On Seediness, Undead Literature, and Reengaging with the American Mythic in the 2020s
In the fall of 2020, as we lurch ever deeper into the Covid era and toward an election that seems poised to trigger, at the very least, a national nervous breakdown, people on all sides of the political spectrum agree that something is coming. Though we surely don’t agree on what it is, or should be, it seems fair to say that very few Americans, at this moment in time, would dispute that some cataclysm is nearly at hand. Whether it’s the frightening calls for a “Storm” or a “Great Awakening” from the QAnon conspiracy world, or the more sober calls to awaken to the extent of climate catastrophe, economic inequality, racial injustice, and technological manipulation growing unchecked around us, we feel as though we’re under a spell that we’re struggling to break free from, hoping to awaken into a newly clarified future.
At the same time, bizarrely, it feels as though nothing is happening, and might never happen again. The clarity we both long for and fear feels out of reach, so much so that we can hardly even conceive of the question, let alone realistically expect an answer. We’ve become hyper-sensitized — in a state of exhaustingly high alert — but also deadened, numbed, partly asleep. Scrolling Twitter and bingeing political podcasts, we’re bombarded by a constant churn of dire news, while also sedated by the consistency of the feed, exhausted by our addictive quest for information that we know will never provide the resolution we seek. The world has become both insanely over-described and ever less known, putting us in a state where we’ve seen and read so much about what’s going on that we are almost totally incapable of engaging with it in real time and space. It’s as if we’ve been dosed with a hallucinogen and, in our desperation to find an antidote, have resorted to taking more of what dosed us.
The feed, which is endless by design, preys on and perverts our innate hunger for meaningful narrative, for a story that evolves toward a valid ending — will November 3 deliver us from this state, proving once and for all whether America is Good or Evil? The notion seems both farcical and inevitable in equal measure. Itching to escape this middle state while growing ever more used to it, we simultaneously fear and yearn for the apocalypse we’ve been promised. In this way, 2020’s political media landscape is a new form of the eternal American paradox whereby we are made to feel that the apocalypse is nigh (and that it will happen here, not in the Old World), and also that we, alone among peoples, will be spared its consequences, or will even somehow benefit from them — in other words, that our way of life is both unsustainable and unassailable.
Over the course of the lockdown last spring and summer, I explored these notions in a pair of essays (here and here), where I tried to work out a definition for what I called the Unworkable Equilibrium (UE): a kind of permanent crisis wherein we’re both terrified and bored at the same time, poisoned by a psychodrama from which we cannot disengage, even while our engagement is driven by distraction (though we never quite know from what).
By this logic, each bombshell news cycle (Trump assassinates Iran’s top general! Trump pays no taxes! Trump has Covid!) is a seed that fails to sprout, a momentary jolt that appears poised to bring the psychodrama to a definitive climax and yet, instead, merely gives way to the next bombshell, which in turn gives way to the next, in what becomes a mockery of narrative. It can’t be coincidental that TV, with its endless ups and downs designed only to keep the watcher watching, has eclipsed film, which aspires to bring a single story to a satisfying conclusion in a limited timeframe, as the dominant storytelling mode of the 21st century.
Stagnation — Swamps of Futures Past
These seeds that fail to sprout are indicative of a larger seedy condition, a stagnant, swampy state that America has fallen into in the new millennium. This stagnation is the rotting corpse of anticipated progress, of the future that never came and thereby revealed that the past, which seemed to be leading to this future, wasn’t what we thought it was.
Day-to-day, we’re living in the ever-more-cluttered arena of these unexploded bombshells, while, historically, we’re coming to terms with the idea that we reached a culmination point at the end of the Cold War (when I was born), and yet this culmination was itself either a non-event, or the prelude to an event that still hasn’t occurred (perhaps the supposedly imminent “Storm”). While we wait, we feel something gigantic rotting deep within the American imaginary, sending up bubbles without yet revealing its nature. As a friend put it after reading a draft of this essay, “It’s like Moby-Dick, the embodiment of 19th century American ambition at its most ferocious, is now dead and decomposing underwater.”
