Pure Cosmos Club, the new novel from Matthew Binder, goes full supercollider in the way it takes seemingly disparate ideas and smashes them together to create something wildly unpredictable. The novel’s protagonist, an ambitious artist with a self-defeating streak, dramatically fluctuating luck, and a beloved canine companion, eventually enters the orbit of the organization that gives the book its title. I talked with Binder about the book’s genesis, the collaboration inherent to writing it, and how his own experience dovetailed with the book’s themes.
You cover a lot of ground in Pure Cosmos Club, from real estate in New York to the art world to a society that may be both a cult and a pyramid scheme. Where did this novel begin?
My life in NYC had itself become an absurdist comedy. I was dating a super model-cum-Harvard grad. A friend was touring the country with Oprah, leading mass meditations to arenas full of acolytes while secretly hating himself because he had yet to build a billion-dollar company. Meantime—in the scheme of all things NYC—I was penniless after being unceremoniously fired from my job in Big Tech for not meeting even the minimum expectations. What could I do but write a book about this bizarre world I’d somehow come to inhabit?
Paul, the narrator of Pure Cosmos Club, has a very unique voice and point of view. Was it a bigger challenge to find the right tone for his narration, or to find a scenario — or series of scenarios — that would reveal different aspects of his character?
The voice came to me straight away, on the first day of work, in the first paragraph of the book. Paul describes crashing his ex-girlfriend’s birthday party to deliver her a gift, a manhole cover he’s painted to look like Io, the outermost moon of Jupiter. Of course, a conflict ensues, and the police are called. Paul sincerely can’t fathom that he’s done something wrong. He’s a person who operates within the strictures of a radically different ethical framework than everyone else. But despite the seeming chaos of Paul’s mind, his behavior adheres to an internal logic. Every scene in the book is shaped by Paul applying this logic to a world which plays by a different set of rules.
Your work — including this new novel and your previous book The Absolved — has been described as satirical. Do you view yourself as a satirist? What would you say the role of satire is in a world that’s becoming increasingly strange and difficult to pin down?
I don’t ever think of myself as a satirist. A satirist uses humor to ridicule, and I don’t want to ridicule anyone. I think of myself as a realist, but not a literalist, meaning I create a novel set of criteria for my character’s universe and I adhere to it with extreme fortitude. As for the increasing strangeness of the material world we live in, that goes to my point about not thinking of myself as a satirist. I write about my characters in the way they really are, which is absurd, because the world is absurd. No need to satirize a thing.
It takes a little while for the organization that gives your novel its title to show up. Was it always at the heart of the book, or did the structure shift somewhat in the editing process?
Honestly, I wrote the book in such a fevered state that I don’t remember if the “organization” was in my mind from the start. I never do any advanced plotting, so it’s possible that it didn’t come until later.
You’ve dedicated the novel to fellow writer D. Foy, with whom you share a publisher. Did he have any impact or influence on Pure Cosmos Club?
D. Foy is something like my writerly mentor. We met while I was working on my previous novel, The Absolved. He’s the first reader of everything I write, and he helps me figure out what’s working and what’s not. For instance, the first draft of Pure Cosmos Club had a wonderfully delicious subplot where Paul owed a gambling debt to a bookie, and worked it off by chaperoning the bookie’s eight-year-old son—who looked like a young Ronald Reagan—to acting auditions. D. Foy told me I had to get rid of this subplot because it didn’t serve the grander narrative. Deep down, I already knew it to be true, but he confirmed it, and his blessing allowed me to cut it without any regrets. Anyway, near the time I was finishing the book, D. Foy was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer. Dedicating the book to him was just a small gesture of gratitude for his friendship and guidance. Thank the stars, he’s in remission now and doing much better.
The Keith Rondinelli artwork on the novel’s cover is an excellent addition to the book. Was that via your doing? The press’s? Some combination of the two?
Stalking Horse Press’ publisher, James Reich, introduced me to Keith’s work. We agreed that Keith’s artistic sensibilities would serve the novel, and Keith was kind enough to license us whatever we wanted. I spent an inordinate amount of time poring over Keith’s art. At one point, I narrowed my choices down to ten options (Keith makes a lot of fantastic work!), and then did some informal polling of my friends. There was no consensus at all, and I ended up selecting an image that others advised against. I’m thrilled to learn you think it was an excellent choice.
Was there one part of this novel that was especially challenging for you?
The part of the novel where Paul is sent to Paris on a special mission. I don’t want to write anything here that will spoil the novel, so I’ll be cryptic: I knew exactly how to write the “Paris section,” but I anticipated backlash for it when the book came out. Surprisingly, I’ve received none, which means that maybe the literary world is less reflexively reactionary than it was just a few years ago, which is a good thing.
How do you view Pure Cosmos Club in relation to the rest of your bibliography?
They’re all picaresque novels, books that follow the adventures of a uniquely troubled but appealing hero. Perhaps with my previous novels, those heroes tipped the scale more on the side of troubled than appealing. With Pure Cosmos Club, however, I’ve written a character with the power to break my heart.