An Uninteresting Weirdo
Socrates Adams interviewed by Ben Myers.
If, like me, you prefer to dwell in a literary pit of death, despair, angst, alienation, existentialism, crime, philosophy, pornography and narcotics you may agree that funny books are hard to come by. Genuinely funny books, I mean. Not the ones which have a “I cried with laughter” quote on the cover.
When I read Socrates Adams’ debut novel Everything’s Fine I cried with laughter. Not literally – I never cry with laughter. I rarely even laugh out loud. But if I had cried, one eye would be expelling a tear of joy, the other a tear of sadness, sympathy, pathos and pity. It would be a big tear with many layers to it, like a salty onion.
Everything’s Fine concerns the plight of low-level office drone Ian. Ian enthusiastically attempts to sell plastic tubes for a living by “building rapport” with potential customers. Failing to meet his targets, he is one day forced by his merciless boss to take home a piece of plastic tubing and care for it as if it were his firstborn child in order to better understand his product. It’s a task that Ian plunges headlong into, immediately anthropomorphising the tube and doing to all the things one would do to a baby: naming it (‘Mildred’), feeding it, proudly taking it out in a pram public.
Yet for all his dedication to the company whose ranks he hopes to one day rise through and hard effort at building rapport, all Ian really wants are the simple things in life: a trimmer figure and a girlfriend who he can take to the Italian Alps, a geographical location he elevates to almost mythical status in his imagination.
In giving a voice to Mildred the plastic tube, Adams cleverly turns the banal into the extraordinary and forces the reader to view Ian from the other end of narrative telescope. He illuminates precisely what it is that makes us human: desire primarily, but also having to live with the knowledge that death is imminent. It is what separates us from other animals and also plastic tubes, whose life expectancy spans centuries: “The main difference between tubes and humans is that tubes can withstand misery, indefinitely, without going mad,” explains the tube. “Human beings can only take so much disappointment and misery before their minds break apart. That’s because they only have a short amount of time on the planet and because they are made of pink, mushy material.”
Meanwhile, trapped in Ian’s drab life of longing and fatuous sales lingo, all the tube wants to do is return home to the Far East, where it (she) dreams of one day fulfilling its potential by becoming part of a plumbing system. In fact, the plastic tube proves itself to be a more assertive, self-aware and reliable narrator than her surrogate father – and one not devoid of humour:
“I am specifically formulated to resist stress-cracking. I am a polyethylene-lined, rubber-blend, chemical spray and transfer hose. Lightweight, chemical-resistant, high-specification tubing, perfect for any king of liquid transfer.
I will blow your mind.
If you blow air through me onto your mind.
A typical joke a tube might make.”
In this concise novel Adams’ themes include the loneliness of the alienated urban male, the absurdity of corporate aspiration, the aggressive nature of sales-speak and delusions of the individual. His is a style that breathes the poetically skewed surrealist language of Richard Brautigan or Donald Barthelme into the socially awkward workplace dramas in the likes of Peep Show and The Office. It’s a very funny book. Socrates Adams is a funny man.
3:AM: The name Ian seems perfect for your protagonist. It’s very English, very civil servant – and also rarely used in literature. Did you deliberate over the choice of name?
Socrates Adams: No, the name came straight away. In fact, I think before I knew anything about Ian, I knew that his name was Ian. At that time, I didn’t know anyone called Ian. I am very pleased with his name. It makes me think of a very trembly, thin, grey man. That’s why I like it. Someone with a nasal voice. Sorry, Ians.
3:AM: Ian is trapped at the bottom of a company hierarchy that you suspect he will never ascend. His every move is monitored and he is demoted to a position so lowly his job title is Tiny Shit Head. Kafka-esque and Orwellian are the often-used terms that spring to mind. Yet Ian speaks with an almost glassy-eyed, unerring tone of loyalty to a company that reminds me of those living under the strictest Communist regimes. This is a convoluted way of asking: have you had much direct experience working such shitty jobs?
