The Limits of Grotesque: A Conversation With Eric Raymond

Eric Raymond’s hilarious and trenchant first novel, Confessions from a Dark Wood, is now available from Ken Baumann’s Sator Press. Over the course of a month, I spoke with Eric via email about his new novel, the nature of satire and grotesquerie, ghosts, 9/11, and the branding of America.

PANK: In CONFESSIONS FROM A DARK WOOD, you play both the part of narrator and archivist. It’s a fairly traumatizing mix of outrageous satire with what appear to me to be aspects of your own biography. Can you tell me about the genesis of this book? Any global capital brand management experience lurking in your past? How did you pick up and begin this?

Eric Raymond: There’s always tension between fiction and biography. It’s interesting how many writers fight it. It’s true that my father died in 2007, and I did spend a couple of intense years flying around for business. I started the book in November of 2009 and it seemed disingenuous to try and deny what I wanted to write about by some artful dodge of encasing it in an extended metaphor or transposing it to a different industry. I’ve always worked in and around corporate environments – mostly marketing, advertising, and branding, unfortunately. It’s a naturally absurd world, but fundamentally uninteresting. To push the book towards what I was feeling, biography was sort of insufficient. I needed a corporate grotesque. When I followed that impulse, the writing moved quickly.

I love that, “corporate grotesque.” What went through your mind in creating this grotesque? I mean, some pretty ridiculous and bizarre events take place in these pages – savage, domesticated orangutans in corporate offices, intern rape, grandiose dog-fighting ambitions. How did you determine which parts to drag out to extremes, and which to pull back? When operating with this level of satire, is there such a thing as going too far? Are you concerned with drawing realistic borders?

I don’t think you can write about a world that is more or less insane or amoral or fallen by coloring within the lines. Many readers (or perhaps reviewers) seem to want writers to commit early on in novels as to what the rules are for the fictional universe. You have this pressure to play within ranges of plausibility. It’s safer for the reader. They can kind of sit back from tourist distance and referee the experience of the characters.

The grotesque has greater impact when it shows up in a world we otherwise recognize and accept. It destabilizes the tidy rules. It points at our compromises and the equally obscene ideas or behaviors we’ve all agreed to accept and says, “Really? How far off is this extreme from what you’ve already swallowed?”

The Master & Margarita was on my mind a lot. Also Dante’s Inferno, obviously. American Psycho is really brilliant at this destabilization. While I don’t have any delusions about where my book sits in relation to these, I think all have relatively little concern for defining the borders on the field, and that’s part of what makes them great.

I agree, and I think it’s a testament to your skill as a writer that your introduction of this grotesquerie felt so natural. This world we live in is so naturally sprawling and fucked in every direction that I take it as complete fact that an industrial machine-porn internet company exists somewhere, and then later on, when it’s discovered that an orangutan inhabits the snazziest office of LaBar – the corporate entity at the book’s center – I took it completely in stride. And further on, when this orangutan becomes part of a particularly gruesome and sadistic display, it says something that the narrator of CONFESSIONS, Nick Bray, hardly even registers it.

I’m fascinated by Nick Bray’s character in your book, because in a way he is very viscerally a part of his world – deeply romantic, a great appreciator of poetry, haunted by ghosts, etc. – while at the same time he seems strangely unperturbed by the insanity of the corporate world he enters, and willing to take it as it comes. Can you talk at all about this?

That’s the question about Nick. How could he be a part of this and simultaneously excuse himself? Or not act? I asked myself the same thing in writing Nick’s story, and it’s the question that haunted Nick and drove the book. That question also clarified the form for the book. Nick witnessed abuses and not only stood by for much of it, but even contributed.

You know, I was watching the PBS documentary on Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers recently, and early on Ellsberg discusses his own role in planning the bombing of Vietnam. Even early on, he recognizes his own hypocrisy, how he’s selecting information for McNamara that he knows will provoke an action he believes is wrong. He’s not alone in this behavior.

So here’s Nick, living in the shadow of a second war justified on disinformation, himself managing information, mismanaging language, self-serving. Does appreciating poetry justify complicity? Does grief? Even if your life is a picaresque in Hell, with passivity comes shame. As a confession, the book had to show what he did and didn’t do.

I feel that, especially given his behavior with Sadie (Nick’s romantic interest, who is dedicated to becoming the country’s first domestic suicide bomber), where, ultimately, he has no mind to try and stop her. (The line, “Love. Two people holding guns to each other’s heads,” is just great.) Speaking of which, can you talk about what you sought to create with Sadie’s character? (She reads to me like a sort of destructive pixie or distorted suicide girl; the perversion of this male fantasy of the tattooed beauty who will always, always remain/die young.)

My friend, the writer Matt Debenham (The Book of Right and Wrong), read an early draft of the book and pointed out a great article in The Onion’s A.V. Club on this idea of “the manic pixie dream girl,” a term coined by Nathan Rabin to describe a kind of stereotype that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” He thought Sadie managed to avoid that trap, and I hope so.

Sadie’s not really helping Nick feel better about his compromises. She has a mission, not adventures for Nick. When I thought of her, I imagined her as somewhere between 17 – 19, which means she was 10 – 12 on 9/11.

