Crushed by History
“I know 9-11 defines me in some way. I graduated high school to enter Bush’s world of terrorism and wars. 9-11 made me ask questions, like World War Two made Sartre and Beckett ask questions. A lot of hope was lost. A lot of strange behaviour has taken place here in America. Perhaps I’m not part of a generation. When the media shows the prototype of generations, the person never looks like me or anybody I know. I’ve been crushed by history.”
Andrew Stevens interviews young author Noah Cicero about existentialism, wage slavery and kinky sex.
3:AM: Tell us about the new book.
NC: The book is called The Condemned. There are three short story books of about forty pages each in it. The first, ‘The Warrior’, is about an impoverished pregnant dancer who is on coke and painkillers while she is pregnant. The story is not about the drug addiction, or motherhood. It is about the effects poverty has on the human mind. In fact it is an anti-motherhood novel. I wrote it because there are so many drug addict novels, but they are always about a fallen bourgeoisie. But the majority of people who do drugs aren’t like William Burroughs or an Easton Ellis character. The majority are poor who are trying to mentally escape the almost intolerable circumstances they are born into and expected to somehow live in. And I threw in the motherhood thing, because in America, we are told constantly that it is biologically impossible for a mother to not love her children. But all I have ever seen is mothers take out all their hate of the world out on their children.
The second is ‘Gratuitous Kink’. This book is a collection of sexual experiences. It has a man having sex with a Mexican she-male, men cock-sucking in a XXX theatre, sex in an Asian spa etc. I wrote the book because I wanted to show that kinky sex is normal in America now. And to demystify the sex in the book, that is usually considered perverted by the media. But in reality weird sex is a billion dollar business and it wouldn’t make billions unless it was completely normal like toilet paper or milk. It came out of meeting people at XXX theatres and swingers, that were just normal everyday people. You don’t need to be a hippy to have a kinky sex anymore.
The third is ‘Civilization’. This is my attempt at writing a type of ‘Waste Land’ or ‘Howl’ for the 9-11 generation. It is a series of stark, miserable, god-less, existential prose/poems. It starts off with the beginning of civilization. But instead of Adam and Eve, there is the version Engels and Sartre came up with. When man figured out that seeds made plants. Then it goes into the killing of everybody from Youngstown, showing how the U.S. government cares so little about industrial towns, it is like they are actually trying to kill them. A short story called ‘The Gun’ where a man realizes that he only works and does things because the government owns the guns, and he has to believe in these certain things or he dies. That if he steals the guns they will put him into jail, and if he doesn’t work and makes only enough not to die, and if he loses that job he starves to death, it is like he got killed by the government’s guns anyway. And also a part where media people just go, “goo goo gaa gaa.” Because the American media doesn’t say anything that matters or makes sense, so it is like they are speaking baby talk. And some more just like the stuff named above. The book comes out of hearing so many people from a generation say in bars and diners, “This world should be blown up, nothing will ever change.” It is about how a whole generation has become conscious that it is pointless to vote, to try, to care, that a few human beings bought everything, and have no intention of sharing.
The book as a whole is basically a rejection of the beatniks’ “Holy, holy, holy” philosophy. That America’s real crisis isn’t terrorists. It’s that the American system of government and media have become absurd and do not work in The Information Age. And that the “Holy, Holy, Holy” philosophy is not equipped to fight that. And that life is terrible and ugly and tough for a lot of Americans. Perhaps even to alert the world, that America isn’t the richest country in the world, it is a poor one, just because 10% has so much, doesn’t mean they share it.
3:AM: Do you reject writers like Burroughs and Easton Ellis then, or are you just trying to put more diverse fiction out there?
NC: No, I like both of them a lot. I want to show a different side to drug addiction that is never shown in the media or in books or movies. That drugs are used by people to escape reality, and that a lot of mothers use drugs to escape the reality of having children. I noticed that the biggest drug addicts I know are mothers, and that a lot weren’t doing as much or as hard drugs before they had kids. Which spawned the original thoughts for writing the book.
