Spend an hour in conversation with writer Walter Kirn, and you begin to understand how seemingly disparate subjects—automatons, American identity, a kid working in an ice cream shop in Utah—are intricately, and obviously, connected.
For 27 years, Kirn has dedicated himself to studying and to articulating the complex changes taking place in these United States. In 1990, Kirn published My Hard Bargain, an exquisite book of short stories exploring a range of individuals who struggle with faith, family, drugs and societal change—especially change brought about by globalization. In 2001, he published the novel Up in the Air (the film version of which stars George Clooney as a guy who fires people for a living and is desperate to earn one million air miles before he quits doing so). He’s also worked as a journalist and a book critic—he famously raved about Infinite Jest when others weren’t. In 2014 Kirn’s work came to real prominence with the publication of Blood Will Out, the true story of how he, and numerous others, were duped by murderer/con man “Clark Rockefeller.” That same year Kirn posted “Video Killed the Literary Star”—his much talked-about YouTube open letter to “Gary Shteyngart, traitor, and his accomplice, James Franco, MFA”—and interviewed himself for The New York Times. This January Playboy published Finishing, Kirn’s first short story in many years and a welcome return to the form.
As acutely jacked into the internet as they are to the back pages of our national and local newspapers, Kirn’s everyman characters traverse the United States from Ontario, California to New York City, but it’s middle America—Reno, Salt Lake City, St. Paul; Twain and Fitzgerald country—where his keen eye, his sharp sense of humor and his sentences, those damn fine sentences, originate and thrive. Kirn writes with verve and wit about how we worry, shop, think, screw and breathe. How we live. Because he’s fascinated by and concerned about us. Because he cares. We’re him; he’s us. And yes, all along, he’s been telling us he’s been doing this, and why. And, yes, we all know we haven’t been listening.
In the opening sentence of Finishing—“Serving ice cream to sunburned young families was the first job that Tyson Millner lost to a machine”—the subtle emphasis you place on the word first primed me for the read, and I was delighted at the story’s climax when you revealed the second job that Tyson loses to a machine. When in the writing of the story did you come up with the opening sentence?
I’m a very old-fashioned writer. I don’t outline or think through chunks and move them around. I go from beginning to end. I think that first line and that use of the word first was a very first germ of the story.
The story came from a meeting with a kid in Idaho, a 20-year-old Mormon kid, not unlike the story’s hero, who told me he was a little bit in despair about graduating from high school because his uncle had told him that in the future robots would take over most of the jobs that people do. And this kid was quite sincere in his worry about this scenario. I met him by accident one night, and I started thinking about his life afterward, about what it feels like to be part of a human generation that believes themselves for the first time to be inferior to computers and automated systems. I really put my heart into that scenario. That first line represented the foreshadowing of a life that would be in constant competition with machines.
Tyson accepts Mrs. Huggard’s insistence that he “work” with her vibrator. That he partner up with it. You end that section of the story with the word release. You’ve written elsewhere about your distrust and dissatisfaction with the rapid changes in technology during your lifetime, so why use the word release here?
There is a big story in our lives today. It’s not politics, finally. It’s not changes in relationships between men and women. It’s the relationship between the human and the non-human. Slowly but surely, we are giving way to our own creations. Our esteem as a species is starting to sink. I’ve watched all my life as people have become less rooted in place, less attached to the person they’re talking to, less a part of the community that they actually live in as opposed to the social media community that floats out there. I’ve watched people let themselves be displaced by their tools. One of the reasons this is such a relentless and inevitable fate is that it relieves us of responsibility for so much in life. As computers take over in companies, in consumer service departments, you see people turning over responsibility. “Oh, well, that’s the way the computer likes to do it. That’s the system now.” Interactions between people that used to be moderated by ethical and personal and social traditions have now been broken down into computerized tasks. All this is a way of saying that the word I chose represents relief, or release, from the responsibilities of being human, of feeling alone and responsible.
Mrs. Huggard names Lenny, the ice-cream-scooping robot, after a character in a book she loves. Is this an allusion to Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men?
Of Mice and Men is a strange story about laborers who are without property of their own, with a dream of a little farm of their own, but in the meantime, they work for others. Lenny is portrayed in that story as kind of simple and able to work, but in constant need of direction. And that is how Lenny the robot starts out [in Finishing]. That’s how machines start out. They need our direction. They’re kind of brutal automatons that require constant supervision. But Lenny in my story, like our machines in general, grows into an almost independent being.
Writers who don’t take on class in some robust, honest way tend not to interest me.
Throughout your career, you’ve written carefully about the United States. Consistently, you propose a nation whose characters and people are driven, tired, kind, paranoid, loving, deceitful and confessional. In other words, you craft humans. Which leaves me wondering how you feel toward Lenny.
