Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

FEATUREDINTERVIEWSLIT.SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS

SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS: KURT BAUMEISTER

AUGUST 31, 2020
by TOBIAS CARROLL

Kurt Baumeister

The guiding principle of Six Ridiculous Questions is that life is filled with ridiculousness. And questions. That only by giving in to these truths may we hope to slip the surly bonds of reality and attain the higher consciousness we all crave. (Eh, not really, but it sounded good there for a minute.) It’s just. Who knows? The ridiculousness and question bits, I guess. Why six? Assonance, baby, assonance. (And in a very special edition of Six Ridiculous Questions, this time around it’s 6RQ creator Kurt Baumeister’s turn to get a host of bizarre questions. One might even call this turn of events “ridiculous.” -ed.)

1. After centuries of isolation, the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists emerge from their secret castle with a bold revelation: months are bullshit. Specifically, the existing 12 months. Total bullshit. And to make matters worse, holding on to the current system of 12 months will hasten the end of the universe. From here on in, each year will last for 5 months, and these months will be significantly longer than the ones we currently have. What would you name these 5 months? And would you prefer a system where all 5 are roughly the same length, or a calendar where there are 4 months of 3 days apiece and then one month lasting 353 days? For extra credit, figure out how leap years factor into this.

I’m glad the truth is out. For years, I’ve dealt with the burden of having this vast, secret knowledge. As an Associate Assistant Vice Prelate of the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists, I’ve known since my induction at the age of…oh, you wouldn’t understand, the calendar is completely different, but I was absolutely younger than I am now. 

At that former, younger age I learned I’d have to say goodbye to the traditional twelve months. No more Christmas in December (or July for that matter), no more 4th of July (even in July!), and absolutely no more Thanksgiving in November (turkeys everywhere would have applauded if they could). It was tough but I managed, and I’m here to say it can be done. I mean, look at our forefathers, the Game of Thrones™ TV show people. They didn’t have months. I’m actually not even sure they had weeks. 

(Contributor’s Note 1: Research tells me humanity’s ancient ancestors on the Game of Thrones™ TV show, used “moons” instead of “months,” but didn’t give them names(?) Or maybe this is something they were still working toward when the Neanderthal hordes came out of nowhere (actually a cross-dimensional tear in the time-space continuum) and took over Westeros renaming it what it really is which is England.)

As far as the new system goes, if you’re asking my opinion, which the Most Holy Conclave did, in fact, not, I’d tell you I’d prefer no system at all. Just let it ride, start counting days, day after day after day. No months, no weeks, no years. How old are you, one might ask conversationally? To which a Trump supporter might be forced to say, “I can’t count that high.” Fun, right?

But if you force me—and being the guest interlocutor of Six Ridiculous Questions™ at Volume 1 Brooklyn™ you do, indeed, have immense power—I’d probably name them after pets I always wanted to have. Maybe everyone should just do that? You know, have their own set of five months named for their own set of five fictional pets. Which, honestly, would achieve my true goal of having people stop using months entirely. 

(Contributor’s Note 2: MenipPUSS!, Madame Rasputin, Van Howl-sing, Count Pugnacious von Countervalence, and Rusty Buzzsaw.) 

(Contributor’s Note 3: Though I admit to membership in the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists, I make no representation as to whether said membership is in “good” standing. Make what you will of my need to put “good” in scare quotes.) 

2. Why aren’t there more cryptids that are clearly inspired by large, ill-tempered ducks? The Jersey Devil doesn’t count.

There aren’t more large, ill-tempered anatine cryptids because people outside New Jersey don’t care enough about them. And it causes pain, I know, great pain not only to the citizens of New Jersey but also the cryptid in question, said Jersey Devil. 

Like any devil, from El Diablo on down, the Jersey Devil is a bit like Tinkerbell. If people don’t believe in it, it becomes less real, closer to not even being a cryptid at all. What should those creatures, of which there must be billions, those former anatine cryptids who no longer live even in myth, be called? Nultids? Niltids? 

Whatever you choose to call them now that you know about them, they live in a pocket dimension unseen by human eyes. A little like old, forgotten gods—a little like El Diablo himself—they sit, lonely, praying for the day when humans will once again believe in them enough to debate their existence. Except, now, we’ve fucked that up. You with your question, me with my answer, we’ve turned these creatures if not into cryptids then certainly not into niltids any longer. Is there some yet to be named shadow-state between cryptid and niltid? 

Well, whatever they are, these critters (can I even call them that?) have got people thinking about them, which means they’ve become a little more real, even if they’re not really real. They remind me a little of anti-Trump Republicans. I think they might be out there because I hear much talk of them. But I can’t be certain until I see whether they vote to save us from what some might call…a demon messiah…

3. The demon messiah crept from his tomb, his eye glowing a bright green and his single fang beginning to smoke. Honest Walt Dingo, interplanetary trader, had only one shot with his trusty LaserKite. Yet instead of ending the demon messiah’s newfound reign of terror, Honest Walt Dingo chose instead to destroy the world’s supply of monster trucks. Just before the demon ate him, Walt Dingo called his shot “perfect.” What did he mean?

