The author joins Document to discuss his debut novel, the bizarre and incoherent actions of man, and merging the highbrow with the lowbrow
Jordan Castro’s debut novel follows a would-be writer puttering around the internet. His careful observations of a novelist at work explore the banalities of the artistic process, including the aspects which are often less romantic than most writers care to admit. Set in the early morning of a single day, Castro’s narrator surfs the internet, shits, thinks about his dog, shits again, muses about hypothetical contents of his writing while staring at his Google Doc, and scrolls through Twitter. What emerges is the elusive first draft of a novel, something readers rarely have access to, complete with all the idiosyncrasies of a neurotic writer. The particulars that Castro emphasizes in his project are exactly the sort of oddities and whimsy that every writer experiences, but shaken out of a project between revisions.
These distractions which the eponymous novelist endures often happen together. He explains, “I began to tap feverishly through the posts without processing them, catching quick glimpses of faces, objects, and colors; I double-clicked the circle button at the bottom of my phone and swiped up, exiting everything.” Castro dangles his writer in two places at once: one rooted in physicality and another lost inside the internet. A rather familiar feeling for most by now—in a reality driven by smartphones, social media, and email—but web-driven narratives only recently began to find its way into representations in fiction. Castro’s debut tackles the two most frequent experiences of life usually left out of fiction writing: going to the bathroom and scrolling through their phones.
The reader is reorientated to the narrator’s present space and time, as he says, “I shifted my weight onto my right, then left, cheek, before re-centering myself and straining. I opened Gmail and sent an email to Li—“pooping ‘yet again’”—then double-clicked the circle button at the bottom of my phone and swiped up, closing Gmail.” Castro’s interest in the scatological is clear, and it offers multiple interpretations: an interest in output of all kinds, a true stream of consciousness, and a juxtaposition of an idealized creative alongside the most monotonous of all tasks and preoccupations. An alternative interpretation could fall along the lines of a suggestion that the connection of the mind, brought to the deepest extents of the imagination within the realm of the internet, projecting an entire world from small images on a phone, finds itself still deeply connected to the physical phenomena of having a body.
By documenting the unromantic, or simply unidealized, thought process of a modern writer, Castro draws attention to the role of mundanity in the creative process. As he explained in our interview, “Life is full of contradictory, or seemingly contradictory, things that exist alongside each other all the time.” To put it in terms popularized by the internet its narrative is so often distracted by, The Novelist is normalizing writing a novel.
Sarah McEachern: Your first novel follows the interior thoughts of a young novelist writing his first draft—a very meta debut. Can you elaborate on how you decided on this concept?
Jordan Castro: It’s somewhat autobiographical; I was trying to work on this terrible novel for months, and I wanted to observe what was ‘actually happening’ when I got distracted. Through the process of just paying attention [to the process] and writing about it, I came up with the concept of the novel. I don’t remember having a big idea to do a meta novel or something like that. It just sort of emerged from where I was.
Sarah: There is also a character named ‘Jordan Castro,’ who is a lit world celebrity. I’m interested in the ways that you anticipate readers Googling writers, and how writers’ private lives—or their Twitter feeds—are reflected in their writing. Where did your idea to change yourself into a fictional version of yourself in this novel come from?
Jordan: My wife, Nicolette Polek, suggested naming [that character] Jordan Castro as a way to complicate the narrative voice. In a lot of autofiction discourse, the author and the protagonist [or] narrator get flattened into the same person, and I didn’t want that. The other day, when I was bemoaning the fact that I never feel satisfied when I try to explain this part of the book, Nicolette said that I could say something like, ‘Encountering the self by looking away from the self—the antithesis of autofiction, which believes that one has a profound encounter with the self by looking at the self.’ That sounds good.
I was riffing with an old friend a couple years ago and he came up with this idea for a Beckett-type play called The Within, where it’s just some guy walking alone in darkness, then he comes to the end and hears a voice that says, ‘Wrong way.’ I now think it could also be called Autofiction.
“Life is full of contradictory, or seemingly contradictory, things that exist alongside each other all the time. This exists in a distilled form on Twitter, even though it’s abstracted by text and image.”
Sarah: Your narrator can feel directionlessness as he gets lost between the novel’s ideas and its execution, ending up distracted. But I’m interested in how moving around on a computer—opening a phone, putting in a password, opening a tab, checking emails—are written as very deliberate actions. He’s in charge of himself, but he feels out of control of his own creative flow. How do you view his perception of his agency and how it fits with the ways we actually see him act during the novel?
Jordan: There are concrete actions involved in navigating the internet and I wanted to describe those actions, but I also wanted to show how they were ultimately oriented toward incoherent, unarticulated ends. One intentionally, or spastically, clicks around, only to encounter things one instantly forgets, or can’t manage to integrate in any meaningful way, but which nonetheless possesses a person, even if only for a couple seconds. We like to think of ourselves as essentially rational, but we act in totally bizarre ways all the time. For me, using the internet sort of encapsulates this perfectly: you end up in a vortex of bullshit, where articulated, conscious ‘choice’ becomes ambiguously non-existent. I love novels that are critical of this idea of man as some sort of enlightened, self-interested creature. All you have to do to disprove that is watch somebody use the internet.
Sarah: I found myself delighted with the play between highbrow and lowbrow ideas of the narrator. He’s going between thinking about fiction and philosophy, interspersed pretty frequently with ideas about shitting and pissing. It reads a bit like a fixation with artistic flow becoming an obsession with all types of flow. Can you talk about this dichotomy—or does it even feel like a dichotomy to you?
