It’s No Use, Everything Is Fucked: An Interview With Ben Brooks
To celebrate the release of Ben Brooks’s superlative new novel(la) AN ISLAND OF FIFTY, he and I corresponded across the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean via electronic mail.
MLP publisher J.A. Tyler has graciously offered to give away a free copy of Ben’s book to the commenter who gives the most interesting answer to this question (apropos Ben’s book): What would you miss most if civilization were to be dismantled?
Interview after the jump…
HIGGS: I’d like to begin by asking you to offer a few words about the recurring quotes from Derrick Jensen’s ENDGAME, which seem to act as a framing device for the book. (For readers who might be unfamiliar with Jensen, he’s a nonfiction writer and an activist who self-identifies as an anarcho-primitivist.)
BROOKS: Jensen writes with immense clarity and grace on the problems of civilization. Exploitation, deception, degradation; the contamination of breast milk, the destructiveness of dams, on pollution, on CIA torture manuals, all of it he writes beautifully about, but what I think sets Jensen apart from other ecological revolutionaries is his proposed solution; taking down civilization through violence. He not only condones but encourages the use of violence in the fulfillment of this goal (“love does not imply pacifism”). AN ISLAND OF FIFTY I think is partly born out of the differences between this and the way that I think. I agree with Jensen about the problem and the only solution that ever would have any effect, only difference is that it feels for me that the solution is unachievable, and while I admire his enthusiasm for blowing up dams and taking down telephone masts, I’d only ever see such action as statement-making or ‘fun’ or something, rather than actual steps toward a genuine solution. This ‘fuck it’ attitude I think dominates AN ISLAND OF FIFTY.
HIGGS: When you say “fuck it attitude” do you mean to characterize AN ISLAND OF FIFTY as nihilistic? Or do you see it somehow proposing alternative solutions to the problems of civilization Jensen identifies?
BROOKS: I don’t think its nihilistic or that it suggests alternatives, only that there are no workable solutions left open to us and so we are left with that whole ‘eat, drink and be merry’ type philosophy to live with. We can’t expunge these problems so we should ignore them and let the results swallow us as they will inevitably do, as the characters in the book are, as some day some unlucky generation will be. Oh the Melodrama.
I thought for a while about more directly contesting that resistant element of Jensen’s thinking by having characters run about destroying features of civilization as Jensen would have us do, but the truth of such a situation would simply be that these characters would be eaten by the authority, as we would be were we to try such things. The only acts of resistance in the book are futile I think.
HIGGS: Okay, I want to come back to that idea of futility, but before we get too caught up in content, I want to ask you some questions about form. To start with, could you talk a little about the way you use font size? Here’s an example:
Marsha lays paths & tears them up.
The mill is in sight.
Eyes are wretched chunks of light.
I carry in my palms her heart & it throbs with the pulse of a lion. She drinks oxblood on the island. There is a mill on an island. I am weary but my feet pulse with the throb of a chariot: ONWARD.
Marsha talks of beauty with the Hotelier. He is African-American. Watch his gargantuan jaw swell with words.
They stand beside the marble monolith, beside the mill, beside the chariot, beneath the charioteer.
The charioteer, the hotelier claims, breathes saffron & lives within the trunk of a great oak. He bites into the claws of crabs & washes taste away with woodbines. He pays for cold coffee skinned girls from the ships to gyrate against his spine.
Marsha feigns horror & lifts her skirt. She draws the cross over her breast. The blades of the mill begin to show cracks & the orphans grow restless. People are checking out. There is a small man in the mill who spins thread & bloodies his wrinkled fingers.
One day they will fold, his mother says.
Let them die, he tells her.
BROOKS: I guess I just use font size like writers use exclamation marks or short sentences or something. Like, just do what you will with words to achieve a desired effect. Maybe it’s the mark of a bad writer that I have to repeatedly alter font size to get across what I want on top of the content, or maybe not, I couldn’t tell you. Sorry, that wasn’t much of an answer.
