Momus and his Writerly Self
Momus interviewed by Adam Novy.
The brilliant Scottish polymath Momus (aka Nick Currie) has fronted rock bands, done performance art at the Whitney Biennial, and written four novels, the newest of which, UnAmerica, is dignified, nasty and screamingly funny. We spoke about his work, Brian Eno, the parts of Sweden that look like Ohio, relational aesthetics, his preference for Joseph Bueys over Andy Warhol, how Walt Whitman is derivative, and why Rastafarian hats are better than trucker’s hats.
3:AM Your book takes place in a world where the South won the Civil War, and where God has conversations with human beings. This world is almost exactly like our own, except when it isn’t. How did you cook up a dystopia that resembles our world in certain ways, but is still opaque enough to not be didactic?
Momus: I suppose I start from the basic proposition that art is “the lie that tells the truth” (an idea usually attributed to Picasso, but sometimes to other people too). I also start with my own saying (cribbed from Eno, who cribbed it from Cage or someone else) that “every lie creates the parallel world in which it is true”. But the paradox is that lying is only productive if we have a basic honesty in us. By “us” I mean both writer and reader, and by “honesty” I mean a concern with what actually happened.
I call it “triangulation”: It’s fun for me to propose a false statement at the outset (“The South won the American Civil War.”). That’s the license fiction gives me. But what makes it interesting is my knowledge that this didn’t happen, and the effort that anyone reading the statement makes to contrast what I’m proposing with what actually did happen (the Yankees won, of course). Actually, in that specific example the joke is that there isn’t much difference between the lie-world and the actual world. Wages are rather lower in my CSA than in the real USA, because employers can always get free labour if they want it. But the basic exploitation of workers, whether white or black, is a given in both cases. The satire gets generated by a certain basic plausibility and similarity between lie and truth. There’s no reason to ram it home.
In a way UnAmerica is the third in my series of speculative books about nations. In my Scotlands book I have the nation ruled by a fascist David Bowie, for instance, and in the Japans book global warming forces the Japanese to relocate to Sakhalin, which they buy from Russia. There’s nothing as extreme as that in UnAmerica, perhaps because I think of the real, actual America as sufficiently dystopian in itself not to need much alteration. It lends itself readily to self-satire. I see this every day on my Facebook feed: people link to real US news stories and say: “This is not an Onion story, though it sounds like one.”
3:AM: On page 43, you write of the narrator’s job that “…there’s no pay, but life attains a slow, rich dignity in the back office.” I was going to suggest that this is the narrator’s motto, his way of being decent in a crazy world, but later on, he has sex with his sister, so there goes the decency argument. And yet, not. Is it fair to say the book explores how one might cope reasonably with life in a crazy world?
M: I think it’s much more specifically geographic and geopolitical than that: the book explores whether and how it’s possible to be un-American, even in America. The bit about life attaining a slow, rich dignity in the back office is about Buddhism, really; the narrator has stepped into the shoes of the murdered Buddhist employee Randy Lee. Later, when he has sex with his sister, he basically becomes a Freudian case study from fin-de-siecle Vienna. I suppose I’m pitting peacefulness and a certain kind of femaleness (Gertli is very, very fertile, spawning on average one new child per line) against Americanness, which I consider to be very masculine and aggressive. As you can probably tell, I’m not so interested in decency per se. Decency and indecency are both much more interesting in their un-American forms. Later in the book there’s a lot of ancient Greek stuff, and early Christian didactic stuff, and things like the character sketches of Theophrastus. This is very much based on how I feel and see in real life: I tend to admire anything that’s not American. That’s why I live in Japan; I feel I have to take refuge from a toxic monoculture, as far away as possible. To get the same sense of distance in Western culture, I have to go all the way back to Euripides and Theophrastus, and zany Christian saints. Are there any American saints, by the way? I must look that up.
3:AM: Ha. Now I realize how American I sound. The Imperialist American Culture-Amoeba consumes all critique of itself and recasts it as “American.” This is probably how, when I was growing up in suburban Chicago, I would sit in my SUV and crank “I’m So Bored With The USA” and think I was being “American.”
In the book, God writes in a letter that “…America has become a machine for creating unpleasant people.” What’s it like, as an artist in different media–music and fiction–to resist the Imperialist Amoeba?
