Shout out to Grumpy Bert’s for having me last Friday. Was a blast.
Decent review over at ReinReads.
Check it out or read it here:
Falatko’s Condominium takes place within the time span of just one week, with sections separated by day. Charles & Sarah have just moved in their new condo & it serves as a symbol of their semi-fucked up lives. The one thing they have in common is that they feel like the condo owns them instead of the other way around. In Bret Easton Ellis form, it’s a novel about materialism, existentialism, consumerism, & every other ism, but simultaneously about absolutely nothing. But unlike Bret Easton Ellis, it didn’t really have those stand-out sentences of epiphany. There was no “people are afraid to merge” type of sentence that really hits it home hard. However, there were incredible moments of clarity. Several scenes that were so unique, but also seemed almost like non-fiction.
For example, Falatko perfectly describes that dreaded Monday feeling. The awful train crowd rush, the exhaustion. But he does it in a way that’s comical, “How many American Apparel cashiers could they possibly need? How many internships at Vice magazine?,” Charles wonders as he passes hipsters on the street. Made even more hilarious because Charles is a step away himself from being a hipster himself. How many times are you gonna think about one of your “obscure albums from the seventies?” It’s one of the many great moments that just clicks.
Another great one liner that was such a clear image in my head, I swear I’ve seen it before was, “a man with the Rangers logo tatted on the side of his face who strangely kept ordering daiquiris.” These moments are gold buried within a lot of seemingly random & unnecessary NYC cliches & references. At one point there’s so much location name dropping that the Lower East Side, Seward Park, Essex, East Broadway, Grand, & Delancey are all referenced in just three sentences.
The timing is tricky because each action is described so minutely that the reader can get pretty bored. But it serves as an overall theme that time & space are relative. Time & Space, two subjects Falatko was right to consistently evoke Burroughs in, gives the work a claustrophobic feel. Space, & its effect on a person, is at the forefront of this storyline. It got me thinking how some religions believe a person achieves true grace when their environment no longer dictates their reality. It eliminates the need to adapt because you just are. Sarah & Charles clearly suck at this because their condo pretty much fucks up their life. Either that, or the drugs make them so paranoid that they believe it’s fucking up their life. Don’t even get me started on the weird neighbor Raymond, their paranoia levels are through the roof with that guy. But is it him? Is it them? Is he just a symbol of societal pressure? Who knows! Does it matter? Does anything?
Nothing matters in the novel at least. I mean Hamlet could take a lesson from these guys on inaction. At one point the thought of actually doing something, anything, brings creepily wide smiles to their faces because their jobs & lives are that vapid & meaningless.
I had a few gripes with the writing style. I hate head jumping when it’s not done skillfully, plus every sentence had way too many commas that ramble off & return back to their subjects inelegantly. I did however love the Falatko’s ability to flawlessly include curse-words in not only the thoughts, but the dialogue without it sounding overdone or clunky. It felt right with the characters & the context.
I was a little confused how old the characters were for a while, & when I found out they’re in their late twenties I was a little surprised. They complain like children, but reference Rolling Stone, smack their forehead, & say things like “the hard youth of today.” They seemed like those kids who’re a year older than you, but think they’re in their fifties. Realistically, if this takes place in modern day NYC, then they weren’t even alive for the height of the late sixties/early seventies, so I don’t know why they’d be so pretentious about it. Unless they’re dicks, which they probably are.
Last minute things that irked me:
- They referenced Californication. Ugh. Awful show.
- The sentence “Never date someone in publishing.” Yup. My boyfriend can attest to this.
- It dissed NYU kids, but gave FIT cred at one point, which is so backwards to me as a student of both institutions.
- It missed a real opportunity for a “beast of bourbon” pun.
Last minute likes:
- It never actually explicitly gives detail on the drug scenes, but still manages to convey significant meaning.
- Made me crack up when it said all bands now are named after animals (download Frightened Rabbit though & tell me you don’t love them).
- Deals with expectations of life not being met & having a skewed reality as a result of it, I mean, that pretty much sums up life in a nutshell.
- It didn’t dive into the impact of social media & technology & blah blah blah like every other novel of this kind.
- The copy description does not do it justice, so it definitely surpassed my expectations.
Condominium gets Literati’d over at Chicago Literati.
Readers, especially those of a certain twenty-something age living and hanging out in River North–or by the time of publishing, the West Loop–will be drawn to the premise of Condominium. A young couple moves into the sleek condo of their dreams, only to find themselves quickly warped by it’s strange magnetic pull. Their tension and discord is thickened by some strange new forces, including a suspicious neighbor and the return of a few dangerous old habits.
Like many stories of the rich and not-so-famous, Condominium also plays on our desire to peek into the social stratosphere. In one particular scene when Sarah’s carelessness causes a minor housekeeping disaster, If found myself cringing with equal parts horror and delight. A pristine kitchen, outrageously expensive flooring, a pot of tar black coffee. You do the math.
There is strong voice and a lot of energy packed into these pages, and right away the characters come out swinging. We meet Sarah and Charles on the Saturday they arrive at their new condo, as she unleashes a string of insults about the movers and he has a vision of their boxed-up life going up in flames. They feel conflicted about their newfound membership in the real estate elite, which sometimes works and sometimes creates confusion for the reader.
Charles is the breadwinner by far, working in the financial district and footing the bill for this golden condo. Sarah’s editorial assistantship barely covers her bills, and an arsenal of credit cards make up the difference. They love their new place but they are also frightened by it, and the adulthood it seems to stand for. Perhaps they are in over their heads, perhaps they are just learning how to swim.
As things go when you live at such precarious heights, it only takes a few wrong moves for things to start feeling shaky. A job changes suddenly, or someone goes a little too hard for a few too many weekends in a row. New surroundings start to feel disorienting and unfamiliar, and one falls back on old rituals and crutches to stay grounded.
While the story focuses mostly on Sarah and Charles, the cast of characters includes their work friends and frenemies as well. For Sarah, Jenny, and Ryan are entertaining enough to talk to provide office refuge, but much too basic to actually be friends. Charles (and Sarah, but mostly Charles) has Andrew and Ruthie, a ne’er do well couple who snort up their fun and always bring enough to share with the class, to the dismay of their recovering pal. And of course everybody hates Raymond, the lurking neighbor who drops by to stir the pot with his perfectly manicured hands. It’s not clear at first why he’s so interested in the new residents, but when the curtain is finally drawn back, you may find yourself looking over your shoulder after your next condo board meeting.
The story begins on one Saturday, and ends on the next. While I found the tight week-long structure helpful to shape the story, it left little room for that quiet negative space that can do so much for the depth of short books. Thank goodness for the beautiful and terrifying balcony, which provided literal and metaphorical air when our characters need to get away from one another or confront something on their own time.
In his allegiance to their breakneck bohemian rhythm, at times it feels like Falatko hands the car keys over to Sarah and Charles. They live a fast paced existence–jumping back and forth from adult to child, grungy to glamorous, responsible to careless, rich to scraping by–and a the end of more than one section I felt a kind of whiplash. I would have loved to be a fly on the industrial-chic wall on a “normal” day. With only a week to spend together, we don’t really get to that point.
