sasha to start over by helping him create The Atmosphere: a rehabilitation community for men. The goal of The Atmosphere is to rid men of their toxic masculinity, but much more than that is in store for Sasha and Dyson as they undertake this joint project. 

McElroy and I talked about the novel writing process, the power of friendship, purging as an act of cleansing, Internet novels and “man hordes” over email.  

—Genevieve Hudson 

 

Genevieve HudsonI am always impressed by writers who can be funny and dark at the same time. You are a very funny writer, and this is a pretty dark book. Can you share a little about how you approach humor in your writing practice?

Alex McElroy For me, humor arises from absurdity taken to its extreme. This often occurs on the level of language—through what a character finds important, how they talk about themselves—or through lists. Lists are perfect vehicles for jokes. I love starting a list with three to four legitimate details before weaving in something clearly fabricated—it creates an element of surprise and keeps the reader off balance. I think my work can be naturally grim at times, and I do intentionally try to balance things out with humor or by writing in a loopy, excited style that contrasts with the writing. 

GHYou blur the boundaries of reality when building the world of this novel. How did you think about world-building and what you needed to exaggerate?

AMWord-building is a reactive process for me. I didn’t grow up reading a lot of sci-fi or fantasy novels, the kind of books that prioritize what I think of as world-building—maps, new languages, unconventional planets. I also don’t plot out a book before writing it. Instead, I like to begin with language and voice, and the voice tends to propel the story and build the world. Donald Barthelme touches on this in his essay “Not Knowing,” where he notes that the writer finds the reality of the story through language. The writer includes a brooch on the ground and suddenly the characters must decide what to do with that brooch. 

In The Atmospherians, I followed out this process. I started in a world like ours then, for instance, imagined a man horde and had to adjust the world to allow for this new reality. A former teacher of mine, Mat Johnson, compared writing a novel to sailing—and I know nothing about sailing so I might get this wrong—in which you’re always reacting to the wind. It’s a fitting description for world-building as well.

GH This is also a story of friendship. Can you tell us a little bit about Sasha’s friendships with Dyson and Cassandra and how they fuel and impede her decision-making in the novel?

AMFriendship was always a very important element in this book. Sasha is someone who feels beholden to her friends—often to a fault. Though her friendship with Dyson has withered over time, through various betrayals, their long history together prevents her from severing ties. They have a fairly codependent relationship, due to the traumas they shared in their youth. Cassandra, in contrast, is a mentor figure for Sasha. She teaches Sasha a lot about how to have a wellness career, and though they appear to be friends—Sasha believes they are friends—it’s a hierarchical relationship. Fittingly, the friendship falls apart once this hierarchy is inverted. In both cases, Sasha tends to put the needs of her friends ahead of herself over and over again until she eventually puts herself first in a way that might appear extreme.

GHA major theme in your novel is purging as an act of cleansing. At The Atmosphere, where men have come to (among other things) be cleansed of their toxic masculinity, purging is encouraged. This is an extension of the founder Dyson’s lifetime of disordered eating. Can you talk a bit about Dyson’s relationship with food and body image?

AM Dyson is self-aware about how he treats his body. His disordered eating begins intentionally when he tries to thin down quickly and dangerously under the guidance of Sasha. Later on, when he re-enters Sasha’s life, he is intent on normalizing disordered behavior through social ritual—the emptying out practice at The Atmosphere. I wanted to draw attention to the insidiousness of normalization on a very small scale, compared, say, to the way normalization might occur when white supremacists receive fawning profiles. Dyson knows that he is harming his body but he cannot stop, and the only way to make this practice less harmful, in his mind, is to create a consensus around the act—a mindset that drives countless bad faith arguments and actions.  

GH Eating disorders are often gendered stories told through women and girls’ bodies. Why did you choose to explore the relationship that men and non-cis-gendered women have with disordered eating and body image? 

AM Because narratives of disordered eating have been so commonly gendered and stereotyped, it can be difficult for people who don’t fit the traditional expectations of disordered eating to receive the diagnoses and help. That is true of men and non-cis-gendered women just as it is true of cis-women who don’t physically fall into the image of people with eating disorders—whether due to race, age, or weight. This has been a real problem during the pandemic. The Guardian recently ran a piece about how people suffering from eating disorders have had a hard time being appropriately diagnosed due to their appearance or BMI. When I write about eating disorders, my goal is to broaden our understanding of what the disorder looks like to ensure that people aren’t refused the treatment they require.

GHI loved the “man horde” phenomenon. Can you explain to the readers what a man horde is? 

AMMan hordes are a phenomenon in the novel where white men—normally four to eight men—join together to commit acts of either service or destruction. The men who join the hordes appear to do so unconsciously and claim to remember nothing of the events after the horde disassembles. Though whether this is true or not remains intentionally ambiguous.