Jordan: I wanted to map the experience of using the internet in a way that felt true, but also had broader implications. Life is full of contradictory, or seemingly contradictory, things that exist alongside each other all the time. This exists in a distilled form on Twitter, even though it’s abstracted by text and image: a picture of the faces of murdered children is right above a beautiful painting, which is right above a post from a person you used to buy weed from in high school talking about the Supreme Court. When Giancarlo DiTrapano died, I was in New York celebrating my engagement to my now-wife, and I was raising my glass with my family and looking down at my phone seeing texts about helping with Gian’s obituary at the same time. That example is a little Godfathered out, but life, and all of history, is like that. It’s ‘both/and.’ Everything is similar and all at once–when the narrator thinks about Kierkegaard, then wiping his butt, then remembering an Italian kid who used to say ‘Sup, brotha!,’ then thinking about the difference between third and first person.
In terms of the highbrow/lowbrow; references, I didn’t really think about it. I like all kinds of stuff, and think about all kinds of stuff. It’s interesting how, as people, we’re able to access a sort of high-minded philosophical, spiritual zone, but are still tethered to the world and our bodies. We are children of God, so to speak, but we poop. I think there’s something true and also kind of funny there.
Sarah: Addiction in the novel is a recurring theme, and your narrator is in recovery. The topic becomes an anchor that makes the novel suddenly very serious, but your narrator gives reasons that addiction is a poor theme for a novel. How do you see that as fitting into the novel and with its other ideas?
Jordan: A lot of people, especially now, have this sick idea that we are fundamentally good, and that if it weren’t for the harm done to us, by society and others, we would all be holding hands and kissing. ‘Deep down, we are all just innocent victims!’ I totally disagree with this. I love that part in Notes from Underground where the narrator talks about how even if humanity did build the ‘crystal palace’ kind of utopia, man would spit at it just to prove that he’s a man and not a ‘piano key.’ We are like that. We live in varying states of spiritual rebellion, muddled by will. It is the dream of the intellectual that just thinking, or a new kind of education will solve this—but that by itself doesn’t stand a chance. Addiction and recovery is just one manifestation of all this.
I was initially going to delete every mention of drugs in the novel, because I hate how addiction has been handled in fiction, and I feel similarly to the narrator when he says about drug literature: ‘It was all, in large part, half-formed sentiment and navel-gazing drivel, seeming more to have dribbled out of the author’s mouth than been penned with any intent.’
“We are children of God, so to speak, but we poop. I think there’s something true and also kind of funny there.”
Sarah: Can you talk a bit about the more disembodied characters of your novel, which by nature is much more interior? I’m thinking of Violette and the narrator’s dog, who are asleep in the other room during the course of the novel. It’s such a small amount of time that elapses throughout the novel, and there’s such limited movement. Because it’s all happening within the same apartment, physically the space becomes very big within the novel, as it’s the entire world we see. It functions like a theater piece in that way, in that there’s this grand suggestion of other people who are offstage. In what ways did you try to write them so they add to the novel even though they don’t offer much actual interaction?
Jordan: So much of what happens on the internet is this drama in my head. I’ll be alone with my laptop, looking at tweets, projecting these phantom people in front of me—but I’m really just sitting in front of a laptop. The people I think I’m encountering are simultaneously there, and not there. They’re really just text and image, and when I close my laptop, they’re gone. People on Twitter are like characters in a book in that way.
In The Novelist, the characters are there mainly to illuminate things about the narrator—his painful memories about his impotence in the face of his rivals, his oscillating between grandiose literary ambition and scathing critiques of his literary peers. I started to view these things as primarily symptomatic of his pride, even if there is a lot of truth in them. The narrator elevates himself above others, but at the same time is crushed by them. In Rene Girard’s book about Dostoevsky, Resurrection from Underground, he wrote that ‘Pride is a blind and contradictory force which sooner or later always creates effects diametrically opposed to what it seeks.’ In Dostoevsky, ‘The most intense suffering proceeds from the fact that the speaker does not succeed in distinguishing himself concretely from the persons around him.’ It might be the same in The Novelist. The narrator puffs himself up, but ‘this fantasy, which is simultaneously grandiose and meager, belongs to the moment of egoistic exaltation: the I pretends it extends its conquests over the totality of being. But a single look from the Other is enough to disperse these riches.’
Sarah: I find that The Novelist particularly interacts with the expectations we put on fiction, and in particular fiction writers put on themselves. And because this book reads a lot like a pre-novel, or a novel that’s being written in front of us, it checks a lot of the ideas of what people take out before the first and second draft. It also questions why we take them out. It has these ideas of how he’s going to make art or a career or money, which often present the novel as a product. How did you conceptualize what people consider ‘a novel’ when you were writing this book?
Jordan: When I was younger, I had this idea that anything could be art, and I thought that basically any claim about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art was just masking a kind of arbitrary power, or violence. I had no education, no respect for tradition, no idea about anything. I was just young and energized, and I loved literature. In some ways that was a good thing, because it allowed me to take risks and have fun; in other ways it just fed into a kind of narcissistic idiocy that ultimately led nowhere because I had nothing to ‘grow into.’
There are risks involved with both: traditionalism in literature is dead, but absolute irreverence is dead too. I like reverent irreverence, something like that. Playful, living reverence. The expectation one has of literature, or of himself as a writer, should, I think, come from somewhere other than his peers though.
With The Novelist, I felt some kind of pleasure in writing about things that aren’t usually included in great detail—making tea and coffee, using the bathroom and the internet—and finding meaning there.