Without giving too much away, I was intrigued and hungry for more development once we discovered Raymond’s real purpose in the building. It was almost hard to believe Charles and Sarah could as feel threatened as they seemed, while constantly flaunting their invincibility in the face of others’ opinions. And there was something I could not quite understand behind the way they treat Raymond. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve shut down an elevator creeper or two in my day, I just think maybe I missed the inciting incident that sparked their cruel sarcasm.
A character’s choices and consequences rest on two sides of an equation, and in some subtle ways I wasn’t sure things balanced out. I don’t know exactly what it’s like to meet a creepy new neighbor while living in a $920,000 condo, or to share responsibilities with a partner who triple out earned me, or to try and do heroin only occasionally. That being said, the unprovoked outburst or the strange interaction between two people who are supposedly close enough to share this heavenly apartment had me wondering what I had missed.
Once or twice I was distracted by a few left-field comments from characters, which did nothing to develop the story or inform us about the people talking. Often a writer will provide a lens through which to view remarks that are stereotypical or racist. The author can either give some helpful clues about the age, social status or background of the characters to frame that touchy dialogue, or else they risk throwing the reader off course. I felt my attention drift from the page as I wondered about the life experience and intention behind a comment that might have meant nothing.
In creating stories I think the writer is both architect and builder. The first one is focused on the design and the feel of a place, the second one must be thinking about how the residents will actually use it. Condominium is heavy on the design, but I found myself wanting to strip away the insulation and get a better look at the bare bones. Why is Sarah so angry? What is eating at Charles? We know it’s heroin, but we don’t really know why. Apart from an internal monologue in which Sarah wonders whether or not a nursery is in their long-term plans, I didn’t really get a sense for what kept them in orbit around one another in the first place.
I wondered how this book might read differently if I lived in New York, or were a member of this mythical creative class that somehow keeps one foot in the financial district and the other the world of the unpaid internship. I know people who make very big and very small money, people who have incredible views, and people who do drugs on the weekend. They are usually three separate people though, and it was a trip to read them all rolled up into one.
Really good review over at Alternating Current for Condo. I feel very “privileged” to receive this type of attention.
Condominium, by Daniel Falatko, is a partly comedic and lighthearted, somewhat existential and dramatic, novel about a week in the life of a couple who move into their dream million-dollar high-rise condominium with its Brooklyn skyline view over the East River. The story alternates points of view and experience between Charles and Sarah as they navigate multiple issues with their new lifestyle, including struggles in their career, a strange new neighbor, challenging relationships with friends, and recreational drug usage.
The alternating points of view work well for this story as a way for us to learn more about the protagonists, especially things they may not share with each other or with the reader in first-person point of view. They begin with voices in common, but the more their plotlines unfold, the more they definitely develop different experiences with the condo. Giving voice to each of them also allows the story to show the difficulty for couples in developing the “us” and allows the individuals to be more complex, as well.
Life at their new dream condo is never not weird. They quickly meet a strange neighbor who seems to be observing them a little too much. His lack of boundaries makes them uncomfortable, adds mystery to the story, and drives a lot of the tension, addressing the question of just what did they get themselves into? Every time I thought the Creepy Neighbor storyline might fall into the trap of cliché, it went in an unexpected direction that gave this book its unique signature.
Although a lot of the story addresses the Money Can’t Buy Happiness idea, more is happening here.
I guess you start to think of all this luxury, assuming it will seep its way into your marrow, make your life luxurious, but really it’s a bummer to find you still don’t get enough sleep and cobwebs still form on ceilings and your face still breaks out and your man still smells up the bathroom and you still need to get super stoned just to relax for an hour on the couch and not think about anything.
If the condo doesn’t bring them happiness, it leaves the question what will the condo bring? What will bring happiness?
The adjustment to the new life puts them all out of sorts. Charles finds he is too scared of heights to enjoy his expensive balcony. Sarah has problems getting comfortable in any of the other rooms. They have contradictory emotions about the view. For Charles,
Now that he had seen a view from the highest precipice, the pinnacle, he was disappointed to find that all other views were rendered limp and detached. He now owned a better view than all of this. It had blotted out his world.
This is while Sarah
[…] thought of someone watching them from over in Manhattan, from Stuy Town with a high-powered telescope, entangled stick figures swallowed up in the massiveness of a waterfront tower. She wondered if perhaps that person would enjoy this more than she did.
They find that location change doesn’t equate to life change. This would be true regardless of whether the move were ‘moving on up’—They are the same people wherever they move.
Monday brought things crashing down, as always. It doesn’t matter if you’re heading to work from a luxury high-rise or a trailer park, you are still heading to work.
A common idea in all of this is how difficult it is for them to shed skins. Charles has an occasional drug habit he can’t quite shake. In fact, Sarah alternates between wanting him to quit and thinking it’s the thing that keeps him interesting. He has an obsession with a rockstar who died years earlier. This is similar to folks stopping their lives every April 5th to mourn the death of Kurt Cobain. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)
During a comedic peak of the novel, at a party unlike any others, an outsider challenges them:
“Aren’t you people in your thirties?” she hissed to him, a crossing guard scolding a proud jaywalker.
“Late twenties,” he corrected. “This is the demographic you shoot for here at Waterfront Tower(s), no? Young moneyed, edgy, hip. Ready for action on the Williamsburg frontier. Well, here it is. Sorry if you can’t handle it.”
They are on a tricky aging line. They just can’t quite shed their twenties and embrace a thirties slowdown, regardless of the troubles it gives them. It’s their driving question: When do we give up the kicking and screaming, and just go quietly? Not yet, they answer.
There are aspects of this that are lighthearted. It uses hyperbole and humor, and although the stakes may be emotionally serious for Charles and Sarah, nothing that large or permanent is happening. That’s fine. The novel is intentionally interested in smaller issues rather than larger ones, and does so with an effective touch where scope is not a positive or negative quality. One thing that it risks, however, is conjuring but mostly ignoring the specter of privilege. There are moments when the characters observe the geographical lines between rich and poor. There are some comedic situations with a food cart vendor and with a Mexican man who Sarah invites to the climactic party, but they stay on the comedic surface. Is Monday truly the same regardless of whether you are leaving a luxury high-rise or a trailer park? Although certainly never told from anything but an honest voice of its characters, it ends up making the story occasionally sound like the First World Problems meme. The characters grow from certain realities about their dream condo; they may learn the limitations of money in the pursuit of happiness, but I’m not sure they ever leave the context of their privilege. Maybe that’s a missed opportunity. Maybe that’s just a different story. If we stay in their perspective, it’s a great read.
Check out my ORIGINS column over at JMWW where I discuss the origins of Condominium
Or read it here:
The complete vision for Condominium came to me when sitting on the L Train one day and overhearing these two dudes with glittery high tops making fun of the banks of glittering condo towers being constructed up and down the Williamsburg waterfront. They were riffing on the bland types of people who would be populating these buildings. Stroller people. Day traders. Upper Manhattanites. The types of people who should be quarantined and regulated to an area far from DIY music venues and illegal artist spaces. My initial instinct was to agree with them, and I had been guilty of similar jive in the past, but something about their basic generalization of an entire sub-population irked me that day. It really got the wheels spinning. I mean, yes, these khaki masses flooding into those glass and steel prisons are certainly among the worst types of white people, but can you really just call for their mass execution just because they may not know who Animal Collective is? Doesn’t every individual who has ever walked this Earth have complex inner dialogues and interesting hidden angles and things that haunt them until the day they perish and beyond? Don’t forget, these people are at the top of the game. They have a lot to lose and blood on their hands. Their demons are most likely WAY more plentiful than those two kids on the train trying to remember if they had showered that afternoon and, if not, then does it even matter, maaaaaan? So can you really write the condominium owners off as bland and uninteresting as a whole?
