AN INTERVIEW WITH THOR GARCIA
by Vít Bohal
Whether working nights at Radio Free Europe up on Prague’s Wenceslas Square (formerly), or playing clubs with his punk band Facetigers (they are on the Tube), California-born Thor Garcia always seems to be in a rush and on the move. Much like the narrator of his novel News Clown (2012), Thor is always one step ahead of the game, slinking through the underbelly of Prague’s bars and ex-pat clubs, getting the skinny, and leaving the niceties for scraps. It’s been a full year since Thor’s last book, Only Fools Die of Heartbreak (2013), came out, and so it is high time we checked to see what he has been up to these past months. We got back to talking about The News Clown (2012), a wallop of a novel which gives the contemporary US-of-A the third degree. The narrator is all but pleased with the state of things, and the whole book resonates with deep scorn for the social situation in the Land of the Free. The narrative never becomes self-conscious, however, and the treatment of the American reality—and all the little foibles and larger blemishes indulged in by the American populace—rings true throughout. The text offers a dystopian vision of completely pedestrian proportions. The end of the world is no longer nigh; it is here, alive and well, walking the streets, and eating at Taco Bell. Brace for the ride, because it is all heat-death from now on.
VB: The protagonist of your novel The News Clown is a young reporter trying to make it big in Bay City, USA. You are and have been a reporter yourself. How’s that going?
TG: Well, good, thanks. The News Clown is about a “legman,” a guy who works for a small wire service. For most of the book, he covers crime and municipal mayhem, murders and fires and drug busts, stuff like this. Later, he moves on to cover the courts, which is its own kind of killing and muck. I did that for years as a reporter in California, north and the south. The guy in the book was basically taking dictation from the cops and authorities, which is mostly what I did and what most reporters do. They are simply stenographers for the police state.
Hmmm. In what way?
What I mean is, reporters suck the teat. We suck the cock. Reporters are cocksuckers. At the same time, most of them imagine themselves to be brilliant literary cocksmen. They’ve got a romantic obsession with literature for the usual fucked up reasons. Most of them, unless they’re CIA or FBI agents or some shit like that – and there are many of these working in professional news rooms, by the way – want to be book writers but they need the money. They figure journalism’s kind of close to literature, because of the propaganda. It ruins 99.9 per cent of them, just like 99.9 per cent of all people are ruined by whatever they do. These would-be writers would be better off washing dishes and living that life, instead of fooling around with the nasty-ass, lying chimera called news. At least they might do an honest day’s work. News is a job for frustrated writers and whack-offs and people who think they should be television stars. And for FBI and CIA agents. I think the lies that surround the myth of journalism, and the shame that accompanies it, are shown fairly clearly in The News Clown. We see the sham behind this young man’s illusions.
What was your motivation when you decided to do The News Clown?
