Bollywood Story, the second novel by Nate Briggs, takes off with a takeoff: "As the huge airplane forced a way up from the tarmac at JFK, insistently pushing itself into the dingy air, there was nothing that disgusted me more then the pestering Niceness of Minnesota: the place I hoped I was leaving behind." Minnesota, according to the narrator, is supposed to be this "soft and welcoming place where people strove to be Nice. Where they thought Being Pleasant was important," but that Niceness can be used as a mask to hide less attractive qualities, such as lust and intolerance and busybodiness. By the time Eli Sorensson, the novel's narrator and protagonist, thinks he is leaving his Minnesota Niceness behind him, he has also already left behind his decency. The question is, can he get it back?
Eli leaves Minnesota because he's tired of the Niceness and tired of being shit on by a wife who no longer loves him. When he discovers that she's been cheating on him with his old college buddy, a shiftless womanizer named Dusty, and that his children, Adam and Adele, are not technically his children, he takes off. He has a right to be hurt, angry, enraged, but does he have a right to abandon two children who have only known him as their father? This question does not get answered explicitly. Maybe other readers didn't fixate on this question the way I did. I don't know what the answer really is. Eli barely seems to grapple, consciously, with his actions. I don't know if I can say he feels guilty about dropping his (ex-friend's) children. The wrong done to him overshadows the wrong done to the children. Until the final chapter, only once in nearly five hundred pages of first-person narration does Eli openly consider how his reaction might have affected those children, but his thoughts on the matter are brief, and he makes no effort to connect with the children. Do his actions in India—helping two young women escape the street and a life of sex work and caste prejudice—make up for his earlier action? The answer might depend on motivation: were his actions in his second life motivated by kindness or sex? Probably both. He atones, or he tries to atone, at the end of the book. If you can get through 477 pages thinking Eli is a monster trying to escape his suffocating Niceness while recapturing his humanity, you might see he's not quite the monster you thought he was when you read his fabricated (is this a spoiler now?) confession to the young woman he desires both to save and to fuck. Is it enough? Does his choice at the end make up for his earlier choice? I don't fucking know. Read the book and decide for yourself.
If I was the author of Bollywood Story, and I was pitching it to literary agents, the first sentence of my query letter would be this: Bollywood Story is basically Pygmalion, but with more backstory, set in India, and with the all the phonics lessons replaced with fucking. There's also an inversion of One Thousand and One Nights. The Pygmalion-centered pitch isn't completely accurate, but when literary agents are willing to spend a minute if you're lucky and looking for any excuse to ignore you, you can't be obsessed with such useless Niceties as accuracy or nuance.
The plot unfolds like a fantasy: an aggrieved white guy who is lucky enough to work for a multinational corporation arranges to get transferred to India, where, while trawling for sex, he spots a miserable-looking but beautiful young woman. He takes her home. He takes her in. He changes her life, helping her learn English, raising her station, helping her transcend her caste, and he does the same for her sister—and he gets to fuck both of them, with abandon (once she warms up to him) in the case of Kiran, who becomes his wife, and Kiran's forgiveness, in the case of Anandi, Kiran's sexually voracious sister.
I'm not going to pretend that this is a completely objective review, or really a review at all: I am acquainted with the author through the internet, but I have never met him in person. Which is why I was so nervous, on a thunderous night in August, to trudge the two miles up his impassable-by-car mud driveway to his off-grid cabin deep in rural Nebraska. He answered the door brandishing a shotgun. Looked to be a twelve gauge. Unnerved already by the storm, I mistook a crack of thunder for a gunshot and—obviously I'm fucking with you. I don't have money to travel to exotic locations like Nebraska* to interview obscure authors. Nor do I really have time. Which is the excuse I would have used had I not thought Bollywood Story worth reading. I asked Briggs to point me to a work he'd want me to read in case I might be able to write about it for "Fuck Oblivion," hoping he would name a short story, and he sent me a goddamn ebook. I hate ebooks, and there's no way I was ever going to be able to read this long of a book on an iPad, so eventually I bought the paperback, and eventually I finished reading it. If I thought the book was no good, if I thought it was not worth reading, I would have blamed my children. Sorry, I'd have said, but with work and children and my own publishing woes, I'm just never going to have time.