That’s where Condominium came from. The idea was born on the L Train somewhere under all those concrete shoe bodies and the black, polluted water of the East River. The idea was to write a novel from inside the minds of the gentrifying invaders. It’s a strange concept to view these people as underdogs, but in a way they are. They are stereotyped and put down just like the rest of us. “All people are interesting,” is what Condominium is telling you. “Even the ones you don’t like.” And yes, people really, really hate these characters. At least one major agent backtracked on signing up the novel because said agent’s interns threatened to walk. This is how much they hated Charles and Sarah and the gang. As I’ve always said, the visceral reaction certain types of individuals have when confronted with these characters is a good thing. I didn’t want to sugarcoat them for those two dudes on the train. I wanted them to be the real deal. People tend to romanticize Vikings, for example, pointing out their cool mythology and putting them in the role of romanticized outlaw. But try telling that to some coastal farmer back in the day having his lungs ripped from his chest cavity after having just watched his wife and children be stomped to death. This is the type of horrified reaction people have for Charlie and Sar Bear, and all they’ve done is moved into a damn Condo.
These are modern urban Vikings. Invaders. The gentrifying hoards. The death of a once great city. They are the exact people those kids on the L Train mercilessly mock but secretly fear and envy. The idea that came to me on the train was to crawl into their headspaces and what was left of their souls. I wanted to show people that multiple realms unfold within every individual’s psyche, that people who can afford a million-plus condo have an even greater number of devils to scurry from than you do. They have more pressing matters to worry about than which warehouse party to hit that night. To put it succinctly: They are more interesting than you are in most ways.
So if you hated Condominium, then you should track down those two dudes on the L train and have a word with them, because they are the true origin of the novel. Their heads are faded on the sides and floppy on the top. At least one will be rocking lenses-free frames. By some sort of smoke and mirrors or straight out magic their jeans will be simultaneously skin-tight and baggy. And the real giveaway will be the glittery high tops. The kind that middle school kids in the mid-00s rocked to try to look like Soldier Boy. Those two dudes are the source. I know this doesn’t quite narrow it down, considering 91% of dudes under 27 in North BK look like this, and I wouldn’t advocate just going out and swinging on random Williamsburg people, so it would be best not to bother. The true origin would be hard to track down.
Besides, they’ve probably moved to Portland by now.
Check out this pretty funny interview over at Clash Magazine.
Or read it here:
Dan Falatko, the author of Condominium, and I met through our publisher, Chicago Center of Literature and Photography. We became fast friends and shared a book-signing table at AWP this year in Los Angeles. Over three days, while waiting for folks to buy our books, we had plenty of time to sit and talk, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.
We discussed my dysfunctional family comedy The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, his urban gentrification comedy Condominium, the state of publishing today, our backstories, our processes, and the lasting importance of the band Lightning Bolt.
DF: The main thing that delighted me when reading Pong was that this book is something that just doesn’t seem to exist anymore: A good old-fashioned romp. One that refuses to take serious matters seriously. One that takes its jokes black. One that refuses to play the victim. This type of thing really isn’t “in” anymore. Does this make you feel like an outcast in today’s publishing world?
LC: I agree that mainstream literary fiction has gone away from the comedy, and that comedies (even dark ones like Pong) tend to be devalued. Of course, there was the golden age in the sixties, seventies, and eighties with Pynchon, Tom Robbins, Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, and others. I know I’m naming all white dudes, which is frowned upon. There are plenty of literary comedies written by women, but they tend to be devalued too—as chick-lit, like Bridget Jones’ Diary.
I actually think that if Pynchon or Tom Robbins were writing today, they’d be publishing with indie presses. Look at all the indie press authors here: they’re like ninety percent white guys like you between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five. Last night, I saw a dinner photo on Facebook with a bunch of indie press authors, and there were eleven white dudes and one woman.
So there are lots of reasons to feel like an outcast in today’s publishing world. It could be your race, your gender, your sexuality, or your genre. There are lots of things that are not “in.” Ultimately, you have to do work that you think would please your idols – the authors that inspired you to write in the first place – and I think that Pong would be looked upon kindly by a writer like Martin Amis or people who like the Coen Brothers. Their fatalism and their scabrous brand of humor have always appealed to me.
Do you feel like an outcast because we’re out on an indie press?
DF: Absolutely. And not in a “jean jacket with an Iron Maiden patch, smoking cigs behind the school dumpster” kind of way. Because that was always a pretty cool disposition. Being an indie author today doesn’t feel very cool at all. It feels like you’re constantly bothering people. Read my book! Review my book! Pay attention to me please! That isn’t my trip at all. I just wasn’t made for DIY. At least not the DIY that exists today where you have to have a Twitter account. I just enjoy writing my silly little novels. Having to beast so hard for even the slightest sliver of the spotlight is making this brother go prematurely grey. So if there are any evil entertainment conglomerates out there that think they can make a dime off my next book and want to take all this nonsense off my hands, I’ll sell half my soul to the first Devil with a contract. But only half. That’s all I have left.
LC: Don’t say that too loud. The Dzanc Books booth is right across from us.
DF: Look, that guy to our left is typing out on-demand haikus on a vintage typewriter!
LC: That’s one step away from bringing your pet goat to the Bookfair. Yeah, I don’t know many authors who enjoy the self-promotional part of having a book out. To me, it’s more of a necessary part of the gig like sitting through boring conference calls in an office. I will say that the best part is actually hearing back from your readers. You don’t need to open fan letters anymore. You can just open Twitter or Facebook. And I do like that there’s a vibrant small press publishing community online that’s championing literature for literature’s sake and leaving the misery porn, the boarding school coming-of-age, and the-young-man-walking-through-a-city-pondering-the-meaning-of-life novels to the New York publishers.
DF: –laughs– At least our books are entertaining.
LC: Shhhh. Literature can’t be entertaining! Rape and murder must be just a shot away!
DF: Who doesn’t love The Stones?
LC: No one. Not even the commies in Cuba, apparently.
LC: Why did you choose to write about urban gentrification in Condominium? You could have gone more polemical, but you didn’t, choosing to write from the perspective of a gentrifying couple that has bitten off more real estate than they can chew. Were you consciously writing away from the political?
DF: There is nothing less interesting to me than modern politics. Current events. The issues. Condominium doesn’t care at all about why gentrification is happening or what the social ramifications will be. It cares about Charles and Sarah, two members of the gentrifying horde. It cares about their relationship, their complex interior realms, their pain, and their grasps for joy.