Aside from imagining Trump as a political demon messiah which seems appropriate for many reasons…the term makes me think of Ziggy Stardust’s “leper messiah,” which I have for fun occasionally pronounced “leopard messiah.” And let’s be honest: wouldn’t you really rather have a leopard messiah than just about any other sort of messiah? I know I would. 

Anyway, back to Honest Walt and his perfect shot: I don’t know if perfect is accurate in terms of assessing the success of his shot—and, to be clear, anyone who assesses their own anything as “perfect” has a suspect opinion—but let’s say Walt’s shot was “really, incredibly great.” And destroying all the world’s monster trucks in one shot would be quite impressive. But, what else must Walt have achieved with that shot to think it perfect? More to the point, what else might Walt have achieved had he focused his energies in a more productive direction? 

To answer the former, I suppose Walt may have been dying of a terrible disease which means that this whole scenario, in which he was able to skirt his last twelve agonizing months and, in turn, destroy all the world’s monster trucks (hideous creations not un-akin to an automotive cryptid) then was killed by, of all things, something as cool as a messiah, let alone a demon messiah, may have been just what he was after. To answer the latter: Walt could have cured cancer or, more apropos, his own hideous disease, whatever it was. He could have been President of Westeros or even America. He could have created a whole new cryptid named Honest Walt Dingo, which would have been a nice trick, right? 

(Contributor’s Note 4: A dingo is a type of wild dog indigenous to Australia, land of more than a few cryptids. See giant saber-toothed kangaroo, etc. (Of which you can see a facsimile at the Natural History Museum in Hobarton, Tasmania!))

4. Would you rather pilot a giant robot or have the power to psychically control a kaiju from miles away? What if there were too many voles in the city?

No. But what I would like to discuss is society’s general opinion of rodents. By the slant of your second question, I infer you to infer voles to be not good, as in bad. This is a common perception, so don’t feel bad about thinking ill of them. 

For my part, and maybe it has to do with the fact that I had a hamster and a gerbil as childhood pets, but I’ve always found rodents pretty cute. Yes, even rats. True, I don’t live in New York City where I’m told rats grow as high as an elephant’s eye, where rats, I’m also told, will slink off with an unattended pizza slice, toy poodle, or small child. That said, I had an ex-wife once—

actually, I still do as far as I know—who hated squirrels, going so far as to call them “yard rats.” 

While I found the phrasing pithy, and still do, I never agreed with the characterization. Accepting my general pro-rodent stance, I’ve always seen squirrels as far above rats in the rodential hierarchy. Is this why my wife became ex-, this affinity I seem to have for rodents in general and yard rats in particular? Who can say? What I can say is that I resent your implication as to there ever been “too many voles” in any city.

5. “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” as the saying goes. But why would someone want to live in a glass house to begin with? 

Only in post-postmodern America is this question trenchant, for a land must indeed be rich and careless for its citizens to contemplate living in houses made of glass. I imagine it would be nice to be able to look out into the world from any point in one’s own house. The light in a glass house must be pretty phenomenal. Of course, unless we’re talking about some specially treated sort of glass, which we could be, people can see in, too. Which would, I suppose appeal to an exhibitionist.

(Contributor’s Note 5: Is there a point at which a glass house would become problematic in and of itself? Are you, definitionally, enticing people to look in and see…whatever? And what if they see something they don’t like? Which seems quite possible. You were in your house doing whatever, which whatever was presumably legal, so…is it on you or on them that they looked?)

(Contributor’s Note 6: Once upon a time, an old-timey musician named Billy Joel put out an album called Glass Houses. Perhaps the true solution to this important question lies within?)

6. Who taught you to juggle?

I cannot juggle, Toby, but it’s something I’d like to be able to do. Other things I can’t do but would like to: ride a unicycle, hula dance (though I can hula hoop), and walk on stilts. 

Kurt Baumeister is an American novelist, essayist, critic, and poet. His debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana (Stalking Horse Press, 2017) was selected as a Best Book of 2017 by [PANK] Magazine. Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, Rain Taxi, The Brooklyn Rail, The Nervous Breakdown, and others.

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

 

Kurt Baumeister’s new novel Pax Americana is a tale of espionage, politics, and technology that could alter human society forever. It’s set in the near future–but this is also the near future of an alternate timeline, where an end to term limits caused the office of the President in the 21st century to be utterly dominated by Republicans. The end result is a story that plays out like a funhouse mirror for contemporary politics and debates over foreign policy and religion, with Baumeister’s plot shifting from the comic to the nerve-wracking at the drop of a hat. I talked with him about the making of the book, the creation of this fictional timeline, and much more.