*Turns out he doesn't even live in Nebraska. He lives in Utah. This might seem like a weird place to stick a footnote, but if I waited to put it down at the bottom of this mess you probably wouldn't know what I was talking about.
And now for a discussion with Nate Briggs, conducted through email and published here in a tidied-up/edited question-and-answer format:
Note to the reader: I think it would be better if you thought of yourself more as a listener. Maybe you can get two friends together, or one friend who is good at voices, and have them read the following exchanges so that you can tell yourself you're listening to a podcast, which will increase the odds of making it through the entire discussion. Don't be ashamed. I stop scrolling sometimes, too. Since this piece is written for the internet, it should really only be about twelve words long, but if you tell yourself it's a podcast it will seem short. Some of those things go on for goddamn hours.
About the author: Nate Briggs, 66, or almost 66, is the author of five novels, which he publishes independently under his own imprint, Church Mouse Productions (formerly Vagabond Lovers). He also writes plays and short stories, and his day job has something to with industrial design. And now the actual interview starts:
AG: You mentioned to me that Bollywood Story, while a long haul for readers, was your "favorite compositional experience." What made it your favorite experience, or how was it different from other books or projects you've worked on?
Nate: Because, the longer I worked on it, the more it seemed to “open up.” The published final chapter is actually the fifth version—entirely different from the other four, because the dialectical interaction between the sisters changed completely: as though I was getting to know them better and better. And, in my imagination, everyone’s story goes on for another five or six years, although I didn’t bother to write any of that down.
AG: How much experience do you have in India or with Indian culture?
Nate: This is, literally, a Bollywood story. The fruit of watching hours of Bollywood movies: noticing certain situations and themes repeated again and again. The more I watched, the clearer this story became in my mind: more or less emulating how a movie might develop. After deciding on an expatriate tale, I decided on a city: Jaipur. Through the miracle of Google Maps, I even located Eli’s elaborate house, on the Jamnalal Bajaj Marg. Even though I've never set foot in the country, this narrative has been read by several Indians living there. They’ve had one or two details to correct—but they consider the cultural picture, and some of the local color, to be basically accurate. When you consider how comprehensive online sources are getting, you start to wonder about the future of travel. I was able to go all over Jaipur without ever leaving home.
AG: You were educated in Nebraska. A lot of people probably think Nebraskan culture is very similar to Minnesotan culture, but you clearly see beyond that. So what's your experience with Minnesota?
Nate: I would argue that there's a generic Midwestern culture that stands apart from Coastal Elite culture—and even the culture of the Mountain West (I’m currently in Salt Lake City). The thing to remember about the Midwest is that it’s thinly populated, and its values borrow heavily from the rural past: Bible reading, church going, casserole recipes, personal modesty, ritual courtesy, competitive gardening, and razor-edged gossip. When you compare “what my mother told me” from state to state, there’s not much difference.
AG: How hard, or for how long, did you try to break into the literary world through the more traditional route of querying agents before you decided to publish on your own?
Nate: For a few years, I single-handedly kept the Post Office in business with query letters. For screenplays, I was occasionally able to pass the “45-second test” and get something read. But as a novelist, I’ve never gotten through. Never asked to send in a complete manuscript based on what an agent could perceive in less than a minute.
AG: Tell me five of your favorite books and/or writers, and who, among writers alive now or alive very recently, should I be reading whom you think doesn't get enough attention?
