:: Article

Digital Native: An Interview with B.R. Yeager on Amygdalatropolis

By Jacob Siefring.

Amygdalatropolis

Amygdalatropolis is the most sickening, most dangerous, and most thrilling book I have read in quite some time. Its young and deviant protagonist, /1404er/, refuses to come out of his bedroom for a stretch of six years, all the while dwelling in the most sordid, hateful recesses of the internet. Upon finishing it, I began to think of it as the great social media novel, perhaps the great internet novel of our time. That I discovered it through social media in the first place is at once banal, but also a little worrying in its implications. (Is the circuit of information so entirely closed?) I read it over three days at Christmastime, utterly absorbed in the book’s nauseating aesthetic. By the time I had finished it, I could smell filth seeming to emanate from my surroundings, the furniture, perhaps from my own body. That is a credit to the author’s powers of imagination and description, I hope, and not an impugning of my housekeeping. Before the smell of filth had entirely subsided, I contacted the book’s author, B.R. Yeager, about doing an interview, and we began our correspondence.
— Jacob Siefring

*

3:AM Magazine: Amygdalatropolis has a very striking image on the cover. It looks like a ruptured colon. Is it CGI?

B.R. Yeager: It’s actually a public domain photograph of parasitic worms bursting out of some intestine. I figured people should know what they’re getting into.

JS: Indeed! Like so many worms, there are a number of threads or styles of discourse that seem to weave through Amygdalatropolis. There seem to be exactly three, and they’re more or less uniformly collated from start to end: 1) the third-person narration of /1404er/’s thoughts, memories and actions, 2) online text (being mostly /1404er/ forum posts, but also from elsewhere), and 3) the dissociative italicized passages, corresponding to video games or dreams. How early on in the writing of the book did you settle on this sort of three-part, threaded structure?

BRY: The three different styles were pretty much there from the start. It emerged naturally. Structure is incredibly important for me — I don’t do a lot of plotting, but I put a lot of work into making sure different threads relate to or reflect one another. And I think it’s just more interesting to have multiple styles informing each other and breaking up the text. The book I’m currently working on uses a variation of this technique, employing three rotating first-person narrators. It’s also likely a cover for some of my deficiencies — it’s easier for me switch between styles to convey something rather than being restricted to just one.

JS: The constant switching captures a little of what it feels like to split one’s attention, constantly jumping between different texts, speed reading or scanning. Likewise, a lot of the text in Amygdalatropolis isn’t really meant to be read but skipped over, visually registered. I’m thinking precisely of the machine timestamps on the /1404er/ posts:

/1404er/ (Mon) 23:37:12 No.3085900405
u still hav the plunger vid?

/1404er/ (Mon) 18:11:07 No.1006861101 
i’ve seen so many different pics and vids of what a shotgun directly to the head does, yet it still always blows my mind. Buh-dum-chh

/1404er/ (Fri) 20:13:58 No.10006901242  
I fucked a deer i shot once

/1404er/ (Tue) 17:52:43 No.30857028517
>>>30857028501
they shut it down prety quick and ar prob hugboxxxin it out rn but it was some pretty entertaning autism while it lasted

This is a minor point, but I would argue that the presence of this kind of text in the narrative creates a reading experience that’s more reflective of the way we all read now — by rapid visual scanning and by precisely not reading.

BRY: You bring something up that was definitely in the back of my mind while writing the book. I did want Amygdalatropolis to somewhat reflect the experience of being online, of scrolling through and between content. Having multiple threads alternating, separated by left and right text alignment, as though they were separate tabs or windows open on a desktop. And you’re absolutely right about the timestamps — not intended to be read per se, though I did go through to make sure they make sense chronologically in case anyone did bother to trace a timeline. And when /1404er/ checks his search log, there are posts that include dates to give some hint of when the book takes place. Whether these portions are read or not doesn’t really impact the story, but I still wanted to make sure they were consistent in case anyone chose to follow them.

