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Mark Doten’s post-apocalyptic new queer novel, Trump Sky Alpha, follows Rachel, a journalist on assignment to reconstruct the last moments of humor on what remains of the internet after 90% of the world’s population is destroyed by nuclear war.
Doten recently spoke with author Patrick Nathan (whose own 2018 novel, Some Hell, is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award) about his new book, writing fiction that veers towards (and past) horror and dystopia in the age of Trump, Twitter anxieties, queer spaces in literature and on social media, and finding humor in the prospect of nuclear annihilation.
Patrick Nathan: I think the best place to start is to thank you. This was an extraordinary read. At the same time, I hope it’s the scariest, most upsetting thing I read this year. Did you go into this knowing it would carry something of the horror novel? It goes way beyond “dystopia.”
Mark Doten: Thank you for saying that. I’ve been with the novel for a little over three years, and in the last months, my experience of it has been rather distanced and appraising, making small adjustments, adding or trimming last pieces of information. So it is meaningful to hear how strongly you reacted to it. But to answer your question, it certainly started from a sense of horror. The primary horror being the threat of nuclear annihilation that the world has lived under roughly since the Trinity nuclear test of 1945. This horror goes hand in hand with the accelerating stupidity and horror of US politics, and how the internet has woven itself into both of these horrors.
Nathan: Which I think you encapsulate quite well–nauseatingly well–in one of the many jokes that your protagonist, Rachel, finds while she’s accessing what’s left of the internet after a nuclear apocalypse destroys most of America. Digging through the archive, she finds “The whole internet loves nuclear apocalypse! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the apocalypse is racist.”
Honestly there’s nothing like this I’ve ever read, where the apocalypse is rendered as joke after joke, meme after meme. Except the internet itself, I guess, where it feels as if we’re already watching the apocalypse in real time. Did this make the horror more real for you, while writing it, or did it help distance it?
Doten: That portion of the novel was very fun to write, and it was a container for my fears about nuclear annihilation that did decrease my own anxieties. I do think that’s probably how it would play out if that ever happened, a rush for last jokes as a sort of collective deflection (for at least some very online portion of the population) from impending death. We saw something of this during the NYC transformer explosion, which turned the night sky over New York a strange blue, and people were all-in in making jokes about it before anyone knew what it was.
Nathan: Yes! I did think of that when it happened, and posted something like “At least our phones will capture the crisp colors of nuclear explosions.” People “liked” it.
Doten: It’s not the worst attitude to inescapable death: a last joke. I quite like those lists of famous last words (“either the drapes go or I do” and so forth) and there’s something honorable about that.
Nathan: Oh yes, the Wilde quote.
Doten: Yes, I think I have it not quite right, and I also fear it may be apocryphal, but it’s a great line.
Nathan: It’s the wallpaper, but you got to the heart of it.
Doten: Yes, that’s it. Also, a nice thing about dying with a joke on your lips is that if your joke is bad, you don’t have to spend the next month thinking about what you should have said instead.
Nathan: There is something unique to the nuclear imagination … all of human life can be eradicated with the push of a few buttons in D.C. and Moscow.
What else is there to do but laugh?
Doten: The concept of quickly provoking a mass extinction, including the extinction of humans, is something that is impossible to think about in any real way. There is no analogue for it, no piece of virtuoso prose, nothing that can express it. Laughter was one way of dealing with this impossibility. Beyond that, trying to convey some sense of grief, and loss, and the paralyzing inability of survivors to feel grief adequate to the situation–this is the case with the protagonist, Rachel. She can’t feel enough, so she wants to feel nothing. In the second half of the book, there is the horror of the immobilized and tortured body, which forces some of the emotion and terror back into the narrative Rachel was trying to avoid. That was emotionally demanding to write, and that section is also–I realize I’m contradicting what I said above–still very hard for me to go back and read.
I think there’s a collective distress and paralysis with regard to the nuclear threat. The trope of the bound and tortured body is of course a staple of horror films, as well as other genres (James Bond secured to a table while a laser slowly cuts toward him, for instance). The immobilized body is also something we see throughout Beckett’s work, which inspires me greatly.
Nathan: There was a recent article in the New York Review of Books about Beckett’s political imagination, how critics have found it strange that someone who served the French resistance and who was so outspoken in life “didn’t write about it in his fiction.” Yet we see it everywhere, a kind of mute and numb trauma.