Nate: In my maturity, I estimate that I've read about 4,000 books. So it's interesting how easy it is to point out the ones that have had real impact over time: Gulliver's Travels (Swift); The Mind of the Traveler (Leeds); The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald); The Master and Margarita (Bulgakov); The GULAG Archipelago (Solzhenitzyn). If I was to undertake a campaign for any author, I would be trying to persuade people that Ross MacDonald was a much better storyteller than Raymond Chandler. It was just that Chandler got more movies made. Everyone's heard of Philip Marlowe. Almost no one knows Lew Archer. In Bollywood Story I take moment to call out MacDonald's 1964 novel The Chill. Not only the best example of L.A. noir—but also the best detective novel ever (in my experience)—and probably one of the more accurate descriptions of the Human Experience in general.
AG: I'm pretty fond of Chandler, but I'll give Ross MacDonald another look. I read The Blue Hammer a long time ago when I was working overnights, so I don't remember anything about it.
[Awkward pause. Ask a transition question.]
AG: I've seen you describe yourself, unless I'm imagining the Libertarian part, as a sort of Marxist-Libertarian-Feminist. How seriously do I need to take that description? How seriously do you take it?
Nate: Marxism is a theory of history I embrace completely, because I see its unhappy predictions coming true every day. A Marxist—but not a Communist. It's been demonstrated, repeatedly, that Communism is the square hole into which Human Nature can never be pounded. Marx was right about most things, but he was wrong about that. Just too hopeful. I include Feminism because it agrees with the Marxist concern with exploitation—and Libertarian is included because I believe certain kinds of laws are specifically enforced against the voiceless and the penniless. I believe that paid sex between consenting adults should be perfectly legal—and that all “controlled” substances should be uncontrolled. We can witness in our own lives that—for the Feudal Overlords—everything is legal: paid sex, hard drugs, unlimited abortion, rape, extortion, and murder. Once you have money enough, and power enough, you can escape the consequences of just about anything you do (see Trump, Donald J).
AG: How does your political/philosophical worldview relate to your fiction? While there was some discussion of communism in Bollywood Story, I'm happy to say it wasn't some heavy-handed political treatise dressed up as fiction like a Marxist version of Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand's horseshit theory of Objectivism, a philosophy that would be sort of amusing if it hadn't caused so much damage to human society. I'm digressing, which is one of my hobbies.
Nate: I was a big time Objectivist when I was literally living in my parents’ basement. Any Rand’s siren call is almost irresistible to adolescent males: “You’re so special, and remarkable—the rules don’t apply to you. Of course they don’t. Doing whatever you want will be best for everyone.” Not all of her most fervent disciples live with Mommy. But most of them do.
AG: Bollywood Story, forgive me for the suggestion, strikes me as a capitalist story. Not that Eli himself is a capitalist; but he uses capitalism, in the form of his multinational corporation employer, as a tool to extricate himself from his situation in Minnesota and build his new life in India. To get back to the point, what's the relationship for you between politics and fiction?
Nate: Eli is a true son of the Midwest and arrives in India ready to preach the gospel of Meritocracy. He feels that the Free Enterprise system expedites Ability better than any other system—but then slams full speed into Indian fossils of family, caste, and tradition. He arrives as a victim of personal injustice—and sees a lot of injustice in the way his new home is arranged. He’d never be the kind of guy to march under a Socialist banner, but he does look for ways to help the people around him. In that sense, this is an anti-Marxist narrative. Eli doesn’t wait for workers to unite, or for World Socialism to ripen. The woman he loves wants Justice, and—on his own—he decides to help her. You could call it more of a superhero narrative, and some readers have complained that Eli is “too good to be true.” But hey: it’s Bollywood—and you do need a hero that’s a little larger than life.
AG: Is there a rejection letter that sticks out in your mind, or just sticks in your craw?
Nate: I got a funny letter from an agent in California. This was during Post Office days: when agents would just scrawl something in crayon on the margins of the query. In this case, she wanted me to know that “first person narratives are boring.” So . . . let’s see . . . that would include: Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick, David Copperfield. Boring (according to her). I have no idea if she made it as a literary agent. Maybe she didn’t.
