The New Political Novel: An Interview with David Burr Gerrard by Nicholas Mancusi

“I admire my characters for their ability to do something that I would find far too embarrassing to do myself. Fiction can get us to experience what we might do if we were braver. Or dumber.”

David Burr Gerrard Light Bulbs

David Burr Gerrard’s 2014 debut novel, Short Century, was a propulsive, deranged, and hilarious manifesto portraying a debased neo-conservative in the hours before his death. With his latest novel, The Epiphany Machine, Gerrard has expanded both his scope and his ambition. In a cluttered Upper East Side apartment, Adam Lyons is the steward of a machine that can tattoo an epiphany on the forearm of willing participants.

The tattoo is permanent and delivered in all caps with revelations like: “ABANDONS WHAT MATTERS MOST,” “MUST MAKE DIFFERENT USE OF HANDS,” and on the arm of protagonist Venter Lowood, “DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS.” As the machine and its devotees emerge from the shadows of its cult-like early years into national prominence, Venter struggles to prove that his true fate isn’t the one inscribed on his skin. He does so as he tries to figure out what it means to live in the post 9/11 surveillance state, where political agendas impact and parallel personal ones.

The novel is a wild ride through a dark alternate history that resonates with the current political landscape. Interstitial sections including “testimonials” from users of the machine, various alternate theories of the machine’s origin, and a smattering of newspaper articles all combine to impart the disquieting feeling speculative fiction aims for—that this could very easily be real. I spoke with Gerrard at my kitchen table in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Nicholas Mancusi I’m interested in origin stories. What was the seed for this project?

David Burr Gerrard I had the title and I worked backwards, which I do not recommend to anyone trying to write a novel. I was getting my MFA, and frustrated with the feeling that I was supposed to be writing short stories that featured epiphanies. My teachers didn’t actually tell me that—epiphanies were already going out fashion. I didn’t know better though, and I couldn’t figure out how to write them. I was torn between thinking, “That’s a cliché and I don’t want to do that,” and “I can’t end a story with wisdom because I don’t have any wisdom myself.” Eventually I found myself wishing that I had some sort of epiphany machine, so I wrote a story with that title, received some positive feedback in workshop, and thought, this is my ticket to the big time, I’m going to write a novel called The Epiphany Machine. I figured it would take me about a year. That was in 2006.

NM You wrote another excellent novel in the meantime.

DBG I started Short Century in grad school too. From 2005 onward, I switched between working on those two books—I’d hit a wall with one, and go back to the other. For some of those years, even though I continued to write and to think of myself as a writer, I was convinced that I would never publish a book at all. It wasn’t until 2011 when I turned thirty that I decided, okay, I can either go around like a sad sack my entire life, or I can make some kind of commitment to finish at least one of these manuscripts. I had ideas for how to finish Short Century, so that’s the one I committed to first.

NM On the cover blurb, Ben Marcus says that you “channel” Kafka. What do you hope that means?

DBG Kafka said we live in a universe where there is “an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.” That squares with my feeling of existence. The fact that we are here at all is pretty astonishing, and a wonderful miracle. Still, life often feels pretty awful, even for the luckiest of us. The Epiphany Machine looks at how we handle those feelings.

NM What lesson was Kafka trying to teach us? Even though he’d probably be opposed to the idea of lessons in the first place…

DBG Every serious writer is, in some way, opposed to lessons. Despite this, I think every serious writer wants, or at least should want, to impart some kind of wisdom. If you really don’t have anything to say, why are you writing? I’ve never been a “beautiful sentences above all” kind of writer. I think there should be some kind of point, however oblique. One way to interpret Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony,” a primary inspiration for The Epiphany Machine, is that what we want to know is already on our skin—messages that are both illegible and fatal.

NM Your book challenges the idea that epiphanies are a positive thing—a rare encounter with truth. Instead, they seem to curse all the characters who receive them, operating more like punishments for desiring a shortcut lesson on the flesh.

DBG Absolutely. That’s how epiphanies function in real life. We assume they’ll resolve all of our discomfort with whatever is awful in our lives. You have one and you think, “Oh great,” but in a few minutes you forget about it, and you remember it a few days or weeks later and you feel bad about the fact that you didn’t do anything with it.

NM How does that play out in fiction?

DBG What fiction often gets wrong is that an epiphany is some kind of ending.

NM I was thinking of Joyce’s “Araby.”

DBG Exactly. You could turn that around and say the point of good epiphany fiction like “Araby” is to actually show the likely possibility that he is going to go through this many more times in his life without really changing anything. He’ll see some kind of goal, and fail to achieve it, and return to the thought that he is just a creature driven and derided by vanity.