Doten: I’ll have to read that. Unlike some other European writers writing in the aftermath of the horrors of WWII, his work has aged beautifully. A piece like Krapp’s Last Tape, for instance, where the protagonist spends his days drinking and going through his personal archive of audio diaries, is so terrifically relevant to our age of social media and compulsive self-documentation.
Nathan: This compulsion to create content when there’s nothing to say, which is more or less the defining experience of social media.
Doten: Exactly! I don’t like the word timeless, but I will say that Beckett seems to be on the shortlist of 20th century authors people might still care about one or two hundred years from now, if there’s still humans then.
Of course I have no idea what people will like, and saying that may just be complimenting my own good taste now for caring about Beckett: Performative future canon-making.
Nathan: If there are humans. Isn’t it funny, haha, to be consigned to the conditional?
Doten: Haha. 😀
Doten: That would be a good final emoji to tweet.
My grandmother and her siblings used to have what they called a round robin letter, which was an envelope that would make slow circle through the postal mail between the seven of them, and when it got to you you’d take out your previous letter and add a new one, and that was a way of keeping up in a group before the internet. My grandmother’s sister Frances, in her last contribution–she knew she was dying and that the packet wouldn’t make it back to her before she passed–put in a final letter that said simply “Ta-ta, all.” I admire those last words, too.
Nathan: That’s wonderful. It makes me think of the last words people leave on social media. Not suicides, obviously, but people who died suddenly, in accidents or of heart attacks. Of celebrities who are suddenly gone. Do you ever look at them?
Doten: Yes, I’ve seen that. I do glance at people’s lasts tweets sometimes after they pass, and it’s usually something … you know, non-spectacular. A writer I didn’t know recently passed away and I looked at their last Facebook posts. It was affecting how they were posting about all the normal stuff, then it just ends, then there’s a bunch of posts from friends tagging this individual and memorializing them, expressing disbelief, and so on. It was an intimate thing to step into, and I felt I didn’t belong there (because I did not) and I so I left.
Nathan: There’s a new way of being public that hasn’t existed before. As you said, “a new technology,” but w/r/t grief and intimacy rather than, say, extinction.
Doten: Yes, that’s right.
Nathan: I suppose Trump Sky Alpha combines these technologies–that of public intimacy and that of instantaneous mass death–in a way that’s upsettingly realistic. Were you active on social media during the drafting process of this novel?
Doten: Yes, I’ve been on Twitter for years, and I’m afraid that I’m completely addicted to it. I have a great deal of admiration for people who are masters of the form like John Paul Brammer or Kristen Arnett or Patrick Monahan or Pixelated Boat. I lurked on 4chan a bit while researching Trump Sky, which was bracing. I was off Facebook for a year or so but have gone back. I will probably delete it again after the book is out. I recently started an Instagram, which is a nice oasis, though of course it’s owned by Facebook which makes it ethically a very compromised place to be.
But mainly I just spend way too much time on Twitter reading political jokes. Twitter is 90% of my social media time, even days when I don’t post. What about you?
Nathan: I’m the same way. It’s an undertow you have to struggle to escape. I have a highly Borderline relationship with Twitter. Sometimes it rewards the pleasure centers in my brain, but more often it makes me hate myself. It makes me feel inadequate. I’ve deleted and reactivated over and over. Eternal Sunshine of the Garbage Mind, each day resented, each tweet maligned…
Doten: Yes, I agree. I will spend a half hour fiddling with a potential tweet, tweet it, then delete it in 10 minutes if no one liked it, or if I decide it was too unspeakably lame to leave up, and it is such a ridiculous cycle to find oneself caught up in.
Nathan: It definitely reduces us to content, which makes us profitable. Are we more profitable when we’re traumatized?
Doten: You’re certainly more profitable when you’re thirsty. And everyone online is thirsty.
It is interesting to think about it in relation to trauma, because trauma often leads to addictive behaviors, the hit of alcohol or the Twitter dopamine or whatever that will make you feel temporarily better. What is great about Twitter, on the other hand, is that I can curate a world of queer people, funny political people, and good books and media people, and there is much that’s pleasurable in that.
Nathan: You must queer your life. You must queer your timeline. You must queer your apocalypse.
