I met Christian TeBordo years ago at the Rainbo Club. He’s a regular. His spot is by the door, facing west. There’s a calm, self-contained quality to the way he carries himself. There’s no smartphone, notebook, or any other accessory on the bartop in front of him; just his pint of beer on the bar and a thoughtful expression on his face. He doesn’t look bored or lonely or sad like so many solitary drinkers do. The visit to the bar is clearly part of a routine. I find out later it’s the mid-point stop on his return from work between the Blue Line and home. For years we waved familiarly but rarely talked. I’m not in the habit of intruding on others’ space without a good reason. I knew TeBordo was a writer of some kind and that he was a professor at Roosevelt University, but not much more than that.
A few months ago, a friend lent me TeBordo’s short-story collection, The Awful Possibilities. Published by local independent publisher Featherproof Books in 2010, it made his reputation and helped lead to his current position as the director of the Creative Writing MFA program at Roosevelt. The stories in that book range from fragmentary and experimental to hilariously dark, but they all feature a probing intelligence and an abiding love of the precise imperfections and oddities of American English and a close attention to this country’s myriad absurdities. I didn’t always know what was going on as I was reading but rarely had a doubt that TeBordo did. He’s a writer who knows what he’s doing.
Recently, I’ve taken to disturbing TeBordo’s afternoon idylls at the bar. He ’s always friendly and willing to chat. We talk a lot about the difficulty of navigating the book-publishing racket these days. He is about to publish his sixth book from his sixth publisher. He tells me he’s got two others in the can, ready to go. I got an advanced copy of the new story collection, Ghost Engine, and tore through it in a few days.
Two brothers build a flying machine in their back yard and refuse to come back down to earth until their mother alerts every local TV station takes notice, an aimlessly striving young man starts a book club devoted to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and manages to convince a couple fellow-travelers to live out the dictates of that idiotic tome, the fictitious designer of a famous shirt from The Cosby Show turns out to have an extensive, somewhat tragic backstory; these, and half a dozen other similarly unlikely, but strangely gripping tales fill out TeBordo’s collection.
I lured him away from his customary spot by the door of the bar, to one of the booths so I could ask more questions about the book and how he became a writer. Raised in New York state by parents who co-pastored a small Protestant congregation, he was an elder in their church and went on to study religion in college, but ultimately chose to devote himself to writing in the secular world. But the example of his parents writing a weekly sermon instilled the concept and discipline of wrestling with the written word early on. After earning an MFA in writing from Syracuse University, TeBordo was an adjunct professor in the Philadelphia area, published a couple novels, which, according to him, were eviscerated by the few critics who noticed them, then went into advertising. Unlike some of his fellow grad students, TeBordo never harbored any illusions about making a living from his writing. Instilled by his upbringing with a strong work ethic and a practical bent, he figured he’d write during the off-hours, in between the day job and life with his wife (and, eventually, with their son.)
“I wanna be a part of the conversation that is fiction.” is how TeBordo puts it when I ask what drives him. But unlike the vast majority of writers of his generation—he’s in his early 40s—he largely avoids social media, has no smartphone, and seems mostly uninterested in the public, performative activity expected of writers these days. I was surprised to find a Twitter feed with his name attached, but he assured me that it was practically a fluke. He’d gotten a Google alert that someone was tweeting under his name, so he decided to take ownership of the profile to clear up confusion. He regrets ever joining. One time when he logged on, his eight-year-old son, Wes, came up and looked at the computer screen over his shoulder. TeBordo struggled to put the crawl of non sequitur messages into context, to lend it some coherence. “The longer I go without checking, the clearer my head feels,” he tells me.
The impostor tweeting as him seems like one of his own fictional scenarios. In the longest story in his new collection, “Hard Times in Galt’s Gulch”, TeBordo imagines a small town, not unlike his own home town, falling under the spell of Ayn Rand’s protagonist in Atlas Shrugged. He got the idea after noticing the increasing number of politicians quoting Rand. It took him a long time to force himself through the 1,200 or so pages of that novel, which he felt honor-bound to suffer through as research. He said it delayed the completion of his own book by at least a year. “It made me dumber,” he says. But the story he came up with is by turns hilarious and terrifying, an oblique but razor-sharp portrait of this country in its contemporary state of absurdist tumult.
When I ask him to say how Ghost Engine is different than some of his previous work, he remarks on the fact of being married, with a child, as being a huge factor in his current thinking. The Awful Possibilities, for instance, was written in a particularly nihilist time—the Bush years—when TeBordo felt free to get wild and out of control with his prose. But lately, he’s felt the impulse to find more order in his work.
“In post-modern theory there’s this concept of a body without organs as an ideal. Thing is, I’ve always enjoyed having a body,” he says. In fact, in lieu of chapters, the new collection’s table of contents lists organs. The titular ghost engine remains a mystery that TeBordo prefers the reader to define for themselves. This strange machine is referred to in several connected stories featuring Frag and Watt, two bickering creatures who are obsessed with trying to make the thing run properly, when not tormenting one another. Like with so many ideas TeBordo begins with, these two have a long and unusual genesis. Named after the French Rococo painters Fragonard and Watteau, they are an affectionate tribute to TeBordo and his brother Timothy. On a youthful tour of Europe, the brothers hatched a game in which they pretended that the Rococo period was the most underrated and important in art. Coming after the Baroque period, which featured heavy doses of Christian indoctrination, Rococo kept the stylistic trappings—the over-the-top ornamentation, etc—but removed much of the content of the preceding period. In a way, this is a strategy that TeBordo often employs in reverse in his writing. He’s fond of taking the most vapid pop culture phenomenon and imbuing it with depth and unexpected meaning. Who knew that the Ultimate Warrior played such a key role in the aftermath of 9/11, for instance? While many of TeBordo’s flights of fancy may not be factually correct, a surprising number feel instinctively true. He rarely tries to be weird just to be weird.
In a plot twist worthy of inclusion in the book, the publication date of Ghost Engine was briefly up in the air due to the sudden resignation of Bridge Eight editor, Caleb Michael Sarvis, after charges of inappropriate sexual contact with students surfaced. TeBordo has seen his publishers go out of business, had literary agents come and go, yet he remains optimistic: “One of the good things about Chicago is that we know people who make their living from writing and we know others who’ve never seen a royalty check, but we don’t make a personal hierarchy here. You can go up and talk to either and they will be acknowledged as a writer.”
I can think of few Chicago writers who pull off the life/career balance more gracefully than Christian TeBordo. His writing deserves a far wider readership, but whether he gets it when Ghost Engine arrives or not, I have no doubt that he will keep going, no matter what.
Unlike reading Ayn Rand, reading Christian TeBordo will make you smarter.