This period of cultural stasis (thinly papered over swift environmental deterioration) turns toxic as it gives rise to the urge to regress. Indeed, perhaps the desire to “Make America Great Again” is not just a desire to return to a supposedly better past, but also to return to a time from which we could picture a better future, to relive a 1950s (Pence) or 1980s (Trump) fantasy of the coming 21st century.
There has thus been something gothic about the decade between 2010 and 2020, a sense that the old ways don’t work, and yet no one sees a new way, or at least not one with enough momentum to become national policy. Racially, economically, and in terms of our broader self-image, we’re haunted by the ghosts of the 20th century — just as wounds leave scars, traumas leave ghosts — and, at the same time, haunted by a 20th century vision of the 21st, which stands in the way of our ability to conceive of the 21st century in 21st century terms. Therefore, we’re lingering in a suspended state, a swampy, drawn-out present that should have turned into the future a long time ago.
This swampy state also expresses the deeper resonance of Trump’s “drain the swamp” slogan: not just its obviously fraudulent promise to purge DC corruption, but a more primal promise to end the stagnant era we’ve been stuck in, and usher in something genuinely new. This was the “wild card” aspect of Trump 2016, the segment of his base that wasn’t motivated solely by hate or greed, but also by a mad desire to simply roll the dice. The question for 2020 is whether anything truly new has come to light as a result of that dice roll — have the darkness, confusion and mania of the past four years taught us anything we can put into practice, as we continue the work of trying to reach the future?
If America describes itself as a land of opportunity, and is more often a land of grifters, drifters, and murderers (all swampy byproducts of the pursuit of opportunity, and themselves major purveyors of the grandiose and apocalyptic narratives that America tells itself about itself), then there is something both aesthetically and morally seedy about this country, a suspicion that it is no more than a hosting service, an arena designed to reward the most inventive scam artists at the expense of the most gullible (buyer beware). America defines itself in terms of grand beginnings (the New World) and grand ends (the coming apocalypse), while seediness is the lived experience of the deflated middle, the desert between these two poles, just as much of America is itself a desert between two coasts.
What I wonder now is whether seediness can be redeemed as a positive value, a sense of still-untapped potential, and thus a way out of the feed that has trapped us in a narrative dead end. Perhaps it can be a means of using the specifics of this moment as pathways into the mythic — the momentary disturbances of the daily news as points of access to an underlying strangeness worthy of our attention, a means of contacting the rotting corpse itself, not just the bubbles that break the swamp’s surface. As another friend put it when I was discussing this essay with him, “There’s a reason why Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ still resonates decades after it was written. If he’d called it ‘Lockheed Martin,’ no one would remember it today.”
The alternative is to sink ever deeper into toxicity, because the notion of a permanently stagnant narrative is an illusion: time moves on regardless. Seediness is therefore volatile; if the seeds remain untended, they degenerate. There may be a stasis of space (the seeds just lying there), but never of time, so the situation keeps worsening if no positive intervention occurs.
This gives rise to two divergent futures: the future we arrive at through inaction (a middle that stretches on too long, driving us insane), and the future we arrive at deliberately (the meaningful conclusion to a dramatic narrative). One way of considering the tensions in 2020 is to ask which future we’re approaching, given that it must be one or the other.
My thoughts on seediness as a defining American quality began to develop ten years ago, when I was fresh out of college, wandering around New York City with my childhood best friend. These thoughts grew out of what we saw around us, the cheap fanciness of the gentrifying city and the feeling that some major era of history, in which perhaps the Real New York had existed, was over, and that we were in the early days of another — though whether this new era would take on distinct characteristics or define itself simply as the era after all eras remained to be seen.
We were in that transitional phase where we no longer saw ourselves as students, but didn’t yet have any purchase in the outside world, nor any non-ironic sense of what it meant to be citizens of a flawed democracy. We were novices in the religious use of the term, absorbing as much film, music, and literature as we possibly could, outside the structures of the courses we’d taken, and, just as importantly, letting ourselves feel, for the first time, what it meant to be anonymous adults at large in a city. We were, in other words, part of the seediness we saw, or thought we saw, all around us.
