I first spotted Ben across the courtyard of Syosset High School wearing a thrift store overcoat similar enough to mine to suggest either a bond or a rivalry. I was as relieved to find a kindred spirit as I was tormented by his perfectly floppy new wave bangs. Back then we fancied ourselves “literary,” and we started a band called How We Got Killed. Over time it became clear that one of us was the writer and the other the musician. Ben has gone on to make Syosset proud with his award-winning reporting from Afghanistan, Haiti, and the West Bank, as well as his breathtakingly imaginative fiction—the most recent example of which, Ether, was the occasion for this chat.
Samuel Bing In Ether you seem to find the idea of things hilarious—that there are things. And you show that with these long, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific, and sometimes hilarious lists of objects.
Ben Ehrenreich Yeah, on one hand it’s this basic existential quandary, both a sense of horror at the world of objects and a certain amusement with their stubborn existence, and of course it’s also a problem of language. I guess Wittgenstein would have said that all of our philosophical problems are actually problems of language, but in any case those are the ones that interest me most as a writer, or at least that I can play with most.
SB There’s a tragic moment when the character called “the bag man,” who’s attempting to collect one of every object, comes in contact with an object that he describes as being exactly what it is, and it’s suddenly clear to him that all the many things he’s already collected, as he says, “were already their own ghosts, their own crinkled husks.” I was tickled by the idea of this one thing that wasn’t. Can you imagine such a thing?
BE I can imagine imagining such a thing. The book’s obviously about god to a degree, and I think one variety of religious faith—and in the Judeo-Christian tradition the most common one—does both crave and envision a sense of completion, a perfect thing. I just render the idea absurd by taking it literally.
SB And the joke in the book is that the perfect thing is a thing that would destroy everything.
BE Yeah, there is something in me that rebels against any sense of completion and that sees a real powerful violence in that longing. That was very much what drove The Suitors, which begins with the idea of an Odysseus-like character whose return home brings on this incredible act of violence, the murder of his wife’s suitors, which seemed to me the murder of all the chaotic potential of existence in an attempt to finish it, to render it tidy and palatable and perhaps less painful. In most of my writing, the thing that I’m fighting hardest against is this idea that you could ever be finished, that our work here could ever be done, that there could ever be some final happiness or some final peace, which to me seems like a repugnant idea. Of course I understand its allure—it’s hard not to long for completion when everything seems broken and unsure. It may actually be impossible, but that’s no reason not to fight it.
SB You do describe a place called “the ether” that is—I believe the word you use is “pure”—but part of what makes it so pure is that it’s “pure of living things.” So if a person were looking for completion, they would have a hard time finding it there.
BE Yeah, and that place is invoked by a character whose tongue is always pretty close to his cheek.
SB I like that guy.
BE Yeah, I like him too. He has a powerful sense of metaphysical irony that kind of sees him through. Most of the characters that this book follows, including even the character of the author, are searching for some kind of an end to things. Not all of them—some are just trying to hurt people—but most are seeking some way out.
SB Speaking of trying to hurt people, I had the misfortune of seeing the new Terence Malick film, which I know I complained to you about, but the thing that salvaged the film for me was a long stretch in the middle where it’s just the camera observing these pre-teen boys terrorizing the neighborhood in ways that really rang true for me. In Ether, you, in your own way, address the issue of the horror of preadolescent boys. Is there any cure for that? Is there anything that can be done?
BE Oof. Don’t ask Dr. Ben for help. There’s no cure. It’s horrible. And yeah, in Ether there’s a troop of boys who do awful things, mainly to the god-like character. I like kids a lot. I get along with them better than I do with adults. I have young nieces, and I completely adore them, but I also really respect their perversity and the boundless willfullness that little kids have, which is not always a force for good. In adolescence, all of that’s extremely raw, and of course the tragedy is that our most destructive urges are also often our most beautiful and creative ones. That’s not always true for teenage boys however.
SB In the case of boys, it’s almost entirely a drive to destroy things.
BE Yeah, it’s occurred to me more than once that as a species we are not any of the things we think we are: not Homo faber, man the maker, or Homo sapiens, man the knower—we’re none of these things. We wreck shit. We destroy everything. That’s what we do as animals. We’re a virus.