GHMan hordes don’t only sow destruction. Sometimes they band together to complete acts of service, like changing car tires. Why was it important that the man hordes be unpredictable as forces of good or evil?

AMThe unpredictable nature of man hordes were necessary to their mystery and their threat. This added tension to the world of the book at large and increased the tension at the camp. In this way, they’re a metaphor for the unpredictable nature of male violence—the violence might come from someone equally capable of goodness. The man hordes literalize this duality—in white men, for the purposes of the novel—and throughout the novel, there is no way to predict whether a man who joins a horde will do something harmful or kind.

Mc Elroy Author Photo C Grace Rivera

Photo of Alex McElroy by Grace Rivera.

GHThe men admitted into The Atmosphere fall under twelve archetypes: Stubborn Man, Righteous Man, Accommodating Man, Military Man, Workaholic Man, Sports Man, Negligent Dad, Yoga Man, College Man, Addict Man, Professor Man, and Cheater Man. I thought this was a perfectly brilliant breakdown. How did you go about landing on these twelve archetypes and why twelve? 

AM The archetypes section came fairly late in the revision process, long after I had written the Reconciliation section of the book where the men perform their stories. Twelve had always been the original number of men in the first wave of members. Dyson wouldn’t miss a chance to pull from Christian theology when building The Atmosphere. It might be disappointing, but the archetypes were created largely out of a craft demand—I needed to find a way to create a group of people that would not unintentionally mesh into a depersonalized whole. A friend compared it to the scene in Ocean’s Eleven where they break down the crew, which I love. Philosophically, the archetypes also reduce what the men believe are their unique stories of woe to recognizable arcs—which is both freeing and constraining.

GH The Atmopsherians grapples with the way social media permeates our lives. The way it shapes our perceptions of other people and the way those new perceptions can alter someone’s life forever. What made you want to write about social media? 

AM I sometimes fear I only wrote about social media because I was on it so much. I like what you said about how it shapes perceptions and reality, though, and for that reason it serves as an interesting tool for novelists. The modernists proved long ago that no objective truth exists, that art can capture and convey contradictions of meaning and truth. Social media, however, seems to provide evidence of subjective truth—contradictions of truth—even as its users strive for or promote what they believe is an objective truth: emphasizing how things are, what we need to talk about more, what we don’t talk about enough. 

I’m also fascinated by how social media rewards a certain type of ethical action, that which can receive the most attention. I was curious about what it means to be good when the value of an idea can be decided by its popularity. For example, Dyson claims he wants to save the world, but he does it in a way that might revive his acting career. 

GH You are an active social media user. I’m curious how being online affects your writing and artistic practice? Does it ever feel like an art practice in itself? 

AM Being online is mostly bad for my writing practice—it’s distracting and can, at times, shape the cadence of my prose and my thinking. Whenever I feel a character speaking in tweets, I try to step away for a bit. That said, there is definitely an art to it, though I’m of two minds about whether it’s an art that I wish to pursue. I worry the artistry and empty fun of social media can too easily take me away from art that genuinely moves me.

GH The Internet is a pervasive part of modern life. It seems as writers, we must grapple with its impact on ourselves and our communities. I’ve encountered a lot of discourse lately about the Internet Novel. Lit Hub wrote an ode to the Internet Novel in honor of Patricia Lockwood and Lauren Oyler’s recent books. Brandon Taylor published a wonderful substack titled “i read your little internet novels. it’s all very gothic up in here.” Do you think of The Atmopsherians as being in the tradition of an Internet Novel? What does the Internet Novel mean to you as a writer and reader? 

AM You’re spot on that the internet is almost too pervasive to not appear in a novel placed in a contemporary setting. I admired both Lockwood’s and Oyler’s novels. Lockwood creates a richly stylized portrait of life divided between online and off, while Oyler does an amazing job showing how internet language shapes our ideas and reflects on the moments where performance online drives performance offline. And I loved Taylor’s essay for situating both novels in the historical tradition of the gothic—which I don’t know enough about, but I found the essay very convincing. 

As Taylor notes, the internet in these internet novels is a predominantly white internet. In my novel, I was interested in the peculiar overlap between whiteness and the internet. For instance, how capital and Silicon Calley innovation, especially, can exploit marginalized people in an effort to protect white supremacy—this was the goal of the DAM section. 

I do see The Atmospherians as part of the tradition of internet novels insofar as it’s invested in questions of performance and selfhood, though a lot of the novel occurs offline. There’s nothing inherently internet-y about performance—Sartre and de Beauvoir were writing about this decades ago—however, the internet is currently the place where many of these performances are occurring, so it serves as a great setting to explore these questions.