Doten: I love all queer spaces. I remember how profound and thrilling and strangely frightening it was the first time I stepped into a gay bar my first year of college. And I also am a big fan of novels that take place in all queer worlds—and when I first read books like that, the feeling was similar. So I knew early on that I wanted to do something like that with Trump Sky. (Except, of course, I did not make Trump gay because we emphatically do not want him.) But the survivors, they’re all gay, and even the sinister government overseer is gay. I think a different energy kicks in when everyone around is gay, and that “queering the apocalypse” is a good way to put it.
Nathan: I love the internet. You don’t even have to ask and there’s always a man with an answer. But seriously: this notion of space has me thinking about comedy. A lot of comedy comes from spaces of marginalization–the black community, the queer community–and is often a way of talking about trauma without tension. I’m thinking of Nanette, of course, but also your novel. People process the apocalypse by laughing at it.
Doten: Yes, I think for queer people that experience of marginalization often pushes one to humor. And there is so much great queer stuff that’s very funny—Dennis Cooper is as dark as it gets, but there’s not one of his books that isn’t also funny. Of course there are many queer people who are profoundly unfunny, I don’t want stereotype.
Nathan: Obviously this novel is in conversation with the spectacle of Trump. It’s eerie–and one of the most horrifying things in the novel–to overlay the “real time” apocalypse jokes onto our current timeline, where Trump still hasn’t pushed the button. Either way, we’re in a space of immense ongoing trauma. Do you feel like trauma is taking a greater and greater place in our day-to-day existence?
Doten: It might be. I do have a sense that, for everyone who is not a Trump supporter, life has gotten 5% worse. And that’s broadly generalizing, obviously. The communities that he is targeting and against which there is a rising tide of hate, including immigrants, people of color, trans people, have had their lives altered far more significantly than I have, as a white cisgender gay man.
But stepping back from the crisis of Trumpism, there have always been people who live in unfolding trauma. In your novel, Some Hell, a lot of the humor seems to come from the close observation of how excruciatingly awkward it is to be a teen, in particular a closeted gay teen. For that character, who undergoes multiple traumas throughout the course of the book, I don’t know how much Trump vs. Hillary would have changed things. The family and social situations were so difficult, and they were right there in the home, at school, in so many daily acts and experiences.
Nathan: Right–exactly. I think there’s an enormous distortion re: Trump that doesn’t necessarily need to be there. Not that he isn’t unfit and dangerous, and not that he doesn’t need to be removed immediately, but neither do we need a flood of shitty new Trump content every day.
Doten: I also would say that for a lot of Trump supporters, this is all great! Because they get off on knowing that their political enemies are suffering every day. “The cruelty is the point,” as Adam Serwer put it. That’s why they’re thrilled with Trump’s lies—they know they’re lies, too, on some level, but they love it because they know the lying drives us crazy.
Nathan: Ugh, yes—this obsession with tracing hypocrisy and contradictions. That we’re being dragged into this emotional and intellectual labor is the point. It’s the goal. They don’t care if they can see or count the lies, only that we do it.
Doten: It’s total jouissance–time among millions on the right. You can take away their healthcare, furlough them, and they’ll still cheer for Trump every day. Because their joy at their own ignorance and cruelty is better than money or health care. And maybe that even approaches a rational position, because our country sucks at both paying people adequately for their labor and providing healthcare.
Is it too spoilery, by the way, to ask how you came to the apocalyptic moment in Some Hell? Wild to see all that energy released in the very last page of the book.
Nathan: I mean it’s been a year and people have had plenty of time to catch that bus, so… Sure! The apocalyptic energy is so different in my book than in yours. It felt willed rather than suffered. Which is narcissistic not only as the author but from the standpoint of character, but it’s the only emotionally true ending of the book. It was a hard sell at first. It couldn’t have ended another way.
If Trump Sky Alpha is about implosion–outside forces traumatizing and destroying people–mine is explosive, about a depression so monstrous it moves outward and destroys the novel that created it. I don’t know, I have no idea what I’m saying.
Doten: That’s interesting, it makes sense.
Nathan: Which brings me to a terrifying part of Trump Sky Alpha: the president’s monologue. Trump says, “If I have to die, shouldn’t everyone?” which is maybe the truest thing I’ve ever heard about Trump.
