Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products. by Noah Cicero
Noah Cicero's new novel, Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products., opens with a scene resembling the "Before the Law" story from Franz Kafka's The Trial, in which we see a young guy in a new situation, where he is constantly criticized for not asking questions and then also criticized for asking the wrong questions. In this case, a specialized, totalitarian prison is the setting, and the main character is a fairly boring, middle-class, and white recent college graduate.
From there, Cicero develops a world that mixes an absurd atmosphere with twenty-first century American culture: video streaming services, fast food, college loans, and political rhetoric both empty and authoritarian. College loans are why the main character, Mike, takes a demoralizing and dehumanizing job at the NEOTAP prison, where the five pillars of life that prisoners are brainwashed to work toward are the same five sentences of the novel's title.
Cicero, whose previous books were primarily based on his own underclass background, and who recently graduated with a political science degree from Youngstown State University, delves into the more middle-and-upper class problems of graduating from college, having student loans, feeling distant from suburban life, and making hasty life choices in order to try to both be an independent adult and be a responsible citizen, a seemingly endless contradiction that echoes in the book's title, which is engrained as much subconsciously in Mike's brain before he even begins his job at the prison as it is consciously engrained in the prison inmates and employees.
I first discovered Cicero's blog, The Outsider, in 2007, via Tao Lin's Reader of Depressing Books blog, and ever since he has been a constant presence on my Internet and cultural radars. His piercing and even punishing arguments about politics or society or art, and his never-ceasing commitment to knowledge and learning, are all what makes him so engaging. The commitment to growth is sometimes not apparent because of the stubborn, uncompromising image he presents, but I find it more a result of his autodidactic background and political commitment.
He wrote about debt and dissent in his 2010 novel The Insurgent, and his 2003 cult hit The Human War, and almost every other novel he has written deals with pressing issues of the immediate present and future. And while literature and film have always had their share of political and social commentaries, the commentary is often through a preexisting mold, rather than a necessity that requires a quick, direct expression and discussion. Cicero's works are always social and direct, and carry a weight of necessity with them, usually manifesting in an equally unique prose style, usually mixing poetic rants and social commentary. That said, even for Cicero, this novel has urgency to it, a dire message.
This is an example:
I called my parents and told them I got the job. They were excited for me. They told me to come over and they could get pizza and cake. My parents were very big into positive reinforcement. When I scored my first goal in soccer when I was seven, they bought me pizza and cake. When I was in the eighth grade talent show, playing guitar very badly, they bought me pizza and cake. When I got straight A's on my report card, I was for sure going to get pizza and cake. Pizza and cake are the ways Americans celebrate triumphs.
I went to Imad's office and closed the door. I said to Imad, "Armando disappeared."
Imad looked at me. He didn't have a facial expression. He listened like I was explaining something that didn't matter to him.
Finally, he said, "Okay, I'll fix it."
I left the office. Armando disappeared and no one cared. I saw Imad leave his office and walk to Heidelberg's office. No one rushed around. Everyone moved without purpose, without a sense of urgency. A human had disappeared and no one cared.
What kind of job did I have?
The backdrop of this new book isn't unlike that of 2011, during the Occupy movement. A fictional protest of a similar type is occurring, and it is shown to have a lack of resolve and cohesion, a lot like the actual Occupy Protests. What Cicero does here is offer an alternative: what if aspects of the movement did have resolve and cohesion? Would armed and violent factions emerge, much like the Black Panthers or Weather Underground emerged from the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s? This is something that I think merits more discussion: Cicero is not offering a radically hypothetical world. He is offering a reality that, while terrifying and incomprehensible, is drawn from the reality we now live in.
In this book, it is possible to conflate the established (at least for his former readers) voice with the fictionalized story we are being told. I discussed this with a friend of mine, and he said that the novel sounded like it was all in the "Noah Cicero voice." An absurd dialogue scene in a prison sounds like Cicero. A description of awkward social interactions sounds like Cicero. A political rant by a man claiming to be a militant revolutionary, this also sounds like Cicero. While all that is true, I think the distinctive directness of the prose is what makes it all seem so similar. Basically, Cicero has a unique approach to language, but I don't think that affects his ability to develop and explore a variety of interesting characters in this book: a boring college grad, an introverted tech nerd, a domineering prison boss, a psychotic political militant.