M: Some people were discussing me on a bulletin board this week. It was a place I used to go to argue that (for instance) woolly rastafarian hats were better headgear to re-appropriate than trucker caps. My opinions and my manner made me enemies there, but one of these people remembered me semi-fondly, saying: “His endearingly naive anti-Americanism, insistence on Anglo / Non-Anglo as binary to understand all of culture is quite endearing, reminds me of the Cockroach Shakespeare dude.” Cockroach Shakespeare is a rabidly anti-British Tumblr page which I believe has been closed down. Obviously I’ve eaten at McDonalds and watched “The Waltons” with the best of them. To this day I love “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. I’ve lived in New York. But at the same time I can’t deny that an important part of my outlook on life has always been based on a rejection of American values. I’m a Scot, a European. My mother held up France as the model society when I was growing up. We lived in Greece and Canada. Privately, I dreamed about Japan. I became a David Bowie fan, and the important moment in his career seemed to come when he left Los Angeles and went to live in Berlin. In the mid-70s Kraftwerk’s music seemed decades ahead of anything coming out of America. When I started making music in 1981 my local inspirations were the band Josef K, who seemed to be transforming Edinburgh into a combination of Brussels and Prague. My seniors the Boomers seemed to draw endless inspiration from the US, but Europe and Asia were what set me dreaming. You could say it had an economic angle: my twenties was the decade in which Japan almost took America’s crown. But it was also a kind of personal etiquette, a sense of honour and morality that I developed to protect myself. America-worship was for bozos or fascists or people with no taste. American TV was an endless car chase, a flashing blue light. America represented the worst excesses of capitalism, and my thinking was communistic. Between Warhol and Beuys, I chose Beuys. Between Coppola and Fassbinder, it was obviously Fassbinder. Sure, America made characters like John Cage and Harry Partch, who became idols of mine. But they both seemed to be looking to Asia for inspiration.
I’m in a small town in Sweden right now, and today I went to an outlet store in an industrial park and saw basic garments covered in American flags and placenames. My first thought was: “Could I cut these flags off?” But why actually sew an American flag onto a pair of mass-market tracksuit pants made in China and sold in Sweden? Why can’t I buy some pants without also buying the idea of America? And who is selling me America, if the pants are actually made in Tajikistan and Bangladesh? Then I saw cheap paperback translations of American mass-market novels at the local supermarket, and even big American cars on the roads (there seems to have been some exotic car event going on). My experience of Sweden, today at least, is that it’s an ersatz Ohio, an outpost of the American empire, and happy to be so. I feel the need to fire up a YouTube video of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” to get a sense of what Sweden might have been like fifty years ago, before this widespread Americanisation. At the same time, Sweden has something like IKEA, which represents a non-American global-imperialist success story. That’s why I write about Kamprad and IKEA in the novel: it’s not that I approve unreservedly, but what IKEA has achieved is to make a global monoculture (at least in “the culture of the house”; the way we organize our living spaces) out of values which are recognizably Swedish, not American. As the American empire declines there are going to be more and more IKEAs, global success stories that owe nothing to America and its idea of life.
3:AM: On p. 57, you mention a book called The Singularities of Antarctic France, otherwise known as America, and of several lands and islands discovered in our time by Brother Andre Thevet, native of Angouleme. In the essay “On Cannibals”, or “Of Cannibals”–I really should know what to call it–Montaigne calls what we now know as Brazil “Antarctic France,” since that was his name for it. To what extent does your book deliberately mimic the way that time and culture bend ideas of the real, and of truth?
M: While I was writing UnAmerica I found and bought a paperback of Les Singularities (a facsimile of the original 16th century edition) in my local secondhand bookshop in Osaka. It’s an odd place, a building in Namba laid out with porn stalls, trainspotting guides, old magazines, and one corner dedicated to foreign books with a skewed selection suggesting the stock comes mostly from one donor: there’s a lot of St Exupery and Lewis Carroll. As soon as I saw it I knew that the Singularities had to be part of my narrative: here was this fairly unreliable work of anthropology, all about the “savages” of Brazil, with an alternative account of the discovery of the New World, and an alternative name for America (“Antarctic France”). And in the introduction there’s this incredible account of how the French made a synthetic Brazil, a theme park staffed with actors and imported beasts and birds, in Rouen in 1550. You catch sight of one version of America being deliriously modeled by European needs, visions and hopes. Catherine de Medici rode through this synthetic Brazil on horseback several times, fascinated. It brought home to me how nations and even entire continents can be authored like fictions, or modeled like theme parks, and how the real places they’re based on can have these parallel paths, based on projected fantasies.
