What will you tweet at the end of the world? What memes will you make as the bombs fall? Mark Doten’s sophomore novel, Trump Sky Alpha (Graywolf Press), follows Rachel, a journalist tasked with investigating the last days of internet humor after a Trump-induced apocalypse ravages the world and destroys the internet. (“20 minutes into Netflix and chill and he gives you this look [GIF: flaming skull],” someone tweets while another person posts “an image of a woman in a pussy hat stopping a pair of nukes with her outstretched hands.”) Rachel’s assignment leads her to a plot involving underground hacktivists, Donald Trump’s “ultraluxury zeppelin,” and a password that might unlock the remains of the internet. It’s a darkly hilarious novel that manages to do what many thought impossible: satirize the age of Twitter and Trump.
Lincoln Michel Let’s start with memes. This novel dives into our modern meme language, which I think is a fascinating but also strange place for writers, because memes often seem to be language without meaning. You can never tell whether something’s ironic or serious or a Russian bot algorithm. How did you approach using memes in literature?
Mark Doten The specific portion of the book that includes a lot of memes, both real ones and invented ones, is specifically relating to people responding to the end of the world. It is certainly challenging to speak of memes in general since they do so many different things and get layered with so many different types of energy from different people. Pepe the Frog is famously a MAGA Trump-supporting meme, but it didn’t start out that way. It started out as a comic strip called Boy’s Club by Matt Furie. The frog in that comic was kind of an amiable stoner. Then it was shifted into these very different meanings. We do a lot with an individual meme in terms of the way it shifts. You’re an avid Twitter-user and you use memes routinely, often shifting them into some literary context.
LM I definitely have a love-hate relationship with them, which I assume you do too. In an early section of your novel, you include the sheriff meme with a body made out of fire and it says “the sheriff of sucking u off is made of fire.” I felt a weird nostalgia seeing that, like, “Oh, that guy! He used to be used to be an old friend.” Did you worry about the speed of memes versus the slowness of publishing in terms of what social media references you used?
MD That’s definitely an issue, because I started writing in 2015 and the section that deals with the memes at the end of the world was actually the first part that I wrote. Memes move so fast. I did my very final changes five or six months ago. It’s true that by the time the book comes out, it’s going to have missed out on a minimum of six months of new memes. The way I handled that within the book was to suggest that at the end of the world there’d be a sort of temporal collapse where people posting on social media would bring back old memes.
LM Moving on to another type of weird language, I was reading about Trump’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast while I was taking the subway here, and one of the quotes that got passed around on Twitter was “our extraordinary people are just something that is number one.”
MD [laughs] I love it. Trump’s use of language is so idiosyncratic and unpredictable that it’s a very interesting challenge when you’re writing. A couple dozen pages of this book are written in Trump’s voice. Trump will always outstrip anything that any impressionists or fiction writer will attempt to do with him. He creates these impossibly strange formulations that are always astonishing—like when he tweeted about the things he had done before the inauguration being “very legal and very cool.” It’s an absolutely wild thing to say about possibly colluding with Russia or whatever he was referring to. In a way, the strangeness of his speech is quite similar to memes themselves, which are also unexpected and distinct in ways that you can’t really predict.
LMIt does seem like the ones that catch on have similarly broken syntax or bizarre structures. In that same speech, Trump offered an even better one when he was trying to say an officer “raced through a door” but said he “graced and raced through a very, very bullet-filled doorway.”
MDIt’s like a Gary Lutz sentence with the very unusual repetitions of language. In Trump’s case, it’s not a product of careful construction of sound and artifice.
LMYour Trump monologue section is fantastic. You do an amazing job of channeling his voice, because you’re not just referencing “big league” and “beautiful” and those kinds of words; you also get into his syntax. Your last novel, The Infernal, has a cacophony of voices. You have members of the Bush administration and voices pulled from TV and cartoons. You’ve also written a great short story in the voice of Sean Hannity. It seems like other people’s language and how languages develop in different communities is a big interest of yours.
MDOf all the voices that I do, Trump is the only one where it’s a real impression. When I have L. Paul Bremer or Osama bin Laden or Sean Hannity narrating the story, in none of those instances was I actually trying to capture what they sounded like. I was creating various voices for them that sort of wrenched them out of their original context and put them in a new mode of speech, a literary mode, in order to create certain effects.
LMThe novel is coming out almost two years after Trump’s inauguration, which is quick for publishing. Could you talk about the writing process? When you started, what kind of deadlines did you give yourself?
