An interview with Eduardo Rabasa, author of the upcoming novel A Zero-Sum Game (translated by Christina MacSweeney and published by Deep Vellum).
After you read the interview (or before) also read our excerpt from A Zero-Sum Game, "God's Dice."
I read Eduardo Rabasa's A Zero-Sum Game in a strange way: I helped copyedit it (Chicago Style for grammar, NY Times for name spellings). This is an alienating way to read a novel. You get so hyper-focused on the details of punctuation and spelling and on the (possibly irrelevant) questions of whether a hyphen suggests the British English of the translator--the great Christina MacSweeney--and whether it should be otherwise, Americanishly, that you can totally lose sight of the big picture, fixating on minutia and utterly losing the grand sweep of the narrative. The sentences lose their sense, and become collections of potential errors; the pages become nothing but containers for mistakes to be corrected. Reading that way, you can cease to be a reader and become something else, a kind of unfeeling robot, constantly referencing outside sources to discover what is true. And so, while I was entranced by Eduardo Rabasa's hallucinatory debut, I also felt, in reading it, that something was out of whack, out of focus; this society was not quite a society, these people were not quite people, and this story... is not quite a story.
On reflection, maybe this was the best way to read this novel. As Rabasa was quick to acknowledge, the protagonist, Max, is a version of himself, and of course the housing complex containing the action of the entire novel is a version of Mexico, as it is today; as a satire of neoliberal democracy, it starts from a place of intimacy and recognition, profoundly empathetic to its characters. But Max's Mexico is an alienating place, and that's the point of the exercise: to explore how the structures and sense-making mechanisms of our world turn people into machines, houses into prisons, and society into the kind of bitter joke that one you can only laugh at when you see yourself in the caricature. And just as Max and his society are never quite in tune--he is both the perfect neoliberal subject, and as such, the most alienated--so, too, are the two halves of the novel like oil and water: part of the novel is Max's story, and part of it is the story of the housing complex, Villa Miserias, but the "zero sum game" at the heart of the work is their mutual and transformative misrecognition. In this way, it might be the perfect society novel for a Thatcher-ite world in which there is no such thing as society; there are only people and gated complexes.
My interview with Rabasa barely scratches the surface of what Juan Villoro called "A novel about the most complicated of extreme sports: coexistence," but only because I ran out of time; I've rarely interviewed anyone so overflowing with things to say. The novel is the same way, sprawling and hyperactive in its dizzying lack of focus, and yet always aware--even if we, as readers, are not--of why this is the only way to describe a society defined by its necessary lack of self-awareness. When the novel comes out in October, read it; you won't regret the experience, even if it will also leave you as hungry and unsatisfied as late capital wants you to be. You can also get a taste of book in the excerpt from the novel that the New Inquiry is delighted to be publishing today, a description of Max's employer: $uperstructure, a datametric consulting agency whose algorithms don't so much measure an autonomous society as--empowered by governing will--imagine into existence a society of automatons, a fulfill their own prophecy in doing so.
This interview was conducted over email, and has been edited with the help of the author.
AB: Let’s start with the title: A Zero-Sum Game. It’s a great title for your novel, even though La suma de los ceros would literally translate differently. Do you like the change?
ER: It's a different concept, but for some reason foreign publishers don't seem to think that the original one would work. For example, the French called it Un jeu a some nulle, which I think is the equivalent of A Zero-Sum Game. I also like the millions of zeros being added. But if for any reason Will [Evans, publisher at Deep Vellum] thinks it works better like this, I'm perfectly fine with it.
The section we chose to excerpt is one of the more purely satirical sections of the novel, where we get farther away from the perspective of Max, the protagonist. I thought it was one of the best stand-alone sections of the novel, because it gives a sense of how you’re satirizing neoliberal economics. How do you approach satire?