AG: It seems like you're outside the literary world. What helps you to keep going?
Nate: Since I don’t have any gift for self-promotion, I can’t really have any expectation of success—with so many people churning out so much material. Also useful to note how social media concentrates notoriety and success. It doesn’t spread fame around. We just hear more and more about the same people. So composition should probably be more like gardening, or gourmet cooking. Something someone does just because they like doing it. We saw a video a few weeks ago that featured people competitively breeding chickens. Holding chickens, and expressing affection for them. Anything can be worthwhile for you if it brings you a sense of fulfillment.
AG: True, but I also want people to fucking read me. I'll spend weeks and months working on a short story, I'll spend weeks and months trying to get the thing published, and when it finally comes out I have to hold people at gunpoint to get them to share a goddamn link so other people can have a chance to ignore it. Meanwhile some jackass with fifteen-thousand Twitter followers can tweet "I farted a stinky" and get a fucking book deal out of it. As far as I know, that's a made-up example, but I wouldn't be surprised if it really happened. I also have no gift for self-promotion. You mentioned meritocracy earlier; it seems like we live in a meritocracy where the only valuable skill is self-promotion. You don't have to be talented, intelligent, thoughtful, or original to rise to the top; you just need to be good at selling yourself. Am I right or am I just trying to justify our lack of commercial success?
Nate: Here's the irony: Fame is supposed to be as close as my Instagram, or YouTube, account. But the impact of social media is to intensify, not diffuse. The people in the spotlight get a brighter and brighter spotlight—while the ones in darkness are pushed into thicker darkness. It’s a herd effect—natural to social species. It’s easier to go from 100K followers to 200K than it is to go from two to five. And then commercial opportunities follow social recognition. Case in point: Lena Dunham got more than $2 million for her “memoirs.” That’s laugh out loud funny, if you ask me.
AG: Amy Schumer got way more than Lena Dunham. Amy Schumer is very funny. I admire much of her comedy and television and film work. But she got so much money.
AG: Describe a literary trend that bugs the shit out of you.
Nate: I don’t read a lot of modern literary fiction because it’s infected with MFA. A viable path to getting published, but all it teaches is to please teachers: which is how MFAs spend the rest of their writing lives (becoming teachers themselves in time and maintaining the Guild). Occasionally, I’m surprised by an MFA book that I thought wasn’t. But the pre-defined styles and themes are so easy to recognize (written to a template, like most of the “cozy mysteries” that it’s difficult to surprise me.
AG: Feel free to ignore this, but are there any writers you can't stand? What is it about them you don't like? Is it them, or the way other people talk about them or kiss their asses?
Nate: I think there will eventually be a re-consideration of the slobbering worship of David Foster Wallace. I find his fiction unreadable, and his cultural insights pedestrian. The triumph of Image over Substance. The astringent-looking guy with the glasses and the stupid bandana on his head? Not him. He was a good little boy—a bobblehead boy—crafting his work so it would get a good grade. After a while he realized that he would never have a voice of his own (all MFA, all the time) and so he pulled over the curb, looking for a place to stop.