Well, I had all these stories in my head about my experiences as a reporter. That was the initial idea, to explore the life of a young reporter, his work, along with his personal life, his family. But by the time I really got going – I started in early 2001, and finished the first draft at the end of 2007 – the world was suddenly going through an extraordinary, terrifying upheaval. There was September 11, 2001, the greatest day in world history – a surreal glimpse of the unreal that still seems totally dreamlike and balls-out awesome . . . . And each day after that only seemed to bring some new intensifying horror, some shocking threat, some new over-the-top outrage and mind-melter- things that just months before we would have thought not only improbable, but impossible. In retrospect, everything makes perfect sense, except for the unreality of the 9/11 attacks themselves. So what we had was the extraordinary piling on the extraordinary, and rapidly. Nobody could keep pace. Everybody seemed to be losing their minds. Politicians and pundits were foaming at the mouth, blubbering and conjuring spirits and wanting to see the bodies stacked. The U.S.A. went into war mode, destroying entire Iraqi cities, attaching electrodes to Arab cocks, setting up secret prisons and enjoying the taste of torture. Civil liberties were being dismantled by Congress and the president without a second thought. The U.S. Constitution was being shredded on a daily basis. And most folks applauded. People would go on television and talk about how it easy it would be for the terrorists to destroy America with a few nuclear bombs that they could steal from Pakistan or somewhere. Good friends of mine – whom at that time I considered intelligent and relatively liberal, fair-minded and freedom-loving – went on the internet and wrote hateful diatribes against Arab culture, blasting the Arabs for not having a space program. This guy argued that that’s why they hated us – because we could go in space and they couldn’t, along with the usual mish-mash. And because the Arabs couldn’t go in space, they were a crap culture and deserved everything America was going to serve them. Shit like this. Not a joke. My eyeballs couldn’t get any wider. But it was everywhere. You would have conversations with people in bars about how they really, really wanted to nuke the whole Middle East and South Asia. Or, conversely, a different sort of person would talk about how the tension and fear was killing them and they secretly hoped the terrorists would do something awful to put us out of our misery. I talked to some folks who would propose both ideas within minutes. In any case, the U.S.A., and the rest of the world along with it, was rapidly morphing into a new horrible monster. The future had suddenly arrived, and it was going to be a bloody dystopia, a religious war and a police state. And the big message was, you better sign up with America, because if anybody wins this shit-fest, it’s going to be good ol’ U.S.A. No matter what happens, don’t worry, we’ll still have some pretty good TV shows and interesting fast-food tacos. Crash of the drums. . . . Anyway, having the narrator be a reporter seemed like a good way of getting at some of the stuff that was going on. It offered a lot of openings.
Has the situation evolved since those days?
Well, who knows where we are now. I have no idea. Have the terrorists run out of gas? Did the terrorists even exist? What we do know now is that a very repressive and controlling culture of masturbation and surveillance has appeared on the internet, and a great many people appear addicted to these so-called social networking sites. That wasn’t really the case yet when I was writing The News Clown, it was still in its infancy. But what has happened is that we now see people humiliating and cheapening themselves in public, on a massive scale, and they apparently think it’s cool. It’s very bizarre to me. It’s been demonstrated that the internet is impoverishing people, and causing them to shame and soil themselves, and spying on everyone – and there’s a majority who will still tell you it’s freedom like we’ve never experienced.
Yes, you often hear that the internet is solely a source of freedom, no strings attached.
Yeah. But maybe the idea is sinking through, finally, that the idea of the internet as “freedom” was a gigantic whopper told by those few who profit from it and who implanted the system for their greedy, nefarious ends. Quite a few of my close friends were controlled early by the internet phenomenon, they believed the propaganda. Many were the times that I was the last, and extremely unpopular, guy saying it was all a sinister control program that would destroy everything we most valued, such as vinyl record albums by Supertramp and dog-eared paperbacks by Joseph Heller. . . . . What happened to a great many college-educated folk of my acquaintance was that they imagined the internet represented an easy answer to hard, fundamentally difficult, economic and social problems, and they signed up without a blink. To toot my own horn, I argued – again, often and early – that there was nothing that would stop this system from being used by the authorities and corporations for enslavement goals. I mean, wasn’t it obvious? It seemed obvious to me, but people insisted I was just being a contrarian, and why couldn’t I just be quiet and join the groovy team? China will be free! The internet will take down the Russians and the Iranians and the Saudis! So when we see now that the internet is just a tremendous spying and manipulation machine, and doesn’t really offer that much in terms of genuine value, I do feel a sense of vindication.
Considering that the NSA was unmasked for the spying behemoth that it is, it turns out you were kind of right. Where do you think we’re heading with the internet?