MDI started in October of 2015. That’s when I had the internet humor at the end of the world thing. I was working on that and writing the material that would become the primary narrative, which is about a woman named Rachel. I developed her parts during the course of the primaries. I could only sort of sketch some basic outlines: one for if Clinton would win—as it seemed early on—and another for if one of the Republican candidates would win. I still was holding back on figuring out what the book was as we moved into that summer with the conventions. I was trying to figure out what the end of the world would have looked like under a Clinton administration. I don’t know what it would have been. I did know with Trump, and after his election it started to come together pretty quickly. I started to write this piece about him essentially blowing up the world in this sort of bombastic and idiotic way with nuclear weapons. I wrote that in August, and it was published in September before the election. I still thought Clinton would probably win and that it would just be a sort of curiosity that I’d put it into a short story collection down the line. But that didn’t happen.
Like many of us, I was pretty stressed after the election, and I dealt with that by writing, pretty quickly, what became the opening section of the book, which is Trump in a zeppelin doing this colossal grift where the Trump organization is essentially extorting money from virtually every country in the world. It was based on reporting that was coming out about the Trump Hotel, a lot of reporting from David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post and others reporting on all the conflicts of interest that Trump has and the willingness of the Trump organization to leverage the presidency to enrich themselves.
LMThere’s a thriller plot holding the book together with the character Rachel trying to track down a password that might help save, or maybe further damn, the world. I’m curious what thriller movies or books were an influence.
MDAll three of Joan Didion’s political novels have skeletons of a thriller plot to them. Those were huge for the Rachel sections. But I grew up on James Bond movies. My parents watched a ton of spy stuff when I was a kid. Not only every James Bond movie but also more middlebrow stuff like BBC productions of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. There’s a great Granada Television series called Game, Set and Match starring Ian Holm. That type of thriller is probably deep in my cultural DNA. The smarter versions of those are all about the failures of bureaucracy. To some extent my book is about Rachel attempting to navigate these broken bureaucracies, the reconstituted New York Times, the governmental-slash-military office that is running this project she is working on.
LMOn that note, something interesting in the book is that the world gets destroyed, but then there’s this attempt to quickly recreate the world. There’s a line about how all the survival camps install media centers right away. It made me think about Facebook and Twitter and how everyone I know hates those things, but can’t quit them. Can we ever quit the things that are destroying us?
MDIn the world of the book, the military-governmental powers in place believe that having our media and communications infrastructure reemerge is important to restarting civilization. But they do it in an extremely controlled way, right? They’re trying to exert way more control over it than is currently possible. A very different novel that might also be interesting is one where the authorities have made no effort to reconstitute the internet or any sort of communications technologies. How crazy would that drive all of us given that, as you say, everyone hates Facebook and Twitter, but they have a very hard time signing off? I love Twitter, but I also hate Twitter. Facebook I mostly hate, but it has enough upsides to me in terms of being a huge archive of my own memories and a way of connecting with a handful of people who I have no other real connection to.
LMIf the world was ending right now, do you have a tweet ready in the draft folder?
MDI do not have anything saved in my draft folder. But that’s a great idea. I should have a very good quote.
LMAnother thing the book plays with, in terms of the internet, is how much disinformation there is. It’s pretty much accepted that the internet has infinite information and also infinite disinformation. I remember there being a passage where Trump has, I believe, died, but there are still photos of him circulating around and people can’t tell whether he’s really dead or not.
MDThe book never says that he’s dead, but there’s a new president, so you can draw your conclusions.
LMThat issue is just going to get worse and worse. I’m sure you’ve seen the “deep fake” videos going around. What is the role of fiction in a world where everything seems fictional?
MDThe role of fiction is what it’s always been: to capture the state of the world in terms of its cultural productions, in terms of our interiority and our reactions to that. Novelists have always grappled with the technology of their time, right? Moby Dick is a great novel of technologies—this gigantic economic engine of whaling that was taking place and dying out in the 19th century. I think the novel as a medium is extremely well-suited to answering lies and falseness and doubleness and multiplicity. At least since The Underground Man, the novel has been a vehicle for conveying this sort of endlessly turning consciousness, as well as lies, duplicity, and multiple feeds of information. That’s what the novel does. It’s a very exciting thing for the future of the novel. In the next ten years we’re going to see a lot of deeply engaged knowledge emerge in ways that we’re only starting to chip away at.