AG: It's funny to me that you chose David-Foster-Wallace-worship. I don't worship him. I don't consider him to be one of my favorite writers, but I also like him, and one of the literary trends that bugs the shit out of me the most is the blind dismissal of David Foster Wallace. He's been lumped in with "bro culture" and people are taking every opportunity to dismiss him and dismiss people who like him. The whole thing seems to have started in response to some interviews Jason Segel did when his DFW movie came out. He went to the book store to pick up a copy of Infinite Jest and a woman who worked at the store made a dismissive comment about how every loser guy she'd ever dated had an unread copy of that book. Suddenly lazy book-likers across the globe realized they could get out of having to read Infinite Jest if they just made the argument that a bunch of people who recommended that book are assholes so the book must also be an asshole. So the pendulum seems to be shifting from "slobbering worship" to "I don't have to read it to talk shit about it." There's no question in here, by the way. I stayed on the literature track, as an English major. I never had a strong urge to pursue an MFA, and I'm really not a fan of MFA programs. I think creative writing classes are great, but MFA programs do irritate me, and I sometimes can't be bothered with writers who came out of those programs. But I don't know if I see Wallace as representative of or infected by MFAs as you seem to. I know he came out of that world, but he also went out of his way to stay out of the New York literary scene, and there's so much emphasis on brevity and economy in creative writing classes, it seems like MFA people would try to rip him to shreds. In all of my encounters with MFA students I don't think I ever heard one person talk about David Foster Wallace. It's interesting how little I heard them talk about any writers. Again, not a question here, but if you want to make any additional disparaging remarks about MFA programs I'd be glad to hear them.
Nate: We certainly come at this from different directions. To me, Wallace is the stereotypical MFA figure: succeeding because he was good at school. But a storyteller is always looking for a story, and I do have a draft story—Bobblehead Boy—which describes the last few moments of a Wallace-like figure . . . just before he drowns himself. If you have the whole world at your feet—which was Wallace’s position—why end it all? A storyteller has to answer that question: and the story I wanted to tell was someone who, despite immense success, felt he was an imposter. Imprisoned by the need for other people’s approval—and never able to have a voice that just belonged to him. Sadly, the one person who could explain why Wallace decided to move on to his next incarnation is unavailable for comment. (Note that a photo of him popped up on my Facebook feed just today. He constantly haunts us from the grave.)
AG: I think it's fair to criticize Wallace, fair to not like him—what gets me is just the blanket dismissal now, not what you're doing but what people on Twitter do a lot. But that goes into a whole different area. I do see Wallace as sort of trapped by his own mythology, by the narrative that was constructed around him that he didn't necessarily ask for, and also trapped by the success of Infinite Jest, which he had no chance of topping or even matching. The reviews of Pale King, had he been alive when it was published, I think would have been mostly negative, and many would have been cruel. And if he was still alive and published a book anywhere from 2015 to today, it just would have been a shitstorm.
AG: I've switched from CreateSpace, Amazon's publishing wing, to Ingram Spark. I've also stopped linking to Amazon, at least for my books, and I only link to IndieBound. One benefit of Ingram is distribution: you can get into bookstores and libraries, although I haven't done it yet. The only tie I still have with Amazon is with the ebooks. I sell them for $0.99 because I hate ebooks. And I'm not making that much money for Amazon through them, although they get two-thirds of my $0.99 when I actually sell an ebook, the fuckers. How do you feel about Amazon? Destroying the world? Ruining publishing? Opening doors for independent writers who can't get into the club? All of the above? Something different?
Nate: Amazon is my only publishing platform (because I'm having Jeff Bezos's baby—you heard it here first). But seriously, I have no commercial expectations. If I wanted to make money, I'd be working graveyards at Pump'n'Dump. Amazon is the only marketing platform. Facebook is the only customer outreach. Simple. Repetitive. Minimalist. I can’t win the lottery if I don’t buy a ticket—but I don’t want to obsess about the way in which I’m getting my tickets.
