Jarett Kobek: Trump, Twitter & Club Kids carnage
Bret Easton Ellis takes issue over Bobby Brown, bodies are chopped up in bathtubs and Donald Trump is saviour, of Twitter at least. I Hate The Internet author Jarett Kobek is on fascinating and inflammatory form, discussing new novel The Future Won’t Be Long
“I think that Michael killing Angel pretty much makes that story difficult to look back at.” Jarett Kobek ponders why Michael Alig and the late-80s/early-90s New York club scene is somewhat under reported, compared to say the earlier period of Warhol, Studio 54 and Danceteria. And why Alig’s famous Club Kids are rarely recognised as the last great subculture. Kobek is the Turkish American author of The Future Won’t Be Long, a novel that plays out across that harsh, free era of that great city. And he has a couple of theories: firstly, the flamboyant but ultimately hollow Alig failed to grow beyond a ketamine-fuelled party impresario, while Warhol of course is widely recognised as modern America’s most influential artist. Secondly, Warhol never chopped up his dealer in a bathtub.
Kobek is currently on the line from LA, but he’s bounced between America’s coasts, living for a time in New York, San Francisco and LA (although a full bio is hard to come by in an age where most authors have their lives mapped out online). His accent seems to betray both East and West, but, at least to this uncultured ear, now most notably shows California – the hint of a languid drawl smoothing the ends of his sentences and the occasional ‘like’ serving as punctuation. But anyway, more importantly, as he was saying: “Michael killing Angel [Andre Melendez] pretty much makes that story difficult to look back at and be like, well, look at this really fabulous moment, look at this flourishing of creativity, when it ends with someone being hacked up and thrown into the East River.” The party went on too long, but had burned so bright during the earlier period, when Alig set his sights on the NYC club crown.
“Michael was a peripheral player,” Kobek explains. (So is the case in Kobek's book, actually, although his shadow looms large across it.) “Then, in the Tunnel basement, he started throwing these parties called 'the changing of the guard' parties, and I think the first one was in 87, then he threw it in 88 and 89, and by 90 the guard had changed, like, he had become the centre of that world. And I really think that’s true, I think that the way by which you really make your mark is not by trying to go in through the front door.” In the novel, Alig schools Baby, fictional Club Kid and central character of The Future Won’t Be Long, on how such a cultural land grab is made possible. Like so, Michael states: “Anyone can change the world. You just decide that you’re what’s hot, you’re the new fabulous thing, and then tell other people. And keep fucking telling them! They’ll laugh at first, because stupid ugly people always laugh at everything, but if you repeat it enough, sooner or later they’re going to come around… no one wants to be left out of the party.”
“It was the last subculture, really,” argues Kobek. He explains that these decadent Club Kids such as Junkie Jonathan, Julie Jewels and Jenny Talia, described by Village Voice columnist Michael Musto as a “cult of crazy fashion and petulance.” A kinder description came from one of the Club Kids, talking on talk show Geraldo in ’94: “It’s about a group of people who felt ostracised in their little home towns around, you know, wherever, who have all managed to get together in New York and Chicago and San Francisco and have fun and just appreciate what each other can do.”
The impact of I Hate the Internet
“Subculture is a very tricky word,” says Kobek. “But basically, the Club Kids were a subculture, and it ended, and I don’t think it’s possible now in the era of the internet to actually have a subculture because everything immediately becomes the culture.” And the world wide web, the obvious subject matter of I Hate The Internet, Kobek’s first novel to publish (although actually written prior to The Future Won't Be Long – works including Atta and btw came first) changed where that door to fame is hinged. “It’s funny,” he thinks, of Alig's approach, “because I basically had that experience, right? I Hate the Internet could not find a publisher in the US, and I just was like, ‘fuck it, I’ll self-publish this book.’ So, I just had to found [my own] press and publish it myself. And then that thing actually did happen to me, where suddenly it went from being on a press that was essentially a bunch of boxes under my bed, to a book that has been sold in eight languages and ten territories and been a bestseller in a handful of countries. You know, The Future Won’t Be Long was just published in the US on Viking, which is part of Penguin Random House. Had I not just been ‘no, the centre of the world is here, not where you think it is’, none of this would have happened.”