GH In addition to your savvy writing about the Internet, you also write strikingly about the culture of wellness and woke-ness and the impact it has on the lives of millennials. Can you share a little bit about how you came to explore these topics? 

AM My personal history with disordered eating made me pretty susceptible to easy answers for wellness and fitness. I believe in and respect the effort required to transform yourself if you want to—emotionally, physically, professionally—but I also love a good shortcut. And online conversations around wellness and wokeness cater to both of those extremes, promising transformation through lists and postable slides. There’s a ton of value in distilling complex ideas into their most digestible forms—it requires a great deal of skill. I admire that work. But I’m also fascinated by what these reduced conversations leave out. 

Moreover, I became pretty obsessed with mid-tier influencers while writing this book, the non-Kardashians and non-Calloways who continue on nonetheless. Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days was important to me when I was writing this book. I was struck by his ideas about the limited career options for millennials and the disappearance of a stable, middle-manager type life. The millennials who make it are either academic geniuses or star athletes—or, on occasion, they get lucky by going viral. The mid-tier influencers pursuing careers in wellness and wokeness seemed to be the class that replaced the middle managers. They might not end up becoming famous—CEOs—but if they believe in and promote a certain lifestyle they might hold down a job—for the time being. 

GH What writers are you reading right now that make you excited about the possibility and potential of literature?

AM Jamie Hood’s hybrid collection How To Be a Good Girl was one of my favorite books of the past year, both for its prose style and thinking. Jackie Ess’s Darryl will change everything. Novuyo Rosa Tshuma came out with a brilliant novel called House of Stone in 2018 and she’s working on a new novel now that will be incredible—she writes the absolute best sentences. Mary South, Hilary Leichter, and Renee Gladman all create mesmerizingly original work. T Fleischman’s Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through was marvelous and I can’t wait for what they write next. I loved Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts—the Great Divisive Book of 2021—and I’m really looking forward for debuts by Larissa Pham, David Hoon Kim, Anthony Veasna So, Jean Ho, Rachel Yoder, Elias Rodriques, Daphne Palasi Andreades, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, Krys Malcolm Belc, Claire Luchette, and so many others. Also, Susan Taubes’s Divorcing was one of the most profound novels I’ve read in recent memory.

GH Do you have any creative rituals you want to share with us? 

AM Candles! I always light a candle before I start writing at home. The writer Debra Magpie Earling also told me once that she buys a new mug for each new project, and I’ve followed that ritual, as well. Fittingly, I shattered the mug I used while writing The Atmospherians shortly after turning in final edits, but I’m pleased to say I now have a new novel project mug. 

GH I read recently about something called pandemic time. I know I have experienced a kind of brain fog and malaise during this time. Has lockdown affected your creativity or writing practice? 

AM I absolutely believe in pandemic time and the resulting brain fog. For me, it’s been hard to separate a pandemic-driven reduction of creativity from the natural ebbs and flows of a writing life. Over the first six months of the pandemic, it was impossible for me to write. Was this because of brain fog or, after completing my novel, did I not have anything left to say? In October, however, I started drafting a new novel, and I completed the first draft over a few months, in part because I had nowhere to go, no one to see. That said, my reading habits have been severely impacted by the brain fog you describe, and reading is an essential part of creative practice, one that normally stayed with me no matter where I was in producing work.

GH Our mutual friend, the writer T Kira Madden, once asked me in an interview what my favorite passage from my book was. It was a disarming question, especially because as writers I think we are often bigger critics of our work than anyone else––zooming in on the pages we feel failed to live up to our expectations of them. I want to ask you what you admire about your novel. Would you share a passage that you are especially proud of? 

AM Years ago, the poet and absolute genius Carolyn Forché read a very early draft of the opening chapters, and she told me she laughed out loud when she read the list of nonprofits where Sasha applies to work. That passage was then, and remains, perhaps my favorite passage in the novel. 


In an effort to remake my image—and to pay rent—I had applied for jobs at a number of charities: the ASPCA, the Organization for African Children, Save the Peruvian Mice, Médicos Sin Frontieras, the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Make-A-Wish, Have A Heart, Break A Leg, Give A Lung, Teach For America, Cats in The Schools, and L.A.M.B. But even the laziest Google search disqualified me from being hired.

The Atmospherians is available for purchase here.

Genevieve Hudson is the author of the novel Boys of Alabama, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the story collection Pretend We Live Here, which was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award. Their work has appeared in ELLE, Oprah Magazine, McSweeney’s, Catapult, and other places. They have received fellowships from the Fulbright Program, MacDowell, Caldera Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center.

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