How did you make it through writing that?
Doten: Yes, I do believe Trump identifies his own death or even disgrace with the end of the world, which makes him very frightening.
Nathan: It’s an almost unbearably accurate line. Yet it understands him better than anything else I’ve read. How do you feel about understanding someone like that?
Doten: It’s not understanding, it’s play. It’s a kind of mimicry. I needed to understand the other characters. Not Trump. He’s purely reactive, his brain is bad, he lurches from one thing to the next, so I’m simply trying to produce those rambling lines of thought and the megalomaniacal fixations. It’s almost a musical kind of job, following those weird rhythms, the abrupt leaps of logic, the unnecessary qualifiers.
Nathan: Along with the humor there is a lot of pain and heartbreak in this novel. People often derided me for writing another novel of queer suffering: “Aren’t we past this?”
Doten: Ha! NEVER!
Nathan: Do you think this “interest” in what is called happiness is a cultural desire for silence?
Doten: I’ve seen it with both apocalyptic lit and queer lit that focuses on pain and trauma: that this is, essentially, “bad politics.” I mean, I hope that someday in the future there is no queer suffering (haha, fat chance) and our books seem quaint and archaic, but the die is cast for me: I’m interested in what I’m interested in. And God knows we shouldn’t only write “Paul’s Case” and not every gay character should throw themselves in front of a train. But I’m going to write what I’m drawn to, and other people can write what they’re drawn to.
Nathan: I want to call it cynicism, but as Hanya Yanagihara wrote about Wojnarowicz, cynicism doesn’t have hope. I think we’re angry, not cynical. I think there’s still a lot of love and hope.
Doten: Yeah, exactly.
Nathan: And of course that Anne Carson preface to her translations of Euripides: “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”
Doten: I love that quote. I think in both Some Hell and Trump Sky, there are possibilities for love and connection that are hopeful. What Trump Sky may be cynical about is “resistance” in times of mass system collapse.
Nathan: Early on, Rachel resists her assignment. She doesn’t want to write this history of the internet. Did you know, early on, that she would push back against it? That resistance was a theme?
Doten: Yes, that was part of it early. Rachel is in this situation where she can’t really deal with her grief at the loss of her wife and daughter, and she wants to stay as numb as possible. Ultimately, though, she takes the job for utilitarian reasons: they say they’ll let her in the area where her wife and daughter are buried, which is the only thing left that she actually wants, or that she would find meaning in.
Nathan: Right–they use her grief against her.
Doten: They do. The plot when you boil it down is just the classic: the protagonist wants to be reunited with their family.
Nathan: I guess you could say the same with mine! D … A … R … K.
Doten: Yes! Homeward Bound is the only story. Stranger comes to town, hero goes on a journey, and Homeward Bound. Though here the family is dead.
Nathan: It’s interesting to talk about it that way, in terms of form, when this novel really highlights the arbitrariness of everything but form. Even the president himself: the content is irrelevant, only the form of him matters. He can produce content endlessly from his form. Even the apocalypse is just new content to aestheticize, to turn into memes and jokes and, ultimately, grief.
Doten: Yes, I think that’s right. I think that’s why more splintered and exploded forms feel so relevant to our politics. Because they reveal the poverty of the content, the falseness of so many narratives.
Nathan: And the desperation to play with the content, to make it something that brings pleasure.
Doten: Didion’s political novels are masterful examples of this–capturing flows of journalism, Rand reports, intelligence in a way that says a lot about the vacuity of our bureaucracies and politics.
Nathan: Ours is really becoming a culture of “content.” I think of so many movies as episodes now–episodes of Marvel, episodes of Man and Wife Still Act Like Teenagers, episodes of Unnamed Unseen Horror Terrorizes Family. What happens in each episode is irrelevant, as long as we catch the ads in between.
Doten: Right. Movies are in many ways becoming formally more and more empty even as the content is subjected to endless cultural excitement and scrutiny. And when real art (Phantom Thread comes to mind) emerges, people have no fucking clue how to react. Because it’s not an episode! Which is why everyone should be reading queer novels instead of watching superhero movies.
Nathan: It’s all worth queering, and part of that brings us back to resistance: calling content for what it is, and looking for something new to say. I think you’ve done that.
Doten: Thank you! I think that you have, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.