Considering this success (Kobek feels it may be the first self-published book to be reviewed above the fold on the front page of the New York Times art section), it could be assumed that the major US publishers were blindsided by I Hate the Internet. On the other hand, it’s understandable they turned down a book that not only calls out the internet for all its ills, but also Disney, mainstream sports and most major music stars (in brilliant but brutal fashion). But especially when it claims that modern literary fiction was a CIA funded tool in the fight against Communism, that The Agency financed The Paris Review, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and engineered the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature: “People at the CIA believed that literary fiction would celebrate the delights of a middle-class existence produced by American dynamism,” Kobek wrote in I Hate the Internet. “The result was sixty years of good novels about the upper middle-class and their sexual affairs.”
With I Hate The Internet's first person narration provocatively addressing the reader, it can be difficult to decipher what are Kobek’s truly held beliefs against the novel’s burst boils of vitriol, squeezed purely for dramatic effect. So, does he feel his novel was simply a victim of the usual challenges associated with being an emerging writer, or ignored due to subject matter?
The subject matter, absolutely, he concludes, after explaining exactly why. “So, one of the things that has to be acknowledged is that the way by which the big four [US] publishers operate is not conducive to a literature that is genuinely explorative of anything relevant in any way,” he begins, in blistering form. “You know, in 1990 there were 25 major publishers in the US. There are now four. The industry is centred in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world.” He highlights how difficult it must be to work your way up in New York without prior financial backing. “So, what you have is the people who can go into publishing on the editorial side, come from money. And I think that creates its own homogeny amongst the people who are editors. And they’re not interested in the kind of books that are really explorative of anything except reflections of themselves. The reality is that the American upper middle-class doesn’t really have to be particularly freaked out by technology or the internet or anything real and so it has created a market in which basically there’s a lot of books published about a sort of soft identity politics and bad relationships.”
It feels an overtly cynical view, in line with a book styled in short venomous passages, matching in many ways the look and feel of the bite-sized toxic comments the internet can throw at us every day. “I think what actually ended up happening is that The Future Won’t Be Long is the product of a more or less well-ordered mind. I Hate the Internet is just, like, bile that was coming out,” Kobek admits (although a backhanded compliment might be that the importance of his text and heavily informed and often extremely funny arguments mean that he fails to fully mimic the form). It certainly focuses on the negative aspects of the digital age, so it's no surprise I Hate the Internet attracted comparisons to Houellebecq. It is then a surprise and a departure to find the youthful optimism and free-flowing passages of The Future Won’t Be long, using the same characters but reflecting a simpler era of possibility, before the world turned to face the cultural tsunami of the internet age.
“I have this theory that the people who were hit the hardest by the internet were actually cool kids from the late 80s and the early 90s,” Kobek says, in a statement that matches his character's narrative arcs across both books - swaggering and socially dexterous young people in the late eighties become leaden-limbed and out of place in the digital age. “There’s this really weird thing that I think happened to all these Gen X people, for lack of a better term, where they were promised a certain type of life and a certain type of future, and it got obliterated in about four years, and then it took another ten years for the picture to paint itself and really become complete.”
Jarett Kobek on the dangers of Social Media
That landscape has now been filled and coloured. It is the backdrop to our lives, we stare at it daily on laptops, tablets and phones. In I Hate the Internet, central character Adeline is harassed and publicly shamed by online misogynists and trolls. Adeline’s ‘sins’ are many: ‘“(1) she was a woman in a culture that hated women. (2) She’d become kind of famous. (3) She’d expressed unpopular opinions.” And so, with a depressing predictability, she receives messages such as “Dear slut, I hope you are gang-raped by syphilis-infected illegal aliens.” It would be all too easy and equally depressing to swap this abuse with current matching real life examples, in an era that is post Gamergate, Weinstein and the election of Trump, where seemingly countless faceless men hide behind pseudonyms to spread such poison. Perhaps the reason why Rose McGowan was suspended from Twitter while white supremacists often run free is that outrage is fuel for the industry fires. In his novel, Kobek slashes these tech giants with Occam’s Razor and concludes, as is generally the case, that everything boils down to cold hard cash.