What we will see, I think, is the gradual control of nearly all internet content by the state and corporations. They will squeeze out, or find ways to limit, access to all the things they don’t like. You’ll still be able to find, in most cases, what you’re looking for. But it won’t be as easy and it will be marginalized, ghettoized. The internet will basically be just another profit stream for Disney and Dickflix or whatever, these homogenized giants. It’s already happening – and you know what? Maybe it’s what most people want. Maybe most people want that stability, that false sense of security, the guarantee of a certain safe quality that these gigantic outfits provide. But in real terms, the internet has given very, very little real help to people. In fact, it’s amplified the worst aspects of people and decreased our freedom and security. Thanks to the internet, we are much more exposed and at risk. This thing is diminishing our society and civilization. It’s very destabilizing to be aware that authorities, whether government or corporate or criminal, are peeking at your emails and your internet activities, compiling databases. To realize that your online activity, or activities merely associated with your accounts, will probably become part of police files and that they will be looked at during police checks. In terms of technology, the screwdriver has given us so much more. The internet’s been a big flop. I think we’d do just fine without it. But, you know, that’s just saying nothing. And I realize that.
What’s happened on the political side of things?
Well, it’s pretty clear now that we are governed by a police state in the West. All the tools and machinery are in place. Most folks are still in massive denial – I hear it all the time, at work and elsewhere – “Hey man, what’s the problem? I’ve got nothing to hide. Who cares if they look?” O.K., sure, pal. Rock on. But I guess what’s freaking me out is that – and they make no secret of this – all the so-called “human rights” of the U.S.A. and the European Union have actually become completely conditional. Unseen authorities will in fact decide if you are deserving of protections. The U.S. government, for example, has admitted it carried out the drone murder of an American citizen without anything resembling due process. This man, an alleged terrorist, was executed and he hadn’t even been indicted. The government claimed the legal right to take him out. Nobody raised a peep. So it’s pretty clear now that if they don’t like you for some reason, they have every tool imaginable to hunt you down and wipe you out or throw you behind bars. End of story. They can disappear you, or hit you with a drone missile. . . . What happens next? I don’t know. I do expect it will involve cracking down on people for their alleged political views, as based on the websites they visit, things like this. It will be new methods, but the same oppressive results. . . . Targeted individuals, for example, might find that their bank accounts have disappeared without a trace. Or they will be mysteriously blocked from using certain internet services or websites. Or they will see that a new identity, with certain true facts about their history included, has been created for them on the internet. Or they won’t be able to buy airline or Disneyland tickets. Their options will be restricted. The system now in place is built to detect enemies and to liquidate them –to do what’s necessary to protect the vested, on-board interests. And this, I think, is what the system shall do. The system will crush the enemies of the United States, Europe, Japan, China and Colombia, and it will get more and more powerful in the foreseeable future.
What do these powers in the higher echelon of politics hope to achieve though? What are they hoping to get out of it?
Money and power – the same old things that have always motivated and ruined people. Power unleashed in pursuit of money and more power. The techniques have evolved, but the song remains the same. Stomp the weak. Make ordinary people virtual slaves. Central governments, big institutions, are very strong now and they will do what it takes to defend their position. Everything, all the wars and control systems and manipulation, the financial crises, arise from this, logically and with little deviation. There’s lots of money to be made in war, of course, lots of cash to be made in a financial crisis. Lots of cash in implementing control systems. These are cycles that continually generate cash for whoever’s in a position to profit. The powers have a lot invested in the system, and they’re not going to give it up easily. I mean, Jesus, the dominant human instinct is to take, not to give, not to surrender power. So what would you expect? Also, these folks are shape-shifting lizards from another planet. . . . In any case, the ordinary person usually winds up confused, which is the plan. You listen to ordinary Joe and Joanie and they merely repeat the contradictory mishmash of political talking points, the dimwitted line of the day, purveyed by whatever outlet they watch or read. And most people are working so hard to get by, really running the treadmill, that they’re usually too exhausted to think critically. As Upton Sinclair said, and famously: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Not that Joe and Joanie would behave any differently if suddenly they wound up in charge. They’d be just as greedy and controlling and vicious as the folks who are on top now. Anyway, the result is paralysis, leading to the death of the mind and half-hearted support for the status quo. Mission accomplished.