The essence of seediness, we decided, was the presence of untapped potential. Seediness could be the relic of something that had died and begun to rot, in the sense of a city or a civilization gone to seed, or it could be seed that had never had the chance to sprout, in the sense of spilled seed, and all the queasy images that such a term brings to mind — deeply American images of motels, truck stops, traveling salesmen, peep booths, the forgotten corners of Vegas and New Orleans, and the dark streets just beside and behind Times Square and Hollywood Boulevard. The queasiness of spilled seed, rather than the wholesomeness of, say, a new pregnancy, calls to mind the fear that this seed has either been intentionally squandered, or that it was unable to take root due to some environmental blight. It calls up the American anxiety of our supposedly super-fertile New World not being what it claimed to be, populated by millions who have remained in a liminal, unsettled state, generation after generation.
In a liminal state of our own, my friend and I wandered the edges of the city with nowhere to be, staying up all night at Veselka, where we’d talk endlessly about books and movies and a burgeoning slate of creative projects that would never get made. We also began to drive, plunging into Appalachia and the Deep South and out into the deserts of the Southwest and up the West Coast, back and forth again and again, beginning to discover the full, tenuous variety of a country that, until then, we’d taken for granted, having grown up in a Massachusetts college town where people were more interested in Italy than Indiana.
We’d graduated college in 2010, just as the financial crisis was starting to stabilize, or to appear to stabilize, and just as the forces that would coalesce into Occupy were gaining steam. Disillusionment with Obama was setting in, smartphones were beginning to colonize our attention, though they hadn’t yet completed the task, and, in general, we felt like unsprouted seeds ourselves: we knew we were educated, intelligent, and ambitious, and yet it was beginning to dawn on us that this might not be enough to guarantee any future in the country we were just beginning to know.
Still, we began to hope that perhaps identifying and codifying this condition could be our entrée into the world of letters — we were naïve enough, in 2011, to believe that there was such a world, and that a single provocative essay might be enough to earn us access. In essence, we hoped that identifying our own seedy condition, however intractable it seemed, might yet be a means of escaping it.
So we started to compile notes, and to read books on loitering in literature and art, on the concept of the flaneur, on Paris in the late nineteenth century and Berlin in the 20s and again in the 80s, on Francis Bacon’s SoHo in the 50s and the importance of boredom, stasis, and stagnation for the creative imagination, on the weird allure of Burroughs’ Interzone and Vito Acconci’s Seedbed. We consumed the novels of Jim Thompson and John Fante, the comics of Ben Katchor, and the cinema of Abel Ferrara and Paul Schrader, as well as anything set in New York in the 70s, which, we decided, was the seediest decade in recent history, a potent lull between the social upheaval of the 60s, and the fanatical greed of the Reagan 80s.
The seedy, we noted, is impersonal, an anonymous layer of human sediment — used sheets, used towels, dirty mattresses, dollar bills. The seedy trace that’s left behind when a drifter leaves a motel is reduced to an essence of past human presence, and thus the seedy both erases the human and offers the possibility of its renewal. Rather than starting a new life, the seedy offers the chance to be reborn in one’s own life, or perhaps to be born in earnest for the first time, well into middle age. The impersonal nature of seedy motels makes them prime sites for reinventions of this sort — the odds of checking in as one person, under one name, and checking out as someone else are far higher than, say, undergoing the same transition in a Manhattan Marriott.
Furthermore, the seedy is distinct from the sketchy and the sleazy in that the sketchy and the sleazy describe a person or place with a definite, unsavory goal — usually sex or money. The sketchy or sleazy operation has already reached its potential, whereas the seedy is both unsettling and alluring because it points to something as yet unknown, a possibility that, like the famous meeting between Harmony Korine and Larry Clark in Tompkins Square Park, might blossom into a genuine site of new culture (before succumbing to gentrification — another form of sleaze — as is the fate of all seedy people and places that overplay their hands). This is another reason why seediness is time-limited, a window of possibility that can’t remain open forever.