What I like about satire, when it works, is that it weaves together the theoretical (an ideology) with the consequences that it has for individuals in their everyday lives, often by putting people in impossible or ridiculous situations. Philip Mirowski has written extensively about neoliberalism from a very original point of view, saying that its model of human nature is basically that of automatons. So even from a philosophical point of view, it’s an economic system that greatly impoverishes the notion of a human being. But then, I think, it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, as we do become this utilitarian and selfish individuals that create a horrible society, even for those who are on top.
The name of the character in the excerpt, GBW Ponce, comes actually from the Ponzi scheme, among other things. There’s a Thomas Frank piece that I once read somewhere (I think it was Harper’s), where he said that civilization is basically a gigantic ponzi scheme. With our obsession with data and with predicting the future, it's as if we were trying to cancel the future and its uncertainties, in order to make the present feel safer. The IMF has projections for the growth of EVERY economy on the planet which stretch to two-three-four and even more years: why let reality run its course when we can model it and predict it, right? So, the idea behind that character was that by "scientifically" predicting every inch of life, it's as if we borrowed against our unknown future to live the present with fewer uncertainties and anxieties. But that’s precisely what causes more anxiety, this idea of a life that could fit entirely in an Excel spreadsheet.
I read that you've had a particular interest in George Orwell, that you translated him and even wrote a student thesis on his work.
Yes, I studied Political Science at Mexico's National University (UNAM), and I did my undergraduate thesis on the concept of power in the works of Orwell. I didn't read all of his work, as it's very large, but I did read most of it, and his essays and journalistic pieces, and even some of his letters, were more compelling than his fiction. I think every main idea that made its way into the fiction was already there, more or less explicitly. For example, "double think,” which in 1984 seems a bit far-fetched, but when he used specific political examples it didn't seem far-fetched at all.
What do you think of his fiction?
Well, he himself admitted that he saw himself as a “pamphleteer,” and that every time he set out to write something, it was with a political purpose in mind, such as exposing a lie or advancing a cause. I think this is probably the reason why his style and even his characters sometimes lack depth, in strict literary terms. In 1984, you never feel a tension in the love relationship between Winston and Julia; it's like he had to insert love scenes to get it out of the way, because the book is a novel. And in Animal Farm, even though a lot of its power comes from the fact that it's a fable and that the characters are animals, it also makes them somewhat plain and one-sided. I'm not even sure that he'd be bothered by such a critique, as I don't think he was trying to be an "artist." There is a letter in which he says to a friend that every time he reads Joyce he feels a great sense of inferiority, and feels like an "eunuch" next to him.
It doesn't seem to bother him; he just kept on writing fiction nevertheless. But when he is free from the requisites of fiction (characters, plot, dramatic tension, etc.), I was very impressed by his intelligence, by the depth of his thought, and by what he himself considers (in "Why I Write") his main asset as a writer: a capacity to see and write about things as clearly as they seem to him, without the need to soften them or to think that somehow, someway, everything will turn out for the best in the end.
That certainly seems relevant for your novel!
Towards the end of La suma de los ceros, Max's antagonist, Selon Perdumes, paraphrases a line from Orwell, that humanity’s biggest problems will never be solved, but that nobody is willing to accept it; thus, the need for different belief systems, like the belief in progress, in order to think that someday the future will be better than the present. I think that is truer in tumultuous and violent times, such as the one he lived in, and such as the one we're experiencing now.
So you see continuity between his era and ours? I guess I wonder, also, about how different his times and our might be.
I think Orwell is very relevant today, though not necessarily as he's usually read, as a warning against totalitarianism. Rather, it’s a frame of mind, a willingness to dig deep in our own contradictions, and not be satisfied with accommodating our thought to imagining that if only the rest of the world could understand, we would all lead happy lives. Over and over, with every current catastrophic event (the terror attacks, the refugee crisis, Brexit, Donald Trump, etc.), we mostly see an incapacity by progressive intellectuals to escape the same old thought structures that are partly to blame for being in that situation in the first place. There was a recent Thomas Frank piece in which he argues precisely this point, and I think that’s very Orwellian.
