By MARK BENEDICT
David Hollander isn’t messing around. His new novel, ANTHROPICA (Animal Riot Press), doesn’t just tell a story of our world on the verge of apocalypse; it also seeks to capture the whole existential horror of being human. Consider Grace Kitchen, the closest thing the novel has to a main character. She’s a college professor desperate to publish books and get tenure, while also trying to care for her terminally ill father. Grace is smart and likable, but her rage at life’s unfairness is out of control. She’s jacked. Other characters are similarly tortured, fighting to survive and prove themselves in a world that seems vastly indifferent to their struggles.
But there’s more percolating here than just everyday misery. Vultures are everywhere. Killer robots are on the loose. There’s a friendly Hungarian named Laszlow who hopes to wipe out humanity. Not for any profit motive, but just because he thinks the world would be more beautiful without people. He’s like a Bond villain with a philosophy degree. Hollander, whose work has appeared in Best American Fantasy and The New York Times Magazine, has written a surefire cult classic, a bold and funny novel that will be discussed and untangled for years to come. We’re thrilled to talk to him, by email, about the novel, his creative process, and his vision for TV and stage adaptations.
ANTHROPICA has an all-encompassing feel. The novel almost seems to shift and expand as you read it, like some kind of living, mutating text. It’s freaky. Were you ever a little freaked out by how vast and weird the book was getting?
Well, first let me say that whatever response I give to that question will have an element of make-believe to it because my own process is hazy to me. It feels like the book just sort of happened. But with that caveat, I had a rule for myself when I was working on ANTHROPICA, which was that I wasn’t going to write anything that wasn’t fun to write. So at first, as I was generating material and adding more threads to the book, all I knew was that I was having a good time. But as these threads began to really accumulate, I knew that it was my responsibility to bring them into exchange with one another, to reward the reader for all the juggling I was asking them to do. So while I was never freaked out (in fact, the bigger the book got, the more “right” it felt to me), I did have to meditate quite a bit on how all of these pieces that tied together thematically, might also tie together in terms of plot and narrative movement. But I love the way you describe the text. “Living” and “mutating.” That’s very close to how I wanted it to feel. And I want there to be a sense of some impending harmonic convergence of the book’s many parts, an anticipation that grows stronger as you make your way deeper into the text.
Grace Kitchen, our heroine, seems to be in a near-constant state of anger and agitation. In fact, she’s no less miserable than the characters who are suffering from serious diseases. Is her issue a negative outlook that could be improved by, say, meditating or going on nature walks? Or do you see her as inescapably ill, too, just in a more functional way?
Grace Kitchen does not like the way you are talking about Grace Kitchen. But she has authorized me to make a few remarks on her behalf while she is making some exploratory calls to her lawyers. I actually think Grace is really vulnerable, and that all of her anger and agitation are a smokescreen that she puts up to avoid the crushing sorrow she feels as her beloved father slowly expires in the spare bedroom of her ancient, drafty, double-mortgaged house. She’s trying to stay tethered to the world, but she also hates the world, hates what it’s done to her and to the people she loves. She would like to give up all hope and withdraw from the human race, but she cannot, and this little sliver of hope is torture for her. Is she inescapably ill? I don’t think so. I think she’s a realist. And being a realist means recognizing that the universe does not care about you. She likes that you called her the novel’s heroine, though. That might earn you some leniency during her revenge campaign.
Let’s talk about these vultures! It’s funny but also unnerving how they keep showing up on the periphery of scenes. Did you conceive of the vultures early in your writing process, or was it something that came later and that you went back and added?
So for some reason, the town I live in is overrun by vultures. It’s crazy. Thousands of them in the treetops, circling us all in anticipation of some deadly community disaster that will usher in the feast. These vultures are one of the most “autobiographical” aspects of the novel. But you are perceptive because it wasn’t until the final draft of the novel that I sort of seeded early chapters with the vultures. They end up playing a bigger role as you work your way deeper into the text, a role that I didn’t figure out until late in the writing process, maybe on like the third or fourth draft, and even then I only figured it out with the help of my brilliant editor, Katie Rainey. Once I knew what their function was, and how they were related to Finn Daily’s “God fractal” and to Henry Henry Puddin’ Pie’s psionic abilities (I’m intentionally avoiding spoilers here), I was able to insert them at various locations, at the “periphery of scenes,” as you say, thereby utilizing the time-honored narrative tool we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”
What’s your intent in opening the novel with a quote from Blade Runner?