The sketchy and the sleazy are therefore also deceitful and underhanded — a sleazy cop, a sleazy politician, a sleazy strip club owner, Tony Robbins — whereas the seedy is more nebulous, more passive, almost mystical, pointing to a possibility that can only be activated by the observer. For this reason, the seedy need not be good or bad, but rather can become either depending on where it leads and whom it speaks to. Trump is sleazy, pursuing his own terminal power trip, whereas many of the post-industrial towns he conquered are seedy, places in decline waiting for something that didn’t have to be him, and perhaps doesn’t have to be him forever.
Lastly, and most importantly, the seedy is distinct from the shitty because the shitty has lost all potential to generate life — the ground in a truly shitty place is poisoned, forever or until some major, unexpected change occurs. Unlike the shitty, the seedy offers something other than repulsion, horror and disgust. There is a value to it that makes it worth discussing here. This is why a drifter holes up in a seedy place, waiting for a phone call, a meeting, or some other means of crossing the threshold into a new chapter of his or her life. It’s why, I think, I haven’t yet considered leaving America, despite knowing that I may soon wish I had. I’m holed up here, invested in whatever happens, along with more than three hundred million others. One does not likewise hole up somewhere shitty — one gets stuck there, usually by birth, and tries one’s best to get away.
The condition of seediness, once my friend and I had come to understand it, frightened and intrigued us in equal measure. It made us feel like prospectors in a Western, though one in which there was no more land or gold for the taking, or like detectives in an unsolvable mystery, where whatever was unknown would remain that way forever. The blinding facades of Best Westerns and Waffle Houses seemed to conceal clues, yet it would never be known what these clues were pointing toward, nor whether the feeling that they were clues at all had to do with them, or only with us.
The Seedy Internet
At the same time, the Internet of the early 2010s was also a locus of seediness. Ten years ago, there was still a sense of lost continents of information waiting to be found, mutating while we cased their peripheries. The visitor to the Internet then was another kind of drifter, floating on a weak tide, mouth open like a whale’s, sucking down whatever strangers had left behind. Before Twitter and Facebook became the centralized holding pens they are today, the drifter on the Internet was in a state of constantly awaiting messages that might never come (these were the years when I first began to submit fiction to magazines), laying low, vegetating in a dim room until some transformation occurred (in my case, the elusive but much longed-for story acceptance).
And, of course, it was through the Internet that the darkest forces of the American subconscious began to bubble back up. By 2016, we came to see — though we should’ve known all along — that the ground of America is seedy not only with unmet potential, but also with the (barely) repressed brutality of its past, as in a Faulkner novel, where heredity is always fraught with rape and incest, so much so that no one can be sure where they come from, and hence who they are. Characters in Faulkner don’t so much put down roots as sink into swamps fed by their own tainted blood, which is one way of expressing the shift in mood between 2011 and 2016.
The Internet both exacerbates and expresses a crisis of meaning, insofar as it serves to simultaneously facilitate and cheapen the conversations we so badly need to have about who are and what we’re doing here. It was therefore inevitable that the Internet would be the vessel through which a political interruption occurred in my life, such that I could no longer maintain a purely literary relationship with reality, as I had in those first years of the seediness project. As I look back on the past decade now, 2016 is the clear dividing line, the point at which a darkness that I’d assumed was inert loomed back up, energized and volatile, unconstrained by art. It was the point at which it came to seem unjustifiably selfish, or simply impossible, to remain immersed in my own writerly ambitions, examining life in America from a neutral point of view, collecting raw material for my own secret purposes.
After the Internet announced the results of the 2016 election, life came to seem both more and less real: the reality of how ugly America’s spirit could be slammed home, and yet, at the same time, a cloud of unknowing — or of conspiratorial surplus knowing — descended over everything, to the point where it became commonplace to assert that no one could say what was real, and therefore that perhaps nothing was actually happening, no matter how much it appeared to be. The question of where to locate the line between reality and the Internet’s representation of reality was never blurrier, which caused us to embrace the representation all the more desperately (another instance of consuming more hallucinogens in an attempt to stop tripping).