It all started one day years ago on the L Train, listening to two dudes with fashion mullets make fun of the glistening rows of condominiums being built on the waterfront, dismissing all the day traders, trust funders, people with children (you know, the worst kinds of people) moving into these places from uncool spots like the Upper East Side as one long, drab parade of khakis and Wall Street Journals. Something about their snarky jive made me think this: Can you really just mass-dismiss an entire sub-population of human beings as bland and uninteresting just because they might not know who Lighting Bolt is? These people are on top of the food chain, after all, so whether they were born there or had to fight their way there, they still have more blood on their hands than those two slackers on the L Train. They have much, much more to lose, and their demons are far more plentiful. So in a lot of ways, these people may actually be a whole lot more interesting and complex than those of us wondering where the warehouse party was that night. That was the whole idea for Condo right there. To point out that all people are interesting. Even ones not like you. It’s a utopian novel.
LC: I don’t know who Lightning Bolt is.
DF: What’s wrong with you? You are dismissed.
DF: Your backstory is the kind of thing that life affirming biopics are made of. You were diagnosed with potentially terminal cancer. You got the call that Pong was accepted for publication while in the hospital. Now Pong is out and doing well and so are you. With the recent Salon article telling this backstory, I was wondering this: What percentage of the people who go out and pick up a copy of the novel are expecting an inspirational tearjerker and are instead slapped in the face with a black humor romp? And do you get a thrill out of this?
LC: I always get a thrill out of defying expectations, I guess. That’s kind of the whole point of comedy. I’ve joked that everyone who has read both the essay and the novel tell me that the essay is great. But they are two very different pieces. I wrote that essay thinking that it might be the last thing I publish. I wrote the novel thinking: “I’m a genius, this is so funny and dark and bizarre!” I’m hopeful that readers can enjoy both.
Every book has a book-worthy backstory. Mine just happened to be cancer and a lifesaving stem cell transplant.
What about yours? Did the unspooling of Charles and Sarah’s relationship over real estate and their midlife ennui have personal connections to your experience?
DF: Not at all. I don’t now and most likely never will live in a condominium. My wife is not Sarah, and I’m certainly not Charles. I’d never wear a baseball cap. I don’t know anyone quite like Ruthie and Andrew, as much as I’d love to. If there’s any main character in the book that I may share some traits with, it would be Sarah. But hopefully not many since a lot of people have told me how much they despise this character and some reviews have gone so far as to dedicate entire paragraphs to pointing out the poor girl’s flaws.
I do identify hardcore with the front desk guy in their building who sleeps all day. That’s my kind of dude right there. He perfectly sums up my role as the author of this novel. The guy who is supposed to be the doorkeeper to the whole enterprise but instead just snoozes and stares blankly at the banks of live surveillance monitors, letting all sorts of degenerates in off the street. That right there is my personal connection to this work.
Also, who are you calling middle-aged, Big L?
LC: One-third aged? Forty-percent aged? Look, thanks to wealth inequality, the life expectancy of the non-rich will start decreasing.
DF: Didn’t you just hear me say that politics are boring?
LC: –laughs– My bad.
DF: What’s your “Hey, I’m working on a novel” process, Leland? Do you write pages and pages in a fever dream or assign yourself a certain page count per day? Are you vigorous or lazy? Do you keep to your outline or toss that to the street? Do you even have an outline? Do you have a ritual for the day you finish the novel?
LC: I try to write daily, usually one book project at a time. So, no ritual. I just move on to the next book. I’ll block off a few months to work on a novel, then a few months to work on short fiction, which builds in time for the novel manuscript to sit and age. I outline or write character subtexts when I feel lost. I approach it like a day job. Nine to five, I’ll do writing stuff, which may include churning out new prose, editing old work, answering emails related to writing, or taking a break to get the groceries. When I had a day job, I wrote in the mornings, before work, over artisanal coffee at a nearby café.
What about you? You’ve said you do one page a day. How do you even do that? What if you want to go to two pages? Do you stop?
DF: I come from a working class background. Therefore, my approach to writing a novel is very much like an assembly line. Each day, you do your shift. You punch in. You punch out. During your shift, you produce one perfect page of your novel that syncs up perfectly with the page that went before it. Just like on an assembly line when you put the car door or whatever on the frame that was made in the previous shift. If your novel is 300 pages, you can count on it being completed in 300 days. If it’s 250 pages, it will be done in 250 days. As for writing two pages on a shift? No way. That’s pretty much unheard of right there. After all, you’re only being paid for one. There’s no overtime pay in this factory. It’s just a very efficient way to go about it, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But it has always worked for me. Just one man in the factory. A lonely assembly line.
When can we expect Pong 2: Son of Pong or whatever your next work will be?
LC: I’m working on a novel about the brief and wondrous life of a fictive famous Chinese-American standup comic. It’s my shtick: sad, funny, American Chinese dude.
What’s the latest with One Thin Dime?
DF: OTD baby. It’s done. It’s ready. It’s more ambitious. Some of it even takes place outside of New York City. It has a real deal plot. Hell, it’s even an international crime caper. It may have a home. It may not. But it will see the light of day at some point soon, and anyone who dugCondo will get a kick out of it.
And the haterz, as they say, are still gonna’ hate.
Check out my piece over at Steph Post’s site about my method for writing novels.
Or read it here:
Composing Novels: The Assembly Line Method
Some authors churn out entire novels in one fever dream sitting. Others take decades, falling into obsessive battles against themselves, struggling over commas and character direction and structure and other nightmarish roadblocks. Then there are the consistently reliable authors who put out one book every two years, the ones who most likely achieve a certain life balance and can actually take vacations and pay their bills on time. Unfortunately, these nine-to-five types tend to be the less interesting ones (I won’t name any names here, but check the release schedules to see for yourself), while fever dreamers like Phillip K. Dick and Chinese Democracy obsessives such as Donna Tartt put out the lasting works. It seems that the arts are just not kind to regular, stable people.
Which means they certainly aren’t kind to me.
I come from a working class background, so my approach to writing a novel has always been like I was clocking in for a shift at some sort of factory or warehouse. Each day, I punch in, do my shift, and then punch out. The shift itself has always included completing one perfect page of the novel. A perfect page that corresponds perfectly with the perfect page produced in yesterday’s shift. It’s the assembly line approach to novel writing, just like fastening the tire rods onto the frame that was completed in the previous shift. Once the page is completed to my satisfaction, I punch out and head for the bar for Miller Time or whatever it is that blue collar factory workers do when that whistle blows.
Just like in a factory, there is a design blueprint set ahead of time for the product. In my factory this would be the novel outline. Then the assembly line is put into place by a team of evil-genius engineers and it’s go time. Blow that whistle and watch the lone worker, me, limp in from the street with my thermos and time card. My own lonely assembly line.
It never fails to surprise me how much interest this gets from fellow writers. When I mention this method, at first they are incredulous. Then, when I let them know that I’m dead serious, the questions start rolling in. And they are always the same. What if you want to do two pages one day? What if you have a lot to do or have an emergency on any particular day? What if you have zero inspiration? What if the page just doesn’t come one day?
