Is This The Funniest Novelist In America? Interview With James Hynes, Author Of 'Next'

Hynes has in the past made major contributions to the campus comedy genre; with this courageous breakout novel, he's now one of our major American novelists, period.
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James Hynes has delightedly taken apart Austin, Texas. Austin is a place with many pretensions to liberality; it's an overgrown campus town that has accumulated many layers of postmodern irony. It was a city begging to be deconstructed, and now Hynes--who moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Austin--has done it. His book Next is an outrageously funny, stream-of-consciousness novel--reminding us of James Joyce's Ulysses--where we stay in the mind of one Kevin Quinn, a university press editor visiting from Ann Arbor for a day, to interview for an editing job at a private company located in a downtown Austin skyscraper (the skyscraper is important!). Kevin is middle-class white male angst writ large; he has a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth; and he worries about being killed by terrorists. He's trying to escape from a relationship commitment (aren't all single middle-aged men?), but he keeps viewing all the women he meets, on this one most important day of his life, in very objectifying terms--he can't help himself. Next is a late--and perhaps one of the very last significant--entrants to the 9/11 novel genre. Its ending is completely unexpected. It's a sign of Hynes's maturity as a novelist that he even tried to pull it off--and completely succeeded too! Hynes has in the past made major contributions to the campus comedy genre; with this courageous breakout novel, he's now one of our major American novelists, period.

Here's what his editor at Little Brown, Reagan Arthur, told me about her reaction to the novel:

And here are recordings of Hynes's readings at Iowa City from his previous novels, one from The Lecturer's Tale and one from Kings of Infinite Space.

Shivani: You begin Next with Kevin's exaggerated fears about Stinger missiles shooting down his plane as it lands in Austin, Texas. You're making fun of our artificial fears. Novels are a humanizing force, or we wouldn't read them. How does Next humanize us? What does Next say about our vulnerability to unnecessary fear?

Hynes: What I hope it does is show that vulnerability on the granular level, moment by moment, in the privacy of the character's thoughts, when he doesn't think anyone is listening. That's where we're all most human--which is a bit of a paradox, because it's also the moment when we're most cut off from other people. One of those recently re-released Hans Fallada novels has a wonderful title, at least in its English translation--Every Man Dies Alone--and perhaps it reveals too much of my own mindset, but I can't help but think that every one of us also lives alone, really. As I used to tell my students, back when I was still teaching, none of us ever really knows what other people are thinking--that's the heart of all philosophical inquiry, if you ask me, trying to get at the world, and other consciousnesses, outside our own heads--and the great gift of literature is to put us in the head of someone else, even if it is only an imaginary person, and show us what the world looks like through his or her eyes. And it's when we're inside the character's head, or our own heads, for that matter, that we're most vulnerable to all sorts of unreasonable fears. Though, of course, part of what Next is about is that a fear is only unreasonable until it isn't anymore.

Shivani: The bumbling fool with little social skill--and no ability with women--is a staple of the campus novel. The campus novel is always a comedy. You've transposed a figure from the campus comedy--Kevin Quinn--to the "real world." Is that the key clash, that the humanistic/liberal/tolerant mind cannot function well in the corporate-bureaucratic world?

Hynes: I've worked both in and out of academia--mostly out, in fact--and I'm here to tell you, academia has no monopoly on bumbling, romantically inept guys. (And god knows, there are plenty of confident, seductive charmers on campus...) And at any rate, Kevin doesn't really work in the "real world," as you've defined it: he's a university staffer, which means he works in academia, though not as an academic. As for whether the humanistic mind can function in the corporate/bureaucratic world, that's a very interesting question, but it's not one that Next addresses, really. My previous novel, Kings of Infinite Space, about a failed academic working for the Texas state government, does address it, however. Not to sneak in a plug or anything.

Shivani: And isn't that something like what James Joyce was trying to do with the humanist figure of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses? Was Ulysses a major inspiration for Next?