JS: One of the most seductive things you do I think has to do with the withholding, or the utter irrelevance rather, of /1404er/’s first name. Here /1404er/ isn’t just the name of an individual but also “the place he got his name from,” an internet message board where, we’re told, “Everyone was named /1404er/.” This qualification is borne out in the time- and date-stamped message board posts, all authored by one /1404er/ or another. We’re never quite sure if a given post is the central protagonist or of other members of the chat forum. Sometimes the reader can make a logical inference, other times it’s anyone’s guess.

This aspect of your book seems to have profound implications for how we might think of identity in the Information Age. Selfhood starts to look plural, anonymous, redundant. Are these ideas that consciously informed your writing?

Replicants
Image credit: DeviantArt user Jay Trevor, CC BY-SA 3.0

BRY: A lot of Amygdalatropolis more or less grew out of observation. When I started writing it, I was pretty immersed in those message boards, trying to better understand them. So this characteristic of everyone sharing the same name is very reflective of how the anonymous message boards I observed functioned. The anonymity derived from taking an indistinct name is really a practicality — a survival measure — because engaging in aberrant behavior for an extended amount of time can only be done in secret and/or anonymity.  

That said, I don’t think digital anonymity only benefits malicious/antisocial behavior, nor would I advocate for a less anonymous internet. But obviously Amygdalatropolis focuses on negative rather than positive aspects of online anonymity, because that’s just where I tend to look, at least as a writer.

JS: As I was reading it, I was at a loss to situate it relative to any other novel I’ve read. Were there any important precursors in your mind? What books inspired you?

BRY: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was probably the biggest influence on Amygdalatroplis. My initial framework for starting the book was “Blood Meridian, but on the internet.” Just the way his writing glides from a traditional narrative to something so abstract and hallucinatory — reading McCarthy always reminds me of what text can do that other mediums can’t. And no one writes violence like he does.

JS: It seems like there are a number of moments when /1404er/ seems to perceive an interpenetration of the virtual/synthetic and the biological realms. We’re told at one point that /1404er/’s ejaculate sometimes resembles “congealed silicon”; also that the body featuring in “the first mainstream film to feature unsimulated suicide” looks like silicon to him. Conversely, in the scene in which /1404er/ drugs his mother and proceeds to bludgeon her with a hardcover book, /1404er/ almost vomits because: “She was so warm. Her body didn’t feel anything like plastic.” This sort of conflation or confusion of substances can easily be seen as a function of /1404er/’s psychological condition, his sickness no doubt, but it also seems rich in a wider philosophical sense. Of what is the substance of our world really made, especially when we spend so much of our time gazing at ephemeral text and images? How central was this interpenetration of the biological and the synthetic to your conception of the book in its early stages?

BRY: This is precisely one of the central themes I wanted to get across. This ties back to the concept of people being reduced to products. /1404er/ doesn’t see others as people, only as objects, to the extent that he may even view himself as an object. This emerges in part from his detachment from the material world — he’s forgotten/suppressed the feeling of skin. The world he chooses to inhabit is largely divorced from tactile sensation — he can only imagine what it would feel like to touch the people he sees in the videos, and he prefers to imagine their texture as plastic, or rubber, like his toys. To understand that something is more than an object — a person or animal — one opens his or herself to “the risk” (in /1404er/’s case) of empathizing with them. Similarly, we tend not to view smaller insects as animals, though they certainly fit the criteria. But killing a spider doesn’t feel the same as killing a dog — in fact, it can feel more like destroying a machine than a killing.

Poseable Mannequin

Image credit: Dollist | CC BY-SA 3.0

This reflects how we view each other online. Even with our best intentions, we often don’t see the other people we’re occupying this digital space with as genuine people; they’re bits of text and an image, or a collection of images, and we judge the whole of their existence based on that. Though you and I have talked quite a bit, and I recognize you as whole person, when I picture you in my head, I only see your Twitter profile. I know that you’re a person, I know that your existence is not confined to the internet, but I’m unable to picture you inhabiting a physical space, I’m unable to imagine what your voice sounds like, and so on. So even when we’re purposefully conscious of the disconnect between one’s digital self and their physical self, it still influences the way we view and interact with others.

The way social media exists right now creates an inherent obstacle to viewing others as full people. You almost have to consciously work against it. I choose to recognize that your online presence is just a snippet of your life. But there’s a conscious effort at work there, in seeing others as more than their online output, when it’s actually easier to simply view one’s online presence as the whole of their existence.