These are always the questions. And always in that order. And they always miss the point. Would you ask a factory worker standing outside the gates smoking a Newport on lunch break if he had the “inspiration” to complete his shift that day? It’s not about inspiration to that dude. It’s about doing what you gotta’ do. You’re hungover. Your wife just left you. Your mortgage is due. But you still have to complete that shift because this is what has to be done. And two pages in one day? Are you kidding me? He isn’t getting paid for extra work here. He’s getting paid to fix those tire rods onto that frame. Why would he go ahead and start affixing the doors when that isn’t what he’s getting paid to do? This would throw the whole operation into chaos. Assembly lines aren’t made to go the extra mile. They aren’t for go-getters. They are efficient, robotic processes set up to get the job done with methodical, perfect precision.
Of course, this method certainly isn’t for everybody, but it has always worked for me. The efficiency and timeliness appeal to me greatly. The original Condominium manuscript was 309 pages, which means it took 309 days to complete. My next novel, One Thin Dime, came in at a slim 279 pages, so it took 279 days to complete. I’m currently 184 pages into a brand new tome, so that’s 184 days on the lonely assembly line thus far. Someone like Donna Tartt would never be able to work in this factory. She would miss shifts. She would be a safety hazard. She would want to recall certain frames and reaffix the tire rods. She would question her work. Donna would be fired before her probationary period was over. Granted, D.T. writes much better novels than I do, but this factory is no place for dreamers.
Completing a page per day may have been tough back in the typewriter ages, but one of the lone things I enjoy about technology is that it lets you stretch out your assembly line much further than those factory walls. Have you been called away to a funeral? No worries. You can get that page done while the priest drones on utilizing the small electronic gadget of your choice. Did your place of residence burn to the ground? Just hit up a coffee shop with wi-fi, holmes. Do you have to work a nine-to-five office job? That Word file kind of looks like work, doesn’t it? Did your firstborn enter the world today? Let the kid scream for an hour and take the laptop to the basement. Aside from petty nuisances such as your death or your unconsciousness due to coma, there is truly no excuse not to get that page done. Motivation means nothing in this scenario. You do your shift. Some days it will be easier to complete your shift than others, but each shift must be completed in order to move the product toward completion on schedule. This is just how assembly lines work.
I’ve never come across any other page-per-day laborers when hobnobbing with fellow authors, but I’m sure they are out there right now with their blue uniforms, a pack of smokes rolled in the sleeves, safety goggles affixed, slaving away on their own lonely assembly lines. And I salute each and every one of them. Because for some rare artists, efficiency is key.
Check out this review and interview over at Shelf Stalker.
Or read it all here:
I’m excited to announce that this post is part of a blog tour for Daniel’s book! Please see the deets on Daniel’s website (more on that at the end as well). Enjoy!
On a recent visit to NYC, I was able to see some of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the signs of gentrification are everywhere. What was once a park had been bought to be the site of the next skyscraping glass box tower of (un)affordable housing. Weathered signs of protest reading “Give us back our park” were hung all along the chainlink fences, though at this point it seemed to me that people had pretty much given up on preserving the breathtaking views of Manhattan they once got from Bushwick Inlet Park. Now those once-free views will cost you. About 2 million. And everyone else can look at another ugly skyscraper.
This is what Condominium is about, and while it may be easy to get up on your soapbox against gentrification, what about the people who are living inside those glass boxes? Aren’t they people too, much as we want to hate them? How might they be similar to us? How might they be different?
The book spans the first week that Sarah and Charles move in one of those swanky new high rises in NYC. At first, they seem put together and ready for such a commitment: Charles recently got a raise so he’s doing well at work and Sarah is in control when faced with decisions about the condo. But these two are not at all who they appear to be on the surface. And neither is their condo. At its bare bones, this is a story of a girl and a guy who buy a fancy, new place only to find that it can’t solve all their problems and it won’t make them become grown-ups. But underneath, there is a lot to unpack in this book!
Sarah and Charles don’t really fit in with the “gentrified” lot. Though they can’t admit it, they are both still very much stuck in the mindset of their late teens–early 20s and don’t seem to want to move into adulthood. They aren’t ready to take on real responsibility at their jobs or in their personal lives, and are not really aware of how their actions (or lack thereof) might affect the other people around them. They are both just floating through life, and the consequences are about to start piling up on them—it’s not going to be pretty.
I was also really intrigued by the condo itself as a character throughout the book. It couldn’t be less homey. Besides the fact that it is all stainless steel, glass, and architecture—more like a slick office space or fancy hotel room than a house—it seems to haunt Sarah and Charles and they don’t even want to spend any time in this place they are spending exorbitant amounts of money to own. To get a bit theoretical on you, it reminded me of Freud’s concept of ‘unheimlich’—that which is home and familiar, and yet strange and unfamiliar at the same time. The uncanny is something that we are drawn to and repulsed by at the same time. The condo symbolizes everything that Sarah and Charles fear about the world, the people around them, but especially about themselves. But I’ll let you unpack the rest on your own.
Condominium is a satirical look at a real problem that’s facing Brooklyn right now. Through it’s satire, it still manages to create true-to-life characters—this isn’t some American Psycho caricature of life in New York. Falatko manages to invent an interesting world with real depth, and that’s not something that can be said of all books these days.
And now, I’m proud to present an interview with author Daniel Falatko!
Daniel Falatko is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Pennsylvania, he lives and works in New York City. Condominium, published by CCLaP, is his first novel. His next novel, One Thin Dime, has been signed by the same publisher and is expected to release in early 2017. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and works in New York City.
SHELF STALKER: First, a few easy warm-up questions: What are you currently reading?
DANIEL FALATKO: Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason and a huge biography of Aleister Crowley. The thing is so thick I have to read it laid out flat on a table. It hurts my arms to hold it. It isn’t light reading. Literally.
SS: Can you choose three favorite authors? Why those authors?
DF: Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Because he stared into the void and found it amusing.
J.K. Huysmans: Because he created his own reality and lived in it with dignity.
Marquis de Sade: Because every word he ever composed was delivered with sheer, wayward glee.
SS: If you could pick one book to read again for the first time, what would it be, and why?
DF: The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This bothers me every day, actually. The first time I read it I was thinking I didn’t like it for the first 50 or 60 pages. By the time I realized this was one of the greatest novels ever, I was already halfway through it. It’s like sleeping through the first 30 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark or something. Wait, why is Harrison Ford in a pit of snakes right now? And why is it awesome? I’ve read it probably 50 times since then, but yes I’d love to go back and read it for the first time without being such a prick about the first half.
SS: And just to round it off: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
DF: I would make it so that James Taylor never went bald. Have you ever seen Two-Lane Blacktop? It’s this experimental hippie film from 1971 where James Taylor and some other guy drive around in a car for hours without talking. His hair is absolutely amazing in that film. His eventual baldness is such a tragedy. I’d fix that if I could.
SS: Now we’ll get down to the book!
The book follows Charles, the financial analyst, and Sarah, the (perpetual) editorial assistant, separately through their own crises, capturing their own very different circumstances and perspectives—I was really impressed by that. How did you go about creating those characters and keeping their voices and stories distinct? And can you tell me more about what sparked the idea for this book?