Ha ha ha ha! You are the first person to ask about that! I always loved the Roy Batty character, who is responsible for that opening quote. I know he was basically evil and responsible for horrific violence, but that was a function of his “programming.” In the end, he just wanted more life. Who can’t relate to that? I think all of these characters in ANTHROPICA would, similarly, like more life, which is ironic because a lot of them are actively trying to end the world. So there’s that overlap, but also, the book includes several sentient machines, each of which/whom – like Roy Batty – feels a little ticked off at the way they were manufactured and then completely abandoned. I think of the actual epigraph (“Proud of yourself, little man?”), which Roy Batty asks Rick Deckard toward the end of Blade Runner, as a question the book is asking of Laszlow Katasztrofa, the arguable protagonist and leader of the apocalypse-cult, Exit Strategy. But it’s a question that could be asked of any of these characters, and perhaps of the reader, too.
ANTHROPICA would make a wild limited TV series. Do you have any casting thoughts?
These are honestly the greatest questions. Thank you. I am thinking of writing an ANTHROPICA musical (yes, seriously) and I know the local and regional singers and actors I would like to cast. But I like that you’re thinking big. I could see either Jodie Foster or Naomi Watts as Grace Kitchen. They’d both be great. Maybe Tom Holland could play Finn? Seth Rogen as Stuart? And as Laszlow… well, that’s a tough one. It would be metafictionally delightful if Keanu Reeves could do it. Or maybe Gerard Butler? No, no, I want Keanu. Do you think he could learn a Hungarian accent? This is a really weird cast. Ask me another question.
Was it difficult finding the right balance of humor and bleakness? Sometimes it seems like the grimmer the novel gets, the funnier it gets.
I think this balance is meant to reflect something central to my own personality. I’ve been called, on occasion, a “pleasant nihilist.” The book is toggling back and forth between seeing everything as ridiculous and seeing everything as imbued with enormous meaning – a toggle I make 100 times a day. The humor comes from seeing through the first of those two lenses, the bleakness from seeing through the second. As the book progresses, both of those effects or orientations ought to be intensifying. I think of what Stanley Elkin once said: “All jokes are really about powerlessness.” If Laszlow is correct, and “everything that happens was always going to happen,” then we are absolutely powerless to do anything but follow the track laid out for us at the beginning of time. All of our endeavors become grimly funny when cast in this light. But what are we to do with our lives? There are people who are counting on us. People who love us. Are we just going to abandon them? The book exists in a liminal space between nihilistic surrender and heartfelt conviction.
Do you see the struggles in the novel, the despair, the evil schemes, as inextricably tied to the 21st century? On the one hand, there’s a lot of nefarious modern technology on display, but on the other, the dilemmas and philosophic underpinnings are timeless.
The book is interested in excess and consumption. At its heart is the discovery made by scientist Stuart Dregs, what he calls “The Anthropica Principle.” It turns out that humans are exhausting the earth’s resources every eight days. And yet the resources are still here, somehow. His conclusion is that the universe is created and sustained by human desire. Everything is here because we want it to be. I think this idea wouldn’t make as much intuitive sense if you airlifted it back to the early 20th century. Something about the speed and excess of our contemporary lives is vital to the book’s particular variety of bewilderment and myopia. There are nearly 8 billion of us extracting and burning and melting and building and paving from a limited reserve of stuff. How can there possibly be enough raw material to support this madcap and incessant consumption? Other philosophical quandaries in the book, like the problem of free will, for instance, or Tolstoyan questions about “the great man,” have been around forever. But it was excess in all of its forms that were the book’s primary driver, and this seems to me very much of this moment. We are on the brink of something, I think. The book is both a cautionary tale about our heedless destruction of the earth, and a loving testament to those who continue to try, against all odds, to make meaning from our unlikely presence out here among the cosmos.
Keep up with David Hollander via his website Long Live The Author.
“ANTHROPICA is both a cautionary tale about our heedless destruction of the earth, and a loving testament to those who continue to try, against all odds, to make meaning from our unlikely presence out here among the cosmos.” David Hollander