Nevertheless, the outside world did make tangible contact with my private aesthetics at that point and, to revisit a phrase from earlier in this essay, forced me awake. Then, in short order, it sent me into a new kind of sleep, immersing me in the haze that these past four years have cast over everyone I know, as we’ve struggled, often incoherently, to act and react to a set of circumstances that have seemed at once newly grotesque and like proof of what we’d suspected was festering here all along. During these four years, I’ve often felt my attention pulled from my head like stuffing from a doll, as I’ve struggled both to confront the ugly reality of American life, as well as the more epistemological question of how, if at all, this reality can be accessed, both in myself and in the world I occupy.
Whether this period of psychic turmoil marks a change for the better by ending our denial and forcing a confrontation with the real American ground is of course the operative question of 2020 — the terrifying question of whether 2016 was the Storm, or merely the calm before the Storm. It shows the danger of leaving seeds too long, without attempting to cultivate them, and is therefore part of the question of what the necessary conditions are for seeds to sprout into a healthy culture, one that succeeds in locating value someplace other than the accrual of wealth, which itself is now predicated on the monetization and monopolization of our online attention, siphoned away from us by the same political shitshow that the Internet helped to inaugurate over the past decade.
Money, as Balzac knew well, is seedy because it embodies potential (the chance to do something great) and yet, when it instead becomes its own goal, it stagnates, blocking the flow for which it was designed. This is why wealth acquisition, in the absence of any deeper purpose, is intrinsically sleazy — it snuffs the seediness of money, choking off whatever potential it contained, while pretending to have brought that potential to fruition. A culture that prizes money as a good unto itself, rather than asking what that money should be spent on, has given up on its own future and, while currently sleazy, is well on its way to becoming shitty.
The American ground has proven highly generative of money, and yet much less generative of real value. This is one way to understand why we have so much wealth here, and yet so little sense of common good. This crisis of value, in turn, indicates why one side of our population has sought succor in Christian fascism and fantasies of racial dominance. In this sense, the incels and other “chan boys” who’ve come to support Trump (and the Boogaloo Bois and other end-times provocateurs who’ve abandoned Trump in favor of raw violence) partake of their own seedy logic — from literal seed-stained basements and bedrooms, they seek access to a mythic sprouting through bloodshed, casting themselves as gun-wielding redeemers rather than, as my friend and I were before 2016, hapless wanderers in a disenchanted West.
These extremists are worth discussing because they are not as aberrant as they appear, or once appeared. A culture that cannot locate value outside of money can’t counter an offer to return to eternal hierarchies and primal social orders, as presented by figures like Jordan Peterson, Adrian Vermeule, and Jason Jorjani, or, more blandly but even more dangerously, by Mike Pence, William Barr, and Amy Coney Barrett. There’s a reason why these figures, who seem to want to live in a kingdom rather than a country, resonate with more people than they should.
In this regard, Trump deserves credit for having had the sinister insight to bind together fantasies of wealth and power with those of a renewed “real America,” guided toward the light by a Savior willing to crush his enemies without remorse. He saw the seeds lying there, in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, and, by suturing together a vaudeville persona of both ruthless gangster capitalism and anti-Wall-Street Christian populism, found a way to cultivate seeds that Hillary Clinton, as an embodiment of the brand of secular wealth accrual that had become standard issue by the 90s, could not.
It is therefore on us, as citizens and storytellers in 2020, to make a viable counter-offer, resurrecting the possibility of a meaningful American narrative against both the fascist logic of Trump’s base, and the corporate logic of his inner circle and his mainstream opponents.
Avenues Out of the Seedy?
So the real question has to be what other avenues out of the seedy and into the mythic are still possible? If we accept a) that theocracy and mass violence are to be avoided at all costs, b) that stagnant money will only make the rotting empire seedier, and c) that life within the seedy atmosphere of a rotting empire tends inevitably toward the shitty — the poisoning of the American ground is a psychic corollary of the environmental catastrophes that are now scorching and flooding it — then our duty is to contemplate how else we might hatch the seeds that America has left us with. What do we, as individuals and as a society, looking ahead from the heaviness of 2020, yearn to grow into?
