Are You Ready for Your Close Up?
Author David Wong on narcissism, millennials, and his latest novel, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits
David Wong’s latest novel, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, explores a disturbing near-future in which everyone narcissistically live-streams everything they do, people are obsessed with their own “brands,” and women are regularly and publicly shamed for their appearances. The fast-paced, wildly addictive novel also features high-tech supervillains, a foul-mouthed protagonist, and her loyal (though foul-smelling) feline sidekick.
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits is the third book released by Wong (the pseudonym of Jason Pargin), author of early 21st-century cult novel John Dies at the End. Wong spoke to GOOD about themes of his new release: narcissism, millennials, and the always-relative badness of the world we live in now.
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits has been described as a sort of inevitable dystopian future, one in which violence and narcissistic exhibitionism are the norm. Would you agree with that depiction?
I’m surprised people keep calling it a dystopia in reviews and interviews, is it because it references Jaden Smith as still having a career? I mean it’s so optimistic compared to other futuristic sci-fi. This is, after all, a world in which there’s no energy crisis—cars are electric, power appears to be plentiful—there’s no apocalypse or collapse of America, no mass starvation or world war, no robots that have declared war on humanity (yet). You see tourists wandering around the city late at night without fearing for their lives, you see a large festival in the park in which people of all different ethnic backgrounds show up and have fun without any riots breaking out or genetic mutants eating people.
Sure, there’s violence—the title is accurate—and certain populations are more vulnerable to crime and poverty than others. But when hasn’t that been true? In general I think it portrays a world that has actually improved in several important ways ... even if none of the characters in the story call special attention to [them]— and why would they?
Is this book meant to be a parody of our current society, or more of a warning of things to come?
I think all futuristic fiction is actually a commentary on the present. Like RoboCop wasn’t about the future. It was a mockery of the Reagan era, by setting it in a future in which everything about the ‘80s has been cranked to 11. So with that in mind, the biggest cultural shift I’ve seen in my lifetime is everyone needing the kind of validation from strangers that used to be reserved for celebrities. Due to social networking, all of those markings of celebrity culture—creating a ‘brand’ and public persona for yourself, carefully crafting an image, navigating somewhat public controversies when you step out of line—are now present in the life of your average 13-year-old. The events of this story involve that trend taken to its logical, ridiculous extreme.
But who is to say the trend will continue in that direction in real life? Maybe five years from now the cool kids will be the ones who disconnect—the ones who don’t need an Instagram account or an online persona. Maybe pulling back from that stuff is what will earn you social status in the future and those who have 5,000 Facebook friends will be seen as needy losers. Reality will always surprise you.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]At the end of the day, technology just gives people more choices about how to live their lives. It gives sociopaths more ways to terrorize people; it gives good people more ways to help.[/quote]
Do the things you mock in the book personally trouble you?
I don’t think any technological trend is either good or bad on its own. In the 1950s, they warned that television would rot our brains and make us illiterate. The reality is that TV gave us the Kardashians, The Wire, porn, documentaries … Social media is the same—it can give rise to terrifying harassment campaigns and let us get personally involved in important issues from the other side of the world that we’d otherwise never have even heard of.
At the end of the day, technology just gives people more choices about how to live their lives. It gives sociopaths more ways to terrorize people; it gives good people more ways to help. Some of us will be destroyed by that freedom, becoming miserable because we’re addicted to the shallow affection that comes from fame. Others will be set free, [like] closeted members of marginalized groups connecting with like-minded people around the world online, rather than just suffering in solitude. But ultimately, it’s about granting humans more power and I would never try to put a stop to that.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]So one day your teenagers say, ‘Hey dad, Saturday we’re going to a party at Jeff’s where we’re all going to jerk off a gorilla, we’ll be home pretty late. You know, depending on the gorilla’s stamina.’[/quote]
Zoey, the book’s heroine, is often publicly body-shamed in the book, and calls out the so-called ‘alpha males’ who perpetuate this behavior. Do you believe social media lends to the mob mentality behind this type of misogynistic culture?
Angry young (usually white) males who’ve had difficulty dating in their teens or had terrible mothers can likewise find groups telling them that every single frustration and humiliation in their life is due to the fact that females are subhuman monsters that need to be destroyed or silenced if they don’t fall in line. It plays right into the insecurities nearly every young male has, and they take on that same mentality of cultural warfare. Every time they encounter a woman expressing any kind of opinion online, they have a long list of creative female-specific insults and rape threats ready to spam across her social media accounts, and with each one think they’ve struck a blow for their ‘side.’ It’s very seductive; cruelty is very addictive and any time they start to feel guilty, there are thousands of other dudes back in their ‘safe space’ who’ll remind them what a hero they are.
So yeah, the internet has a way of reaffirming your beliefs, whatever they are, and removing any backlash that would act as a check on those beliefs in polite society.
I assume some will take the book as a critique of millennial culture, but I know that’s not the case. There’s a clichéd impulse every generation has to think of ‘kids these days’ as somehow worse than previous generation of young people. You addressed this briefly in your Reddit AMA when you said, “Each generation forgets what it was like to be on the other end of it…”
It just seems like everyone falls into the same trap. We remember being teenagers and our parents freaking out over our music, or video games, or smoking pot and think, ‘When I have kids, I’ll be the cool parent! I’ll actually talk to my kids about what they watch and listen to, and what substances they use!’ But we’re never ready for how things change. So one day your teenagers say, ‘Hey dad, Saturday we’re going to a party at Jeff’s where we’re all going to jerk off a gorilla, we’ll be home pretty late. You know, depending on the gorilla’s stamina.’ The reaction is always the same, for thousands of years: ‘I’m open minded, sure, but not about this!’
So you’ve got 40-year-olds complaining about teen slang (‘If I hear somebody use the word ‘bae’ one more time I’m going to stab out my ears!’) or shaming modern dating behaviors (‘You mean you had nudes of yourself on your phone? What, are you doing porn now?’). Old comedians complain that nobody laughs at their jokes because the world is too PC (‘It’s like I can’t get a laugh just by calling somebody gay anymore! The kids these days are crazy with their political correctness’).
I try to be the exception but I think it’s only because I don’t have kids. There’s a distance there where I don’t feel as protective and it’s easy for me to say, ‘Look, if your teenager wants to attend an orgy where everyone is dressed up like Sonic the Hedgehog, you should let them do that, just make sure they’re being safe about it.’