HIGGS: You began to touch on one of things I was wondering about, which is whether or not you use different font sizes for effect or for aesthetics. Are you saying that you use them to indicate levels of importance, or levels of narrative voice, or…?
BROOKS: I don’t think it’s for aesthetic value, but I may be wrong. Like subconsciously I may be thinking ‘this looks cool as hell, I’ll play like this has some meaning so that I can keep it.’ Really though I’d say it was to add dynamic to the narrative. You know how when you see someone read and the pauses and volume changes can really influence your perceptions of a piece of writing? It’s sort of trying to bring an element of that across into personal reading. I wouldn’t say it strips the reader of freedom to interpret though, maybe adds to it in some way.
HIGGS: Yeah, I get that. I like that. I think it’s really interesting: attempting to bring the oral into the written, bringing performance into the text. This approach seems like an important aspect of your particular voice as a writer, given that your other book, FENCES, also uses font-shifting. Is this a method you just intuitively produced, or was it inspired by something?
BROOKS: I can’t remember a particular trigger but I wouldn’t say it was intuitive because I produced a few things before FENCES that didn’t have the font changes. I think they came after I decided to stop trying to emulate people I liked and just to write, maybe that means it was intuitive. I feel as if I’m being unbearably vague and failing to answer anything.
HIGGS: On the contrary, your answers make sense to me. I think writing is a slippery practice, and talking about writing is never as easy as it seems it ought to be. Maybe we should switch gears a little bit. There’s this line on page 41 that keeps coming back to me, the line is: “Fingers will grow into the circles of history.” With AN ISLAND OF FIFTY, I get the sense that you’re interested in creating a world that is both like our world and unlike our world, both familiar and unfamiliar, both connected to and separate from our historical reality. Does that seem accurate?
BROOKS: Thanks, yea the act of writing is such a private thing. Talking about it is sometimes like trying to explain why you like certain types of porn, to a degree it seems that a lot of the time answers that authors give concerning why they make use of certain devices etc boil down to ‘I just do’ and any discussion of this on their part is not justification for it but an analysis of its effects.
That’s pretty much it. I think the world in the book is a sped up, simplified model of our own development, with lots of elements represented symbolically. Like you said there are familiar aspects, these tend to be the more comfortable moments, and the less familiar, more often the violent or uncomfortable ones. As a nerdy middle class white kid I know that this is true for me but not true globally, which is why in the book there is a counterbalancing of the two types of scene.
HIGGS: Earlier you talked about how the only acts of resistance in the book are futile. If that’s true, I wonder if you think differently about acts of submission in the book? Or about acts that seem neither resistant nor submissive? To put it another way, I’m thinking about how the book engages with nature, the ways in which many of the characters are building or creating things, taming nature, and I’m wondering if you see AN ISLAND OF FIFTY as portraying civilization itself as futile, if creation itself is being called into question, or if the futility is reserved to acts of resistance?
BROOKS: Whether or not something is futile depends obviously on what you hope to accomplish by it. If you are aiming to rape a planet for everything it has in order to create huge amounts of things nobody needs, then civilization is not futile. If you are shooting for happiness (read happiness as successful human interaction, hot sex, being close to the planet and skinny dipping, and not as being told you need something and then selling your time to get it) then civilization is futile. The way a system needs be structured in order to foster civilization is inherently in contention with the natural world, us being natural beings with natural desires (excluding those that we are fed) means we require a symbiotic relationship with nature in order to be happy. So civilization is futile in that respect. The creation of a futile system against which all opposition soon becomes futile means that we’re a bit fucked.
So back to the book, I think that near enough all of the acts in the book are futile. The characters that drive industrialization fail to become happy, the characters that submit fail to become happy, the characters that resist fail to become happy. You can create civilization but it won’t make anyone happy and it won’t be sustainable. I think that is what the book is saying.
HIGGS: In terms of your writing process, did you begin with these ideas about civilization, industrialization, futility, etc. Or did you begin with words and follow them until they led you to the ideas?