This is the strength of the novel: we aren't in a dystopian world, but in fact in Cicero's own portrait of contemporary America. Several reviews I have seen refer to this book as "dystopian" or "Orwellian," but isn't an out of control prison situation actually a definite reality in contemporary America. Haven't prisons already become unwieldy bureaucratic businesses? Is this not essentially unlike the world we live in now? Hasn't our government started openly killing American citizens with robots? Writing, reading, and promoting a dystopian, Orwellian, or post-apocalytptic genre in our current era is the equivalent of day-dreaming as a tornado comes crashing into your house.
That isn't to say Cicero's novel is just a depressing slap in the face of reality. Like all of Cicero's work, it deftly balances experiments with accessibility. Whereas Tao Lin's Taipei could be considered very much in a literary tradition, free of any "genre" elements, Cicero's writing here feels more like a straight up political thriller written by a politically and philosophically-inclined mind, without feeling it has "thrilling" elements only to serve a higher, nonexistent ideal of literature commenting on "genre" or "pop culture." Cicero doesn't look down on American culture. He just frowns. Cicero always looks at the world directly and realistically, and this is part of whatever situation he is describing.
The connection between Lin and Cicero is probably obvious to anyone who knows both of them, but is still worth thinking about. During the 2007 release of Lin's novel Eeee Eee Eeee and story collection Bed, he consistently referenced Cicero as a major influence. He also featured a character with a Cicero-like voice in his novella Shoplifting from American Apparel. Comparisons to Scott McClanahan, Sam Pink, Chelsea Martin, or Socrates Adams also seem easy, in the offhanded yet direct approach to storytelling embraced by all, but in a way Cicero's is unique in almost challenging forced-discussion with the reader. He is not just in your face; he is pounding your face in the ground, asking you what the fuck you are going to do.
In a 2011 interview (more like two-way email rant) with Cicero, which I never published, he said the following:
Everyone is obsessed with "showing" and "telling." "Showing" is really nice because it never directly confronts the audience. Now, take [Bret Easton] Ellis for an example. You could take his books as a stance that states, "Rich people are fuckheads." You could read it as a Marxist statement. You could read it as "capitalism is still rational but we need more morals." But he never says that, a character never says that so the normal person reads it as, "Rich people have sweet lives where they can blow all the coke they want and party at great restaurants." Ellis has basically written like seven books and no one knows even what he is saying. But maybe these times mean nothing. Maybe we live meaningless lives. I mean think about it: An actor becomes president [1980 election of Ronald Reagan]. A movie star. What could possibly result from that? A culture of theater.
In many ways, Cicero's newest is exactly at the center of "a culture of theatre." But unlike Ellis, it is not being too clever or coy. It is clearly a scathing review of the culture it exists in. It is sad about what that culture has become. It is not gloating. There is no reason to gloat. It's over. And it's not over because it's dystopian. It's over because it's real. Cicero's fiction will probably never be the most read fiction in America. But for everyone who is smart enough to pay attention, he is asking the questions that need asked and demanding their answers.
It is the same direct, ruthless style of writing that Cicero brings to each book that also factors in to his current status as a writer. His books have fluid, completely moving passages again and again, but every so often there is some sloppiness in either a sentence or a paragraph. That sloppiness is Cicero's own contribution to the present-reflecting, forward-moving attitude which characterizes a lot of what has been termed "alt lit," from Lin's deadpan flow of hyper-realistic emotions and details to Elizabeth Ellen's and Scott McClanahan's uncompromising personal narratives to social media presentations such as Heiko Julien's Facebook status updates or Mira Gonzalez's Twitter monologues.
No ivory tower is being built for Cicero to look down at the masses. He is the masses. More care is focused on thought and protest than on the perfection of a literary sensibility or craftsmanship. The approach to writing that is at the heart of Cicero's aesthetic is urgent, because we may be living in the dystopia we always dreaded.
Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care For Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products. by Noah Cicero
Lazy Fascist Press
Andrew Duncan Worthington is author of the forthcoming novel Walls and founding editor of Keep This Bag Away From Children.