Hynes: Right from the beginning, I knew Next was going to be a day-in-the-life novel (which, I only just learned, is also called a "circadian novel"), and I knew I'd finally have to read Ulysses all the way through, if only so I could answer questions like this one. I'd tried two or three times before and failed--but manfully, even heroically, with no shame attached. I was the Ernest Shackleton of Ulysses readers. But finally, with the help of a couple of books about Ulysses (one of which was Anthony Burgess's Re: Joyce, which I recommend), I made it all the way through. It's absolutely deserving of its reputation (which I'm sure James Joyce, wherever he is, is relieved to hear), but it's one of those books I admire rather than really love. Compared to James Joyce, of course, I'm just a monkey with a typewriter, but the fact is, it didn't really influence Next all that much, at least not consciously; I never thought of Leopold Bloom as I was writing it. Mrs. Dalloway, Updike's Rabbit novels, and Svevo's Zeno's Conscience were actually much more influential. In the end, Ulysses wasn't an influence on Next so much as writing Next was an excuse to finally finish Ulysses.

Shivani: How similar is Austin to Ann Arbor, Michigan? Or did some of the differences prompt what seems like a new direction in your fiction?

Hynes: I used to think Austin was quite a bit like Ann Arbor, only hotter (university town full of writers and intellectuals, liberal haven in an otherwise conservative state, blah blah blah). That's the impression I gave Kevin, and maybe it was like that when I first moved to Austin 15 years ago. But Austin is no longer much like Ann Arbor anymore, if it ever was: Austin is bigger, more prosperous (in some places), livelier, more diverse ethnically, culturally, and politically, and just plain more exciting. Not that I'm a civic booster necessarily: it's also more infuriating, too. I visit friends in Ann Arbor every year or so, and I can get terribly nostalgic about it--especially in the spring, when it's so leafy and luminously green and cool, like an academic Elysium. But it's basically a quiet Midwestern collegiate enclave, and Austin is bursting at the seams, in both good ways and bad ways. I don't think the differences between the two played an important role in the conception and execution of Next, but who knows what the subconscious effect might have been? I only picked the two cities to set the book in because they're the two places in the world I know best, and I'm lazy.

Shivani: This novel couldn't take place in Dallas or San Antonio, right? Austin is like a really large campus town. Or wishes to pretend it is.

Hynes: Geographically, it couldn't happen in Dallas, because there's not really a center to the city, the way there is in Austin. Many of the interesting places in Austin are still pretty much in walking distance of each other, if you can stand the heat; Kevin learns a lot about the town just by walking around, which I don't think you could do in Dallas. You need a lot of time in the car to really see Dallas, assuming you'd want to. As for San Antonio, it's just too touristy downtown. Kevin cruising the Riverwalk or visiting the Alamo wouldn't have been nearly as interesting.

I disagree about Austin being a large campus town, or that Austinites think of it that way anymore. The University of Texas is not the dominant institution in town. The music scene, the film and TV industry, all the computer and software companies, state government--there's too much going on here that has nothing to do with UT. When I first moved here, the only thing I knew about Austin was Austin City Limits and Charles Whitman, but these days, when most outsiders think of Austin, they think of the SXSW conference, the ACL Music Festival, Dell computers, and the movies that are shot here. Oh, and Willie Nelson and Sandra Bullock, our local Zeus and Athena.

Shivani: What is your experience of shopping at the main Whole Foods store in Austin? You feature Gaia (filling in for Whole Foods) quite a bit in Next. It's a kind of church gathering, ritual exorcism, bohemian club, yuppie paradise, and detox clinic all at once, isn't it?

Hynes: Like a lot of people all over the country, not just in Austin, I have a love/hate relationship with Whole Foods. It's overwhelming every time I go in--all that great looking food, all those great looking people, all those great boomer oldies coming out of the speakers, all that fucking ambiance. Christ, it even smells great, and all the people who work there are insanely attractive and helpful. But, like every lower-middle-class, day-job-holding midlist writer I know, I can't really afford to shop there. If I let myself, I could blow my whole weekly food budget on exotic cheeses, fancy chocolate, and chipotle ketchup. If I'm feeling flush, sometimes I stop in and buy the vegan oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, but even those are a buck apiece. I do most of my shopping at Randall's.

Shivani: Have you written about strong, action-oriented, decisive male characters? If they haven't been your leading characters, why is that so?

Hynes: My books are full of strong, action-oriented male characters--Jimmy Coogan in The Wild Colonial Boy>, Victor Karswell in Publish and Perish, Anthony Pescacane in The Lecturer's Tale, and Colonel Travis in Kings of Infinite Space. It's just that they're all bad guys, one way or another, which probably goes a long way toward answering the second part of your question. As a twitchy, dorky, neurotic, self-doubting-bordering-on-self-loathing kind of guy myself, I either resent or don't trust strength and decisiveness in others. Where other people these days are shouting at President Obama on the TV screen, saying "Do something! Fix it now!", I'm shouting, "No! Don't rush things! It's complicated! Think about it some more! For chrissake, don't be hasty!"