BROOKS: I had to think about that one for a while, good question. When I started writing the book I think I was far more open to possibilities of resistance and change but about midway through I became disillusioned and thought something like ‘it’s no use, everything is fucked’. So I did come in from the off with some ideas about how fucked up everything was but it took a good chunk of writing to provoke me into thinking about those ideas more and reaching some sort of conclusion.
Just was wondering whether you thought this was all insane and extreme? You’re culturally critical in your novel (apparently, I haven’t been able to read it as yet), how far does that extend?
HIGGS: No, I don’t think what you’re saying is insane at all. I am, as you mention, personally uninterested in political activism – but, that said, I am quite interested in extreme ideas, extreme actions, and I am very respectful of passion in all its forms and guises, even when it manifests antithetically to my own. For example, one of my friends turned me on to Derek Jensen a few years ago and although I’m uninterested in returning to nature or destroying capitalism, I dig what he’s doing, I respect it, and I find much of his writing fascinating, relevant, and provocative. In terms of AN ISLAND OF FIFTY, I think you’ve succeeded in producing an interesting example of a text that can for one reader (me) resonate powerfully on a purely aesthetic level and can for another reader (someone who’s interested in cultural concerns) resonate powerfully on the level of critical engagement. When you say that it took you a while to reach a conclusion, do you mean the conclusion for the book or a conclusion to your questions about the efficacy of resistance?
BROOKS: Both. The conclusions about the efficacy of resistance and the pro-active destruction of civilization came midway through the book and as a result the conclusion of the book changed. I had a sort of crisis where I thought the whole first half of the book had been rendered useless by this and I briefly considered stowing the thing away, but I didn’t. I had to really rush the last part out though, because my immediate reaction to the realization was very visceral and I was worried it would start to fade. Like fade from ‘oh shit, there’s nothing we can do’ to ‘ha, we can’t do anything’. And I think to a certain extent it has.
A slight tangent perhaps, but can I ask about your views here. You said you were uninterested in a reversion to nature/the deconstruction of civilization? Is that because you see any attempts toward this as futile, because you are content with the way things are or because you see a different way of advancement?
HIGGS: Let me preface this by admitting that I am probably going to sound like an asshole, but here goes: I’m uninterested in a reversion to nature because 1) I don’t like nature, and 2) I like the cushiness of civilization. I like my coffeemaker. I like my car and my computer and I like book stores and going to movies and concerts and the ballet and art museums and civilized shit like that. I don’t want to hunt and gather — I want to order Chinese food and drink Malbec. I don’t want to piss in the woods or take baths in the river. I don’t want to wear clothes handmade out of rawhide – I have very sensitive skin. Does this mean I blindly assume that since life is pretty good for me it’s pretty good for everybody else, too? No. Does this mean I’m ignorant of the plight of others, that I deny the global exploitation of workers? No. I am against suffering. I am against cruelty. But the bottom line is: destroying capitalism sounds awful because (i) it wrongly supposes there’s a simple solution to a complex problem (ii) it sounds like a lot of work, and a lot of work means I might not get to watch LOST, so fuck that. I’d rather watch LOST than destroy capitalism (even if the finale irked me), (iii) it could potentially lead to homogeneity and homogeneity, for me, is the ultimate enemy. Difference, not sameness, should always be our paramount value. This is a slippery slope, I understand, and it might sound especially terrible to the liberal ear, but I would venture to say that those who espouse socialist ideology do so from the safe position of understanding its impossibility and therefore risk nothing by their espousal. That’s my gut reaction. My intellectual reaction would be to cite Zizek and talk about how action has gotten us nowhere, now is the time for inaction, now is the time for theory rather than practice, look at what Lenin did after the first revolution failed, and so on. But really, part of my reaction is probably directly related to the fact that I am a lousy selfish cynical American, which maybe manifests in my writing somehow – I’m not sure? Which makes me wonder if you feel like being British (is that the proper nomenclature: British? or do you prefer English?) informs your writing, perhaps in terms of your particular cultural or historical position? And also, do you feel like AN ISLAND OF FIFTY is engaging with a particular literary tradition, British or otherwise?