“Suddenly the US has woken up in the last couple of weeks to the fact that Facebook and Google, and Twitter – but I mean Twitter is [financially] unsuccessful, and in the US, nothing is more ignored than a lack of success – but yeah, suddenly the national dialogue has realised that Mark Zuckerberg just wants to make money and doesn’t care what advertisements he serves. Ultimately the whole thing is money, it’s always been phoney and the amount of bullshit that has been layered over it is kinda intolerable.”
We wonder if Kobek thinks those everyday tech workers in Silicon Valley are cynical or simply naive. For example, when social media accredited itself as the principal tool for democracy and revolution during the Arab Spring (while very few in the Middle East seemingly did), was it marketing opportunism or a true belief that these platforms were offering something powerful, new and pure?
“My guess would be that up until [Trump’s] election there were an enormous amount of people down the chain who really did think they were changing the world for the better,” Kobek offers, “who really did think that Twitter was a platform for freedom of speech and revolutionary thought and all of this shit. I don’t know how much those opinions have held since Trump was elected and since the alt-right has been given so much undue visibility… like, it was a given for 15 years that the internet was going to be an instrument of democracy and peace. I’m not sure that is still the case, that people still think that. But some of them must.”
But the public grow ever more savvy and evidence seems to continually mount against such utopian thought. The tech giants are now in the midst of a showdown with Congress, in response to allegations of Russian advertising money influencing the US election. Perhaps social media is impacting the democratic process, just not in the idealistic fashion originally envisaged. And then, the potential result, if those allegations are in fact true, is article A: Donald Trump. “Twitter will not get rid of Trump’s account despite the fact that by any measurable standard he has violated their publicly stated terms of service. By just abusing people.” Kobek’s jaded laughter is heard down the line, but with the United State's 45th President worth a reputed $2 billion to the company through adding users and, more importantly, instilling [an admittedly disturbing] political relevancy in the wider media, it's hard to disagree. “I think Trump really is Twitter’s salvation, right? The company tried to sell itself a year and a half ago, absolutely no one wanted to buy it because it will never make a profit and you know if you buy Twitter you buy every truly awful aspect of the human experience, distilled. I mean that’s revelatory, right? Probably the most talked about brand in the world cannot be sold. But Trump is kinda the salvation of it, because… Twitter is how the president terrorises the world. And that’s good for business, it cannot be bad for business. Because you can imagine a scenario where Twitter gets bought just so someone can have the President’s ear.”
I Hate the Internet predicts many things, but even it isn’t pessimistic enough to imagine a world where the US President makes barely veiled nuclear threats over social media. “I will say that my imagination’s not dark enough to think about what was coming,” says Kobek. Although he does admit “the book does end with men beating each other in the streets, which probably is 2017 in a nutshell.”
One problem that can invite the accusation of hypocrisy, is that if you want to debate aspects of the internet with any sizeable audience, where else can this be carried out other than the internet? Where other than platforms where you are providing free content to the tech giants, and – if following Kobek's thinking – to them, progressive statements weigh just as much in gold as the racist or misogynist replies they receive. If the major communication channels to the world’s population, whether print or pixel, are corrupted, where can this conversation take place?