So I suppose one of the things my book is trying to do is get things back to the stage of openness, delirium and writability which seemed to exist for America — at least in the eyes of Europeans — in the 16th century. The whole idea of “singularities” conjures up a freakshow, a lurid account of almost uncanny exoticism, designed to make people dream of something absolutely different from their own everyday reality. To “dream of the other”, creating a sort of geographical subconscious which answers to European curiosities, lusts and dreams of wealth. There were attempts in the 20th century to revive this sort of thing: Michel Leiris’ L’Afrique Phantome, for instance, which — inspired by Surrealism and psychoanalysis — brings the subjective and the unconscious back into ethnography, after 19th century attempts at objectivity. We can never look at the other without taking into account our desires and fears and our tendency to project: all ethnography is necessarily autobiographical. And I suppose that bookshop in Namba is like a layout of a human brain: cranky hobbyism here, sex there, travel somewhere else. It’s also the Japanese caught in the act of looking at the West very much as the French were looking at Brasil, projecting, filtering and editing, picking and choosing what they want us to be (Alice in Wonderland and The Little Prince, apparently).
3:AM: I think that most Americans probably think our “writability,” our protean, Whitmanesque mutability, is still somewhat intact, if slightly tattered. But you suggest that, not only is it dead, but, all along, it was a projection of our European forebears, and after we seceded (so to speak) it merely staggered on like a golem. What, among the energies you examine in this novel, can be said to be uniquely American, and what is just old Europe done worse?
M: It’s interesting that you should mention Whitman, since my good friend Allen Crawford (“Lord Whimsy”) released his illuminated edition of Whitman’s Song of Myself on the same day as UnAmerica. We used to conduct genteel disagreements on LiveJournal, and the books continue to offer different perspectives on the same issues. Whitman was certainly a “protean” character, and the heroes of American culture to this day (Kanye West, for instance) have something of that Nietzschean glamour about them. But it’s a mistake to measure a culture by its celebrities, and all the studies of social mobility, for instance, suggest that Europe is now a much more socially mobile place than the US. The continents have changed places, in a sense, with a plutocratic and dynastic America entering its own “ancien regime” period, and the Eurozone embracing immigrants and offering them the chance to rise quickly by dint of gumption. In political terms, America is like a car with two virtually identical gears. I don’t think anyone expects US society to be very “writable” via the ballot box. And things like Google’s rapid swing towards “evil” and monopoly suggest that business doesn’t really change things much either. But for me the problems in American culture stem from much more basic things, things I’ve learned about by comparing it with Japan. The idea of the “maverick” individualist, for instance, and the paradox that all mavericks seem to think and act the same way. The idea that society and government are things to mistrust and rebel against. The way the poor identify with the rich because they believe (with increasing wrongness) that they will be rich one day. The whole notion that there is a place outside of society and outside of social role, whether that be God or some sort of survivalist vision of life in the woods. The half-heartedness of civic and public space, and the daily urban danger that comes from increasing inequality. I tried to portray and exaggerate a lot of this in UnAmerica; the awful employment conditions Brad confronts are partly based on a terrible “job” my ex-wife had at Planet Hollywood once. (There’s almost a formula for “soft power” imperialism right there: terrible contracts -> Hollywood -> entire planet.)
It’s true that a lot of America is just “Europe done worse”. Cowboys come from Spain, denim from France, hamburgers and skyscrapers from Germany. The best New York skyscrapers are still by people like Mies Van Der Rohe and Cesar Pelli. So what is “uniquely American”? I’d say, from having lived there, that there’s a certain “fellowship of the greenback” feel to life in the US which lends a superficial harmony, smoothness and convenience to everyday interactions there. The ease with which people say (without caring to know the answer): “Hey, how ya doin’?” The fellowship of the greenback is based on universal green lubrication in the form of tipping and the idea: “Give me convenience or give me death!” So I think of the US as a sloppy place where people wear really ugly sports shoes with white socks and walk around with these greenbacks in their pocket, farting in a relaxed sort of way, greeting portly policemen, tipping the underpaid and getting packages delivered by FedEx. Even the art world works like that, with more bubblewrap. It’s a way of being that’s easy to relax into, and I see European friends who’ve gone to live there fattening slowly as they implicitly accept the greenback-convenience mantra, a sort of unwritten constitution, and also battling the fattening on treadmills at the gym, dressed in unflattering lycra, with badly-designed water bottles in their hands. I’m sorry, but that’s America for me.
There are other ways to live, and they involve elegance and rigour and austerity and honour and fatalism and poetry and sex and the willing embrace of strangeness, and those Americans who seek those things have usually had to leave the US. I’m thinking of Henry Miller or William Burroughs or even Ezra Pound, who of course embraced some pretty wrongheaded people in the process. Or I’m thinking of the sort of young Americans you meet in Berlin, which has become a sort of finishing school for Americans of a slightly more experimental type. Ironically, Berlin has become the sort of place New York once was: a city from which young people return charged up with good ideas and optimistic energy, a city which makes you believe that anything is possible.
