I got a chance to have a conversation with Joshua Wheeler, my teacher and friend, upon the release of his debut book of essays, Acid West, just out on FSG Originals. Joshua writes with a rhythm and comic timing reminiscent at times of John McPhee—a younger, more irreverent McPhee—who has definitely never set foot on the campus of Princeton like our aged master. Wheeler’s world is John Wayne and dive bars and adobe motels and thrift stores and desert dirt roads in the backwaters of Southern New Mexico. With a cornucopia of details reminiscent of DFW, and the bravo of Hunter S. Thompson, Wheeler’s thirteen essays take us through seven generations of family lore and local myth and technological exploitation of his homeland, and that’s just scratching the surface of this feast of words.
Reading through your essays I kept noticing that you make the most odd and unlikely connections, pairings that seem true enough in hindsight when given the context, but not at all intuitive. Often something wholly evil, such as nuclear war, is juxtaposed with the picture of innocence, like children playing on a merry-go-round. Is this something you strive for when you write an essay, finding strange connections?
I guess the juxtaposition you mention isn’t really counterintuitive for me. Is intuition distinct from our upbringing? My intuition suggests No. But then that puts us at the bullseye of a vortex. So, best to mention my upbringing? I always do. I grew up in the church, a particularly hardboiled one, and that probably primed me to be hyperaware of the sacred and the profane, which is maybe another way of talking about the duet of innocence and evil that you mention. Then: college. I did Comparative Religious Studies, an attempt to get some distance on the sacred and the profane. Plus, after that, a few wayward years in the poetry game…and now here’s a guy who thinks the most interesting thing in the world is the coincidence of the sacred and the profane, chillin just below the surface of the mundane.
So: I didn’t plan to write a whole lot about the atomic bomb in Southern New Mexico. Everyone sort of already knows that tragic story. But then I found myself at a little league baseball field near a merry-go-round, with a downwinder—a survivor of that first atomic blast—and us trying to figure out whether or not, as a kid, he’d attended a circus in that exact spot, when the fallout was still hot. My intuition was like: you should probably be interested in this, even if you think you already understand it. And even louder than my intuition were the Tularosa Basin downwinders…they’ve been trying to tell their story for decades, to get anyone to listen. So I just listened to them. And learned a lot…tried to pass on some semblance of their pain and frustration. That’s what is most relevant about that story…we tend to think of the Bomb as a historical danger that might, if we’re dumb or evil or both, rear its head again. But the suffering is continuous. We were already dumb and evil and both.
But being on the lookout for the sacred/profane-in-the-mundane is not always the most depressing shit on Earth! You’re right to point out that I’m fixated on attending that particular party. It seems to me one of the promising gateways to understanding anything at all about humanity. There is great power in our ability to make the atomic bomb, and then make the atomic bomb mundane, just like there is great power in our ability to make Atari, and then make a profitable show of digging up our childhood videogames. [One essay in Acid West chronicles the Atari corporation’s use of Wheeler’s hometown as a dumping grounds for unsold and unwanted cartridges of the 1980s videogame ET. -ed.] These sorts of things are simultaneously terrible and awesome. I guess if I’m being optimistic, I’d say I write about this stuff because I hope that pondering it real deep might help us differentiate the terrible from the awesome so that we can then apply the awesome toward something more deserving. But too often I, like most of us, am mostly stuck gawking at the car crash.
Probably a secondary part of the answer to your question is that I don’t do much drafting. I research a thing until I forget why I began to look into it—months, often years—and then, after all that I write something fairly quickly, like a test, to see if I can remember why I thought it mattered. I don’t recommend it as a writing process, but I think it is how most of us usually operate. We ponder an idea for some time and then we act on it, in a way we hadn’t quite considered, and then we consider that act an impulse. But if you had some kind of readout of your long pondering of that idea, you’d see your action wasn’t an impulse so much as a realization. Sorry. As always, I’m trying to define what the word essay means.
Wow! So much to dig into from this response. When you mention “the sacred/profane-in-the-mundane” it evokes for me Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil,” of the guy just “doing his job” at the helm of atrocity machines like the Third Reich. Your essays touch on such evils, but they never feel didactic. You somehow manage to treat a subject with the seriousness it deserves, while retaining a certain levity in language, indulging your essayistic impulse to digress at length, to make those harrowing connections already mentioned, and to play with words and interrogate their meanings. What are the responsibilities of the essayist in terms of balancing his or her writerly needs with the act of truth telling?
See? You did your own (counter)intuitive juxtaposition there…moving so quickly from the “banality of evil” to the “responsibilities of the essayist.” Clever.
