Tamped-down rage never quite enunciated hums quietly beneath the surface of Andrew Duncan Worthington’s debut novel Walls, a new release from Civil Coping Mechanisms. Narrated by a twenty-something Ohioan, Walls strings together banal humiliations, flat-footed conversation, shitty jobs, and shittier sex to create a convincing tableau of millennials marooned in boredom. Worthington is also a founding editor of Keep This Bag Away From Children. Recently, we talked shop over G-Chat because we were both born after 1980.
Tracy O’Neill: You begin Walls with a lengthy history of a failed building project. We find out by page three that this description is spoken by a tour bus guide. In some ways do you see the novel as a tour of a failed project, and if so, what is the failed project?
Andrew Worthington: I hadn’t really thought of that, in terms of the novel being a tour of a “failed project.” I did want “Ohio” or “northeast Ohio” to be a character, in a way, though, in the sense of it being ever-present almost as much as the main character. The main character as a failed project? I don’t know. But that character of “Ohio” is a failed project. It’s not its fault, though. It was just a body of land that people moved to because they couldn’t have enough land somewhere else. Ohio embodies, for me, the most extreme but also the most mundane aspects of what is wrong with the United States. I’m getting off your point, I think. Maybe if you told me what you mean or think, that would be easier.
TO: What do you think is wrong with the United States?
AW: We are destroying our resources, most importantly. We aren’t well-educated or well-informed, and worst of all we are incredibly confident that we are well-educated and well-informed. We aren’t wrong with everything, though. But we are stubborn and destructive.
TO: You said earlier “I did want ‘Ohio’ or ‘northeast Ohio’ to be a character, in a way, though, in the sense of it being ever-present almost as much as the main character.” Is there a difference between Ohio and “Ohio”?
AW: No, I don’t think so. I just wanted to distinguish between the state and the northeastern region of the state.
TO: So what did the first set of quotation marks around Ohio signify?
TO: A lot of time people say “Northeast Ohio”…I don’t think that’s said about the other quarters of the state. As for why I used quotation marks, I suppose they signified reluctance towards discussing a geographic area as a character. I didn’t want to get into a literary discussion of characters, themes, plot, that sort of thing. It’s not interesting to me. But I was trying to respond to the question about “failed project” or “failed tour” or whatever it was. I think my answer failed.
TO: So should we not discuss the book?
AW: No, let’s discuss it. Sorry. I just am having trouble responding to questions that ask me to theorize about my own work, and I’d also like to hear more what you think of it. Like a conversation. But keep em coming :).
TO: I want to look at two short passages from Chapter 1 “An Eyesore.”
“Weird,” I said.
I didn’t really think it was that weird.
I wanted to go in, but didn’t want to act like I did.
There seems to be a broken synapse between what Tom, the narrator, feels or thinks and how he expresses himself. What prevents Tom from expressing himself sincerely?
AW: Fear. Lack of confidence. Lack of investment. The usual things? I’m also not totally sure he isn’t being “sincere.” His sincerity may just get sort of derailed when he socializes.
TO: Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he simply doesn’t express himself.
AW: I think he is expressing himself, but in a distorted way. Sorry, I’m not sure if I understand what you’re asking.
TO: I’m asking what motivates him to say something is weird when he doesn’t think it’s weird and what leads him to not want to show his interest when he’s interested. These two moments seem exemplary of a pattern in which Tom’s inner life and outward speech don’t quite align.
AW: Yeah, I’d say social anxiety and things that stem from that: evasion, dis-interest, lack of confidence. His inability to clearly and confidently express himself, I think, is an offshoot of more general anxiety, which is focused in social situations. What do you think?
TO: I wasn’t sure. That’s why I asked.
AW: Oh, OK.
TO: In Walls, Tom mentions a string of young women of varying degrees of interest to him. In middle school, he likes a girl named Julie because she’s “cute, but not hot.” Later when she begins wearing makeup and nicer clothes, he’s less interested. Molly, a girlfriend, is “a bit on the chubby side,” “an odd choice,” and her taste isn’t as good as Tom’s, according to Tom. However, “Nita was different. She was a prize. She didn’t seem easy.” What is Tom’s relationship to women?
AW: I would say he doesn’t have relationships that are sustainable with women. He is focused on appearance. He doesn’t know how to socialize with women. He is very conscious of other peoples’ views of women. This all goes back to that social anxiety. He can’t deal with other people, and he doesn’t have a lot of social skills. Women are poorly represented by him, more than men, for sure, and it relates to this social anxiety. Although women have to put up with so much more shit than men in everything, everywhere. Note: “taste” wasn’t referring to sexual interests, but to cultural media. In your quote it appears like that.