3:AM: I could talk about this political stuff all night, but I should maybe ask about some other aspects of the book. UnAmerica has this lovely, lapidary structure, and the pace is a delight. Did you have a road map in mind when you wrote it? Were there any other novels you kept in mind for inspiration?
M: I’m so glad you felt like that. I like the word “lapidary” very much; I suppose it implies a jewel which is “multi-faceted”. The truth is that I’m very aware of my limitations as well as my strengths as a writer. I have apparently kissed the Blarney Stone at some point, because I seem to have an ability to just sit down and make up an entertaining story. When I was a student I was surrounded by tracts about “the literature of exhaustion” and books about writers’ block and writerly suicide and so on, but when I came to write my own books it was nothing like that: the stuff just flows out. But there are certain limitations. I can make people laugh, but I can’t seem to make them cry. I can jump around and make a lot of shaggy dog-style short narratives that look at something from a lot of different angles, but I can’t make a long and continuous and steady narrative that builds to a climax and a denouement.
I’ve come to writing via songwriting and improvised performance art — storytelling in museums and galleries as “the unreliable tour guide” — and I think my books reflect that: songs are “lapidary” in that (similar to jokes) they describe big situations incredibly concisely. And my performances are sort of show-offy and high-wire in the sense that I take the risk of starting a story without knowing where it will end, and making a kind of circus spectacle out of the resultant danger. The art performances are about “the moment that zero turns into one”, nothing turns into something. In other words, they’re about creativity itself, and the brain’s capacity to spin a dream or a tale. Each chapter in the book represents — all-too-clearly — a single session during which I’ve written the day’s quota of 1000 words, and made a quite self-contained tale which will probably be abandoned by the next session, for the simple reason that I’m bored and want to try something else.
Actually I listen to my boredom quite intently and respectfully, because if I’m bored it’s likely that the reader is too. I have a sense that it’s important for me to have a good high-concept idea for a book (“a family condemned to live inside jokes”; “idiots who claim to have visited the future of Japan by climbing inside cows”; “God telling a man to uninvent America”) if only to writhe away from it later, diverge and divert endlessly, then return to investigate it in spurts after making detours through tangentially-related topics that just happen to be interesting me that day (a relic from my blogging days, I suppose).
The obvious model for this is Sterne in Tristram Shandy. I’ve also been very influenced by Kafka, and the fact that you can shuffle the chapters of The Trial pretty much as you wish and it’s still the same novel. I also like poets’ novels like Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, narratives structured by the mysterious symbolic order of the poet, a hard-won and perhaps rather private view of the world. Kafka’s Amerika is an important book for me; the idea of writing about a nation without having visited it. And I love episodic forms like Sherlock Holmes stories or episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (Mary will get a boyfriend in one episode and he’ll be forgotten by the next). When it gets to the voyage part of UnAmerica, The eleventh century Voyage of Saint Brendan is obviously structuring things, but also books influenced by it, like C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But actually every chapter in the book is using a different loan-structure. For instance, the father-son relationship between Brad and Abraham is based on Cameroonian novelist Francis Bebey’s novel Agatha Moudio’s Son (and his song, Agatha, based on it). Brad is too young to have an adult son, but that doesn’t matter: bringing Bebey in is a way to bring in yet another unAmerican element, and make Summerville, South Carolina even more exotic. And actually there is a certain realism to this, because I’m sure there are Cameroonian tales unfolding in towns like Summerville, and most novels would miss them in the name of internal consistency. Which reminds me of another narrative influence: Buñuel in his film The Phantom of Liberty. The idea that you might follow first one character, then another, almost at random, seems so liberating to me. It’s “surreal”, but it’s also a certain kind of realism, because life does contain that sort of randomness, those unexpected tangents and odd juxtapositions.
3:AM: Phony museum tours! How did those work?