In the years after college, my friend and I yearned to enter the mythic by growing into artists, to live both apart from and above society, as we imagined artists lived. We thought we could escape the social contract by successfully parsing it, and thereby exempt ourselves from the stagnation of meaningless day jobs and narrowing horizons of cultural possibility. At that time, I had never had occasion to question the value of art, morally, financially, or socially. It would never have occurred to me that becoming a great writer was not universally acknowledged as the highest of all possible goals. I’m aware of how naïve this sentiment sounds today, though nothing would make me happier than to reclaim that naïveté, and hold it close.
I’ve experienced this past decade, then, as both the process of becoming a writer — the crucial years during which my first books were published, informed by the aesthetics of the seediness project that, in true seedy style, never came to fruition — and also the process of disenchantment about what being a writer, in America today, actually means. My goal now, which this essay has helped me to clarify, is to rediscover a sincere belief in the value of fiction, but no longer out of a desire to leave society behind. Instead, I want to find a way through the post-2016 fog and out into a clarified space on the other side, someplace I’ve never been before, where being a writer is a valid means of participating in the society we all share.
The Difference Between Fake News and Fiction
This drive to leave the fog behind and enter a newly clarified period of deep engagement with fiction is a personal version of our national need to move past the endless, looping middle we’ve gotten stuck in. In this way, the personal and the cultural coexist in the swamp of futures past. The person I was in 2011 and 2012 is dead inside me, decomposing and leaving only the ghost that makes up the personality I have now, just as we’re all haunted by our teenage and young adult selves, and by the futures that those selves imagined for the selves that inhabit us now.
This means that the self is as seedy as the nation, and that this solipsistic overlap of subjective and objective realities is definitive of who we are. As with everything seedy, it has positive and negative potential — it’s negative if we allow ourselves to become even more siloed, violently defending three hundred and thirty million divergent realities, but it can be positive if we see deep engagement with the self as a means of believing in and accessing the truth. Like psychedelic explorers and medieval mystics who accessed God not through the Church but through their own private vision quests, fiction grows truer as it discovers the courage to diverge from politics and plunge into its own mysterious nature. The difference between fake news and fiction is that fake news claims to be true relative to some outside source (and can thus be proven false, at least in theory), whereas fiction contains the proof of its own truth, insofar as it does or does not resonate with a reader’s soul — there is no external referent awaiting verification.
This is why my goal here has been to consider how fiction and politics can coexist in the new decade without cannibalizing one another. How can each evolve into a new phase in which a distinct purpose returns to both, so that we achieve a politics based on real, optimistic policy, and a form of storytelling based on truth rather than lies, engagement rather than distraction, dialogue rather than propaganda, and giving to rather than taking from our audience?
Fiction cannot ignore politics — this is no time for escapism — but, for the same reason, it can’t simply incorporate the churn. The truly political stance, as a fiction writer in the 2020s, is to earnestly seek a means of rediscovering value in coherent narrative, insisting that words and thoughts have meaning, and that individual perspectives matter as expressions of a shared internal reality, not just of a unique, private identity. We may never overcome the dominant pseudo-narrative of reality TV politics, but we can oppose it with a sincere reinvestment in art, rather than simply parroting the flux of the Internet, or packaging social issues in comforting language, to make readers feel virtuous for buying our books.
If our only narrative options are fascism and commercialism, then storytelling should be discouraged. Instead, at this juncture in time, I feel a need to return to the dumpster behind the diner in Mulholland Dr. — one of America’s defining seedy images — and there again to seek the potential of the trash-strewn American ground, which made me want to devote my life to weird fiction in the first place. Beyond the disillusionment that fiction doesn’t matter, perhaps fit can come to matter again, in a new way, reconsecrating the American ground with the pulsing strangeness and possibility that I used to feel anytime I walked or drove anywhere upon it, on either coast or in any stretch in between. Ten years ago, I imagined that David Lynch had transcended America by rendering it so brilliantly, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps, but now I see that he never escaped. Instead, he found an art form that made it possible to stay here without sinking in, a means of contacting the tremendous corpse rotting everywhere underfoot, and making something beautiful out of that contact.