AG: I dug up this essay, The Naked and the Conflicted, about the shift in how sex is written between the Mailer-Bellow era and the Wallace-Eggers era, because you mentioned you got back into writing after a long break through writing erotica. Bollywood Story certainly doesn't lack for sex scenes. I remembered the essay from way back in 2009, but not the author, and was surprised it was written by Katie Roiphe, who is in the news this week, and getting a lot of shit on the internet, for an article she's working on for Harper's in which it was rumored she intended to publish the name of the woman who created the famous Shitty Media Men doc. The Shitty Men spreadsheet had been created anonymously, but the creator came out amid this controversy and publicly said she had made it. A lot of people are still pissed at Roiphe. I don't know that much about her, or what to think about this situation: she seems to be saying she was never going to out the creator without her permission; others say that's bullshit. None of this is related to my actual question, though. Since we do come from different generations, I'm interested in your take on the essay. I'm from the generation younger than the Eggers-Wallace generation, which Roiphe seems to think is a bit too hyper-liberally prudish. I tend to glide past sex, and I only really linger on a sex scene for laughs or awkwardness. I'm not afraid of offending someone's sensibilities or anything, or trying to shy away from anything that could be construed as male aggression. I have gotten a bit more open in writing about sex in the last couple years, but it's still not my area. For me, that barrier has been broken. The taboo is lessened, so I just don't feel like I have to focus that much on fucking. You're younger than Roth and Mailer and Bellow and some of the other writers Roiphe associates with more sexually forward writing, and you write a lot of sex. What do you think? Are we prudes now? What's going on?
Nate: I was watching Breakfast at Tiffany's with my daughter the other day, and remarking how cleverly the old Production Code allowed adults to know what was going on, while shielding that information from children. Censorship does fuel creativity. But I still like sex writing—and think that it has a lot of challenges to offer. I wrote a useful guide to understand what’s erotica and what’s porn.
Note to the reader: I do have a PDF, but I don't want to attach it; if I ever get a link to the porn/erotical thing I'll add it here.
AG: How conscious were you of the Pygmalion theme in writing Bollywood Story?
Nate: Ultra-aware. But Kiran changes him, too. The Big Idea is the one he mentions at the end: he thought he was running away from Love and Commitment—but here he is again . . . step by step he's gotten right back in it.
AG: Yeah, the Pygmalion thing only goes so far. Eli isn’t condescending or superior, for instance.
AG: What's your take on Eli? I spent most of the book regarding him as a monster, because you think he's murdered the genetic father of his children, and then completely abandoned the children. Turns out the murder thing was made up, but he really does seem to drop those kids, for years, knowing their real father won't be around, knowing their new stepfather is a piece of shit. He eventually helps them and brings them back into his life. It's almost a deus ex machina where he sets himself up as the god figure. Does he have a messiah thing or am I overthinking?
Nate: That nicely matches the Indian reader who said that Eli was “too good to be true.” The original title of the book was The Sisters Kumar—because they’re the ones who actually push events, and Eli mostly reacts to them. While thinking of himself as a manly man, I can think of only a couple of examples where he initiates something. Otherwise, something happens—and then he responds. A lot of us are like that, so you may be expecting a little too much of him.
AG: I first encountered you on a website called Wattpad, where anyone can publish anything. There are obvious drawbacks to this model. It's a website I still use and still hate, although I have connected with a handful of interesting people. What do you think about Wattpad?
Nate: I’ll probably close that account in the near future. It’s interesting to note that Wattpad has destroyed all the other “post and pray” sites. It’s the only game in town. The only practical reason to be there is to sell books—but the paradox of posting material so people can read it for free, and then expecting them to buy something is painful. Only kids with a million followers can get a commercial push: and all their material is targeted toward schoolgirls in Tokyo.
AG: I can confirm one print sale through Wattpad, but that's all. That's four bucks in my pocket. I've thought about shutting down my account numerous times, but I do have a few people that I joke around with on there. I think shutting it down is the right call, though. We're making money for those bastards and getting shit in return. I have no idea how much money Wattpad takes in through ads, but I think now they're offering fee-based accounts. I have no idea how that works and don't want to find out. Not that Facebook or Twitter are any better. At least Wattpad didn't help Trump get elected. If you have any disparaging remarks you'd like to make about Trump please feel free to do so here.
Nate: Jesus, Alan, no one has that much free time.
Church Mouse Productions is on Facebook: @CMouseProd.
Nate Briggs is on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5869063.Nate_Briggs?from_search=true