Shivani: Why do you think the campus comedy is so satisfying? Is it a kind of safe pastoral for our urbanized times?

Hynes: One of my favorite quotes is from Borges: "There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless." I love scholarship, I love artists and writers, I love the life of the mind, I love academics, but let's face it, most of what most of them do, most of the time, is pretty useless. (Mainly I'm talking about the liberal arts here, not the academics who are curing cancer, say.) And yet (cue the famous Mencken quote), they take themselves so seriously, and it's the disjunction between what they actually accomplish in the world and how highly they think of what they're doing that is so comical. Plus, there's just something in human nature that finds people who spend their lives thinking and writing ridiculous, perhaps because so much of the rest of the world is struggling just to get by. I include novelists in the general uselessness of the highly educated, just so you know. If all the novelists in the world vanished tomorrow, the world would be a much less interesting place, but if all the plumbers disappeared, civilization would collapse in a matter of days. I learned this by watching Modern Marvels on the History Channel.

Shivani: Explain how you keep Next so engaging despite the relative lack of action, and despite it all being in Kevin's head.

Hynes: It's the gags, basically. If you're funny, you can get away with doing nothing for pages at a time. I'm not entirely joking about this, either: one of my favorite books is Catch-22, and not a lot goes on in that book, despite its being about World War II. Pages and pages go by, and Heller is just riffing and vamping, and yet it's never dull, and the cumulative effect is astonishingly powerful.

On a slightly more serious note, one thing I hope that young writers don't give up on in the age of the David Shields pomo pastiche or the short attention span we're all coming down with from the Internet--hey, check out this cat on a treadmill, OMG, he's sooooo cute! --where was I? Oh yeah, this is what I wanted to say to the Young Writers of America: Dare to be boring. Dare to go on at great and exhausting length. Many of the greatest books ever written (Don Quixote, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow) are huge, shambling, baggy, exhausting experiences, and I'm terrified that people are going to lose their aptitude for writing and reading narratives like that. Moderation in the pursuit of literature is no virtue. David Foster Wallace, we hardly knew ye.

Shivani: Next is very funny. About Gaia/Whole Foods, Kevin contemplates: "And because the brainy Chomsky readers who run the co-ops have a political analysis, they know exactly what's happening to them; it's the last reenactment of the Battle of Bertrand Russell--first time as farce, second time as tragedy--as the gentle vegans and pacifists who thought they could wear down corporate hegemony like water on a rock find instead that corporate hegemony has opened wide and is eating them alive, and they get to watch their own death, kicking and screaming like Robert Shaw in Jaws." You're showing how the content of our political thought is directly transposable to novels, and how this content is absolutely ridiculous, even in its most rarefied expressions.

Hynes: Well, at the risk of making a sweeping generalization, part of what I was trying to imply here was (some of) the left's ineffectual relationship to real power. The right doesn't seem to have that problem; they take control of institutions and force their will on the rest of us. So, on the one hand, you have the city councils of liberal college towns like Ann Arbor or Berkeley passing utterly useless resolutions against the Iraq War, which does fuck all to actually stop the war, but makes everybody feel morally superior. On the other hand, you have the religious right in Texas taking over the state school board and actually changing the content of what students learn in schools. I don't know what the difference is exactly--perhaps it's because the right is fundamentally more authoritarian and associates no shame or guilt with the use of power, while the left, at least the American liberal left, feels that the exercise of political power is somehow dirty.

Shivani: You're playing with politically correct notions about race, gender, and class throughout Next, aren't you? Kevin can't think a thought without worrying--as a good liberal must--if he's crossing any lines. How does a novelist deal with reality--which is absolutely politically incorrect, as corporate hegemony and warmaking empire must be--without offending the very readers who're living through the worst effects of the reality?