That’s some pretty far out stuff. Is there anything to be done?
No, I don’t think so. There’s little hope, in fact, none. Everything’s futile. Nothing will have an impact. Why do women have holes? Why do men have dicks? Why do people say it doesn’t matter? Earth is clearly hell. Humanity’s got too many glitches in the wiring. We’ll never overcome our weaknesses – it’s just not possible. We are not smart or disciplined enough. We simply have to wait for the next cataclysm. And even that won’t help much. All we can do is kick back and watch the show, have a drink, if we’re lucky and smart enough.
The writing style of The News Clown is concise, very crisp and efficient. Do you find that a long-winded style can still be attractive to the modern reader?
Well, it’s not attractive to me. But yes, it does seem to be attractive to many. There’s a lot of long-winded stuff out there – in fact, that’s mostly what you see if you delve into the lit world. For quite some time there’s been an epidemic of these people who bludgeon you with unceasingly ironic, over-worded sentences about their precious feelings and the special times they imagined they had, and isn’t it so tragic and fantastic? There’s this faulty idea that many writers have, usually young ones, that you should overpower the reader by launching fusillades of adjectives and compound modifiers at them as a means of proving that your alleged experiences were truly soul-searing and that your brilliance should be revered, locally and globally. I blame David Cockfosters Wallace most recently, and before him, Tom Wolfe and John Updike. This guy Dave Eggers is also horrible. There are many others. All of them wrote, or write, bloatedly and badly. They persuaded me only that they were whiners and fakes and sentimentalists. They became media superstars because they wrote about trivial and safe stuff that posed no challenge. These guys could be cute, and they constantly asserted their sincerity, but never were they funny. If anything, they demonstrated only the meaninglessness of language. Anyway, now we are oppressed by several generations of their imitators. Believe me, it’s not that difficult as a writer to just skate across things, add some emotional ferment here and there, some cleverness and irony and oddity, attack with the modifiers, and you’re done. Well, the literary world is polluted with this stuff. And yes, most writers insist on being bad. They are looking for easy handouts from their socio-economic cohort. They just want to get by. They’re not interested in cursing the gods for the pathetic fate of being human.
Do you like any writers at all?
Dostoyevsky and Roald Dahl. Philip K. Dick. Nobody else, really. I have a sweet spot for Rimbaud, Kafka and Nathanael West, but those first three fellows are my masters.
A particular triumph of The News Clown is how it nimbly alternates between the political situation and the personal – how it combines the outrageous with the ordinary. It’s also permeated with death and sex, and both are approached in a way that’s both horrifying and humorous.
Right. What I wanted to do in The News Clown was strip away all cloudy language and sentimentalism. I’d reached a point where I’d just had enough of such things. I wanted to write a clean, raw book about the horror and hystericism of the time. Plus sex and fucked relationships. I had a few agents complain to me that it didn’t have a jokey, fraudulent plot, something conventional and obvious that they could understand. You know, something like the bad guy is exposed through some clever deduction by the flawed but heroic hero. Well, no. I wasn’t interested in anything like that. In The News Clown, everyone is lousy and everything is constantly, brutally, exposed. The plot was the war and the propaganda and this young man’s struggle to climb an imaginary ladder and get laid. I wanted to destroy politics, destroy religion, reveal the war economy, the propaganda economy, show the madness and delusion of human relationships. I also wanted it to be the kind of book where you could open to any page at random, read it and have a laugh. I wanted people to be entertained, but still recognize that something real about the world and our condition was being talked about.
Do you think you’ve succeeded?
