Check out this piece I wrote over at Ben Arzate’s blog about the top 5 books that inspired Condominium.
Or read it here:
People always assume things. When it comes to works of art, people tend to assume that any work is connected to a host of concrete, critic-approved signposts that preceded it. I pity any indie rock musician, for example, since their first release will no doubt be linked to “The Velvet Underground” or “Joy Division” or “Pavement” or “Sonic Youth” or “Big Star” or “The Stooges” regardless of whether they have ever listened to these bands and even if there is no apparent trace of their sound to be found in the music. I once read an interview with the prick from LCD Soundsystem where he said that he used to go to shows and shout, “I have that record too!” at the bands. Critical signposts in any art form can feel like prisons it is impossible to escape from as an emerging artist, and any work you put out will have dozens of LCD Soundsystems shouting, “It’s all been done before!” from the sidelines.
Literature is even more limiting in this regard, mainly because the critical signposts you get tied to just aren’t as cool as The Stooges. Did you put out a short story collection that contains subtle epiphanies? Alice Munro! Does your novel take a dystopian view of modern civilization? J.G. Ballard alert! Oh, so your novel is violent? Hello Cormac McCarthy! It doesn’t even matter if you’ve never read McCarthy or if you made no attempt to emulate his style. If the first review mentions “McCarthy” even once then you are bound for life to this critical signpost. Your next work could be a life-affirming tale of a young African boy befriending a fuzzy, talking Sloth, and you best believe “McCarthy” will be mentioned at least a dozen times in reference to this work. You will never escape. Cormac’s grizzled shadow will hover over you until the day you exit this world, and all because some parents’ basement book blogger hopped up on Cinnamon Chai, who may or may not have read past the cover blurb, pulled an LCD Soundsystem on your first review.
When Condominium got signed, my wonderful publisher was way into tying me to John Updike for marketing purposes. Now, I do love me some Updike and I happen to have grown up in the same strange region which birthed the Rabbit King, and there are certainly much worse literary figures to be tied to, so yea what the hell? At least this connection set me up for some admittedly hilarious one-liners on the hate-clogged internet (“So when I got to ‘Millennial John Updike’ I took a moment to move sharp implements out of the room.” LOLZ). Granted, I hadn’t cracked open a Rabbit tome in over a decade when working on Condo, and Sir Updike’s fine blanket of suburban sprawl 60s dread was not keeping me warm through long nights working on the novel.
Other than witty quips about millennial Updikes (“How can someone clearly in his mid-30s be considered a millennial?” Ouch, dude.), the initial reaction to the novel could be summed up with just five syllables:
Bret Ea-ston Ell-is
Now don’t get me wrong, I would love to have BEE’s checking account…and his agent…and at least three of his blazers…and whatever deal he made at the crossroads which automatically guarantees every one of his notebook entries is made into a feature film…his whole life basically…minus The Canyons of course…and dude can keep the podcast and the Twitter account…yet I’d be proud to have written The Rules of Attraction…but the whole coked-up bisexual urban Hemingway wearing Prada vibe was not a direct inspiration on this particular work. Referring to an author of urban contemporary fiction as being “Ellisian” at this point is like saying a young, rebellious actor was influenced by Marlon Brando. Dude’s shadow looms so large over the contemporary fiction landscape that we are essentially all his offspring. But it doesn’t mean that a well-worn and heavily-noted copy of Less Than Zero was sitting next to our Macbooks as we honed our latest slice of contemp fic. Instead it was Glamorama for me. Or wait, no it wasn’t. Sorry.
So which well-worn copies were sitting next to my wife’s Macbook when working on Condominium, you ask? For someone who toils within the area of contemporary fiction, I must admit that I don’t read any contemporary fiction. At all. Ever. That contemp fic label is unavoidable, of course, since I do happen to write fiction in the present moment, but believe me if I could write novels from 1920s Paris or the Golden Age of Egypt, I absolutely would. People say I have strange reading tastes. I often glance up from the book I’m wrestling with on the subway to catch someone staring at the cover in horror or confusion. I can’t even count the number of times a friend has taken one look at the book I have in my hands and stated, “You are so fucking weird, man.” So while this list of books that influenced Condominium may seem obtuse to you, they make perfect sense to me, and every square inch of the novel bears their imprint.
Trigger warning: There are no beatniks mentioned here. Thomas Wolf was not summoned to duty. David Foster Wallace was not present, nor were any bandannas worn. Michael Chabon was a no-show. A.M. Homes must have been out sick that year. And most disturbingly, Charles Bukowski is not, and I repeat NOT, included. I’m terribly sorry in advance for any confusion or offense taken due to these omissions.