Like Lynch, I don’t want to leave the American mythic — the “old, weird America” — behind, ceding it to Trumpian sleaze or to the shittiness of what might come next. Regaining access to this mythic layer will require — I’m exhorting myself here — a new kind of effort, one developed out of and designed for the 2020s. It will have to serve as a social contribution, an act of citizenship, not just a means of personal aspiration. I don’t yet know what this new literature will look like, but I am no longer afraid of sounding naïve when I say that I believe its possibility is within reach.
Undead Literature: Consciousness is Not (necessarily) a Liability
The first step toward activating this possibility is to begin considering literature undead. It died in the apocalypse of the Internet’s combination of news and entertainment, and the inevitable deadening of our ability to resist the feed. All the writers I know have by now accepted that we are unlikely to “move the dial” in any broad cultural sense, and unlikely even to earn enough from our books to live on. This is disappointing, but it also carries a profound opportunity: if we accept these realities about literature in 2020, we can move with this acceptance into a new era, in which fiction exists for new reasons, thriving within new networks, however small they may be. If we are living in a zombie era, there is nothing keeping us from deriving occult empowerment by becoming zombie authors, embracing rather than trying (and failing) to resist zombification.
This is now where I want to fight to keep my attention: on the undead possibilities of this ancient, reborn art form, insofar as it is still capable of both responding and contributing to the moment we occupy. My deepest creative goal in 2020 is to find a means of feeling gratitude for the fact that I am still conscious, and that, if I try hard enough, I can choose what to invest my consciousness in. I can try to write and read books that condense and crystallize the ambient strangeness in the air, and, by so doing, break through to the parts of ourselves that are seeking and failing to find sustenance online.
At the same time, I know now that consciousness is also a liability, an asset that can easily be squandered, or given away to those who seek only to sell it off. We’ve all learned something valuable from the Internet over the past four years: that our attention is commodifiable, a future that can be bought and sold with great precision. We’ve learned that none of us are as autonomous as we’d imagined, and that our attention is not fully our own — the ubiquitous bogeyman aura of Trump, and the way it’s infected every corner of the image-spheres we live in, coopting all the discourses both for and against it, is proof enough of this.
If we emerge from this revelation with a new awareness about who and what we really are, we have an opportunity to move forward. If we fail to do so, then politics and pseudo-narrative will merge even more intractably, and the possibility of separating our need for sane government from our need for compelling narrative will become even more remote.
The purpose of undead literature is contradictory on the surface, as it seeks both to respond to the political upsets of the moment, and to refute them by digging back into its own inherent fictiveness. Fusing these two apparently contradictory tasks is the essential literary challenge of the 2020s — to be aware of what’s happening, but to use that awareness to penetrate the zeitgeist and make contact with what’s hidden behind it, as DeLillo did in the 80s and 90s, but can no longer do today. If a new generation takes up this mantle, I believe that literature will prove still up to the challenge, which is why it has died but never disappeared as an art form. This is the clarifying distinction between the undead and the stagnant: one has passed through the cataclysm of its own death and emerged into a spooky, exciting territory on the far side, while the other has stopped partway, unable or unwilling to see the process through.
Reinvesting in undead literature — in serious reading as much as serious writing — right now, knowing what we know about the nature of our own attention and our yearning for investment in the mythic (and how that yearning can be hijacked by fascists), is a community-creating endeavor, built upon the awareness that we can communicate on levels deeper than the individual, that there are symbols and wavelengths we all share, pathways into our deeper minds that the insanity of contemporary politics can break open, rather than cauterize shut.
As I see it, the best life is one spent voluntarily absorbed in something worth being absorbed in, while the worst life is one spent involuntarily absorbed in something not worth being absorbed in. In between these two poles is the desert of ego, the fear of not being absorbed in anything, and hence being stuck with yourself as you really are. This is the desert we have to cross now. I therefore want to end by remembering that art can be pluralistic in its embrace of diverse voices and diverse perspectives, while also monistic in its belief that publicly resonant meaning can be found in the very innermost corners of the private imagination. This investment in fiction over fake news is the only way I see out of the degraded present-tense of endless pseudo-narrative (absorption in the meaningless), and into a future that will indeed lead to the end — first of our own lives, and then of the world — but that will also stand a chance of achieving real meaning along the way, rewarding rather than squandering the limited attention we have left to spend.