M: When I moved to New York in 2000 the art world began taking an interest in me, and I started a series of performance art shows at Zach Feuer’s gallery in Chelsea that continued until 2009. The idea was that I was improvising stories in the gallery, with three rules: there’s nothing prepared, nothing archived, and nothing for sale. Sometimes I’d have collaborators, like the Japanese artists Mai Ueda and Aki Sasamoto. The art shows received good reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere, and in 2006 I was picked up to do a three-month performance at the Whitney Biennial. Together with co-curator Philippe Verge I came up with the idea of an “unreliable tour guide”, a sort of guerilla docent loosed daily on the galleries, jumping out from behind visitors to issue far-fetched, stupid and absurd explanations of the work in the biennial. Over the three months I was doing it I worked up a series of miniature site-specific sitcoms: there was one sealed door on the fourth floor where I’d pretend to be serenading an indifferent member of the Bernadette Corporation, for instance. In the elevator I told people I’d got the docent job because I was the nephew of a wealthy donor. I’d mock Altria, the sponsors of the show, by critiquing their logo, or announce dramatically that a famous curator had been kidnapped and would only be released if the public could memorise every board of didactic text in the museum. As the months wore on the patter grew more slick, until I was basically doing a stand-up comedy act in the museum. Later, I took the Unreliable Tour Guide to European museums. I’m actually doing a version of him right now at a sculpture biennial in Sweden, but this time he’s become a “False Kiosk”, an information bureau issuing dubious brochures filled with lies. It’s a way of writing in real time, injecting narrative directly into public spaces rather than onto the page. It’s also a way to make the art public a bit less reverent and sheep-like: they tend to stand dazzled in front of screeds of curatorial text filled with awful lumpen phrases about “relationality”, “spatiality” and “performativity”. But where once (in the days of Andrea Fraser) this kind of action would have been vaguely subversive and fallen into the category of “Institutional Critique”, now it’s done with the imprimatur of the museums themselves, handsomely paid, and referred to as “Relational Aesthetics”. The current master of it is Tino Sehgal, whose work I actually like very much. And the “Performative Publishing” I’m doing now draws on work by the design collective Dexter Sinister, who were themselves influenced by my Whitney performance, setting up an information bureau at the following Whitney Biennial based on the Trystero, the mysterious post office system described in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
3:AM: In a previous novel, The Book of Jokes, you write that someone wears “…a fibule-fastened chiton surmounted by a himation, itself topped off by a jaunty chlamys…” There must be fifty sentences in unAmerica that sound as good as this. Can you talk about your approach to writing sentences, and to syntax?
M: I seem to favour an ornate, baroque literary style, influenced by Nabokov or Genet. I particularly like Genet’s paradox: a fussy literary style describing crude or taboo events. I suppose there’s something of the dandy prose of Baron Corvo and Ronald Firbank in it too. It’s mannered, aristocratic, eccentric, “queer”, conspiratorial and flattering to both the writer and the reader, allowing us both to feel cleverer than we are. I am that sort of writer because I am not that sort of writer, if you see what I mean. I don’t have a huge technical vocabulary. I can walk through nature without any idea about the names of trees or animals around me. In life this doesn’t bother me much — in fact I’m rather pleased to let things slip their names, because I think we have a tendency to confuse reality with words. But when I’m writing I like to parody the exactitude of highly technical and specialist lexical sets. In The Book of Jokes there was a recurring joke about ancient Greek costume; characters would be wearing this bizarre stuff for no reason at all. I remember being very amused at university once when a lecturer showed a slide of an ancient Greek actor and said: “You can see his buskins”. It probably also comes from having a linguist father who ran courses on English for Special Purposes (Nautical English, Business English, English for Geologists).
The botanical descriptions that start most chapters in UnAmerica are drawn from the books of South Carolina botanist Stephen Elliott. His Sketch of the Botany of South Carolina and Georgia (1821) contains some of the most extraterrestrial description of leaves and flowers, written with absolutely no compromise with everyday language. It’s as if the flowers demand we meet them at their level of difference and strangeness. It’s the opposite of anthropomorphism, and it makes for some wonderful verbal sculpture. I also use it as part of an ongoing metafictional critique which is also a self-critique. I’ve often been frustrated, as a novel reader, by trying to remember complex family relationships between characters, or keep a hold on plot developments, or understand descriptions. So I exaggerate these difficulties by, for instance, forcing the reader to wrap his head around how you could be your uncle’s uncle, or know what adjectives like grumous, umbellate or palmate mean. I think that because you can write slowly, researching as you go, you can pose as more clever than you really are, if only to mock yourself and your vanity. You play out your fantasy writerly self who has all this stuff at his fingertips. It’s as if you’re saying: “I’m just playing at it, but this is what a real writer would do”.
3:AM: What are you working on these days?
M: Right now I’m doing my False Kiosk performance in Sweden, which involves writing bizarre newsletters at a sculpture biennial. The next project is a digital book for Fiktion, the experimental online imprint started by Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The book is provisionally titled Herr F (everything living forever is screaming forever) and is my take on the Faust legend, and on German literature in general. It’ll appear in parallel German and English editions in 2015. I expect there’ll be a new Momus record then as well.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 2nd, 2014.