In Beemer, a twenty-five-year-old
image guru takes on a cocksure thirteen-year-old,
video-game-savvy kid who seems poised to take over
the world-as-we-know-it. Two questions spring immediately
to mind. Is our culture already so dangerously youth-driven
that twenty-five is the age of clay feet?
There are a lot of people, my admittedly
slacker / L.A. friends having mid-career crises,
who insist that "thirty is the new twenty,"
and that it's okay to not get started on your "real
work" until then. Beemer doesn't know these
people, and he couldn't get along with them. He
is, at least at the beginning of the novel, a finely
distilled shot of raw, untapped ambition. He's also
paranoid, and rightfully so. We celebrate successful
youth with reckless abandon—see: Kobe Bryant,
Jonathan Safran Foer—because it's a good story,
and there are simply more outlets for that today
than ever before. But it's always been there, to
At least in the brochures,
America's always been a kid's game, a nation sold
on the idea that you have the opportunity to make
it big—and fast! Hell, Orson Wells was twenty-five
when he made Citizen Kane. The better we
can sell this idea—it can happen for you!—the
older a guy like Beemer will feel by the time he's
And second, is literature a true
haven against pop culture’s drive for hip
image and youth at all costs? Or is it merely a
I've always considered literature
a form of pop culture, and I'm not sure how a writer
can stay relevant without paying very close attention.
The cycles of what's hot and not don't oscillate
as quickly as they do in hip-hop or footwear, but
throughout history, I'd say books (and writers)
don't take off unless there's buzz, and even what's
sold as serious literature needs to address the
moment, the now. There's a little more space to
step back, take it in, but even us thirty-or-so-year-old
novelists are plagued by stories of twenty-three-year-old
wonderkids with epics in their backpacks.
But then, I come from a
background of journalism, not literature, so maybe
I just don't know what I'm talking about. I'm also
guilty of writing a book riddled with name brands
and trademarks and famous people's names, and we'll
see if it stands up even six months from now. Hopefully
there's enough Truth in the novel that it'll still
be relevant once Justin Timberlake is old enough
to legally drink and has to retire, but we'll see…
That twenty-five-year-old image
consultant, Beemer Minutia, is a fun, beautifully
detailed spin on that tried-and-true archetype,
the corrupting but loveable rake. He’s got
a hilariously elaborate backstory to match. Could
you tell us a little about how you created him?
Did he predate the novel’s plot, instance?
And did you model him on people you know?
The character of Beemer, yes, came
before the plot of the book, emerging as the voice
of ramblings and essays I wrote while moving to
and settling in Southern California. Not surprising
for a first novel, he's a funhouse-mirror version
of myself, sharing a similar, if entirely exaggerated,
worldview to backstory.
Beemer's childhood is what
he calls an eighteen-year-road trip, based on my
youth moving from Air Force base to Air Force base,
always on the far outskirts of a great and wonderful
place (L.A., London) or in the middle of nowhere.
He grows to believe his connection to and deep understanding
of mass media and road culture is special, that
this is his advantage over the hipster city dwellers
caught up in the moment, his leverage on the rest
of his generation.
Once Beemer came into focus,
his foils (and story) emerged: a more cunning and
successful manipulator of culture (Paul), a younger,
faster, smarter version of Beemer (Young Brandon
Tartikoff), and his mirror-image in time-space,
Stamp, who loses himself completely in faux-nostalgia
as Beemer does in "the future."
Given its frenetic pace and pop-image
references, Beemer readers might be forgiven for
thinking first of movies, rather than books, as
they turn the pages. Films by the Coen brothers,
How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Fight
Club come most readily to mind. How influential
is film on you as a writer? Does it take precedence
over the influence literature might have?
You caught me. I'm a film nut, and
close inspection of my lifestyle will reveal that
I spend more time watching movies and playing video
games than reading books. Bad form for a novelist?
I'm also guilty of reading more science fiction,
graphic novels and nonfiction than "serious"
David Lynch and Paul Verhoeven
have had as much of an influence on my writing,
if not more, than David Foster Wallace and Hunter
Thompson. I'm drawn to and work with, often, the
mood of a cinematic scene. I'll write with a moment
in mind, a "shot" that I want to build
toward or deconstruct, and until I write it, that
shot lives in my head as something out of a movie:
a lovers spat around the harsh lunchtime sun on
a concrete table outside an office park, a man walking
alone toward a desert highway. The visuals help
me see everything else, the meaning in the moment.
It's only a mild exaggeration
to say that everything I learned about writing dialogue
comes the Coen brothers, and I dare you to find
a more dead-on and moving exploration of The American
Dream than Raising Arizona.
The book's cinematic style
also has to do with Beemer's sensibility. He's telling
this story, and he's an electronic media junkie.
He admires the pace of basketball over baseball,
the movie over the novel, the new over the old.
He takes these things to the point of obsession,
and it's only appropriate that his conflicts and
fears manifest in his narrative as video game hallucinations
and car-chase action sequences rather than long,
interior monologues or some such portrait-of-the-artist
crap. That's so old-world. Come on.
Beemer is a satirical
novel, and as such, one would expect it to have
an implicit warning for its readers. Our dependence,
as a society, on pop-culture image over substance
seems an obvious target. But what, precisely, is
the novel’s warning—and how do you (particularly
as a writer for Entertainment Weekly) personally
feel about pop culture?
I've never really thought about
the book as a warning, or a message. To me, it's
more of an argument, an illumination, and what I'm
hoping to get across is this: pop culture is real.
It's meaningful. It's important because people make
it important to them, just as people make romance
and religion important to them. I wanted to write
a novel in which music and movies and bad cable
television and the things that connect so many of
us are taken as seriously—or skewered with
as much precision—as other books take (or
skewer) religion or marriage or any other serious
In a way, the novel is an
appreciation of a lot of the things it mocks: master-planned
communities, rampant consumerism, branding strategies
for beer. And by taking them to extremes, making
a boy band implicit in an act of domestic terrorism,
for example, I'm hoping to illustrate that what
we call pop culture is more than just a collection
of noise and trends. Because it's designed for fast,
mass appeal, it can be a powerful force for change
and connection. That's why I write about it. I know
millions of strangers, to whatever degree, because
we saw the same movies as kids, had the same heroes,
can quote the same funny bits of dialogue. That
makes us less likely, I believe, however naively,
to kill each other one day in battle.
Finally, two related questions.
Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone
they think has been unfairly ignored by the general
reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who
do you think is the best under-appreciated writer
Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy) wasn't exactly ignored
by the general public, but he was often dismissed
as simply a funny writer, a trifle. This was always
frustrating for me, as I consider his all-too-small
canon some of the finest modern writing about the
large-scale lunacy of this crazy Earth (dig, if
you haven't already, the Dirk Gently books). He
took on subjects large and small, and made them
so neat and ridiculous they started to make sense.
Today, there's a California
mathematician named Rudy Rucker who's writing some
very cool, very odd science fiction, which is hard
to do these days without falling into cyberpunk
clichés. He writes what feel like wacky books
but are packed with "hard sci-fi" ideas,
knowledgeable explorations of things like unseen
dimensions, time travel and human biology of the
far, far future. I'm reading Saucer Wisdom
now, which isn't exactly an elegant narrative, but
has such a Vonnegut-like sense of whimsy the Big
Ideas go down like Vanilla Coke. Good stuff.