So with no further ado about nothin’, you can blame and burn these five books if you hated Condominium:
J.K. Huysmans: A Rebours (1884): I’ve never been able to identify a single other person in my life who enjoyed this novel. Most haven’t heard of it, and those who have tried it claim they “just weren’t ready.” Well, I was more than ready for it at 16, and it’s been my main navigational device in life ever since. Regarding the author, let’s just say that “J” to tha’ “K” was one real deal weirdo Frenchman motherfucker and leave it at that. Here in his best-known work, lead protagonist Des Esseintes’ fish-out-of-water pain is so completely vivid and lacerating it basically leaps up off the bargain bin book pages and wraps you in its painfully enticing shroud. Des Esseintes’ quest to live a life cut off from all the aesthetically unappealing aspects of the modern society that tortured him so, surrounding by only his favorite books, foods, liquors…even scents is, to me, entirely admirable, and his abject failure to find happiness even in his own perfectly orchestrated isolation is both heartbreaking and fully inevitable. But the main thing that influenced Condominium, possibly to the novel’s detriment, is that Huysmans’ vibe is NEVER angry and NEVER bitter. Yes, he views the society he happens to have been born into with horror, but it’s an almost naïve terror, much a like a child stumbling across a dead rat in the street. He isn’t outraged. He doesn’t lash out at his surroundings. He’s simply frightened and confused and wonders why this awful thing has to be. Huysmans understood that bitterness and anger just aren’t attractive, and living an entirely attractive existence is what his creation, Des Esseintes, was all about. Throughout all his works, Huysmans longed for the time just before modern Christianity really took over, when the old pagan Gods and The Cross stared each other face-to-face and even performed a strange little dance together. It’s a weird thing to long for, but Huysmans’ pain at having missed this dance is very, very real. Unlike those of us today who long for truly ancient times, J.K. was born only a couple hundred years too late. So close he could taste it, and you can absolutely tell he tasted it when reading even his weaker works. But no, he wasn’t bitter. Huysmans viewed the lame times he was forced to exist in with an analytical but bemused eye. And he was never afraid to make fun of himself or his protagonists. I took this, tried to run with it, and fell flat on my face with Condominium. The book’s view of the current smartphone zombie society was never supposed to be angry. It wasn’t supposed to lash out. And even though it ended up being kind of angry and indeed lashed out at least a little bit, whatever restraint it showed is all owed to Messier J.K. I’ll do better next round, Huysmans. I promise.
Aleister Crowley: Moonchild (1929): Most people’s knowledge of Crowley can be boiled down to, “Wasn’t that the Satanist Jimmy Page worshipped?” And yes, Mr. Crowley was indeed the deceased Magick maverick who’s mysterious powers were summoned by the Wizard Page to harness Led Zeppelin’s ultra-decadent, unstoppable reign of evil greatness in the 70s. And yes, the story you heard is true. Jimmy did buy Crowley’s former estate on Loch Ness (cue visions of Nellie’s serpentine head emerging from the black waters) and all sorts of black magic hilarity ensued. People who know a little more about Crowley could tell you he was a New Age scholar well ahead of his time, a respected mountaineer, a filthy old man of the highest order, and the bald dude with intense eyes peering over Mae West’s shoulder on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But what barely anyone knows is that The Great Beast 666 was also a fine novelist. He only wrote a couple, with Moonchild being my personal favorite. This novel encompasses most of the best “L” words: Lush, Licentious, Libelous, Lovingly-crafted. As someone who has read this thing probably 100 times, there are still long stretches of pages where I have no idea what is happening. Crowley was all about ancient orders, little-known truths, dead languages, and unwritten wisdom, and he kept his prose stunning but mysterious. Wanting to know is what this book is all about, and it morphs into a different form each time you read it. Bravo, Great Beast. Bravo. And if you don’t see any clumsy esoteric leanings amongst all the modernism in Condominium, then you missed them. Fortunately for you.
Jane de La Vaudère: The Collection (1897-1903): Sweet, sweet Jane. There are only two images I know of depicting this author. One is a color pencil sketch showing Jane in an ultra-chic blue dress, her short brown locks frizzed-out in a way Bobby Dylan would later steal, and an ennui-infected blank stare accentuated by saucer brown eyes. The other is a black and white photo of Jane hard at work at an elegant desk with candle burning and a nude sculpture in her background, with a terrifying cougar skin rug spread out before her, its fangs and peeled open eyes menacing the camera. Although there is no way of knowing what she was scribbling away on in this shot, I’d like to think it was one of the three stunning works collected here: Les Androgynes, Le Demi-Sexes, and Les Sataniques. Although Jane may have been the pen name of someone named Jeanne Scrive, the daughter of a famous Parisian doctor, like most alter egos her new identity struck a truer chord. What inspires me about Jane is that, just like my friend J.K., she was once firmly rooted in that most treacherously dull of genres, Naturalism. To think that just five or so years before penning these wonderfully subversive, brilliantly controlled bursts of sheer decadence, she was mired in bleak reality, giving long, detailed rundowns of the ailments suffered by opium addicts on the streets. What Jane learned to do is incredibly important for any writer: She learned to love her subject matter. The voice of these works is a voice reborn, eyes open like that cougar skin rug, shedding the dour constraints of her previous genre and embracing the elusive fact that these things are fun. Being androgynous is liberating if that’s what you’re into. An anarchist throwing bombs can be way sexy. And worshipping Satan? Rock on with yo’ bad selves, les decadents. I would hope that Jane looms large over Condominium, not allowing this writer to get too somber or preachy, embracing and understanding the character’s flaws instead of wagging fingers at them, running down the disintegration of a relationship, a city, an entire modern civilization with an absurd sense of enjoyment. For she certainly isn’t watching over this piece.