DF: The whole concept for the novel came to me when standing on the subway one day listening to two kids with fashion-mullets complaining about all the new condo towers being built along the north Brooklyn waterfront. They were jiving about how lame the people moving into these things are. People from the Upper East Side. Finance people. People with children. You know, horrible kinds of people. And it got me thinking. Yes, these individuals moving into these glass boxes on the water may be, on the surface, bastions of basicness, but can you really just write people off because of that? Just because they don’t know who Crystal Castles are? These people might wear cargo shorts or whatever, but I’d be willing to bet they have complex inner dialogues and interesting hidden angles and that they’re haunted by things both tangible and intangible. A lot of them might even be pretty dark of soul. People who have fought their way to the top, or even those who were born there, most likely have a lot of blood on their hands. They have a lot more demons to outrun than a couple of dudes on the subway with custom Chuck Taylors, wondering which loft party to hit that night. You can’t just write these people off in general as bland and uninteresting.
So that’s where the concept came from. Right there on the L Train. That’s why I don’t listen to music on the subway. Inspiration breeds there. And the inspiration was to write a novel from inside the minds of the gentrifying invaders. To not be like those two kids. To accept that all people are interesting. Even the ones not like you.
As for Sarah and Charles, I wanted to portray what I thought would be a typical couple moving into what, at the time, would have been a $900,000 1-bedroom condominium at the Northside Piers condominiums on Kent Avenue. I never understood how anyone can write about a couple from just one perspective. You have to get into both minds. Both viewpoints. Both interior worlds. They both had to tell this story. That’s where the switching viewpoints came in. Doing it all from Sarah’s head or all from Charles’ head would have doomed the book. Although they exist together in one world, the world of Sarah and Charles the couple, they both have to go out into different worlds each day alone, forge their own way, think their own thoughts, skip through their own dimensions. Writing from the Sarah POV was definitely a lot easier. I can identify with her much more than Charles. Writing from Charles’ white baseball capped head was a bit tricky at certain parts, mainly because I don’t know too many individuals like him and had to feel my way in the dark a lot. Dudes are tough. I don’t understand them, for the most part. He’s so insular and guarded. But he had to be, because that’s what those types of dudes are like on the surface. In the end, I think I succeeded with Sarah a lot better than with Charlie. Charlie Boy is still a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps I’ll bring him back sometime. Try to do him more justice.
A lot of people really hate these characters, which I take as a good thing. They aren’t sugar-coated for mass consumption. These people are the real deal. The invaders. The gentrifying hoards. The death of New York City. They are everything those two kids on the L Train fear and despise. But I wanted to get into their heads and show people that complex inner worlds exist within each of us, that these individuals have devils to fight off just like you do, probably even more than you do, and that their fight is in many ways more fascinating than yours. Some readers have picked up on this. Every now and again I get someone coming at me on Goodreads or somewhere like, “Will Sarah marry me?” I don’t know, man. I’ll pass her your regards.
The end goal for the novel was utopian in a lot of ways. I wanted to promote understanding between the two groups. Harmony. And in a strange way, this harmony has actually happened now. The two worlds have become one, and nobody has died or spontaneously combusted over the new Whole Foods on Bedford Avenue. It’s nothing to do with the book, mind you, but harmony does ring true over the North Brooklyn streets in 2016. And that is because the gentrifiers pushed everyone else out and turned the whole neighborhood into one big overpriced juicery. On with progress!
SS: The condo symbolizes power and is supposed to be home, but throughout the book it becomes more and more alien and foreboding, closing in on them as though they don’t belong really there. Could you talk about what it is that makes an apartment or condo different from a house? Or, I guess, why this book could only be set in a condo?
DF: That’s an interesting question. I would venture to say that this can absolutely happen in a house. Houses can be incredibly alien and foreboding to their owners. The concept that Condo fights against is the concept of ownership. Period. How can any one individual stake a claim on any one space? What makes that space yours other than some thin paperwork and even thinner money? And what happens once it is yours? Do you fill it with nice things and then just wait around to die?
But yes, this particular book just had to be set at Northside Piers. In a 660-square foot condominium. The kind that now go for over a million. Because this takes that whole concept and puts it under a very intense microscope. New York City real estate has long existed on an entirely separate tangent from the rest of the country, a fascinating shadow realm where a single square foot can cost thousands while families in Ohio starve in houses where square-footage means nothing, houses 30-times the size of a million-dollar Brooklyn 1-bedroom with no closet space. This is a realm where the mere presence of a washer/dryer within a unit signifies unfathomable wealth and luxury, where a semi-obstructed view of a jumble of mismatched buildings can turn a tiny space lacking an eat-in kitchen into a pinnacle many thousands strive, fight, and in some cases die, to reach.
So the core concept of Condominium is this: What happens to a person, or in this case a couple, once this pinnacle has been reached? What happens when 660-square-feet of gleaming hardwood and ultra-modern appliances and intricate bathroom tile and a sweeping skyline view suddenly owns you? What happens when the world outside falls away, paling in comparison to the radiance you now wake up in each morning? Can the people walking past you on the street sense the magnificence of your basin-design bathroom sink? And if they can’t, don’t you want to shout it at them? Will the crushing weight of ownership cause you, as it causes our girl Sarah, to fall to your knees on that gleaming hardwood and scream until the non-functional beam starts shaking? Or would you, as happens to Mr. Charles, become so afraid of the coveted balcony that you resort to office flirtations and heroin, anything to avoid the new home you obsessed over for so long? By the end of the first week, would you and your fiancé find yourselves staked out on opposite ends of your trashed new unit, romantically at odds and hiding from your building’s intrusive and potentially evil Community Board?
It’s home ownership, as a whole, that the book questions. The NYC angle just amps it up to 11 because the real estate scene is so insane here. But yea, it can happen in your houses too. We’ll leave that to someone else to write though. I don’t have the chops for suburbia.
SS: I’m potentially revealing my lack of musical knowledge here, but is Skags Kassidy a stand-in for someone in specific?
DF: Skags was originally supposed to be Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon. Because Kurt Cobain would have been way too obvious. But the more I looked into Shannon Hoon, the more I liked him and respected him as an artist. May he rest in peace. Plus, he didn’t die in August, which would have thrown off the whole timeline of the book. So Skags is a stand in for Charles’ teenage self, for that whole horrific grunge movement some of us were unlucky enough to have endured and many have never been able to escape from. But I didn’t want to disrespect any dead grunge musicians by generalizing them and making fun of them. Sorry, Skags.
SS: I saw the balcony as Charles’ white whale, and the condo itself as Sarah’s. Any thoughts on that? Or white whales in general? What does it take to overcome them?
DF: Oh man, those two have SO MANY white whales. Charles is basically afraid of everything. He has so many obstacles to conquer each day he walks this Earth it isn’t even funny. There’s his job, which haunts him because he probably wonders why he makes so much money doing a job that takes so little thought. There’s Abrielle, who he desires and fears with equal intensity. There’s the group of cool temps he’s caught up on. There’s Benji the elevator man, who is a major obstacle in his day-to-day existence for sure. There’s Sarah herself, who really is a mystery to him in a lot of ways. There’s the wooden voodoo head. The Community Board. Ruthie. Andrew. White whales thrashing about everywhere for the poor guy. And he longs to conquer all of them. But he fixates on the balcony, you’re right. Perhaps he sees the balcony as a culmination of all of these things. But this is something that is tangible. This is something he thinks he can beat. And if he beats this one thing, then maybe he can conquer them all.