It’s interesting, I think most people who would call your novel “Orwellian” would mean something quite different; they’d mean that it resembles 1984 in terms of genre, that it’s "dystopian fiction”?
For better and for worse, I wasn't planning to write any kind of book, even less a novel, or a political novel, or a dystopia. The writing came as a result of a double personal crisis, on the one hand regarding my perception of the reality we live in (on a sort of a macroscopic level), and on the other because of a profound spiral of hopelessness and despair, due to specific events in my life that didn't seem to have an ending. This book was the way I found to try and understand issues that otherwise remained incomprehensible to me. So I wasn't thinking of genre at all. As I kept on writing I wasn't even sure what the book was, if it was to be finished, if it would be of interest to anybody if it was finished, etc. It was mostly a self-exploratory exercise (there is a phrase by a Spanish philosopher that I really like, Miguel Morey, in which he mentions that writing can be an extension of thought, and that's exactly what writing this book was for me).
The good part of it is that it gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted, and that is also the bad part, as I'm now aware that the most visible flaws of the book could maybe have been avoided by following some basic notions of fiction writing, but I think that it couldn't have been done any other way, and that, flawed as it may be, it's a book that will always represent for me what was going on in my head and in my body for a period of almost seven years of my life.
You mentioned “flaws” in the book, and how they could maybe have been avoided by following “some basic notions of fiction writing.” Not that I think the book is flawless, necessarily, but when talking about fiction, I dislike words like “flaws.” Novels are such fragile, perverse creatures. The “best” writers can produce truly boring novels, and some incredibly flawed works never stop doing important things to our thinking (Kafka’s novels are horrifically “flawed,” for example). But I'm curious to hear you say more about that, what sorts of rules might have helped you (or changed the process) had you not ignored them, and what you might have written differently.
I'm not sure I have a clear answer, but I'll try. Since this is my first book, I don't have wide experience in dealing to critiques or people’s reactions, so every time I read one, or somebody tells me a specific point of view, I try to think whether they're “right,” and whether I should have done something different with the book. The problem also is that many times the opinions about the potential flaws are themselves opposed, so in the end I have no clear answer. Because the book is what it is, it's difficult to envision it being something else, but at the same time I know that if, for example, I had worked on it in a creative writing course, the result would have been much different. I don’t know if it’s a typical example of what Somerset Maugham called “the dogmatism of ignorance,” but for some reason I’m glad it didn’t happen in that more traditional and formal way.
Were you thinking about the ways the story of Max diverges from the political satire of neoliberalism? The novel has two related-but-distinct strands of narration.
Well, the first part is a bundle of stories which are only loosely connected by some very feeble appearances by Max, as if he were replaying the whole thing in his mind. But even that is not always clear. In earlier versions, there was even less of Max in that first part, until it was pointed out to me that he had disappeared for too long, and it was difficult to reconnect with him once he re-appeared. I think if I'd had a clearer objective of writing a novel in which A or B would happen to a character, a “plot,” maybe that first part wouldn't have such a chaotic form.
It's definitely a flaw to me—in the sense that it was something I was trying to achieve and I've seen over and over that I failed miserably at it—that I wanted the political and the romantic-erotic infatuation to have an equal weight in the book. I wanted it to be as if Max was being pulled in two directions by a force of equal strength. But the political part is what people pay the most attention to. I even thought that Max and Nelly were co-protagonist, but I think that there's only been one review in which she's even mentioned, jajaja.