NM I feel some thematic overlap between the epiphany tattoos, which are handed down to these characters from an inscrutable intelligence, and the 140 character missives from our president, which are randomly extruded into our lives, sometimes also in all caps.

DBG Every single tweet the president sends is nonsensical, offensive, clearly contrary to fact, or some combination of the three—easy to make fun of for fifteen minutes or so. And yet, each one feels like it gets written on our bodies too. I like to think we’ll remove them one day, but just like tattoos, they’ll leave a mark.

NM Part of the reason I love your books is because they’re so funny in a pitch-dark way that more accurately renders the reality we live in. How does humor serve your work?

DBG I see the world as a very funny place, and I can’t tell the truth, as I experience it, without that sensibility. People have very grand ideas about what they’re doing, and those ideas clash with the very venal and absurd reality. No matter how special you are, you’re still just walking dust.

NM Your humor sheds a light on the absurdity of political reality too. There’s a detained character in The Epiphany Machine who people assume is probably innocent, but an impediment to his release is the idea that if he wasn’t a terrorist when he went in, he would be now. To me that seems like the ultimate—to use an abused phase—Kafkaesque stroke, in that’s it a truly hideous and revulsive bind, but it’s also linguistically structured like a joke.

DBG It’s an excuse I hear all the time from liberals as to why Guantanamo Bay can’t be closed, “people who are in jail must remain there.”

NM Do you consider your books to be “political novels,” written towards a functional idea, in conversation with political reality?

DBG I’ve always procrastinated by reading political articles and getting angry and doing little or nothing with my anger, and now everyone else is doing that too. In fact, I feel like everyone is just catching up to me. I’m only ahead of my time in the field of procrastination. Joking aside, the “War on Terror” has always been the biggest horror to me. I was in college on 9/11, as Venter is in this book, and almost immediately the US started torturing suspected terrorists. It was astonishing to me that more people didn’t feel appalled by it. I’m worried that this is going to sound self-righteous, like I have some secret and sophisticated moral understanding that other people lack, but what I’m describing really is confusion. I haven’t done anything to stop torture. I could have chosen to become a journalist and write about it much more directly than I do.

Epiphany Cover

I could have chosen to work for a non-profit that works to eradicate it. I’ve done nothing except dramatize it in various ways in my work. I really have been confused as to why torture became acceptable in the Bush administration, and why President Obama decided not to prosecute those who had engaged in torture, thus demoting torture from the crime against humanity that it is, to yet another political squabble. It’s now just a point of disagreement between liberals and conservatives. Liberals say, eh, I don’t like torture, but if you disagree with me, it’s not really that big of a deal. The liberal consensus seems to be that, relatively speaking, Bush is a reasonable foe. But Bush tortured people—many people. He should have been prosecuted for that. Certainly many people in the CIA, the same CIA that many liberals now love, should have been prosecuted. And the fact that they haven’t really is deeply disturbing to me.

NM This novel, distilled to its most basic elements, seems to be about ethics, both personal and societal, and the various ways in which we fail to achieve them. Do you think, as Plato suggested, that the state is the individual writ large?

DBG That idea is an inseparable part of the political dimension of the novel. If you want to outsource your thinking to someone or something that will tell you how to think, you have more options today than ever to do so. We can’t really tune things out and just “listen to ourselves” or whatever, since a lot of what we already believe is noxious bullshit that we have inherited and haven’t really questioned. Navigating this to find something like truth seems contradictory, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the world depends on our ability to do it. This is true on the personal level too. We are all heavily influenced by people’s opinions of us, but we also feel immense pressure to think of ourselves as immune to outside opinion, and presenting that way might ensure that people think highly of us. Getting past all of this to think for oneself in any meaningful way is maybe impossible, but I also think that giving up on the quest to think for oneself is essentially the same thing as giving up on life.

NM Interviewers have asked you what your epiphany tattoo would be, but that’s seems a little on the nose for me. I think the better question is, would you use the machine at all?

DBG Absolutely not. I would be afraid both of what it would tell me, and of revealing myself as someone who would fall for it. I admire my characters for their ability to do something that I would find far too embarrassing to do myself. Fiction can get us to experience what we might do if we were braver. Or dumber. Maybe using the machine is brave, maybe it’s dumb. Only the machine knows for sure.

Nicholas Mancusi’s features, interviews, and criticism have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, NPR, and many other publications. He is finishing his first novel.

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