Novelist Adam Thirwell joins Document to explain why 18th-century print culture and 21st-century social media discourse aren’t so different

In the past month, the fraughtness of speech seems to have doubled, as if public speaking—by which I mean posting on social media—wasn’t already a precarious-yet-compulsory exercise of 21st-century civic engagement. To speak might be to lose your job offer, your publication opportunity, your book tour event. But if New York Magazine contributor Sam Adler-Bell’s recent essay is to be trusted, we are at a moment where speech is insufficient—swallowed up in a zeitgeist of “statementese” posing as activism.

This binary between speech and action seems, to me, flimsy at best. As I write this, doxxing trucks are parked outside my college campus to punish students for their use of language: a signed signature on a petition. Certainly, rhetoric does not live in a realm exempt from the terrestrial—it manifests in the material, whether as an LED panel displaying a dissenting twentysomething’s face and name, or as the absence of an author’s op-ed or promotional book talk. In Adarm Thirlwell’s latest novel, published earlier this month by FSG, the consequences of language—and the anxieties they produce—are put into historical perspective(s).

Set in 1775, Thirlwell’s The Future Future is obsessed with words and their failures. Celine, an ordinary teenager, becomes the subject of pornographic pamphlets fictionalizing her sex life. The unauthorized texts speak to the public’s manic hunger for salacious stories—one the burgeoning print industry is eager to satiate—and Celine is unwittingly catapulted to celebrity status. The Future Future, then, is the story of a woman victimized by a rabid media, a heroine working to reimagine her relationship to language. It’s a novel for our time, yes—but Thirlwell’s project is beyond this moment, beyond our planet, even. On the day of its release, we had a conversation about conversation, Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, and the persistent, utopian promise of the novel in the age of polemical online discourse.

Olivia Treynor: Reading The Future Future, I think I’ve gained a new meta-awareness of conversation as a practice. Tell me your thoughts on conversation as a site of literary inquiry.

Adam Thirlwell: I’ve done a lot of work with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. They were the ones who first made me think about conversation as a practice, rather than just something that happens between two people. I got more and more interested in what would make a novel a conversation. It comes from this idea of how you would make conversation—almost a utopian ideal—that isn’t just random people talking, but actually a hopeful way of living.

In 18th-century salons, there were codified rules for how to have a public conversation. The idea of how you might discover yourself through another person is really interesting. More and more in the book, I was thinking of how you might build a character through their various conversations, rather than monologue or soliloquy being the root of the self. The ideal for me is a conversation where everyone is able to not filter private thoughts. The 18th century took [conversation] seriously; [salons] were also massively run by women. The idea [was] that conversation could be owned by women—[even] within a public space owned by men.

Olivia: Can you say more about language as an anxiety-inducing technology?

Adam: In some ways, it’s a very old-fashioned book. At the heart of it, there is clearly anxiety about what language does. Does it genuinely give a shared truth? Is it giving access to a public conversation where everyone can understand a community or reality? Or is it creating an unreality that is therefore warping how people experience life? I don’t know; it goes back to some platonic kind of horror of all representation. It’s partly about this extraordinary production of language that’s going on all around us: the messaging and the posting and reposting. One of the reasons I wanted to set this book in the 18th century was that it was [a time] when ideas of what it is to be modern got invented—[ideas] that we’re still living with. In the 18th century, people saw writing as a revolutionary ideal. Could there be a moment at which too much production of language inhibits understanding?

One of the things that, personally, must be making me anxious: Where does new literature situate itself within this extraordinary production of words? Is literature able to [emerge as] another type of space where language can be? That’s certainly what I would want to be true. My idea of the construction of a novel is a place where things reflect each other and ironize each other, where there’s some state of suspension—not pushing a thesis or making an argument, like you might in an essay. A novel is where language can acquire a slightly more tender existence, where multiple thoughts can cohabitate without harming each other.

“A novel is where language can acquire a slightly more tender existence, where multiple thoughts can cohabitate without harming each other.”

Olivia: You write in The Future Future, ‘You had to think about the future using future methods.’ Is this novel a future method?

Adam: I’m not sure it is. It can be. The novel is still one of the best ways of staging how people think. I still love the physical book. There’s something really amazing to me about how much can be contained in such a tiny object. Recently, I was talking with Philippe Parreno, and he was saying, ‘I wish I could write a novel, because it’s the perfect form of the exhibition—its portability and complexity.’ I’m certainly not saying that, in the future, there should be no more novels. I’m not that pessimistic.

Olivia: No. And there’s that passage where Josef has been eating pellets of paper to dispose of documents that would indict Celine. When you’re talking about the French Revolution being written and archived, there’s also this innate vulnerability of printed matter to physical corruption.

Adam: That feels very similar to now. The digital is the same way. It seems like there are these servers that are going to preserve everything forever, but it’s very easy for those servers to be deleted. [Josef’s] is a true story. There was a clerk in the committee for public safety who loved theater. There was a moment during the terror where the entire cast and production crew of the Comédie-Française—the main theater in Paris—were sentenced to death, because they put on a play that was seen as counter-revolutionary. The eating I invented, but he did do everything else. He realized that if you made the paper disappear, the system couldn’t function. That was it. [Historically], he did soak these pieces of paper, make them into pellets, go to the bathhouse around the corner, and push them out the window into the Seine. [The Future Future] is really quite a fantastical novel in many ways, but a huge amount of what looks fantastic is completely true.