Of course not. I wrote only a book that cracks me up. I think it’s funny, that’s all. I guess that’s a gigantic triumph. It’s been praised and condemned by reviewers for various reasons, but I don’t think anybody’s really understood the totality of it. Before I started, you know, I had already been through years of trial and error. Years of failures and tiny successes, first as a journalist and then in attempts at fiction. I had a pretty good idea by then of what worked for me and what didn’t. I had already been rejected dozens and dozens of times. I had suffered the pulverizing shock of rejection as a writer. I had encountered the jealous and the haters, people who wanted to tear me down as a writer for whatever reason. I was a seasoned veteran of the literary wars, which are very real and can be frightening if you take them seriously. So I had been through all that, and none of it mattered anymore. It was the ultimate freedom, in a way. I just wanted to get this News Clown nightmare down as cleanly as I imagined it.
You said it took seven years to write. That’s really long.
Longer, actually. Seven years for the first draft, which came in at something like 160,000 words. Then there were several years after that of editing and rewriting and entering it contests and sending it to agents and publishers. It was a ridiculous project, in many ways. I had to create and populate a whole city, Bay City, create this universe in which the reporter operates. I had never done something similar before. When I realized that this is what I had to do, when I was already about two years into the writing, I almost quit. It seemed impossible. It seemed like it would take five more years, which is not what I originally had in mind. Anyway, at that point it became an obsession for me. I turned into a madman. I jumped all over it like splooge on a hooker’s tits. Nothing was going to stop me. It became the main thing. It took me over the edge. I was doing The News Clown full time, working full time, being a father full time, being married full time, drinking full time. It actually ended up being a big factor in the break-up of my marriage. Right near the end, my wife decided she didn’t want to be married to a crazed writer, a two-fisted drinking writer. Like most women, she wanted a soft guy who would do exactly as he was told, say the right things at social gatherings. I was so disappointing in that sense. She imagined there were tons of these perfect guys out there, who were also rich and funny and so on. Well, she’s had some experiences. She now takes mood-control drugs, in fact she’s hooked on them. No regrets. It’s all been majestic. Better than dreams.
Discussions of so-called “conspiracy theories” are woven throughout The News Clown. What is it about conspiracy theories that attracts your interest?
Well, first of all, the first version, and later the official version, that we hear about remarkable events is never the truth. At best, it’s a partial truth. Even years later, we’re never really sure about exactly what happened. I mean, we‘ve probably never yet gotten to the bottom of what happened in the Lincoln assassination. There’s still many questions there. So the more I started to look at so-called conspiracy theories, the more I realized that it’s really about politics, a political shorthand, if you will. You can usually get an accurate sense of someone’s politics and their approach to the world by seeing how they react in response to conspiracy theories. It reveals something essential about someone’s personality. Someone who is heavily invested in the status quo, for example, usually becomes very uncomfortable during a conspiracy discussion. They will ridicule the proposition. They will often launch personal attacks on whoever is raising the conspiracy issue. They will do anything to avoid discussing the substance, the legitimate questions, raised by a particular theory. Because for this person, the idea that something might not have happened in the way they were told, that in fact unseen powerful forces working for devious ends may have been responsible, well, it’s a direct challenge to their particular illusion of security. It cuts to the heart of their belief system. It challenges their assumption that the authorities, at some base level, are decent and benign and not vile, lying, manipulative shape-shifters performing nefarious acts for their own hidden goals. . . . People who embrace conspiracy theories, well – it’s a potent, alternative way of seeing the world. It’s a tool of rebellion. You are saying – no, things exactly aren’t as we’ve been told – in fact, they’re quite different and quite wicked. By arguing an alternative, “real” truth, you are rising up tangibly against the vested interests. You are saying you’re not going to take what they are serving up. I tend to see the conspiracy-minded person as primarily wanting change, for whatever reason. The conspiracy is used as a weapon against whomever they feel is being unfair or repressive. It’s a clever way of holding those at the top responsible. Usually, I’ve found, the conspiracy person has had some unfortunate encounter with authority, or has personally glimpsed, usually at a very mundane level, some actual corruption and lying and wool-pulling by someone in authority. Also, though, and mainly – it must be admitted that conspiracies are great fun. There cannot be any real doubt at this point that those in power are frequently neck deep in the most despicable of plots. Who ever would have thought the U.S. government actually would have been responsible for infecting black men with syphilis, in the Tuskeegee experiments, which went on in secret from the 1930s all the way to the 70s? Well, girl, you know it’s true.
