By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Like him, you did grow up abroad.
Yeah, but I was a State Department brat, and believe me, the CIA kids, they are at a whole other level of neuroses and self-dramatization and fucked-up narcissism.
Did you know those kids?
Oh, sure. You‘re often part of a quite small community in those foreign posts, and when my family was finally posted back to the States, we were in the northern Virginia suburbs, and the place was just sprinkled with CIA brats and Army brats. So it was sort of a reluctant subculture. And certainly one thing I do have in common with that character is the unrequited relationship to American life. Because you daydream about it when you’re thousands of miles away; you want that normal suburban life that you hear about. And then you get home, and first off, you find out it‘s not normal, and second, you find out that you aren’t normal, because you have this whole other range of experience that makes you a square peg.
When did your family move back here?
In ‘68, which was an amazing year to re-encounter the United States. Because I had nothing to compare it to, I just assumed that life in the States was like this all the time, with assassinations and riots and political conventions. It took a while for me to understand that, no, this was all out of the ordinary, even in the States.
Did you see American television before that?
Actually, no. When my dad was stationed in West Africa, there was no television at all -- there were barely telephones. And when we were posted in West Berlin, about the only TV I ever saw was very frizzy reruns of The Red Skelton Show, which didn’t exactly inspire me, and all these bizarre East German spy shows where the Americans were the villains.
So you encountered it all at once on your return.
One of the reasons that this book came out the way it did is that when you grow up here, you absorb it naturally without finding it remarkable, but when you grow up estranged from it, and fascinated with it, the impact of being plunged into American pop culture, and American society, can be fairly overwhelming. You‘re very conscious of your relationship to it, and you don’t take anything for granted. At one level I think it‘s very funny not only that I ended up writing this particular book but that I ended up writing so much about television as a journalist, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that it just registered for me, in a more vivid, idiosyncratic way than it might have if I had just grown up with it from the start.
Did you binge at first?
I wouldn’t call it bingeing, because I was very much the snobby aesthete in my teenage years. I looked down on a lot of this stuff -- much more then than I do now.
Is there an ideal reader for this book?
My publisher gave me a questionnaire a long time ago that asked more or less that question. I think their version was ideal buyer, and I think what I said was something only half flippant, that my perfect reader would be a Nabokov fan who loves dumb pop-culture jokes -- and promptly warned my publisher that if those were my only readers they weren‘t going to move too many probably. But I didn’t think that the sensibility that I was trying to put across in this book was really all that idiosyncratic, or esoteric; I mean, I really think this is how all this stuff, this 20th-century stuff, works in our heads.
Some of the humor does require special knowledge -- not only of ‘60s sitcoms, but of politics, punk rock, Beckett or French.
I tried to fit in those little allusions and jokes so that they would be a sort of extra little charm if you did happen to catch them, but wouldn’t hang you up or make you feel excluded if you didn‘t. Because I certainly don’t like the kind of books that set up this kind of barricade to readers, in the sense of saying, “Unless you‘re up to speed on my frame of reference you’re not going to be able to follow this.” I really wanted to keep the book as accessible as I could -- I mean, writing an inaccessible book based on Gilligan‘s Island would just be the height of fatuousness, wouldn’t it?
How does living near the capital affect your daily outlook?
Well, I‘m on a nice quiet residential street about a mile from the Pentagon, so that certainly affected my outlook on 911. But otherwise, I’ve always thought that Washington was kind of a rotten place to live if you were connected to the government, because then it‘s a company town, and filled with monomaniacs who don’t really have what you would call a really well-rounded life. On the other hand, if you have nothing to do with the government, Washington is a lovely place to live. An old friend of mine said it‘s a really good place for a writer because it’s a backwater that has really good bookstores, which is true. But I think in terms of what I think you were really asking, it‘s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. With my background, politics and issues like America’s role in the world were something I just imbibed like mother‘s milk; so does living in Washington sharpen that, or is the reason that I ended up moving back here that I was drawn to that as a subject, or a milieu? Again going back to my teenage, and even more my college years, one of the real adjustments for me was just being astonished at how little Americans knew about our engagement with the rest of the world, and how uninterested in politics they are, compared to people in an awful lot of other countries. I think it might surprise readers of this novel that there is so much politics in it, and again, that’s not something imposed on the material, that‘s a natural part of my sensibility.
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