3:AM: What about other ‘transgressive’ authors at work today?
NC: The only one I’ve really read is Dennis Cooper. I like his book The Sluts a lot. It was really fun. You could tell he was having a lot of fun writing it. I enjoyed it even more, because I’ve engaged in a lot of blog thread battles and conversations. And know how a blog thread can get really out of hand. And how people could try to prove things on a blog thread. But it doesn’t really matter. Because it a blog thread and no one knows each other and in the end most of it is just bullshit. That part in Sluts when the doctor cuts the kid’s balls off and puts them in the kid’s mouth, is insane. Sluts is a beautiful book.
3:AM: What do you think of Bukowski?
NC: I think he is a direct influence on my writing. I read him later on. I’ve read all of Bukowski’s prose and really enjoy it. I’ve read a lot of strange things on Bukowski. In a town like Youngstown, there are 1000s of Bukowskis. You sit down in a dive and there are five there, all telling these great stories. Bukowski has taught me to understand those men. He gave a voice to the working class, that no one in American literature has touched yet. Nothing really ever great happens in a Buwkowski story, you get the feeling, these are characters with long suffering lives, that every once in a while something absurd happens to them. I like that, it’s truthful, that is what life is really like for most people.
3:AM: You mentioned drugs in films. Do you like stuff like Larry Clark?
NC: The films that have influenced me have been Rob Zombie’s horror movies, House of a 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. In those movies he has a lot of scenes that would be in regular movies. But instead of taking the usual movie route, he goes in a different direction, and shows the absurdity of human life. And also, especially in The Devil’s Rejects, he attacks the Manichean mindset full force. And also Wes Anderson movies, for their absurdity.
3:AM: Do you see yourself as a domestic writer? Is there a parochialism to your work? Do you wonder how it’s received abroad?
NC: I don’t know if I see myself as a domestic writer. I only write about America, all I know is America. But America is different all over. New York City doesn’t resemble Youngstown, Ohio at all. And Nebraska doesn’t resemble Florida at all. In personality types and behaviour I mean. I am domestic to towns that once had industry, but no longer have them. But places like New York City or Los Angeles I don’t know anything about. I’ve been to them, but I’m not representing the lives there in any real way.
I thought I would do good abroad, there seems to be a different outlook when it comes to existentialists and more thought-driven writing. But the only thing that made me assume that though was that in the fifties Europe had the Absurdists and Sartre and De Beauvoir. While America had the Beatniks and Catcher in the Rye. I think the Absurdists and the French existentialists are much more intelligent in their writing than the Americans were then. But it was really only an assumption.
3:AM: In terms of the subject matter of ‘Gratuitous Kink’, what’s your view on social programmes that try to steer America away from that particular free for all?
NC: Those abstinence programs are fucking retarded. The U.S. government has a funny way of dealing with sex. Currently in Ohio they are trying to make it so every strip joint has to close. They can’t make a law to close strip joints, because getting naked is freedom of speech. But they can make laws like the girls have to be behind glass and random dumb shit like that. But here’s the thing with that. I was in Nebraska last year, and they have those types of laws. So there are no strip joints, but guess what they have, 12 escort services in a town of 40,000. The Republicans and Democrats don’t want sex to be in sight, they think it is unbecoming. But they don’t mind women being private whores and streetwalkers. But at the same time the U.S. government is working to make all these laws and abstinence programs, some of the Republicans’ biggest investors, including Fox’s Rupert Murdoch make millions off of porn from their cable boxes. The Hilton hotels’ second biggest source of income is porn, Paris Hilton is rich because of porn. That is America: endless contradictions.
3:AM: You say that most Americans’ lot in life is bad but how do you square that with, say, the equivalent class in Latin America? Even someone on workfare in the US can, just about, afford a VCR. Have you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s stuff about US wage slavery?
NC: Minimum wage is $5.15 in America. No one gives minimum wage workers full time because they might have to give them 1/3 health care. So they work 38 hours a week. That is $782 a month, take out taxes that’s $700 dollars a month or £395. Let’s say you lived alone: $300 for rent, $100 for car insurance, phone $40. That leaves $160 to eat and drink booze. That isn’t that much.