Pax Americana isn’t just set in the near future–it’s set in the near future of an alternate timeline. What led you to go with that approach, rather than a more standard-issue authoritarian future?

I try not to do anything “standard-issue.” Sometimes that’s a vice, sometimes a virtue, but I never want to make anything too easy on myself. There were things I wanted to say about our world, the real world, that were best done via an alternate history, one that nonetheless maps back easily to where we are. I see Pax Americana as a warning of sorts. While it focuses on the Bush 43 administration and setting up an alternate timeline based on that, the message is that evil intent leads to an evil outcome regardless of how well you manage, or transact, your evil; that as much as we’d like to change history, to imagine it might have been different, we never can. But not necessarily because fate, destiny, or anything so omnipotent and gooey as God is calling the shots, rather that we carry our demise in our original intent. We impose our fate on ourselves. I think this makes Pax Americana timely in the Trump era. Somehow, someway, despite all the havoc Dubya wrought, we wound up, less than a decade later, electing a president who’s similar to him in a lot of ways, and certainly seems poised to enact a similar set of policies. So, clearly, we didn’t learn our lesson as a nation. Maybe, in a way, Trump is a product of America’s bad national karma with respect to the Iraq War, our full due for electing Dubya in the first place.

How much work did you need to do as far as figuring out how the sociopolitical timeline of your novel came to be? 

A lot. An embarrassing amount. Lots of needling things, mulling them over, changing back and forth. And the fact that I worked on this for so long means the timelines had to change many times, to evolve. When I started this project, I was looking at something around 2020 as ground zero for the present tense action. But the longer it took, the less that interested me. The future was always shrinking, encroaching, becoming the present. So, I had to keep pushing out, expanding the timeline. Linking back to your question above, I’m sure I could have set the technological premise anywhere from another twenty-five years to several more centuries in the future; but there were things I wanted to say about our current time and, beyond that, our fundamental relationship with the metaphysical that were best said using a canvas that was easily recognizable.

Given that Pax Americana has entered the world in the first year of the Trump administration, has that timing changed how you view anything in the novel? 

That’s a good question. I guess the biggest change has been to make the book’s premise of a hyper-conservative America seem more dangerous, more immediate than it would have under Clinton. To me, Trump seems very much like an echo of Dubya, but worse. There’s the same sort of dim-witted, know-it-all-but-really-know-nothing cockiness but it’s not even tempered with Dubya’s “compassionate conservatism,” Dubya’s seemingly-genuine belief in Christianity.

Tuck Squires, the secret agent at the center of the book, comes off as a fairly odious character for a number of reasons. What led you to place him as the central character, as opposed to someone more sympathetic?

Yeah, I guess Tuck’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and he certainly has some problems, but I don’t know I’d go so far as to describe him as odious or patently unsympathetic. Some readers really like Tuck and I think that when I write these other two books in the trilogy, there’ll be a lot of change for Tuck, a lot of growth. Which you need in a main character to carry a trilogy, especially a trilogy like this, one that I hope will have some scale, not just dramatically but thematically. The other point I’d make is that I think Tuck is funny and not always from the standpoint of someone you’re laughing with. There are a lot of times he’s someone you’re laughing at. At least I hope people are. And I don’t have any problem with that. I welcome that. I’m doing it myself. Perhaps there’ll even come a day when Tuck, looking back on his life, looking back on some of the traits you see as odious, will laugh at himself.

Your novel juxtaposes artificial intelligence, questions of religion, and conflicting political ideologies. Did working on the book change how you perceived any of these things over the course of time? 

I think this final version of the book made me seek a little more intellectual balance within the text. I’ve tried to look at the possibility of anti-religious extremism as a real danger and, in some ways, that seems like the boldest, scariest part of the book. As much as religion can be a danger to us, perhaps going too far in one’s dismissal of it can be a danger, too. In fact, I’m sure it can. I hope people will see that in the book, not become too convinced it’s just a critique of religion. Even to the extent it’s a critique of religion, it’s not that per se, but rather a critique of humanity’s attempts to understand the metaphysical world.

Late in the book, there’s a reference to the 1960’s film adaptation of Casino Royale, which satirized the genre and took a very different tone from other cinematic takes on James Bond. Was that an influence on Pax Americana at all? 

Absolutely. I think I talked about that a bit in my Largehearted Boy playlist. I love the 007 movies, even the parody you mentioned, Casino Royale. Much of Pax Americana is a send-up of the spy genre, Bond specifically. I see Tuck as a sort of 21st century American James Bond (which, I think, is how Tuck sees himself, or at least wishes he could), though any assessment of Bond, especially the cinematic version we’re most steeped in, must take into account how ludicrous his world is. Anyone who tries to read Pax Americana as a straight spy novel—that is, stripped of notions of satire and the absurd—would be making a big mistake and probably come away hugely disappointed.

 

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2017/06/20/we-carry-our-demise-in-our-original-intent-kurt-baumeister-on-pax-americana/