SA: Yes. My main horrible job was working as a recruitment consultant. Not only was the job, in my opinion, immoral, but it was target-driven to an almost absurd degree, highly pressurised, and with basically illegally long hours. Part of our training was literally in ‘manipulating people’, and we were told that although we were legally allowed to take two fifteen minute breaks and an hour for lunch, anyone taking more than just ten minutes to stuff food in their mouth would be swiftly disposed of.
The job was so insane that the staff turnover rate was just unbelievable. People would last about two weeks in general, before either being told they were a ‘bad fit’ or they would quit. I would say that in the year and a half I was there, I must have seen around twenty-five new consultants start and finish. This was in an office of around twenty people. Also, the monthly assessments were nothing short of psychologically scarring. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but we had around fifteen to twenty separate targets to hit each month. Missing even one would lead to a bout of really nasty bullying.
3:AM: Is Everything’s Fine the first novel you have written?
SA It’s the first novel I have finished. I started one when I was 16 and got maybe 20,000 words in. Obviously it was awful.
3:AM: Are there any particular writers who you repeatedly return to for creative inspiration?
SA: I guess it’s a little boring, but Kafka, and more recently, Knut Hamsun and Daniil Kharms. I find it amazing how modern their work feels. It’s more to do with human nature not really ever changing; people sensitive to the ‘essence’ of humanity will express themselves in a similar way regardless of what time they were/are writing in. Does that make sense? I mean that a ‘contemporary feeling’ is maybe just another way of saying that something is just an honest representation of the way someone feels about being alive – something that will never change in art. Is that even more garbled? Have I gone off-topic?
3:AM: Yes, but that’s OK. Manchester, where you work and reside, seems to have recently produced a strong batch of new, young writers. I’m thinking of yourself, Chris Killen, Joe Stretch, Jenn Ashworth, Crispin Best. You all seem to have your own distinct voices. Is there a discernible literary scene in Manchester – or have I just imagined it?
SA: I ended up in Manchester through weird chance – I was travelling around the north of England on a narrowboat with my girlfriend at the time and Manchester was the place we liked most, so we decided to stay here. I think there is a kind of literary scene here – there is a community of friendly people, all trying to produce good work who encourage each other.
I guess the words ‘literary scene’ sort of make you think about gangs of acerbic intellectuals, prowling around coffee shops and smoking each other to death. It’s not like that. It’s just nice, sympathetic people giving advice and support. I also think that the MA programme at Manchester University helped a lot with the creation of this group of people. I also think that the ‘scene’ has changed a lot in the last few years, in a nice way. It’s more open, mainly due to websites like Twitter – there is a lot of transparency and it’s easy for new, interested writers to get involved.
3:AM: You have also starred in an as-yet-unreleased film, Wizard’s Way, that you have made with some of the aforementioned writers. From the excerpts that I have seen I thought you delivered a hilarious performance – especially for a non-actor. Can you tell me a little about the film, and your character Barry?
SA: It’s a film I’ve made with Chris Killen, Joe Stretch and another friend of mine, Kristian Scott – it’s about what happens to extremely hardcore online gamers when the game they play is shut down. My character is an interesting guy. I don’t want to give too much away because hopefully we should have some sort of announcement to make about this film relatively shortly. Sorry to be coy!
3:AM: Do you have any future novels planned?
SA: I’ve finished a second book, tentatively titled A Modern Family, which is about Top Gear, World of Warcraft, the Royal family, painkiller addiction and teenage homosexual lust. I’m trying to find a publisher for it. It’s very very odd and quite different to Everything’s Fine, but I feel really happy about it. I’m trying to write a third novel sort of about a sentient olive tree at the moment.
3:AM: I find that being interviewed as ‘a published writer’ is not quite as exciting as you imagined it would be when you were an unpublished writer.
SA: I actually kind of like it, but mainly because I feel like I am just talking to you, maybe, but I feel also, ‘Why would anyone be interested in reading about me – they should just interview their family/friends/lover/whatever, not just some uninteresting weirdo.’
3:AM: I feel this interview has gone well. I would like to offer the position of Interviewee-for-3:AM Magazine.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 27th, 2012.