Marquise De Sade: Juliette (1797): I once knew an individual who completed his Master’s thesis on De Sade. The fact that this individual eventually did some time in prison and is now a registered sex offender says pretty much all there is to say about the subject matter the Godfather of the Decadents was fond of. To say De Sade just wasn’t made for these times is like claiming it isn’t very pleasant to be set on fire, but then he wasn’t even made for his times, as his own prison record indicates. But the one thing that doesn’t get, ahem, touched on too often in all the movies and writings on De Sade is his masterfully controlled prose. During a time of cumbersome, flowery, overly decorated sentences that lurched slowly along like perfumed slugs, De Sade wrote with great economy and wit. His sentences slash across the pages like elegant knives, and what bleeds through is a gleefully wayward voice unmatched in its enthusiasm in all of literature. Unlike most writers, you can absolutely tell that De Sade was having a blast writing this stuff. He was absolutely loving every last minute of it. It was not a burden for him to compose this content. It was not a chore. And the joy it brought him was worth all that time in prison. So while I may not find sadism a turn on, I do find exuberance to be a thrilling and rare quality in a writer. Yes, I had fun writing Condominium, and if I’m not having fun writing something I discard it, and if even an ounce of joy bleeds through to the final product then I tip a powdered wig to De Sade for the inspiration.
The Master and Margarita: Mikhail Bulgakov (1967): What if Satan were to appear in a Moscow park in the 1930s, flanked by a fast-talking tomcat that walked on his hind legs, a witch named Hella, a fanged assassin, and a butler dressed like Pete Doherty? What if this surreal crew then decided to wreak havoc upon the Russian literary elite? And what if this havoc was wreaked in revenge for a citizen who spent years composing a book about the death of Pontius Pilate and was driven mad by its rejection from this atheist literary world and locked away in a mental asylum? And what if his mistress was turned into a witch by the Satan crew and invited to the Devil’s Midnight Ball where committers of human atrocities arrive from hell and are paraded around the party like red carpet celebrities? And what if the climax of this novel is Pilate himself being released from eternal punishment and forgiven for his betrayal? Well, you would have the greatest novel ever written. This one was so good, in fact, that it was repressed for at least 30 years and didn’t find its way to print until the heady height of the 60s, where it would be best known for inspiring a less-wrinkled Mick Jagger to compose Sympathy For The Devil. But before you blame this novel for that annoying “Woo, Woo!” outro, know that it is a gorgeously composed, complex piece of sustained magical realism that careens and swoops with enough power to lift readers right up off their feet in its slipstream. I know this because it happened to me the first time I read it. This novel taught me the only lesson I ever needed to learn about fiction: Build a world, within a world, within a world, and within this foundation you cannot fail. As long as you’ve built each world true, then all the rest will fall into place naturally. In Condominium that world, within a world, within a world exists within 660 square feet of hardwood floors and modern appliances, on the 16th floor of a brand new condo highrise on the Williamsburg side of the East River. Since so much of the novel needed to take place within this small space, the worlds would have to converge there. Not only did the condo need to fit a newly-purchased set of furniture and Sarah’s collection of Stones records and her wooden voodoo head and Charles’ Cyanide Breakfast shrines, but it needed to fit the Devils’ Midnight Ball and the magic witch river and the Bald Mountain of the crucifixion as well. This is something they just don’t tell you on StreetEasy.com. And though I’m uncertain that these worlds were built completely true, if there is any multi-dimensional feel to Charles and Sarah’s pad then this is owed directly to the lesson shown to me by The Master. Also, special props are in order to Bulgakov for anticipating, in poet character Ivan Homeless, the rise of Bushwick artist homeless chic a good 50 years before it went down, and also for skewering smug, hardline Bill Mayer-style atheists long before the rise of smug, hardline atheist Bill Mayer. Re-spect.
For better or worse, these are the five tomes that were heavy on my mind during the scribing of Condominium. Even if you’ve never read Condo, or you despised it, I’d still recommend all six of these hallucinatory, sometimes mystical, sensually decadent light reads.
So in conclusion, yes, the novel was inspired by Bret Easton Ellis.