I bought Benjamin DeVos’s Lord of the Game a few months ago for a couple reasons. I mean, it’s got a sick title. It’s got a Sam Pink painting on the cover. And my wife was gonna go into labor at any time, and so I needed a fresh smallie to take with me to the hospital. I never did get a chance to open it up in the hospital (a birth is a very exciting time, you might be surprised to find out), so instead I opted to read it out loud to this new infant daughter of mine during our formative midnight hangout sessions. We both loved it. Well, I loved it. She mostly slept through it. And the same thing with DeVos’s more comedic The Bar is Low and his strange, nihilist, subversive, satirical collection Madness Has a Moment and Then Vanishing Before Returning Again. We had a blast, in our own ways.
But part of me wishes that her little infant brain had been able to understand, because I feel like Lord of the Game and last year’s The Bar is Low would make good introductory texts for our insane, pointless society. DeVos’s work leverages a muted, observational objectivity to convey the deep, black comedy we all wander through, the protagonists being just disassociated enough to point out this out by way of dumb confrontation and resigned observation.
When reading Lord of the Game, for example, you find yourself marveling at the sheer absurdity of food, of all things. It is a basic thing, a staple, a need, an abounding, often freely-growing resource, and yet we have so poorly mismanaged the world around us that food exists in a superposition between shockingly scarce and unbearably unhealthy. As DeVos’s aimless narrator – both emotionally and physically beaten to shit – stuffs his face with leftover food scraps-as-payment, you can’t help but wonder why this insane relationship with food feels to relatable. And so on with our other basic, and thus invariably more complex, needs: shelter, employment, dignity, purpose, physical activity.
As bleak as it sounds, my infant daughter will also suffer through this contemporary wasteland, trying to find meaning where anything with meaning has most likely already been horded or sold off. DeVos neatly lines this all up for us through the perspective of pointless men inhabiting pointless lives, led deeper into futility by the vague threat of their own wasted, human potential in the larger cultural context of fulfilled-yet-equally-pointless human expression. In this space, fiction and reality converge, lonely despair wrapped in daydreamt carnage. Cartoonish violence and dismal realities converge around the trivalities of riding the bus, working a shitty job, simply interacting with others. In the context of unending children’s books about patience, friendship, kindness, and love, DeVos’s writing offers up a similarly valid unreality.
So in the context of all this, I spoke with Benjamin about a whole bunch of stuff more or less unrelated to the stories he tells. And I’m glad I did because I got a bunch of new music recommendations out of it. It is my duty to pass this funk on to you, dear reader.
You’ve mentioned on Twitter that you wrote two of your books while listening almost exclusively to Sigur Rós. I’m having a hard time imagining such ethereal beauty setting the stage for the sort of desperate, violent scenes central to these stories.
When I write, I don’t really listen to music for the vibe. I do it to help keep the momentum going. The specific album from Sigur Rós that I kept coming back to was Takk… On that album, the songs tend to build to these ecstatic, shimmering crescendos that are easy to get lost in. I like to feel lost when I’m writing, or at least like I’m not squarely centered in reality.
Follow-up, what was the soundtrack for your other two books?
I remember repeatedly listening to the album Sun Coming Down by Ought while writing Madness Has a Moment and Then Vanishing Before Returning Again. Other than that, I pretty much played The Past is a Grotesque Animal by Of Montreal, Nothing Ever Happened by Deerhunter, and Death by Preoccupations (previously known as Viet Cong) on repeat. Those are each like ten-minute songs. I don’t like to pause to change the music too much while writing. I think I saw the documentary Dig! about the Brian Jonestown Massacre around the time I wrote Lord of the Game, so they were in the rotation a lot. Also, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition had just come out, so I was listening to him a lot.
When you say you write while lost, are you more inhabiting the space of the narrative, or are you occupying a higher plane, looking down on the writing as actual writing? I ask because I feel like I’ve experienced both based on what I write, and both Lord of the Game and The Bar is Low have these, like, full-sensory environments and circumstances. When you write, are you looking at the pig carcass on the meat hook? Are you holding the serving tray?
I have sort of a 360° panoramic view of things when I write. The satellite view on Google maps is the best comparison, I think. It’s not really sensory, more observatory.
Idiot question, but is your hit book Lord of the Game named after that Death Grips song? That’s one of my favorite tracks by them.
Yeah, Lord of the Game was named after that Death Grips song and The Bar Is Low was named after a song by Pissed Jeans. They’re one of my favorite Philly bands, and if you like Death Grips you might dig them.
“The Bar is Low” is my new anthem at work. It is very fitting. Thanks for the rec!
Since you thought The Bar Is Low was a good work anthem, might I recommend “The Reason They Hate Me” by Daughters. It’s a good one to play if you work with a buncha shlubs lol.
What’s the message behind naming your books after these songs? Are they evocative of/influential to the content of the narratives? Or is it more of a love letter?
I suck at coming up with titles, so finding a song with a similar vibe to the book was both a way to cut that corner and pay homage to those bands.
What are you jamming out to now? Any idea who might get the next book title homage?