Sarah is a little more laid back about life. More apathetic. But there are some huge white whales in her sea. Her lack of professional progress is one. Her general apathy. She knows she lacks in substance, but she doesn’t quite know what to do about it. She just smokes more pot and puts on another Stones record. Charles is something she wishes to conquer, but she doesn’t quite know how to go about doing that either. The condo itself is a white whale that really sneaks up on her. She doesn’t expect this one. She’s on calm seas and then suddenly BLAM. Unlike Charles, who is apprehensive about the condo from the very start, Sarah really thinks this is the answer. She really thinks she’s on easy street now. And this is probably why she loses it more than Charles in the end. She wasn’t prepared to feel trapped in this new luxury.
So yes, there are many, many white whales for these two to conquer. In the end, though, they are both white whales. To each other. And they need to conquer each other in order to survive.
SS: Charles and Sarah seem to be stuck in the lackadaisical mindset of their early 20s, while at the same time attempting to move forward, following some sort of prescribed path of upward mobility. Do you think this represents some truth about what is happening to people of their age group right now?
DF: Oh, absolutely. The demands placed on the kids these days are insane. I work with people that are 22 and already worried about 401Ks. 22, man. The only things I was worried about at 22 were where the party was that night and how to scrounge up five bucks to get in. There just isn’t any slack these days. Nobody cuts them a break. It’s a real shame. I think it was Gram Parsons who once said, ‘What the world needs is more love. And more slack.” I’m with you, Gram. I’m with you. Set the children free. Or at least give them a year in Europe or something to take Molly and write a novel.
SS: Were there parts of the manuscript that got cut from the final book? I always wonder about what ends up on the cutting room floor. And maybe you can talk a little about your writing process as well.
DF: There were parts that were cut, sure. And I don’t mourn the loss of any of them. Long conversations between various characters about organic farms in deepest Queens. A strange side plot about the electricity in the condo building (yes, the electrical sockets were whispering strange messages to the residents). All sorts of really terrible things that rightly hit the cutting room floor. But there’s one thing that had to be changed which, in my opinion, really hurt the book. The band we never meet that plays a major role in the plot, Alligator Uprising, was originally The Strokes. And Ruthie’s secret boyfriend in the band was Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes. I was immediately informed by anyone in the industry who read the novel that this would have to be changed. “The Strokes have lawyers. They will sue for libel.” Personally, I bet the Strokes are a good bunch of dudes and would a) probably have never found out about the book and b) If they did, they would most likely have a sense of humor about it. And c) Being sued by The Strokes would be great publicity. Anyway, the book was a lot funnier when Alligator Uprising was The Strokes. So that was a tough blow.
My writing process. I’m a working class, blue collar kind of writer. When I’m working on a novel, I look at it as working a job. Each day, I do my shift. Punch in. Punch out. Different writers have different capacities for how much they can compose in one day and still remain coherent. For me, I can do one page. I’m not a spree writer. I don’t write in a fever dream. Just one page. But I really hold myself to that. Every single day. One perfect page. Not just some chicken scratch. No rough ideas. A perfectly executed page that perfectly follows the perfect page I did yesterday. It isn’t always easy, but it must be done. However many pages the original Condominium manuscript was (honestly, I forget how much that was) then that is how many days it took to write it. This method isn’t for everyone, just like working in a factory isn’t for everyone, but it absolutely works for me.
PS: I don’t actually work in a factory. I just treat novels like assembly lines.
SS: I know you are currently working on another novel, One Thin Dime. Anything you can tell us about that?
DF: OTD is a killer. Essentially, anyone who is a fan of Condo will flip over OTD. It has all the elements of the debut (NYC culture satire, cartoonish decadence, razor dialogue, slapstick slacker characters) but is far more ambitions in its scope and execution. As a matter of fact, it is an international crime caper. It’s done. Who knows when it will be published. But the Dime is finished. And this will be the last novel I write that takes place in New York City. Haters rejoice.
Check out my piece over at Heavy Feather Review about the top five fake songs in Condominium.
Or read it here:
It probably says a lot about Condominium that none of the top five songs looming over the plot are by bands that ever existed. Whether this is an indicator of good things about the novel (“A cutting, surreal satire!”) or negative aspects (“What the hell is this thing even about?”) is up in the air, but the fact remains that these five songs have never been heard within this world. But they are heard loud and clear in the world of the novel and within the headspaces of Charles and Sarah and the rest of the gaggle of characters slouching across its pages.
If this list were to be extended past these five (“Just What Everyone Wanted: The Top 310 Songs Influencing An Unknown Novel”), there would be detailed analysis of lesser known Stones songs from their “Sucking in the 70s” period, long and passionate passages about how ethereal and otherworldly The Byrds were in their prime, and at least one heartfelt tribute to the criminally underrated songwriting prowess of Boy George, but hey man, I’m lazy, so we’ll just get Lenny Kaye or David Fricke in to cover these at a later date. If we can afford them. Which we can’t.
Here are the top five songs only that reign large over the nonplot of Condominium, a novel.
Cyanide Breakfast, “Ultraviolet Ditch”
Cashing in on the post-Nirvana “sign anything in plaid with a pulse” mid-90s record company gold rush, Skags Cassidy and his merry band of Doc Marten warriors found themselves with their lone MTV Buzz Bin hit in 1996. Although it landed them a gold record, an opening slot on a Soundgarden arena tour, and semi-intensive Spincoverage for much of that year, one thing it didn’t lead to was another hit. Best known today for The Ditch’s inclusion on a variety of “Grunge Greats” Spotify playlists, Cyanide’s legacy has not managed to achieve the same level of cult dedication that similarly defunct peers such as Candlebox or Blind Melon have enjoyed. Yet although Skags’s eventual, and sadly inevitable, 2001 death from a combination of heroin, pink starburst, and Prozac in his mother’s Washington State trailer missed all the daily papers and received only single paragraph obits in the music monthlies, there is at least one individual on the planet who has been haunted by the man, his lyrics, his pain over the decades that have since passed.
It isn’t just that Charles mourns the anniversary of Skags’s death by setting up makeshift murals comprised of old Cyanide Breakfast cassettes, notebooks full of his high school poetry, and crusty old photos cut from 1996 issues of Sassy and Spin. It isn’t just that he owns bootleg copies of Cyanide’s early demos and can identify key points in each song’s progression. It isn’t just that he can talk for hours about the difference between a 1990 Cyanide bass progression and a more advanced 1994 progression. What really bleeds through is Charles’s obsession with these forgotten and unappreciated lyrics, his looking to them for guidance and his hopes that they will fly him away from his present situation on their pseudopoetic wings. What is Skags telling him in this song, he wonders. That the vibes you cast help shape your dimension? That due to this, nobody ever really dies? No, no, Skags isn’t telling him this. It is something simpler, something far less abstract. Skags is telling him to speak to Abrielle.
Living this life in an ultraviolet ditch, three roads, three turns, three chances I’ve missed, crashed to the gutter but I’m telling you this, I’m vivid as ever in this ultraviolet ditch.