“Yeah, I mean I don’t know what the answer to that is,” Kobek admits. “It seems like now having an opinion or trying to be involved in the public debate, it’s inescapable that if anyone hears you, that opinion will in some way have to be piggybacked on a systemic evil. So, it may be impossible to have a public debate, a public dialogue without having a certain amount of rot around the edges.” The second option: “Yeah, well, I mean you could become like a Buddhist monk…”
Bret Easton Ellis's reaction to his cameo in The Future Won’t Be Long
In an escape from all this, The Future Won’t Be Long is set before the world turned. What flows from its pages is not invective but hope. Kobek actually laughs at this: “I’m laughing because I’m just thinking, like, nothing is more difficult than producing a positive book that involves cannibalism and multiple people being killed in bathtubs" – the infamous Daniel Rakowitz provides the former darkness. It’s a time and place captured so famously and furiously by Bret Easton Ellis, but instead centres here on optimism and friendship, without losing any edge. And actually, without losing Bret Easton Ellis – there’s a wonderful scene set at his East Village apartment, his suit sleeves rolled up as he suggests Adeline do coke with drag queens in his bathroom, while an enormous stereo blasts out Bobby Brown’s My Prerogative. “Yeah, it’s funny, because I’ve never met him,” Kobek admits. “But I have a friend in common with him. So Viking sent him a galley [of the book], and then this friend we have in common went and had dinner with him. He asked him if he had read the book and he had. I guess he was happy about his appearance, but the one thing” – Kobek's voice crumbles mischievously – “the one thing that he didn’t like was the idea that he would be listening to Bobby Brown in his apartment.” It would, Easton Ellis admitted, have been Debbie Gibson.
The Future Won’t be Long takes a different turn than Easton Ellis would in Less than Zero or Rules of Attraction. “I think this might be a slightly more realistic picture of how people actually do get through these situations,” Kobek suggests of a double edged time and place, full of creativity but blighted by drug addiction and a horrific wave of AIDS related deaths. On the one side you have: “this idea of a place allowing you to choose a life that you want to live,” suggested Megan Bradbury when I spoke to her on the same subject last year, in line with her novel Everyone is Watching. “Manhattan in that period,” she added, “at that time the city was attracting artists who didn’t have a lot of money, who could find these wonderfully supportive communities and could afford to live together and try things out together. It’s an incredible piece of history which I just don’t know exists in the same way there anymore.”
But Kobek, who moved to New York aged 17 at the end of this period, had to be careful not to let nostalgia soften his lens. So, in I Hate the Internet Adeline looks back on the period of The Future Won’t Be Long like a tour of duty. “There were things about the moment that were just amazing. It was crackling with possibility,” Kobek adds. “You could kinda do almost anything you wanted. And there were some really, really interesting people. And that cannot be underestimated for its value.”
“At the same time, the problem when you have situations like that, where anyone can do what they want, then people start doing what they want… So, its weird right, because on one hand yes, it’s amazing when a bunch of drug addicts come together and create this really fascinating thing, but the reality is that these people are still drug addicts and are probably living lives of really intense squalor and doing terrible things to each other. So, it’s strange, I dunno, I think there’s certainly an element of nostalgia, but I also really tried as hard as possible to convey how awful the day to day of it must have been… a lot of those people didn’t survive. And what not surviving means can be different in each case. But I don’t think it was a particularly friendly environment to the weak.
“The lionised American subcultures of the 20th century really are just a story of most people destroying themselves," Kobek adds.
This holds true with the Alig era. "This was a very dark world in the end," suggested legendary Club Kid James St James to the Guardian while promoting his published account of the period back in 99. "I wanted to show that true evil isn't a man in a big black cape. It is very charming, very urbane and even very funny and it creeps up on you. For us club kids it was the little evils we did every day. Step by step we lost our souls."
New York, San Fransisco and hypergentrification
This truth echoes back through the decades, to the 60s and beyond. "People that you never hear about," Kobek says of these self-destructive people, "and one of the reasons you never hear about them is that they destroyed themselves. So, they’re not here 50 years late. I mean San Francisco just had an exhibit about the Summer of Love and I didn’t see it but I had some friends who did and told me what was in it. And it’s an incredibly sanitised history, because San Francisco in that moment was a bunch of people who had to leave most of American society and just got incredibly strung out on drugs and both abused themselves and abused each other. It’s a really dark moment in American history that somehow has, through time, been transformed into, you know, some high point of the culture.” A pause... “pardon the pun on that by the way.”