Hynes: He probably can't. (He or she can't, of course! That's what I meant to say!) This is something I wrestled with from the first day of working on Next. Whenever I read over what I'd already written, I couldn't help but cringe at some of the things Kevin thinks. He manages to be insulting to Muslims, Lebanese, Sufis, young women, middle-aged women, Asian American women, women in general, Amy Tan in particular--and that's just the first ten pages. But in the end, I left it all in and just kept going, because what's the point of writing a serious novel set in the head of its main character if you're not willing to be ruthlessly truthful about what he thinks and who he is? During any historical period of great social change, you're going to have people who, intellectually and morally, agree with the new attitudes and social arrangements, but whose instincts and gut feelings will have been irrevocably fixed by the attitudes of their childhood, which means guys like Kevin (and probably me) will find themselves mentally reining in their baser opinions and instincts on a daily basis. And on a more general level, the thing that literary fiction can do better than almost any other art form is to put you in the head of someone else, and whenever you have complete access to the unfiltered thoughts of another person--when you lift the top of their skull and look inside, so to speak--you're not going to like everything you see. That's the case with pretty much everybody on the planet, regardless of race, gender, or class. In the immortal words of that great philosopher, LeBron James, it is what it is. One starting point for any real discussion about race, gender, etc., is to admit that even an ordinarily decent liberal guy like Kevin--who would be mortified if other people found out what he was thinking at any given moment--are capable of some pretty unappealing thoughts.

Shivani: On the other hand, is there a way in which you see Austin as rather a hopeful small metropolis for the future? In terms of race, gender, and class relations? How does Next express this hope?

Hynes: I'm skeptical of using Austin as some sort of bellwether for racial and political progress. It's a hip, exciting city, with a lot of diversity, but it's also still pretty racially and economically divided. I wonder how many of the hipsters from New York or LA who descend on us during SXSW or ACL spend any time at all over on the east side of I-35, which is a locus of the usual, discouraging battles over gentrification, police brutality, lack of opportunity, unequal distribution of city resources, etc., that you will find in any American city. I doubt that the Hispanic guys who blow the leaves out of my apartment building's parking lot see Austin any differently than they would Houston or Dallas, and I know for a fact that the average working artist in Austin--from your ordinary gigging musician to your day-job-holding midlist writer--sees a very different Austin than, say, Michael Dell does, or, for that matter, than do the aimlessly ambling hipsters who make my drive home from work during SXSW such a pain in the ass. In fact, as I've been thinking about what I want to write about next, I've started to become really obsessed with this question: what is it like to have been raised middle class, have a middle-class education, middle-class friends, middle class tastes, and a middle-class mindset, and yet wake up one day in midlife and realize you're not actually middle-class anymore?

Shivani: In a sense, aren't all the interesting characters in Next escapees from high culture? We're all inhabiting a very low-level popular culture, which makes complex human emotions difficult. How can the novelist be true to this reality without getting too saturated by its inanities himself?

Hynes: Well, I disagree with the premise of the question, for two reasons. One is that I don't think that any of the characters are escapees from high culture, perhaps because I don't know exactly what you mean by high culture. Kevin and his girlfriend, Stella, are both ordinary middle-class white Midwesterners, and the Latina professional he meets and has a conversation with, Claudia Barrientos, comes from a working-class background in the Rio Grande Valley. All of these characters are steeped in popular culture, as are we all. It's the sea in which we all swim. Which brings me to the other reason I disagree with the premise: I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I used to worry quite a bit about the whole high culture/low culture divide, specifically in relation to my own work: was I a serious literary novelist? Or was I a pop novelist, because all of my books before Next had strong genre elements? In the end, I finally decided it didn't matter, and I'm relieved to say I don't worry about it any more. At the risk of sounding more like a postmodernist than I want to, I think we live in a cultural age when the high and the low are so interpenetrated that you can't really tell the difference any longer. Think of the terrific literary writers whose love and deep appreciation of pop culture informs their work--just off the top of my head, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon. And consider television: on the one hand, we live in an age of unbelievable crap--the Real Housewives shows, all those cheesy paranormal shows on the History Channel--but on the other hand we live in a golden age of narrative storytelling, at least on cable. I'd put The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Breaking Bad up against most of the literary fiction being written today, both in terms of sophistication of artistic technique and in terms of moral and political seriousness. And yet, by most definitions, they are all works of popular culture. The cool thing, in fact, is that whereas guys of my generation still wrestle with this, I don't think younger writers do that much anymore. When I was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the late 1980s, we'd all sneak home on Tuesday night after workshop and secretly watch thirtysomething, and then apologetically admit we thought it wasn't bad, for a TV show. When I went back to Iowa to teach 15 years later, all the best, smartest, most ambitious young writers I knew were completely up front and unapologetic about their love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Shivani: Kevin, toward the end, reflects: "Sometimes the worst thing that you can imagine happening, actually does." Can we say that this is one way novels help us to become better humans, by imagining the worst that can happen? For example--Swift anticipating the worst errors of the enlightenment just as it was beginning to be hatched. Orwell and Huxley were on the mark with their prophecies, and don't they help us live through our travails better? Novels are generally far behind disruptive reality. Does that make you feel sad?