The narrative structure of the second part, the political campaign, is divided by days: each day divided by Max's diary and then most of the times a journalistic piece by Nelly. In an indirect manner, I wanted to also give her voice, because the narrator is clearly very sympathetic to Max; so even without saying it, I think that there is a tendency to look at his troubles through Max's own view. The idea was that, by giving Nelly voice, the issues would become less one-sided and more complex. I now think that the structure was too weird and maybe some readers get lost or bored in the process. Perhaps it would have worked better to have an entire journal written only by Nelly, so that we could see her version of the campaign and of her relationship with Max. But it definitely falls in the category of “who knows?” I wanted to write this part like that, because the campaign is like performance art. Which is more and more what campaigns are becoming, although very bad performance art. But that's why it was composed of episodes that are read (or intended to be read) like “happenings.” But my intention is one thing and another is how it is seen by readers; that's why I count them as “flaws.”
I agree with you that sometimes the flaws are what attracts us. I remember a talk given by the great Italian publisher and writer Roberto Calasso, more than 10 years ago; he mentioned that he received hundreds of manuscripts in his publishing house that were perfectly written, technique was impeccable, and you could trace the influence to so-and-so writer, and that he basically threw them away after 20 pages. They were boring and soulless. I think this has to do, in a way, with the proliferation of writing courses and with the widespread aspiration to be a professional writer; sometimes it seems as if it were a matter of formulas, like applying a cooking recipe. Thus you can have these manuscripts, or books, entirely without flaws, but also utterly non-compelling. Having said that, it’s not meant as an apology of the flaws of my book. To put it in the simpler way I can, this is the only way in which I knew how to do it, but I’m sure there were many other ways in which the result could have been kinder to the reader.
I was reading Basma Abdel Aziz's novel The Queue not too long ago, which is another novel that has been called Orwellian; there's something frustrating about that need to compare her work to older works from the past, rather than frame her novel as a response to the present.
I completely agree about the frustration of always referring contemporary works to past works, 99% of the time it is an unfortunate and pointless thing to do. We were laughing the other day with a friend who is a translator, who received a manuscript from a literary agent, a debut novel by a writer, that was hailed as the “new Bolaño.” But the work didn't even have any resemblance to Bolaño’s. There must already be more than a hundred “new Bolaños.” Besides the commercial interest of publishers and literary agents, I think it may also have to do with a need to safely place every work in such and such category; if we run into a book that we don't know exactly what it is, the anxiety is too great to even admit it. I think that's one of the reasons why originality is hard to find in literary works these days.
Is Max a version of you?
Yes, and no. The "yes" would be related to the structure of his mind (although in him it's obviously exaggerated). I've only had the experience of having these internal voices that insult and belittle me in the periods in which I've smoked too much weed for too long. In the three or four years before writing the novel, I experienced a bit too often the mental nightmare that Max goes through (in his case, without having taken any drugs!). But I relate to having uncontrolled thoughts, images, ideas, that are obviously a part of oneself, but they're nevertheless a part of oneself that I neither like nor recognize. As a friend once told me, one has to learn to live with them, and even argue back if necessary (but the problem is that you feel ready to be committed to a mental institution). The irony is that, in a way that somehow resembles a Greek tragedy (Oedipus, for example), sometimes in trying to get away from these "voices" or ideas, you end up doing precisely what "they" set out to do, which is often making sure that your life is as screwed up as can be.
In the case of Max, all of his misery in his adult life is completely self-inflicted. He has no one to blame but himself. But that's also the reason why I wanted to devote a large section to his childhood and adolescence, to try and show at least partially how was it that he had come to be the person he was. With that part of him, I relate completely.
I also relate to the romantic-erotic infatuation that is the main culprit of his dilemma, as I went through something very similar in terms of being absolutely powerless in the face of an attraction/obsession/relationship that swept me away completely. Much like Max, the more I did things to try and get out of the hole I had dug myself in (like smoking too much weed when it was obviously psychologically harming), the deeper the hole became. I think it's one of those things that seems a little absurd if you've never experienced it. It seems absurd even to me, now that I'm no longer under its spell. But it's one of the most powerful forces that one can be subjected to.
How is Max different from you?