TO: Many of the characters of Walls seem to be afflicted with boredom. Why was this a topic you wanted to explore?
AW: I wouldn’t consider it a “topic” as much as a mood or emotion that is felt. I think boredom is something that is felt when you lack any strong reaction, one way or the other, to the world around you. Socially, it might be from an inability to relate to traditional ways of interacting. Culturally, it might be from an inability to relate to increasingly recycled media/ideas that are poorly created/produced. Personally, I’ve “dealt” with boredom (definitely not an affliction, though), and I think it might come more from loneliness. I was lonely for a long time, especially when I started writing this book. I got bored with being lonely and bored of trying not to be. It wasn’t the end of the world, though. It’s just a feeling.
TO: Tom asks Nita once, “Do you think there will be anything else eventful tonight?” to which she replies, “No.” To these characters, what would constitute an “eventful” event?
AW: By that point, I think it’s established that he wants to hook up with her. So in that moment eventful would = sex, for him. Probably at a lot of other points, too. He’s a pretty sexually frustrated bro. For her, she is a socialite, sort of. I think it means that she’s sensing the party has died down at that point, which it has. Those are just my own interpretations of a fairly straightforward scene, though. I’d love to hear what other interpretations are. It definitely does bring that whole boredom thing we were talking about back, in a super condensed form.
TO: I often wondered as I read Walls if the characters’ boredom was a problem that could be solved.
AW: I think a lot of people wonder and say that about boredom.I consider it a mood or a feeling. Negative moods or feelings can be solved, in most cases. However, I think the solutions are more complicated, depending on the situation and the person. More or less complicated*. Varying degrees of complication* etc.
TO: Right, so for these characters can it be solved?
AW: I don’t know. All the characters are different. I don’t Nita is really that bored, or her boredom is very different than Tom. BUT, if we want to generalize: Not with the way they are going about it, right? For me, they have a “what’s the point?” sort of boredom, which kind of feeds itself. I get the sense that you feel they can solve it? If so, do you feel they do? We don’t really get much of Nita outside of the titular chapter, so maybe it’s best to concentrate on Tom or one of the ones who runs between chapters. Or just speak about boredom generally, as we pretty much are anyways. Or I am.
TO: I think what you’re saying is that the characters are bored because they don’t see much of a point in doing anything. Is that accurate?
AW: I don’t know, exactly. I think they say “what’s the point?” rhetorically, and generally they are accepting of boredom and don’t see it as a problem as much as a curiosity. That said, it wouldn’t be accurate to define Tom (or any of the characters maybe) as bored, because there are large chunks of the novel that go into his background, and he is rarely bored in those, or at least not bored in the same way. Re: “doing anything”….I think they do do lots of things. All kinds of things. they do drugs and go on trips and hang out and hang out more and read books and watch movies and have relationships and have jobs. They do lots of things, they feel bored, and that’s not necessarily something thats a problem, I don’t think, and they don’t seem to think so that much either. I also don’t boredom is something that is improved by action as much as mindset. Not that it needs to be improved or can be improved. But it’s hard to “do nothing”, not that that’s such a bad idea. Hard to apply, though.
TO: Is Tom partially waiting for a savior?
AW: I think yeah he has trouble solving his own problems. Definitely.
TO: Do you consider Walls a coming of age story?
AW: Coming of age story? Maybe? I don’t know how that genre is defined.
If it’ll sell books, tag it that. (Not you, but like anyone reading this.)
Actually I don’t care too much about the sales. But I do want people to read the book.
TO: The chronology of the book is nonlinear, and often temporal shifts occur without distinct markers. What was the thinking behind this structural choice? Are we meant to think of the scenes from the distant past as moments Tom is remembering or are we just supposed to see this as the narrative structure imposed by the author?
AW: For some reason I haven’t considered as much I should, now that I’m typing this, I like to write longer prose in vignettes. That’s how a lot of the chunks of this book came together. A lot of times, the transitions are intentionally placed while I am on the first draft or whatever. Other transitions are more me just jumping around and not worrying about pacing as much. So I guess the transitions come out of habit and the process a lot, although my habit and process are informed by my reading interests and artistic influences, etc. Kind of circular, if that makes sense? As for framing, I’m glad you asked because that’s one literary thing I actually like to consider. When I was asked a similar question by someone else I responded the same way I will respond now: the frame is in the very last scene of the book. Spoiler alert? Obviously narrative and everything is always ultimately imposed by the author, though.
Tracy O’Neill is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her novel The Hopeful will be published in spring 2015. Previously she has written for The Atlantic, Guernica, Bookforum, Grantland, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The L Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @tracysoneill.