So even if your online presence included videos or audio, I would still only be getting a snippet of your life. And this is inherent to existence in general — the impossibility of fully knowing another person — but I feel it’s exacerbated by the internet.

JS: In her excellent introduction, artist and theorist Edia Connole situates Amygdalatropolis vis-à-vis medieval Christian suffering and the negative philosophy of Georges Bataille, including the concept of expérience intérieure (usually translated as ‘inner experience’):

For Bataille, inner experience broaches a notion of community without authority, a community that simultaneously involves a dissolution of the subject and his or her sovereignty with and as the whole; where “[t]here a man is not distinguishable in any way from others”.

Angela of Foligno

Yet the experience described occurs in relative physical isolation, the anonymous non-place of the message boards and /1404er/’s stronghold. I am led to think not of Bataille, but of Pascal, and his old saw that all of men’s woes stem from their inability to sit happily alone in a room. What an idea! Of course that’s absurd, if you consider /1404er/’s particular hell.

BRY: But /1404er/ isn’t particularly satisfied by his existence, is he? And one reason we glue ourselves to our phones or compulsively scroll through articles and timelines is that we can’t bear to just sit with ourselves, right? I’m likely wrong, but I imagine Pascal is referring to the self-reflection that comes with sitting alone with oneself, which is what /1404er/ is constantly working to escape (whether he’s conscious of it or not). Importantly, /1404er/ doesn’t see his time on the boards as hell. Hell for him would be to actually take stock of who he is and how he’s become that way.

I see /1404er/ and his peers as people clumsily struggling toward this sense of pure nihilism, of this dissolution of the self, but failing miserably. Because they’re not engaged in a true nihilism — they are still concerned with how they are perceived by others (even under the cover of anonymity), chasing this idea of being warriors who lay waste to the weak and what have you, of pushing the world and feeling it push back. A teenage conception of nihilism, which makes sense, given the subjects.

JS: Is thinking about Bataille or his ideas useful to you? I ask this because, much to its credit, your book has not the least trace of what might be called theoretical language; however aptly Bataille’s ideas might describe aspects of Amygdalatropolis, as the introduction shows, there’s no indication that they influenced it in any way.

BRY: I’ve read a little Bataille, but to be honest I’m not really a huge theory guy. I find a lot of it interesting, and I’m sure it informs my writing to some degree, but I’m still mainly interested in telling stories. So you’re correct in that Bataille’s ideas didn’t explicitly influence my writing for Amygdalatropolis. If anything, it was more informed by Aimé Césaire and Marx (specifically, discourse surrounding humans becoming reduced to objects). But still, the immediate process was far more anthropological, always rooted in observing behaviors of posters on the boards.

That said, Edia’s use of Bataille to contextualize Amygdalatropolis, and this tradition of using images of suffering as a means for transcendence or dissolution of self, is something I find fascinating. Her introduction actually allowed me to look at the book in a new light, which is an incredibly rare experience.

JS: Yes, I see what you mean: self-reflection, or self-consciousness, can itself be a sort of hell. The moments in the narrative that struck me as most hellish were of course the centipede chapter, which I took to be the climax of the book; but also /1404er/’s awful hesitation at how to go about ordering a pizza — would he have to speak? To speak, to form words aloud in the presence of another, would then be hell. Or, to a lesser degree, even to be seen, as by the deliverymen.

Regarding the message boards that you observed, and that provided a rough model for the /1404er/ forum: are these on the open web, viewable by anyone, or membership access only?

BRY: So there’s this split between wanting to be seen by one’s peers as powerful, ruthless, without conscience, and simultaneously this desire to become invisible — to be nameless and unseen. This has emerged out of the culture of the boards.

All the boards were accessible to anyone, though some required an IP blocker to access, meaning they were part of the “deep web” (i.e. a site that cannot be found via traditional search engines or accessed with a traditional browser. Much of the content in the deep web is completely innocuous, though some sites have been set up using the limited accessibility as a means for nefarious and/or illegal activity).

