October 2007

Ned Vizzini

features

An Interview with Christian TeBordo

Christian TeBordo is the author of three novels: We Go Liquid, The Conviction & Subsequent Life of Savior Neck and Better Ways of Being Dead. We Go Liquid (Impetus Press, Sept. 2007) tells of an unnamed narrator's search for his dead mother after he begins receiving spam from her email address. Christian's work has appeared in 3rd Bed, Reinventing the World and 9th Letter. This interview was conducted by email with Ned Vizzini, not with his dead mother (who is not dead).

We Go Liquid starts with a boy getting messages from his dead mother through his spam. This is the first book I've ever read in which spam is a major plot element. How'd you get that idea? Was it the starter idea for you? Or did you think, "I want this to be a ghost story" and then add some spam?

I actually didn’t make that part up. My mother died a few years back, and not long after the funeral I started getting spam from her account. The first one offered free movie tickets like in the book. I was about twice as old in real life as my narrator so I didn’t make much of it, but they kept coming, and after about a year I decided to make a story about it. I think my mom would have gotten a kick out of it.

She also managed to send me a postcard two weeks after she died, but I didn’t think anyone would believe that so I left it out.

The spam that interests me most in real life is the stuff that they put at the end of e-mails to get them through your spam filter, like "secrets, the framework that explains how he believes financial" (from 11:19 a.m. yesterday). This almost strikes me as anti-writing, writing to nullify meaning. What do you think?

I’m fascinated by that stuff, but not in any academic way. Like I never set out to do an ethnography of machinespeak or anything, but as I wrote I noticed there was more and more gibberish in the spam I was getting and I tried to use it to my advantage in the course of the novel. That sounds kind of fucked up maybe, when you realize I compare it to a body decaying.

Anyway, I’m aware there are people using spam and search engines for generative purposes -- the Flarf poets, for example, or this guy who sends me a poem titled “Daily Treated Spam” (which is also spam, really, because I never asked for it or gave him my e-mail address as far as I know) every single day -- and I’m okay with that. Some of it’s even good. But I’m more interested in the way people with no professional interest in it give it meaning. I check this basketball blog, Freedarko, pretty regularly and the readers do brilliant exegesis and interpretation of word verification in the comment fields.

I see purposely meaningless writing in a few other places: government spin, legal documents, bad prose. Which do you think is the most dangerous to us?

Oh man, I don’t even know. I think the easiest answer is government spin, because of the scale and immediacy etc., but I suspect “government” was probably spinning things before there was even language to make meaningless if that makes any sense.

I don’t mean that to sound fatalist. I just don’t think meaninglessness is inherently dangerous. Which isn’t to say government spin from both sides of the aisle, legal documents and bad prose don’t drive me nuts on a visceral level. They all do. But to me it seems like the responsibility is on the listener or reader, particularly in a society that puts a premium on free speech, which is actually kind of scary.

Also I’m cautious about using words like “meaningless” or “bad” or even “dangerous” in relation to language. I think I have a pretty good ear but text messaging sounds bad to me and I can’t make meaning out of Russian. I’ve heard people have done some pretty good things in at least one of those. And it would be awesome to think that a novelist could still be considered dangerous.  

The most pervasive spam product in We Go Liquid is Cocksure, a penis enlargement pill which the teenage narrator takes because he thinks his mother is telling him to. What's up, Christian? How fucked up are you Oedipally?

Is there a scale? One-to-ten-style? I’d do a Google search but I’m afraid of what might come up. I’ll just say my mother had a great sense of humor, but also this is fiction.

While our narrator mourns his dead mother, he seems equally abandoned by his father, who spends an inordinate amount of time sleeping. What's worse -- a dead parent or a bad one?

I’m lucky not to be able to say. My father is an incredible person and parent. The father in this book is really a projection of how I would have reacted in the situation. My kids are lucky they don’t exist.

How hard is it to write from the perspective of someone who's lost a mother at a young age? I'm always scared to write about orphans and near-orphans, considering my folks are still alive; I almost feel that it would be sacrilegious.

That was actually the hardest part of writing the book. Even though the mother and father in We Go Liquid aren’t like my parents at all, I still would have considered it sacrilegious, or worse, a straight up jinx, to write from the perspective of someone who had lost a parent before I’d lost a parent.

When my mother died, and for a long time after, my reaction wasn’t calm or reflective or beautiful, and the idea of writing this book would have seemed exploitative. But I don’t think that matters to someone who picks the book up in a store. When I finally started working on it I just tried to make it as pretty as I could from one sentence to the next.

Again with the Cocksure, does We Go Liquid have anything to say about kids growing up in an increasingly sexualized world? When you're told at 12 that you need to take pills to make your dick bigger, how are you ever going to be satisfied with your sex life?

I’m not as concerned here with sexuality as I am with that place where sexuality and all the other aspects of personal experience meet consumer culture. The boy in my book takes Cocksure, yeah, but he also takes a whole mess of other pharmaceuticals and snake oils, remortgages the family home and signs up for time-share vacations.

But the sociological aspects of the technology the book deals with are creepier than anything I could have written, how pervasive they are, and how that relates to privacy. Last year Time's person of the year was “you,” and last month “you” turned out to be an androgynous teen telling us to leave Britney alone and a college kid screaming “Don’t Taze me bro!” I don’t think it would have made much difference if they were clothed or not. They’re kids, like the boy in my book, but also a product and a market. Somehow they got the impression that this was a way to be heard, to make themselves distinct. The noise seems like a way of distracting us from actually connecting on any level. My narrator lives in a beta version of that world, but he’s not as concerned with getting attention as getting by.