Hynes: No, it doesn't make me sad, because that's the nature of novel writing. It takes a long time to write a novel--or at least it takes me a long time to write a novel, to my agent's eternal dismay--and anyway it's not the novel's job to bring us the news, necessarily, but to explain what happened. It's a way of experiencing something afresh that you thought you already knew, and that can only be done retroactively, after the fact. Didacticism isn't the novel's strong suit. Years ago, Jane Smiley published a famous article in Harper's, making the case that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a better book than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Her argument, as I recall it, was that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a morally superior book, that it condemned slavery before the Civil War, that it made the moral arguments more forthrightly and unambiguously. All of which may be true, but it's also true that Huck Finn is a much, much better book, and part of what makes it a better book is the fact that its moral stance on slavery, as experienced through the character of Huck, is full of human confusion and ambiguity and uncertainty. You can feel righteously outraged at Simon Legree in Uncle Tom, but you can't identify with him as a living, breathing person, whereas in Huck Finn, you're experiencing Huck's struggle to see Jim as a human being right alongside him. If there's a more thrilling experience in American literature than the moment in Chapter 31 where Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell," and decides not to turn Jim in as a runaway, I don't know what it is. It brings tears to my eyes every time I read it, and I get goosebumps just thinking about it. There's not a single moment like it in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Uncle Tom is a sermon, which means to bully you into thinking the right thing. Huck Finn provides an epiphany, which means to change you from the inside.

Shivani: Is fatherhood a trap? Is giving in to its attractions one of the ways the educated American male has given up control? A subtext for your entire novel seems to be: Why can't we have a prolonged male adolescence? Why the hell can't we? Technology, communications, and infrastructure allow it.

Hynes: Not having had kids myself, I have no idea if fatherhood is a trap. My friends who are fathers certainly don't think so, and on the whole, they're all much nicer and more well-rounded than I am. I'm not sure that Next endorses Kevin's prolonged adolescence so much as it explains it and, implicitly, asks the reader, do you want to end up like this guy? Though, as you say, in this day and age, there's no reason for anyone to be a father if they don't want to be. I suspect the pressure for a woman to be a parent is worse than is for a man--never in my entire life has anyone ever asked me when I was planning to have kids, the way people have asked single women of my acquaintance. I can honestly say I don't regret not having kids, but I don't hold myself up as a role model, either. Those men who undertake fatherhood seriously are probably doing more for posterity than all my novels put together.

Shivani: Next feels at times like a novel of white middle-aged male regret, but it isn't just that. It seems like a satire of post-9/11 paranoia, but that's not its sum. It also seems like a satire of corporate culture, but that's not all it is. You show how a writer can take the novelistic motivations for a bunch of these genres, mix them up together, and show some paths out of the conventions of each genre. You're showing the inseparability of comedy and tragedy.

Hynes: Somehow, over the course of my career, I've gotten pegged as a comic novelist, and that's been both a boon--people like funny books--and a burden. It's a cliche for the clown to complain that nobody takes clowns seriously, but hey, nobody takes clowns seriously, and sometimes, they should. One of the novels I mentioned earlier, Catch-22, is both a) a very funny book and b) one of the great books of the 20th century, about a very serious topic. Ditto for Lolita and Slaughterhouse Five and Good Soldier Svejk and Gravity's Rainbow and lots of others. Just like I don't trust people who have no sense of humor, I don't quite trust any novel that doesn't have at least a little wit and irony to it. A comic sensibility, or at least a sympathy for it, seems to me be an indispensable part of being both an artist and a human being.

Shivani: What is next? The next chapter, the next book, the next move, the next era, the next horror, the next liberation, the next tragedy, the next comedy--what comes next? In fact, there is only prologue, no epilogue, for any good fiction writer, isn't that true?

Hynes: I have no idea, and neither does anybody else. We all live on the leading edge of a rolling wave; everything behind us is prologue, and everything ahead is mystery. As Hamlet said, at that moment when he was finally dealing with what comes next, the rest is silence.

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