Arts & Culture

What Do a White Boy Who Loves Hip-Hop and A Swiss Kid Who Thinks He’s the Messiah Have in Common?

From: Adam To: Arnon Re: Lazy Motherfuckers Arnon, Too much honor for the novelist? Impossible, man. What we sacrifice in job security and health insurance, we’ve gotta recoup somehow. Certainly the only thing more frustrating than being asked to categorize … Read More

By / April 9, 2008

From: Adam To: Arnon Re: Lazy Motherfuckers

Arnon,

Too much honor for the novelist? Impossible, man. What we sacrifice in job security and health insurance, we’ve gotta recoup somehow.

Certainly the only thing more frustrating than being asked to categorize your work is watching someone else miscategorize it. Categories and neat descriptive phrases are hopelessly reductive. Any great novel is probably many contradictory things at once: satirical and earnest, sweeping and intimate, realistic and wildly imaginative. I’ve always been proactive in the crafting of my jacket copy and press materials because you end up having to answer for whatever the book is described as: Lazy motherfuckers invite you onto their radio shows and while you’re sitting there with the headphones on, they flip the book over, scan it for the first time, and say, “our guest, Arnon Grunberg, is the author of a grotesque farce…”

I found your definition of ‘grotesque’ as a distortion of reality interesting. Maybe I’m reading too much into the word as it pertains to novels; I think of books like Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan or John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces as being grotesques — books in which the characterization of the protagonist is heavily dependent on extreme bodily distress. Shteyngart’s character, like yours, is a victim of a botched circumcision, and his obesity and general discomfort with himself are central to the book and the comedy it attempts. O’Toole’s protagonist, also a big fat disgusting guy, is blinded by a self-importance almost as offensive as his constant, epic flatulence. So I guess I was wondering whether you saw The Jewish Messiah as engaging with some kind of tradition of the grotesque, if there is one.

As far as why I call my last novel, Angry Black White Boy, a satire—well, I had specific intentions in writing it, and they line up with what I think of as the rules or parameters of satire. To me, the cast of a satire is divided into two groups: the primary characters, who have to be fully-realized, imbued with as vibrant a humanity as possible, and the secondary characters, who can be absurd representative stereotypes. A lot of the fun comes in allowing the primary characters to romp through a world that is recognizably our own, yet populated by figures a shade more extreme, more amusing, more horrifying, than we’re used to. A lot of satires, I think, also involve an unlikely, meteoric rise to prominence, a character whose sphere of influence expands exponentially throughout the course of the story as the world rises to meet his or her outsized-ness. Certainly your book does that when time speeds up dramatically and Xavier becomes Prime Minister of Israel. I also think a satire often has other texts in mind—books, people, and ideas it’s playing off, remixing, riffing on. For me, that was primarily the American ‘race novel’ from The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man to Flight To Canada.

There are actually a lot of parallels between The Jewish Messiah and Angry Black White Boy. Your protagonist, Xavier Radek, is a middle-class Swiss kid whose grandfather was an SS soldier; he decides he is going to become the ‘comforter of the Jews’ and, with the son a of a Rabbi at his side, he begins a long, weird journey toward infamy, with an interlude at an art school in Amsterdam, a prolonged attempt to translate Mein Kampf into Yiddish, and the moral support of his own amputated testicle, King David, who the people of Israel largely accept as The Messiah. My protagonist, Macon Detornay, is a middle-class American white kid whose great-grandfather was Cap Anson, a famously racist (real-life) baseball player, responsible in part for the segregation of the game. Politicized by hip hop culture, Macon develops a seething anger toward white people, begins committing
racially-motivated crimes against the white passengers who step into his taxi, becomes a celebrity, and uses his fame to call for a (disastrous) National Day of Apology, on which whites are supposed to make amends for 400 years of slavery — all this with the aid of his college roommate, a black kid whose great-grandfather Anson drove out of baseball and almost got killed.

So obviously, among other things, we both seem to be interested in personal familial guilt that provides motivation for the perhaps absurd crusades of our characters. I’m curious about why you decided to build that in. I also want to ask you about the level of self-awareness you allow your characters, or deny them. I think one of the most important decisions a writer makes when creating as freewheeling and wild a story as yours is how much you permit your characters to be in on the jokes. The characters in Angry White Black Boy derive great pleasure from their ability to see themselves as characters in a kind of post-modern race novel; they’re conversant with a lot of the music and fiction that relates to their predicaments, and they play off of it. I see Xavier as much less in on a lot of the jokes.

As for the whole throwing of drinks thing, I’ll settle for buying you one next time I’m in New York.