There’s the tragedy of the events of September 11, 2001, and there’s the trademark, “9/11.” 9/11 is how the event was branded. 9/11 is the definitive American lifestyle brand for marketing (even rebranding) imperialism, at least as far as Sadie understands the world in terms of capitalist/consumer choice. But brands live and die in operations, and the brand promise fell short. It cost Sadie and her family.

I don’t know if I was completely successful with Sadie, but in the “attention economy” Sadie understands terrorism is one way to purchase attention when you can’t afford the traditional media spend.

I think she absolutely avoids the manic pixie dream girl trap – my interpretation of her was more as a subversion of it, in which the attention of Nick’s sensitive parts is transgressed and destroyed: the woman he seeks to turn to for solace is hell-bent on bringing everything down. I think it’s a wonderful mix of dashed expectations and associations.

This talk of the “attention economy” and branding is intriguing – how do you feel American identity is branded now? Have our capitalist and consumer choices changed at all, or is policy still trademarked by 9/11? And how would you further explain the expenditures of the “attention economy”?

I don’t know what the American brand amounts to now. Maybe it’s in transition. Maybe we’ll find out now that the multi-billion dollar reality show of the election is behind us. Maybe the twin towers logo has been exchanged for the unmanned drone logo.

In terms of the attention economy, there seems to be a real rift between what we’re told is going on and what’s actually going on. “Publishing is dying, people aren’t reading!” This is obviously untrue. The book thrives. The music industry is standing in the tar pit, but more artists than ever are recording and touring on the edges. Bob Lefsetz writes about this brilliantly.

I think the story is we’re not spending our attention in the ways which have been traditionally easy to monetize, and so the mass media’s late inning pitches are increasingly wild. But people are writing and going to readings and people all over are publishing work they admire.

And so what do you have your eye on these days, culturally speaking? (Books, trends, movies, etc.) What’s gotten your interest lately?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about location-based serial stories. The Silent History app is obviously the most aggressive, polished attempt at mobile serial fiction. Really, the field reports are some of the most interesting aspects. One of the field reports is near my house, in a lot where kids skate, and when I read the field report in the space it described, there was something unquantifiable and substantive added to the writing.

I’d love to see The Silent History team work toward a platform for writers publishing their own serial, GPS-aware fiction. I think reading is the wrong format, though, at least by itself. In the environment, it’s much better to listen to the story, to be in and watch the space, rather than be in the space staring at your screen. It also sidesteps a lot of the noise around competing e-reader devices.

Series television has never been stronger, Amazon is actively exploring serials, and people don’t necessarily want to replace narrative with Angry Birds. I don’t see all mobile devices as a threat to the book, really. Definitely not to writers. Writers are platform-agnostic, we can port to anything. But we’re still figuring out how the unique formal aspects of our devices can have a meaningful impact on stories we write (both fiction and non-fiction, and poetry, too).

It’s interesting that you talk about location in writing, as CONFESSIONS is so vividly alive in terms of location. You really devote a lot of attention to the places where Nick lives and travels. There’s definitely something to be said for the space of the story, the physical place that it inhabits or describes. I would imagine it summons up ghosts, or at least images of what could have been or once was. Speaking of which, do you believe in ghosts? And are you planning to take these location-based serials anywhere yourself? What are you at work on?

I wish I could say I believed in ghosts the way Nick encounters his father in the book. I’m rooting for ghosts. Ghosts, if you’re out there, get to haunting me.

I’m glad the locations in the book stood out for you. Place matters. Memory haunts places because memories are formed in places, not in abstract environments. Place is the first thing someone mentions when they recount an important or influential memory. “Where are you?” is almost always the first question someone answers on their cell phone. So many new writers struggle to pin down their story in a place. A lot of those first, broken stabs at fiction die because they waffle so badly on place.

Right now I have a notebook where I’m trying some in situ writing around San Francisco. I think it would be worth writing a serial story worthy of traveling to San Francisco to experience, i.e. the only way to read it is to be in the spaces where it was written. Put the reader in the places to be haunted by the writer. It’s not my main project, but I’m turning it over in my head a lot.

Talking about this project, a part of me is reminded of an audio tour like you’d have at a museum – like this curated, aural experience of the city. It’s fascinating. So, as we start to wrap up, I have to ask: what is your main project at this moment, writing or otherwise? Where do you see yourself going after CONFESSIONS FROM A DARK WOOD? What else needs purging from the system?

I have lots of ideas I’m sifting through right now, which is a good thing and a curse. It can be a mixed blessing when you’re thinking about a new novel, because the only thing to do with an idea that isn’t immediately discountable as a concept or joke is to follow it for a while and see if it merits a novel. I have a handful of 40 – 80 page dead-ends right now. I also wrote a novella which may or may not see the light of day, depending on the outcome of some submissions.

But I think the next big piece will concern debt. Mostly consumer debt, health debt, private debt. It feels like we’re on the precipice of a sea of change where it comes to our perspective on debt and our obligation to it, and how it’s being manipulated both literally and metaphorically. I have a pretty good start on what would probably be a longer book. We’ll see if it lives or dies soon enough.

And, we stop right at the brink. I hope it lives! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me and PANK.


Simon Jacobs curates the Safety Pin Review – a wearable medium for work of less than 30 words – and serves as a PANK interviews editor. He may be found at