Alligator Uprising, “Scales of Love”
Representing the gutter grime of the 70s’ Lower East Side even though they were born in 1980, fashioning gritty, minimalist guitar lines in a $1,500-per-hour ultra-modern Pro Tools studio, slurring lyrics scrawled on napkins in by-the-crate dive bars frequented by slumming models, Alligator Uprising ascended to eventual Coachella big font status on the back of the catchy and derivative “Scales of Love” in the early 2000s. This is a song assembled from pieces of so many other artist’s songs that it stands ironclad against litigation. Which is a good thing, since it was their only mainstream hit and still the song all the kids scream for when they’re headlining Molly Fest in Birmingham, Alabama, each year to pay those mortgages.
Although we never actually meet the shag-cut, plastic jacket-clad crew in Condominium, they still loom large over the plot just like they do over Urban Outfitters. They may not be playing over the sound system, but their legacy reigns over every aisle of $110 v neck t-shirts. As the love interest, and heroin source, for part time H&M model Ruthie, Micah Deluca of Alligator Uprising plays a key role in the story, fueling both the drama between Ruthie and her sleazed-out advertising BF Andrew and the heroin use of the main characters. Scales of Love even shows up on Ruthie’s ringtone. I’ve been told by many that Andrew and Ruthie should have been the main characters in the novel, that they are much more interesting than Charles and Sarah, and though I mostly agree, I would instead say that the main characters should have been Micah D. and his Alligator cohorts. In the original manuscript, the Alligators were based on a real band, and that band’s afro-sporting guitarist was the heroin source/Ruthie love interest, but I was told by many an agent and publisher that this would be an instant lawsuit from those born-rich, lawyered-up Chuck Taylor enthusiasts. So Alligator Uprising they became. Claws To The Sky.
Andrew: I don’t know which one it is. Some drug addict with stringy hair and bad skin
Sarah: That doesn’t narrow it down at all, Andrew.
As Cyanide’s old rivals, The DO never managed to score a hit despite two Spin-acclaimed records on Columbia. Grittier and more “real” than Skags and the boys, the DO crew were known for wearing real-deal stained and mothballed thrift store plaid as opposed to The Breakfast’s designer lumberjack shirts, scuffed motorcycle boots instead of pricey Docs, and claimed to have “grown up around some real dark shit” and not just press release fodder. “Skags Cassidy makes a big deal out of growing up in a trailer park and stuff,” the band once famously stated in their lone 120 Minutes appearance from 1993. “Well, we grew up in a train station, man. Next to a homeless shelter. And there was no vending machine.”
Although we never actually get to hear Dormitory Overdose in the novel, we do come across them in a flashback sequence where Charles describes, in hallucinatory fashion, a business trip he had made to London several years prior where he discovered a DO CD at a used items sale in Camden. As a Cyanide devotee, his choice of Skags and crew over the realer, darker Dormitory boys is an important one. Charles is accused many times throughout the book (and several times by critics of the book) for being too bland, to finance worker, too white baseball cap for the earthy, stoned-out Sarah. But there is a darker side to Charles that goes beyond his lone real-life bad habit (hint: cotton candy), an inner Dormitory Overdose that is only reached through his internal observations and long flights of spiraling thoughts and fears. That he runs across this grittier group in a flashback sequence only known to readers says lots about Charles. There is a lot going on inside, but those ripples barely register on the surface. Sarah recognizes this hint of “real” below the overgrown frat bro exterior, which is essentially what has kept her with him for this long.
Well, that and the fact that he can afford a Williamsburg condo, of course.
The International, “Unwritten Dirge”
With Waterfront Tower(s) 96 percent sold, moving those final units is a life-or-death priority for the Community Board. Unfortunately, one of the prospective new tenants just refuses to give up his pet monkey and won’t move in unless the Board’s primate ban is lifted. And just who might this troublesome prospective tenant be? No less that Gentrified Brooklyn royalty, the mumbling lead singer of white person crisis dirge-crescendo-heavyweights The International. Can you imagine the StreetEasy wow factor of having this early-middle-aged, wine drunk, suit jacket aficionado inhabiting a condo building? Imagine what this would do for the square footage value. Surely this tenant is entirely worth the possible chimp hoarding fines?
Although the dirge in question has not yet been written by the novel’s close, it is more the threat of the dirge that impacts the book. “He’ll write a dirge about this, man,” warns Charles when the Board tells him of the situation. Not only would Waterfront Tower(s) lose a key prospective buyer that could be leveraged for his fame (and really, being the lead singer of The International is basically the equivalent of being Justin Bieber in North Brooklyn), but they would also be the target of The International’s latest eight-minute dirge, seven minutes of depressive mumbling followed by a minute of life-affirming crescendo. A developer may be able to handle the loss of a big-name buyer, but could never live through this dirge.
Needless to say, the monkey stays.
Gaggle of Hens, “Unnamed Animal Band Song”
Sarah: I believe they are called Deer Tick, or maybe Deer Hunter, or wait, no, they are Band of Foxes or Wolves or Horses or Snakes. I guess what I’m getting at is that they are one of those animal groups.
Charles: All groups are named after animals these days, huh?
Sarah: Every. Single. One.
At the time Condominium was being written, every single band that received even cursory attention on Pitchfork or the other indie payola music blogs was named after some sort of animal. Or bird. Or reptile. This was pretty much a requirement at that time if your band wanted any attention at all or to even get a gig within the borough of Brooklyn. Fortunately, the formula was pretty easy. All you had to do was pick an animal, any animal would do, and add a noun that described some sort of grouping. Animal Collective would be a good example. Band of Horses another. Or Wolf Parade. Some bands stepped outside this box and included the animal without the grouping, and those bands were mercilessly mocked or ended up failures (Deer Tick would fall into the former category, Wolf Eyes the latter). So when it came time to decide which fake band Charles and Sarah would come across playing the coveted Williamsburg waterfront summer series, it could only be Gaggle of Hens.
What Gaggle of Hens represents is the very spirit of the then-rapidly gentrifying north Brooklyn. It really was an interesting time period to witness, when invading gentrifiers like Charles and Sarah had to stare right into the eyes of their very worst nightmare: people without 401Ks. Found objects sculptors living in illegal lofts. Barbacks playing bass in nine different bands. Cute bearded barista boys trying, and in some cases succeeding, in luring away their girlfriends or wives. Girls with unlicensed pottery stands and half-ironic Indian headdresses turning the heads of their day trader husbands on Sunday walks to the new Duane Reade. It was an unsettling meeting of the urban tribes that even, for a few short months there, saw an unlikely mingling of two worlds drawn together by common interests such as Molly and dancing stiffly to Gathering of Panda Bears. Just like with the pilgrims and Indians, the invading tribe stepped back and slaughtered the natives mercilessly after this brief utopia, killing off music venues and artist spaces to make room for much-needed juiceries, banks, and wine bars, but for a brief flashing moment there it really was looking like the Summer of Love. With Gaggle of Hens providing the soundtrack. Or Fleet Foxes. Or Grizzly Bear. Or Dayglo Lemurs. Or Smattering of Pterodactyls. Or …
Okay I’m tired, so I’m happy to announce that numbers 6-99 will be covered by Lenny Kaye and David Fricke after all. We can’t pay them, but fortunately our lawyers discovered that these two are contractually obligated to appear or be quoted in any written music list or documentary on underappreciated but highly influential bands. So it’s been real, but I’m off to have a bowl. Take it away, Lenny.
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.