You live in the Czech Republic. How did it happen that you wrote a devastating social commentary about America from the center of Europe? Did you need the distance to see your country in a new light?
Absolutely. There’s no way I would have written The News Clown in America. I probably would have written some sentimental shit about a football coach and fixing cars or something, the glory of drinking beer with a teen girl while sitting in the shade of my Ford Thunderbird. Sounds good, I still may write that, actually. But anyway, I knew from the age of about 15 that eventually I’d leave America. There was no other option. I was going to break out of the family hell and the suffocating control system – those are the main reasons for everything, and it more or less stops there. I’m extremely grateful for all the opportunities I was given as a youth in America. There were many of them, and they were unparalleled. I mean, chatting about police brutality with a Nobel Prize winner on a beach – well, thank you, whoever you are, for everything. Everything was heaven. Everything was hideous. I tended to be more focused on the hideous. . . . Anyway, as I moved into my 20s, I started to see how new hard edges were settling in, how the opportunities were being slowly but methodically curtailed. Everyone was working a little harder for a little less. There were a lot of empty looks in a lot of eyes. America is a grand control system, ultimately, the most effective ever devised. Sophisticated economic and cultural levers are used to keep the population in line, to make sure everyone is serving the powers. It seemed to me then, and it’s even more the case now, that America always assumes you are doing something wrong. And they will find out and expose you. It’s the default position. It’s a society in love with the crackdown. This has deep roots, of course, going back to the Christian extremists and slaveholders. There’s also a very intense social pressure that insists that you need a lot of money to enjoy the true bounty of America’s freedom. And then, of course, when you get to that position, you need to sign up with the authorities to make sure your interests are protected. What kind of freedom does that end up being? American teenagers are very adept at seeing the fraud and hypocrisy of it. It ends up being more cops, more rules, more restrictions, more sanctimonious church-going, more flaunting of baubles, less generosity. Throughout my years of living full-time in America, I saw how the whole package was driving people insane, turning them into fools. I found myself in opposition to nearly everything other people seemed to want. I wanted to get away from the madness, find a place to breathe and think. I was lucky enough to find it in the Czech Republic.
In what way?
In many ways, this country may be the closest thing to heaven on earth. Most of the Czechs have no interest in religion, for example. They admit they’re quaintly immoral, and so most of them stay away from moralizing. I appreciate it. They enjoy sex, drinking, lying, laughing, cheating. They have plenty of faults, and there are a great many casual crooks and dog lovers and too many men pissing openly on the streets. But most Czechs can’t be bothered with trying to impose their insanity on you. They’ve learned their lessons. Mostly they want to live and let live. They usually won’t go hardcore outside of a sexual context. As long as you respect a certain loose boundary, you’re pretty much free to do as you like. But I suppose I live in a unique zone – I’m not submerged in Czech culture, and I’m also outside the American bubble. I’m looking at both, but from a distance. I regard this space as a treasure. I am not bombarded and weighed down by either. I enjoy that I don’t have to have my time wasted by having to constantly listen to stuff about, say, what’s going on with the Chicago Cubs or the latest, greatest television show of all time. And I don’t have to be thinking about whatever lies some corrupt politician is saying on Czech television, although that probably could be good for a little laugh.
Did you take part in the Expat Renaissance of Prague, a time and place famously dubbed “the Paris of the 90s”? What was that like?
Yes, I did partake. It was amazing, beyond words. Non-stop fucking of random European girls and drinking until the early morning hours. Each and every day. All day and all night. Everybody was hilarious and a brilliant artist working on some new thing. The music was never better. You shoulda been there, man. . . . Well, then everybody died or moved back to Knoxville, or married a Czech woman and had children and began living that particular hell. We are extremely lucky. We cannot have asked for more.