One thing I should also mention, just for the sake of transparency: the forum posts throughout Amygdalatropolis are a mix of original texts as well as pieces directly lifted from actual posts, re-written and composited (in about equal measure). I’m not sure if anyone would have an issue with that from a creative standpoint, or if anyone would cry “plagiarism” over it, but I figure it’s best to be open.

JS: Yes, in /1404er/ there is this very palpable desire to see the world, everything, all of its intensity, but always without exposing oneself to the view of others. To be, in short, an all-seeing but disembodied eye; this idea seems ancient, but yet hard to place. I mean, it sounds like one definition of God, right? An all-seeing but invisible eye? In the introduction Edia Connole makes this sort of potential equation between /1404er/ and God explicit. Perhaps it’s just an impossible fantasy of disembodied knowledge. Inscribing that very impossibility, there’s the doctrine of Esse est percipi (“To be is to be perceived”), attributed to George Berkeley. 

I wonder if the ‘cybernetic’/digital revolution has perhaps intensified this will to disembodiment in our culture. I certainly think so. But how? Because we can be physically alone yet experience so many forms of television and telepresence now? This is of course getting towards the beautiful and concluding passage of your book, in which /1404er/ accesses 17,043 live webcams distributed across the globe — a version of seeing all, if you will. Without being able to put too fine a point on it, I wonder if the cyberspace/meatspace duality couldn’t be described as another iteration of the Cartesian flesh/spirit, mind/matter split.

BRY: Your first observations tie in closely with the book’s second epigraph. This desire to not only see the world but to impose one’s will onto it, often through extreme violence, without recourse, is something I see as inherent to Western culture. Importantly, violence is not just a tool, but an end unto itself. So while /1404er/ and his peers may seem like outliers to the rest of Western society, they’re actually quite in line with it, in this respect. The colonies certainly served practical purposes (enriching the colonizers and such), but they also allowed “sober and orderly” individuals to behave monstrously without tarnishing their reputations in polite society. For all intents and purposes, the colonies allowed them the anonymity necessary to pursue these desires. Ultimately my point is that /1404er/’s behaviors and attitudes don’t originate in a vacuum — they’re in fact rooted in the broader society and its traditions. So rather than using colonies as a means to entertain violent desires, /1404er/ and the like use the boards.

When I write fiction I tend to be more interested in sowing questions and uncertainty rather than providing answers. That said, I’ve thought a lot about cyberspace in relation to omniscience — or the bargain-bin knockoff of omniscience cyberspace can provide — or in relation to Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault’s writing on the matter. A desire to be God suggests more than omniscience, though — it implies authority. The concept of the panopticon — specifically the central tower — is also inextricably tied to authority, in addition to omniscience. Within the context of the panopticon, obviously anyone would rather be the person in the tower than the prisoner down below. /1404er/ and his peers are more or less seeking to become the person in the tower.

PANOPTICON plan

[Eight hours later, BRY responds again]

This is something you might find funny. Researching the book made me extremely paranoid. Because when you visit any site, even if you’ve taken precautions, you can’t necessarily know for sure that someone isn’t pulling information from you. And because I was visiting so many sites centered around ruining people, I got it in my head that someone might pull my info from visitor IP logs or something and try to do something wretched to me. A couple nights when I had insomnia, I became convinced that someone was hacking me, and spent the entire night combing through the system log until I realized I was just being crazy.

Anyway, about an hour ago I got a flash of it again, and for just a hot minute considered the possibility that you were a super-elaborate troll doing some social engineering on me. Which is ridiculous. But the fucked up part is that there are totally people who would set up a super-legit looking Twitter account, a super-legit looking website, create a whole bunch of content and gain a whole bunch of followers just to fuck with people. Writing that book definitely wrecked my ability to feel okay on the internet.

 

BR Yeager

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
B.R. Yeager
is currently working on his second novel from his home in spooky Western Massachusetts. @br_yeager 

 

Jacob Siefring

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER 
Jacob Siefring is an American-Canadian translator. His translations include various works by Pierre Senges, including The Major Refutation, a Renaissance treatise refuting the existence of the Americas. He blogs at bibliomanic.com and tweets @jsief.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 14th, 2018.