Well, where I'd like to think I have nothing to do with Max is that he bases his political campaign on “telling the truth,” but only to keep on lying to himself. He distances himself so much from who he was, or who he could be, that he risks losing what I think is the most precious thing he has: the friendship of Sao and Pascual, who see him turn into a pathetic puppet. It may be the case that this applies to me, but that I don't have the courage to face it (hahaha). But at least I need to say to myself that, in this aspect, I'm not like Max at all.
The idea of him, as a character, was to explore what happens when a person suffers a split between his mind and his body, as if a bundle of uncontrolled thoughts and ideas were living like an alien, inside a body that doesn't seem to be his or her own. When this happens, there is an air of falsehood about the life he is leading; no matter how intelligent one is (and Max is at least somewhat intelligent), you'll be completely separated from the somatic certainties that only the body can feel and express, and that are maybe not even translatable into rational thought.
Is “Neoliberalism” a word for this schism?
One of the ways neoliberalism damages us as individuals is that, by narrowing life to a competition, a race, towards money, fame, fortune, power, it renders us incomplete. We are only the successful or unsuccessful lawyer, businessman, artist, pick up artist, etc. The body itself becomes only a means towards any of these ends. Thus, the obsession with physical beauty as a way to have more sex, to get a better job, more friends, or whatever its uses may be. But with this instrumental character, the body ceases to be a source of knowledge, a place in which above all one should feel at home. To even say this in public, you risk been ridiculed as having outdated and hippie-ish ideas, completely out of place within the demands and needs of our competition-fueled society.
You’re talking in abstractions, here, but those abstractions match up with the novel’s somewhat schizoid character, which is sort of split between a socio-political satire and the story of Max, an individual character.
Some people have found the satire of the social setting more compelling, and haven’t cared as much about Max's trajectory. And for some people, the first part has seemed somewhat tedious and hard to get by; they relate more to Max's personal history, his troubles with Nelly, and his quest to win the election. I'm not offended or anything like that; I'm, also, obviously, not the one to say whether one part works better than the other one. But if they were properly written, both were necessary; what I think is interesting is not only a broader description of sociopolitical systems, but also the psychological and somatic effect that they have on individuals.
People like George Monbiot discuss the "solitude epidemic" that neoliberalism produces, even in the richest societies. I think this is a very literary topic: people are getting shortchanged, because even if you do what is expected of you, and have a successful career, have a car, buy a house, and can afford to vacation on a luxury cruise, you can still end up being miserable and lonely. It’s a little like a religious person observing every law and prohibition, only to find that in the end it did not lead to heaven, but to a very particular and specific version of hell.
You’ve talked about the damages and costs that neoliberalism enacts on human beings. What about what it produces and makes? When “Quietism in Motion” is explained in the novel, the examples—the sword and the tea bag—are so... odd. They’re symbolically laden, psychologically dense. I guess I'm struck by this symbolic excess of how Neoliberalism thinks about and theorizes itself, and how seriously and persuasive the psychology of Quietism in Motion turns out to be, even while being pretty wacky.
I have a confession to make. Out of embarrassment, I leave out of my biography the fact that, in addition to political science, I studied economics in a private Mexican University called ITAM, where they teach purely neoliberal economics. They call it “neoclassical economics,” but it's the Chicago School. In a way I don't regret it; I had a horrible time there, and the studying was really, really tough—much more calculus and mathematics than I'll ever care for—but I did get a good view from within the theory. So I think that there is a dual character. On the one hand, one of the crucial assumptions, without which all of their conceptual buildings would crumble, is perfect rationality (and perfect information, talk about a fairy tale!), so that the individual is an automaton that will ALWAYS make decisions by maximizing utility. Reducing human beings to a utility-seeking creature is already a HUGE mutilation of all our complexities and contradictions, but in that sense, every choice is already determined… if we only knew what the "correct" choice would be. In macroeconomic terms, the market is composed of the aggregation of these automatons which, like Pavlovian dogs, simply act upon what their convenience tells them. In political terms, rational choice works under the same assumptions, but translated into political choices, with the vote being the main relevant political act, almost the only one. There is a huge overlap between the consumer and the voter: the wet dream of both neoliberal economics and rational choice political theory is that they would be one and the same creature.