Some Rap Songs by Earl Sweatshirt has been in the rotation a lot lately. Yesterday I listened to After Its Own Death / Walking in a Spiral Towards the House by Nivhek, which was really good. Eraserhead Press is publishing my book Human Fish later this year. The whole book is an homage to David Bluvband’s character, ‘The Human Fish,’ from the Chris Gethard Show. If you haven’t heard of the Chris Gethard Show, you can find the old public access episodes on YouTube, and I highly recommend you check them out. Episode 5: The Whiffle Bat Gang, was the one that hooked me.
I totally see the parallels between your book and the Pissed Jeans song. Both capture this sense of ineffectual daily trudgery, the confrontation of burbling masculinity, this universal shit-talking: the world is full of idiots and I am also an idiot. So what about The Human Fish are you looking to capture with your next book?
The Human Fish character is a half-man/half-fish hybrid who came from the ocean and is trying to learn about the world of man. I’m twenty-six right now and am learning what it means to be an adult. In many ways, it feels like I’m learning the world. I wanted to write about a character who, like me, was on a journey to become a functioning part of society.
What’s going on with this new Deluxe Edition of Lord of the Game? It feels unusual for books to be rereleased like this, but then again, I always felt that indie lit could benefit from learning how to do what indie record labels do.
That’s the cool thing about releasing a book through your own press, you can update it whenever you want. I was much more inexperienced when I wrote Lord of the Game, and was just starting Apocalypse Party. I think I rushed to get the book out, and didn’t quite do justice to the narrative or the amazing painting that Sam Pink let me use for the cover. Currently I’m working exclusively with Matthew Revert for our covers, so I asked him do an updated version and what he came up with was perfect. I also added new scenes, characters, plot twists, etc. It’s a much stronger book now, and I’m excited to get it out there.
And speaking of labels, you run Apocalypse Party, which boasts a recent release by Shane Jesse Christmass and upcoming work by Blake Middleton and Troy James Weaver. What’s it like running a soon-to-be world-renowned influencer of popular taste and culture?
So my coming-of-age in reading was through the discovery of Lazy Fascist Press. The way Cameron Pierce curated those books was really inspiring to me when I started Apocalypse Party. He brought together a range of totally original voices which, for me, were gateway drugs into the more strange and absurd side of indie lit. Collaborating with authors like Shane, Blake, and Troy has been really cool for that reason. They each have super unique and engaging styles that make an impact in a way that you might not find in more ‘traditional literature.’ Reading their books and helping to shape them has been the most fun part about running the press, by far.
Completely changing the topic, can you tell me a little bit about your experience doing indoor skydiving while high on edibles?
Yeah, so I ate some weed butter before going indoor skydiving. The high came on while a group of us watched video instructions on what to do / not do while in the wind tunnel. Basically, we just needed to stay calm and go with the flow. Sounded perfect to me. The instructor guided us using hand signals and used the peace sign to indicate ‘straighten legs’ and the hang loose sign to indicate ‘chill out,’ which made me wonder whether indoor skydiving was created specifically for the hippies and stoners of the world. After the pre-flight practice session, the instructor flew us through the wind tunnel. I was so stoned by that point that I couldn’t really feel my body while flying. My adrenaline and endorphins were on overdrove, amplified by the fact that I was stoned. I remember thinking, ‘the wind is my pilot now.’ I floated up and down like a horizontally splayed flying squirrel in zero gravity. It was like the Black Mirror equivalent of an amusement park ride, and overall one of the most fun activities I’ve done while high. 10/10.
“The Wind is My Pilot Now” is a fucking metal mantra and that whole experience sounds incredible. Are you a general enjoyer of extreme sports or activities? Are you a master zipliner? Or was the indoor skydiving a one-time adventure?
I trained for an ultramarathon at the end of last year, and ran a hundred miles a week. I haven’t run a race yet, but hope to sometime this year. I used to compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments when I was in my teens and wrestled big bearish men twice my age with the goal of choking them out. Before that, I played football, and was benching nearly 300 pounds in high school. So yeah, you might say I like extreme sports.
How many big bearish men did you choke out, what was it like feeling their large bodies go limp, and when can we buy and read your Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Tournaments memoirs?
Once you have a choke locked in, it’s simply a matter of applying pressure to finish. So you watch your opponent’s face go red, sometimes veins bulge out of their temple or forehead, and eventually they tap. The tap means they give up and is what saves them from passing out or going limp. Making someone tap is essentially winning in a life/death scenario, so it feels pretty good. A lot of Jiu-Jitsu is play though, and being in that flow state is what feels the best. I very well could get back into it someday, so I’ll keep you posted on the memoir.
Benjamin DeVos is the author of Lord of the Game, The Bar Is Low, and Human Fish. He is the head editor of Apocalypse Party and lives in Philadelphia.
Zac Smith lives in Boston, MA, where he likes to walk his dogs. His stories have appeared in Hobart, X-R-A-Y Lit, Philosophical Idiot, Soft Cartel, and other very sweet online journals. His twitter is @ZacTheLinguist