In the end, I have a little bit of empathy for the machine, for the successor to the human laborer. I leave Lenny alone at the end of the story, without his partner, mechanically ably doing the job he was built to do because I wanted a glimpse into that future in which we’re not present. I wanted Tyson to disappear. I wanted the reader to suddenly find himself or herself longing for that human touch, and that’s the best way I could dramatize it.
I often wonder about a society whose great goal now seems to be replacing reality with virtual reality, with replacing human workers with machines. I’m a rather religious, spiritual person who tends to look at our condition from the great beyond and not as an entirely secular being, so for me there’s something about our current project of automation that seems a little bit unholy. As if we’re attempting to overturn the creation with a second, simulated world that is better under our control, but which lacks love and a deep emotional presence. And the moral of the fairy tale, or the question, is: Do we really want to go there? And where the hell is there?
I see us as spiritual beings in a world that is increasingly and decidedly materialistic. One in which every decision can be reduced to a binary yes/no piece of code. A world in which clothing ourselves and housing ourselves in increasingly luxurious fashion seems to be the only directive pushing society forward. I see the United States as a slightly tragic and poignant place in which freedom, materialism and individualism combine to create a loneliness, a solitude that I find very compelling.
This is a story ultimately about loneliness. It leaves the machine at the end all alone. It leaves its characters without jobs, without roles to play. And to me that is the essential feeling of being an American. Solitary, lost, yearning. Steinbeck wrote about one great theme — labor. Work, being useful in the world, and what it means to take your identity from what you do. To me that is an essential American concern. In this country, who we are and what we do are the same thing. And we’re coming to a point where there’s going to be quite little for us to do, for many of us. What kind of identities will we have at that point?
Finishing is also a story about class.
Class, as a social theme, is the great underrepresented concern in our literature. It’s the thing which makes us most uncomfortable, which we tend to be in denial about, yet which drives so much of our real lives. Writers who don’t take on class in some robust, honest way tend not to interest me.
This is a country that is so divided between the coasts and flyover country, between the billionaires and the super-rich of Silicon Valley and Wall Street and the rest of us, that we are losing our ability to see ourselves whole, to empathize with ourselves as a society rather than a collection of warring interest groups. In Finishing, I wanted to create a feeling for what it is simply to be human. I wanted to create, if it’s possible anymore, an everyman character who dramatizes a predicament as a species almost. We’re so broken down into identity groups, conflicting victimized subcultures, that I wanted to write, if it was even still possible, about a human situation that transcended all those definitions, those boundaries. Because I think that sometimes we’re starting to forget we’re human beings and not genders, races, classes and so on, and that was a deep underlying motivation for the story. I wanted to show some way in which we’re all in this together, and that was, in this story, our relationship to technology.
If machines can reason and manipulate objects better than we can, what are we human beings good for? Ultimately, my answer for that is: We tell stories.
You incorporate drug use, especially psychedelics and pharmaceuticals, in much of your work. Where did the bedtime story that Tyson tells his nephew come from?
I’m very interested in the transcendent, in the spiritual dimensions of life. In the contemporary world a lot of those moments of insight and intuition are had while using substances. At the same time we’re having this technological revolution in the country, we’re also having a revolution in the use of marijuana. I don’t think that’s unrelated. As people experience a world that seems more and more sterile and alien, mechanical, they also yearn for meaning and transcendence, for a release from self. In terrible ways, drugs can be a kind of damnation and hellish trap for the mind, but in smaller ways they represent that perennial desire to get outside oneself, to touch the mythical, the extraordinary. The fable that Tyson tells his nephew is an example of those moments when something comes to us. Tyson’s a spiritual character. He goes to church; he fasts. He’s looking for something larger than his own life. He has a moment telling this bedtime story to this child in which a fable comes to him unbidden, and I put that in there, and I made it as prominent as I did, because I think it best represents what we do as human beings.
The question going forward is going to be: What are we good for? If machines can reason and manipulate objects better than we can, what are we human beings good for? Ultimately, my answer for that is: We tell stories. We put things together into dramas and meaningful patterns in a way that I challenge machines ever to do. That little moment of inspired storytelling represents for me Tyson’s distinctiveness as a human being and all of our distinctiveness. He experiences this heightened consciousness. I think all literature is an attempt to record moments of heightened consciousness. Every writer in the spell of his or her work, or in a moment of inspiration, is touching something that is beyond him or herself, and I wanted to record within the story a moment of that happening.
As a journalist, what do you make of “fake news”?