Then the cultural landscape of New York changed dramatically, post-Giuliani and his zero tolerance approach. The sterile present of some parts now attracts as much ire as the dark and dangerous past, and in line with this, gentrification is a theme that connects both books. In The Future Won’t Be Long it is the slow natural turn of the world, which can admittedly still nudge communities out the door of their neighbourhoods. But in the case of modern day San Francisco (and I Hate the Internet), it throws them screaming from a top floor window. Kobek witnessed both: “Until the neighbourhood I live in now in LA, everywhere I’ve lived has been in a process of gentrification and arguably I’ve been part of that process. I think it’s indisputable, especially when I was in New York. When New York was transforming it was transforming for my benefit, and I was slowly eclipsed by the fact that it kept changing. But when I moved to San Francisco in 2010, it was normal for about a year and then something just went completely haywire and the city started transforming at this incredible pace, just this relentless pace. And they had to invent a new word for it because gentrification wasn’t enough. So, it became hypergentrification.”
The well reported truth that ties this all together is that it was down to those aforementioned tech giants. Even back in 2014, Laurie Penny wrote a piece for The New Statesman with the subheading “San Francisco is awash with tech money. Yet this city of innovation is also a place where you have to step over the homeless to buy a $20 artisan coffee.” And even by that point she explains that the San Francisco Chronicle had published a short guide: “to help our brethren who have flocked here to write the latest ‘How the tech boom is changing San Francisco’ opus.”
“[San Francisco] is a tale of two cities,” says Kobek. “It’s a city of very rich people and very poor people, city losing its soul. Sleek, black Uber cars that whisk hipsters from bar to bar, thirteen-dollar sandwiches, Google Glass. That’s your opening paragraph, visiting journalists. You’re welcome.
“As weird as the gentrification of the 80s and 90s and even the first decade of the 21st century was, and people really got screwed in that, it was more of an organic process,” Kobek suggests. “But the gentrification in San Francisco was like terraforming, it was this complete and massive transformation of the city at a rate that I don’t think has actually happened anywhere else in the world. It’s impossible to describe just how relentless gentrification in San Francisco has been. I think now it’s kind of cooked, like, now its calmed down because there’s not much left to gentrify, pretty much everyone has been chased out of the city.
“I was just there a couple of weeks ago and it is just like, this is in theory one of the richest cities in the country, probably the world, and it’s just so full of homeless people in a way that it never was. And I think a lot of them actually are people who used to live in the neighbourhoods that they were in and just had nowhere to go.”
So, considering the drugs and death, the threats to humanity and culture through gentrification and the looming spectre of the internet, it’s surprising that the key theme of The Future Won’t Be Long is the enduring friendship of Adeline and Baby – something none of these challenges can destroy. “If you have one or two people, three or four people that you’re really, really close with,” Kobek suggests, “those friendships tend to be what brings you through to the other side of whatever the moment is that you’re in.”
Perhaps Adeline’s old LA friend Stacey puts it best after a night clubbing, who under the guise of privileged airhead, turns out to be the sage of Southern California. It's a statement that sums up Kobek's wonderful new book and thankfully holds true across human history, from ancient Greece to the heady and hedonistic days of the Club Kids, right down to our current confused internet age. “It’s Socrates definition of love, you know, like, Platonic love? If you read it closely, what he’s really saying, you know, is that love is, like, just friendship and the way that friendship, like, nurtures a love of the good. And, like, I loved that, you know? Like, I liked the thought that there was a culture somewhere that valued friendship. That there was a book which told you that you could have friends.”
The Future Won't Be Long is out 2 November, published by Serpent's Tail, RRP £12.99