BROOKS: I don’t think you sound like an asshole. That was a good answer. I think my attraction to a reversion to nature rests also on the fact that it would bring people together, even though I’m a cynical twat and don’t like a great deal of people anyway. All that stuff you listed I’d be reluctant to lose also and I’d only do it if I could guarantee something better, some success in resistance, which I can’t, so that’s why I’m not naked in a forest planning to blow up dams right now. But I also think that above those things it is people that make me most happy. A lot of the times those things just get in the way.
Those things also only make us happy because we have been raised with them. If we were raised like you said in forests, jumping about in rivers and spearing fish, then the idea of sitting watching LOST for an hour would seem fucking horrific dull.
Also I’m not particularly sure about how smoothly these theories would translate into practice for me personally, I haven’t had much chance to test myself yet. But I wouldn’t say that renders the theory useless, just difficult.
I think it has, but not because I’m British (British is fine by me). It’s because I’m middle class, white, and at grammar school. If I lived in America and kept the same sociodemographic credentials I think I’d pretty much write in the same way. It’s just being afforded time to write and dwell on things like drunkenly fucking a fat girl or hating civilization or whatever. But I’m not sure what ‘way’ of writing is. Not going so arrogantly far as to say it’s unlike anything else just I couldn’t point out anything I thought particularly resembled it, or that it particularly resembled. Saying that, it found a comfy home at ML press and I guess shares certain stylistic traits with some of the other writing that comes out of there.
HIGGS: Aw, you’re too humble. I wouldn’t hesitate to go on record stating that AN ISLAND OF FIFTY is a creation unlike anything that’s come before it. Furthermore, I’d argue that this book only solidifies what I had been thinking after reading FENCES, which is that you’re seriously clearing new paths for the form of the novel, and I hope others recognize your significant contribution. But let’s talk about MLP for a minute. How did you get hooked up with them? And how would you describe their particular stylistic traits?
BROOKS: Oh, thanks. I’m really glad you liked them. I think we’re at a time where a lot of people are really starting to do new and exciting things with words, and I’m flattered that you’d see me as a part of that. You are doing exciting things also.
I think one of the things that really typifies ML Press work is that it tends to be very stylistic, the way the words fit together is beautiful, but still there is a definite, very human, meaning behind it all. That’s quite broad though, the work there is diverse. I remember someone saying on Giant comments once that J.A Tyler’s writing tended to put aesthetics over any actual meaning. I think that’s stupid, ignorant, more aggressive adjectives. I think that with writing like J.A’s the meaning is often so much more concentrated than in more traditional ways of writing that you have to adopt that sort of tumbling aesthetic in order to squeeze out the chaff.
As for me, I mentioned on my blog that I had recently completed a novel (THE KASAHARA SCHOOL OF NIHILISM) and J.A Tyler asked to look at it for consideration in the ML novella series, which then only consisted of Molly Gaudry’s WE TAKE ME APART. While he was reading that I finished AN ISLAND OF FIFTY and sent it to James Chapman at Fugue State who offered to publish it if I didn’t find anywhere else. Then J.A turned away TKSN because he felt the narrative wasn’t clear enough and I sent him AN ISLAND OF FIFTY which he liked and took on. Then James Chapman read TKSN and offered to put that out on Fugue State, which it will be, and I am supremely happy for that. Also, I feel like I just told a hugely long and dull story, sorry.
HIGGS: Not dull at all. And I’m glad to hear you’ve got another book on the way – congrats! Now let’s close this thing out with a question I often think about but never get asked: who is your ideal reader?
BROOKS: Really fit, easily led girls. Because apart from that I have no clue. I’ve never thought about it. I’m not even so sure about what it means. Anyone willing to listen I guess. It feels like I’m dismissing that sort of, I’m not, I just don’t know how to field it. I never think about readers really, unless I’m speaking with them.
You’ve never been asked? Okay Chris Higgs, who is your ideal reader?
HIGGS: Haha! Brilliant. My ideal reader fades in comparison. Thanks, Ben.
BROOKS: Thank you Chris, this was fun.
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