It’s a fascination of mine. It’s a deception and confusion between the imaginary and real world. In an age where there are few authorities, where The New York Times no longer sits atop the journalistic pyramid, the question of where to look for real stories and truthful accounts of life is a huge one. Being an American is all about dealing with BS artists, with promotion and marketing. In that world of deception, in which our economy almost runs on deception—call it advertising—you have a huge, unaddressed appetite for truth. And that problem is one that concerns me. We live in a bizarre, topsy-turvy universe of statements whose value we can’t really assess, whose truths we can’t really grade, and once again how to orient yourself when lost seems to me to be the great American problem. We’re more lost than ever.
In some ways, I see the Trump presidency as an attempt by certain Americans to get past the BS. If he had a certain appeal to people who felt confused or left behind, I think that was “Here’s somebody who tells it straight; here’s somebody who’s speaking from the heart.” Now, it may have led to a terrible mistake, politically, but what’s driving these changes right now is this unaddressed hunger for directness, for simplicity.
Can fiction help?
Fiction is in a weird place right now. We have memoir all over the place. People trust stories that they believe to be true to tell them something of value. Fiction hasn’t made a very good argument for itself because fiction is that form of literature which makes up a story to be more truthful than the truth of a story can be. It also exposes us to techniques by which fantasy and deceptions are created, so being a discerning fiction reader allows you to be a good BS detector in life.
Fiction allows us to create myths, fairy tales and allegories that bring clarity to situations in ways that true stories can’t. The creation of a new fiction that illuminates our path as human beings through this new wilderness of fake news and everyone telling you what they had for breakfast on Facebook—we’re assaulted on one side by deception and on the other by trivia. Fiction can kind of drive up the middle and keep our eye on what’s important.
Before you wrote Finishing for Playboy, you hadn’t published a short story in years. Does this represent a return to the form for you?
I haven’t written short stories in many years and I’m starting to again. I think looking back that I never wanted to be anything but a short story writer. When I started the stories in My Hard Bargain in 1990, the short story in America was at an apogee. And it had cultural prestige at that point that it’s lost. I’ve always felt that a great short story lives more deeply in the mind of readers than any other form of literature, and as I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve come back to the place that I started.
There’s something inherently poignant about the short story form too. That’s what I was looking for here. I was looking to shed light on a kind of life and situation that otherwise would have remained entirely obscured. A kid in an ice cream shop in southern Utah.
You were raised in a rural town in Minnesota. You currently divide your time between Montana and California. In much of your writing it seems that you’re trying to make people in cities aware of something they’re missing. Is that true, and if so, what is it you’re seeing that they aren’t?
I am trying to bridge the gap between the small-town, mythical America and the big, sophisticated, modern world in which most of us find ourselves now. I had the privilege of growing up in as probably pristine an American small town as exists. A town of 500 people on a river. It was a kind of idyllic place—classless, trusting, naturally beautiful and very kind, extremely kind.
I have always felt there was some little jewel of beauty there that I want to show people. I want to remind them that [the town] was real. I want to remind them that there’s a goodness in this country and there’s a goodness in people that we shouldn’t despair of, and it has a continuing presence in our souls. Joining that experience to the hurly-burly of contemporary America is so important to my work.
Finishing is very funny. What’s the key to being funny on the page?
Dryness. Life is comic enough that you don’t have to supply a laugh track; you don’t have to push the humor. When I think about the reality, as they say, of a kid I met in a little town in the West, contemplating how to negotiate a future versus robots, I want to let out a terrible, cosmic laugh because here human beings have put themselves in a situation in which they’re in competition for survival with their own creations, and that acts as a pretty funny situation, in general.
Any advice on how to write a sex scene?
I think writing about sex is probably the most difficult writing there is. You’re either too clinical, and it sounds like a medical textbook, or you’re too lyrical, and you can’t tell what’s going on. You read romance novels and they will poeticize sex to the point you can’t even tell what’s taking place, and you read other, more technical descriptions and you think, Why would anyone want to do that? There’s no emotion or color to it. I think the secret to writing about sex is to be indirect. I try to describe it subjectively, from within the minds of the participants, because sexual experience is just experience intensified. The things that go through people’s heads don’t necessarily have to do with sex. In Finishing, Tyson goes off into all sorts of places while having sex. He thinks about singing in church. It would come down to that. Indirection. Subjectivity. Concentrating on the thoughts and the feelings of the participants, rather than the graphic or cinematic aspect of the act.
How did you settle on the title Finishing?
It was given to me by another writer. Finishing is a synonym for having an orgasm. The original title was The Finishing Touch, and she said, “Just make it Finishing. The connotations are richer, and it’s a little bit more enigmatic.” I said, “You’re absolutely right.” So that was it. That was a gift from someone wiser than me.
Marc Bojanowski is author of Journeyman (out this February 14 from Softskull Press) and The Dog Fighter (William Morrow, 2004). He lives in northern California, where he is an adjunct instructor in the English Department at Santa Rosa Junior College. His writing has appeared in the Literary Review, McSweeney’s and Granta.