You mentioned workfare or welfare. I know this girl who pops out babies and makes $800 a month for having a baby, and she has healthcare, and free college, and can get a car with government money. A man, who has no babies, gets nothing but school loans that won’t pay for a full semester of college. Which is absurd to me.
Also the cut-off in America to help get medication and go to the doctor is around $740 a month. If you work full time at a minimum wage job you have to pay full price for medication. And also, in America there is no free dental or eye care at all, no matter how poor you are, you must pay for it.
Currently I have a problem with my nose, I can barely breathe out of it. I went to the free clinic three times and they have refused to give me an x-ray. They will give me pills to slow the nasal drip. But they will not help you unless you are dying.
I deliver pizzas every night to people living in hotels, people living in cockroach-infested apartments. Some guy told me in Florida they have tons of people living in tent cities. I know a lot of people that have been put into jail for years for crimes they didn’t commit, but since they couldn’t afford a big-time lawyer, they went to prison. While Michael Jackson sleeps naked with children. You know if some poor redneck or some guy from the projects decided to sleep naked with his children, he would be in jail in a second and then have his balls burned off with lye. It is for sure worse in Latin America. America has the most money in the world, all that means to me is that they really fucking don’t have an excuse for this shit.
I haven’t read Barbara Ehrenreich. I work as a pizza boy for minimum wage and tips. Tonight I mopped a floor, washed dishes and listened to some girl talk about how one of her three babies’ daddies is the head crack dealer in a certain project and that he makes 55,000 a year and has only been shot in the face twice. I don’t know if I can read that, it is there, I’m right there, I am one of her characters. It is too painful.
3:AM: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Underground Literary Alliance?
NC: I was in the ULA last year for about six months. All I wanna say about that is, I don’t care for Wenclas’ zinester revolution, and I don’t care for Maud Newton’s world of awards and Paris Review‘s. Both of those people get on my nerves when they speak. I don’t know where I stand, somewhere in between, in a grey area, I don’t know. I have no interest in winning an award or being an underground legend or selling a million copies. There are 50,000 books published in America every year, and probably more than 500,000 submissions. The fact that some people want to publish my books and read my writing makes me really happy. The happiest moment I’ve ever had concerning writing was when some stoner kid that never reads, got through The Human War, and told me he really liked it and why.
3:AM: You consider Sartre, Hemingway and Beckett as central influences.
NC: Sartre’s influence is his existentialism, his philosophy influences the ways I develop characters. Showing their bad faith, why people commit violence, showing that people are “condemned to freedom.” Hemingway’s short terse prose and how he always stayed in the concrete. Hemingway never went beyond the situation, God never enters a Hemingway story. And Beckett, his style influenced me, and his absurdism, that mankind is absurd, death is absurd, and our lack of communication also. That it is really hard for people to communicate. And if you listen to people talk to each other, they really aren’t most of the time.
3:AM: What about Camus?
NC: I’ve read all of Camus, so I know Camus. But I find him simplistic. He always stops thinking at a certain point. Mostly because he did not want to accept that he was in history and that there is history. I choose Sartre over Camus. I agree with Sartre that violence is needed at times, and violence is part of history.
3:AM: You mention the 9/11 Generation. Does that weigh heavily on you?
NC: I know 9-11 defines me in some way. I graduated high school to enter Bush’s world of terrorism and wars. 9-11 made me ask questions, like World War Two made Sartre and Beckett ask questions. A lot of hope was lost. A lot of strange behaviour has taken place here in America. Perhaps I’m not part of a generation. When the media shows the prototype of generations, the person never looks like me or anybody I know. I’ve been crushed by history.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Noah Cicero was born and lives in Youngstown, Ohio. He has a book called The Human War (out on Fugue State Press) and Burning Babies (Undie Press). The Condemned will come out on Six Gallery Press in March. He has had short fiction published in identity theory, Black Ice, Prague Literary Review, Nth Position and many other places.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 2nd, 2006.