Olivia: In a 2013 Asymptote interview, you say, ‘I like the idea of a relay race from language to language, ending up in outer space.’ This makes me think of a particularly imaginative act of the novel, in which Celine travels to the moon. What do outer space and language have in common for you?

Adam: I’ve always been interested in the astronomical. When I was beginning this project, I was interested in not just the planetary, but ideas of the nonhuman, as well. They seem to be linked. For the Paris Review, I’d done an interview with László Krasznahorkai, the Hungarian novelist, who is constantly trying to expand how you write novels. In one of our conversations, I said, ‘It’s as if you would like to write a novel from a nonhuman perspective.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, that would be so amazing, but you can’t. It has to be about humans.’

I don’t know quite when I decided that [Celine] would go to the moon. For a while, it was explicitly a dream. Then, my friend Sheila Heti was reading the manuscript, and there was one sentence where it makes it kind of slightly plausible that it’s just a dream. Sheila said, ‘I think you should just cut that, so that if people want to believe that, they can. It [might be] nicer if you think she’s just literally gone to the moon.’

Olivia: Celebrity is such a central concept in the novel, with Napoleon emerging as the ‘absolute celebrity.’ What is your relationship to celebrity culture?

Adam: The world of this novel came when I was reading a book by Robert Darnton, an American historian, about pornographic pamphlets. I was half thinking that I’d write from the perspective of these terrible writers. Then, I suddenly thought, what would be really interesting would be [to write from] the perspective of one of the women being written about. It is a strange existence when you realize that some people might have a very strong opinion about you, which is entirely unfounded—but you are powerless to do anything about it. There’s a sort of trauma of publication. Especially because I was published very young; my first book came out when I was 23 or 24. I definitely found that kind of attention destabilizing. [There’s some] emotional overlap between me and the figure of Celine.

The interest of this book in celebrity is part of an amazed terror at what language and imagery can do when created by the media. [The 19th century] was the era of the first mass reproduction of images. There are engravings—obviously not as sophisticated as Instagram—but they’re the same idea: images of someone not resembling them at all [that can] be reproduced over and over again. It’s Napoleon, it’s Celine, it’s Toussaint Louverture. He was one of the first merchandised heroes; there were lots of Louverture mugs and things. Even in the 1790s, the image of a person could be much stronger than their political actions.

Olivia: I was thinking about Kim Kardashian, and how the inception of her celebrity was the release of her sex tape.

Adam: It’s funny, because years ago, Tank Magazine asked me to write [on Kim’s] book Selfies. It became more and more fascinating to me—because really, it’s a sad book. The early [photos], she looks normal. Gradually, [you] see the physical surgery work, as well as the work of becoming a celebrity, the control of her image—[alongside] what are meant to look like incredibly personal images. That is, maybe, a different celebrity than in [The Future Future]. But I think what’s very interesting now is the way a celebrity can start to become part of the manufacture of that [fame]. The gap between public and private seems to be getting vanishingly small. It’s related to what people are doing every day. The sense of how to broadcast yourself is stronger and stronger. The same techniques are being used by the most famous people on the planet and ordinary people.

Olivia: There’s this moment when Celine is on the moon and she encounters books written by machines. Of course, it’s startlingly reminiscent of AI.

Adam: I’d finished that book long before ChatGPT made everyone terrified. There’s an artist friend of mine, Ian Chang, who does a lot of work with AI. I’d helped him do something at the Shed recently; he’d been fascinated by the idea of making a show that operated algorithmically. Maybe because of that, the idea of AI was put in my mind. There’s a line [in The Future Future] where one of the aliens says, ‘You’re all a code.’ It came from [thinking about] how a person gets sort of taken over by a medium. When you get written about, you’ve been converted into language, and then that language could get converted into digital form. It felt like the obvious furthest point of playing around with the idea that a person could get reduced from their physical, bodily form [to data].

Olivia: Because the book is situated during a revolutionary time, The Future Future feels urgent in a new way, given the escalating war in Gaza. How do you feel about the book being released at this moment?

Adam: One of the frightening things about social media is how much the algorithms are manipulable by bots and designed to be divisive. It seems a war is exactly what social media is perfectly designed to make worse. There’s a sense that huge amounts of material might actually have been produced, not by humans, but by algorithms. A war is already a site of mass confusion. Social media in no way helps that situation.

The way in which [The Future Future] is in conversation with that [has to do with] point of view—how one person sees a situation as radically different to another person. That goes back to what we were just talking about. The one path forward would be dialogue that feels real. Clearly finding that space is incredibly hard. There are so many simulacra of conversation—of which social media is clearly the main [medium]—where it poses as a conversation, or as a space for conversation, when it is really no such thing. One of the important tasks of this moment is to find space for real conversations. Finding ways of calm discourse is the last utopian situation.