Of course, these very complex models—based on calculus equations that literally take up entire blackboards—are based on assumptions that come out of a horrible fairy tale. In a book by Robert Nozick, he'd use the following example: if you distributed wealth equally between all citizens, a lot of people would still be willing to pay to go see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball, and an unequal situation would again be produced so, why bother trying in the first place? This leads to a horrible and brutal social implication, like what William F. Buckley said in the debates with Gore Vidal, that “The price of freedom is our right to be unequal” or something like that. In both cases, the basic idea being that since there is nothing to do about inequality, we might as well accept it as a given fact.
What I wanted to emphasize with “Quietism in Motion” was its basic ruthlessness and the corresponding social order that it produces, with the contempt for the working class. But the gospel is spread through seemingly innocent examples; the message is easily understood by everybody, and so its brutal ideological character is masked. I also think that's why calculus is so important; it invests the ideology with an air of scientific inevitability, when it's really a very specific political view, which produces specific consequences. Since there is no one to blame (Adam Smith's “invisible hand”), there is also no one to fight.
I think Donald Trump gets some of this stuff very well. He is a neoliberal demagogue, with a view of society as a sort of fierce competition between everybody to win (Win what?, we might ask, the game of life?). But like all demagogues, he transmits his message in a very simple, graphic and symbolic way. I'm not saying he really is sophisticated and plays dumb; I think he's really what we see. But he grasps the impact that this type of discourse produces in an age of anger and anxiety.
For example, the song with the little girls dancing and singing very militaristic and aggressive lines like "Take them down, boys," it makes war and its ravages seem like a kids play. The ideology and political consequences are very complex and brutal, but people are persuaded upon a message that is highly childish and symbolic. This is what I wanted to try and reflect with the Quietism in Motion.
What does it do for you as a writer to also be a publisher? Is there a relationship between these two different hats, or do they happen at different points in your life (and have to stay separate)?
During the process of writing, it was completely separate. Even in terms of schedule, I'd get up at 5 am to write, and when I finished I began my working day as a publisher, so they were completely separate spaces.
In fact, I thought that since I was a publisher, I'd be able to edit my own work. It turned out that it wasn't the case; while working with friends and editors, I realized that many of the things that were pointed out to me I could have spotted in other people's manuscripts. But I was oblivious to them in my own writing.
Once the book passed some filters of people I trusted, I was terrified about getting it published through connections I'd have in the publishing industry. I sent it to a very tiny publishing house called sur+, whose editors I barely knew; I wanted to try, as much as possible, to see that the book would be read and evaluated on its own merits. I've been very happy with the results, because even though it is a very small publishing house—which has presented obvious challenges—it was what I felt most comfortable with. As time has passed, there have been very interesting, and somewhat unexpected reactions by people I know in the industry. Some people have been very nice and generous, but there has been an air of suspicion; this is also something that Calasso has pointed out somewhere, that when a publisher writes a book, it's always seen with suspicion, as if you were stepping out of the place in which you belong. The publishing industry is VERY vertical, hierarchical, and status-conscious, and it's led to very uncomfortable and embarrassing situations.
It's been somewhat complicated to be a publisher who wrote a novel. You wouldn't think it, but for some reasons it seems to even offend some people. It beats me to know why… I guess it sort of goes with the territory, and as much as I hate to think about it, being an “insider” did give me huge advantages. In the end, I think the advantages balance out with the disadvantages. I also think that if/when I write or publish another book, the writing part will be seen as less of an anomaly. To be honest, I've already written the draft…