SB There are moments in the book where it seems likely that humanity will come to an end. I once saw Werner Herzog speak about Fitzcaraldo. He had to chop down a couple of trees for the scene where the boat gets dragged over the hill and someone in the audience complained that he was killing these ancient trees for the sake of a movie. He had a good response, which was, “Don’t worry about nature. We’ll be gone soon enough and everything will be right back.”
BE I saw an image someone posted on Facebook of what appeared to be a satellite photo of a leafy island at the mouth of two rivers, and if you know the geography of the East Coast at all, you instantly recognized it as Manhattan island, but Photoshopped so that there were no buildings, no streets, just forest. There was something really beautiful about it, something weirdly comforting. That’s a ways off. I know people have indulged in apocalyptic obsessions for millennia, and here we still are, but I do think there is reason to believe with some certainty that if humans do remain on this planet for more than another century, it will be in a very different form. We’ll have to live in different parts of the globe, and there will be fewer of us, and we’ll have to live very differently. That doesn’t mean we’ll all get along or that we’ll be morally improved by our misfortunes—I’m pretty sure it won’t mean that. But in some funny way it takes the pressure off as a writer. You don’t have to worry about the death of the book if the eBook is not going to make it either and all the paper books are going to be waterlogged because the oceans will flood the libraries and the few remaining Barnes and Nobles. Any foolishness that you may have entertained about understanding literature as some kind of trajectory, or about writing for posterity—whatever that could possibly mean—drops off pretty fast.
SB Not unlike what we were discussing earlier with reference to my band, you’re expressing some skepticism about authorship.
BE Maybe, but I’m not so much concerned with erasing authorship as I am interested in the ways that it starts to erase itself if you start to look at it closely, in the same way that language begins to empty itself and erase itself when you start to press it for the things it claims to offer. The more you demand of it, the more it recedes and shuffles and flickers away. To the degree that Ether is a novel that’s obsessed by the idea of creation, in all senses of that word, it’s one that gets lost in it too and that is interested in exploring that particular abyss.
SB Something that’s always been catnip for me is self-reflexive art, when the author talks to you or refers to the story as a story. Because right from the get go, the novel was self-reflexive. There’s nothing that happens later in postmodern literature that Cervantes didn’t already tackle. In every couple of chapters of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding checks in. And you do that in this book.
BE I think when those novels were written, the strange act of sitting in silence and reading a book to oneself had not yet been naturalized. It was still deserving of comment. A novel was this elaborate performance enacted on two stages that were distant in time and space but that somehow came together in this mysterious object, the book. On one stage was the absent author and on the other was the potential reader who was invisible to the author as he or she was composing. Some of the basic tropes of the 19th century realist novel still nod to the weirdness of that: it’s as if there has to be some kind of excuse for the novel’s existence, some alibi that relieves the act of reading of all that artifice. So you get, for instance, the trope of the manuscript found in the desk drawer: you need to be told why why you’re supposed to sit there and read this tale told by an absent stranger. And then in American and British post-war fiction you see a real reactionary tendency take form and a closing down of the possibilities of what a novel could be. I think a lot of the postmodernists who were writing in the sixties and seventies, and whom you and I adore, were reacting to that, to the dominance of a realist model that went to great lengths to hide its own artifice, and to the narrowness and conservatism of that model. I suppose a certain degree of self-reflexivity comes naturally to me because I find the act of writing as odd as the act of reading. They’re both activities that I can’t imagine living without, but I realize that they’re both bizarre things for a human being to do.
SB They don’t help you survive or procreate.
BE Not at all. And I know that a lot of readers who are conditioned to reading realist fiction become intensely annoyed when the authorial voice makes too much of its presence, and I get that. Some readers want to be left alone. I want to leave them alone just enough, but I also want to bug them a little. And I want to be bugged when I’m reading. I want to be teased and flirted with. When I’m reading a book that strives to hide its own narrative devices, I look for them. And I find them. Even with consummate skill, you can’t hide them that well. So why play that game? Why have hide-and-go-seek be the only game that a writer can play? Why not play different games where you actually interact with the performance itself? That to me is a lot more interesting and a lot more fun.