Probably essayists have the same responsibility to truth that other artists have. Whether you want to write an essay or a play or bake bread or choreograph an emo-rap opera…if you want anyone else to care about it, you gotta be honest. And honesty comes not through any single decision, but through an accumulation of them. So I work hard to nail down facts. And then I work hard to arrange those facts in a way that helps me ponder truth (notice I don’t say “reveal”…truth is exactly not a rabbit in a hat…). And then I work hard to process and communicate not the truth, because I don’t know what that is exactly, but communicate my process of pondering the truth. That’s the most honest thing I can do. Sometimes it is unwieldy, but honesty often is. Things would be a lot more efficient if the truth were just a rabbit in a hat.
Is that what you were asking?
Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “writerly needs,” but that phrase sounds very hedonistic.
Probably the essay in which I communicate the most facts, or data, is the one where the data matters the least. Before the Fall is a barrage of facts about a highly technical space dive but none of the facts really bring us any closer to understanding the truth of jumping from the stratosphere to promote an energy drink. Several essays in the book question whether the relationship between data and truth isn’t actually inversely proportional.
These days we’re terrified about who has our data and who it’s being sold to and who is brandishing it for what nefarious purpose. Our fear inflates the value. It’s like this Cambridge Analytica/Facebook thing going on now. That company claimed that, using Facebook and other sources, they gathered something like 5000 data points each for some 50million individuals that could help them target and sway American voters. Who the hell needs 5000 data points to figure out if Dale in Milwaukee, who still has a Reagan/Bush ’84 sticker on his station wagon, is likely to vote for *rump?
Privacy is a serious concern, obviously. But our lust for data, our idealization of its potential to help us understand ourselves…I think that’s dangerous.
Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that, as I see it, the essay genre helps us understand truth at a much deeper level than data/facts.
Your point that “the relationship between data and truth isn’t actually inversely proportional” reminds me of a New Yorker piece by Elizabeth Kolbert where she discusses “confirmation bias” (when we ignore things that contradict what we want to believe), and how there is evidence this phenomenon is rooted in our neurological evolution. The idea is that a “community of knowledge” helps us stay a social species. We don’t need to know how something works. We defer to the experts and agree with them, which increases groupthink and devalues critical thinking. That’s all good for the hunter and gatherer, but for us moderns it spells trouble.
Kolbert mentions an experiment that demonstrates that the more certain we are of an idea, the less “data” we tend to know about it, and vice versa. It seems like this tendency can lead to a crisis in politics, and a crisis for journalism, but for the essay of the sort we are discussing, namely yours, you celebrate this uncertainty. Is that fair to say?
This goes back to the essay as a pondering tool, or perhaps better said, the practice of pondering on paper. The essay as art is the perfect thinking medium outside of thought itself, though I’m pretty sure I actually think better on the page than in my head. So perhaps the essay is superior to thought. I wonder if the essay belongs with religious texts and philosophy, rather than history and journalism.
Do you think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what essays are, that rather than being seen as art, they are conflated with the daily news?
I think you’re spot on with the talk of confirmation bias. It’s a human glitch. Though, I don’t know that I celebrate uncertainty…maybe I’m just willing to explore it, be comfortable with it. That’s not to say there aren’t any arguments in the book. Surely it’s clear I’m against nuclear proliferation, for instance. But in order to avoid that glitch of confirmation bias, you sort of have to never absolutely believe anything, or allow yourself to be continually convinced of new beliefs.
We all claim to be open-minded, but probably we need to be many-minded. Essays are a good place to practice being many-minded. Essays can and should utilize the tools of all these genres you mention: religious texts, philosophy, history, journalism, etc., plus criticism, drama, pulp fiction, grocery list, etc. Many minds.
Your essay “Children of the Gadget” is a fifty-something page examination of the ways nuclear bomb testing in Southern New Mexico (and everywhere else it has unfortunately occurred) has unforeseen long-term health consequences for those who inhabit the area. In short, they’re all getting cancer and dying of it. The people you spend time with, the “downwinders” as they call themselves, have been in this area for a long time, and I know you know many of them personally but I wonder how they think about your essay? It really is an astounding piece of writing, and there is some humor in there too, though the subject is deadly serious. Tell me about the essay’s reception, if at all, from the locals.
Tina Cordova, the organizer of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, is the only one of that particular group who I know has read they essay. On the one hand, she’s spent years intent on getting her message out into the world, come hell or high water, but being ignored all the same…so any media is useful for her cause. But also, she’s told me she really likes the essay, that it captures the story in a way she’s not seen or read before. And though she is quick to point out that some people may not find it humorous, she did admit that she laughed a few times while reading it.
But look: Tina and a lot of these other folks involved in the fight to get recognized as downwinders, they are joyous people. They are funny people. I knew them in that way long before I knew them as people who might have been poisoned by the Bomb. The whole existence of the Bomb is absurd, and then you add in all the dumbass ways we’ve fucked around with it…confronting absurdity short-circuits the brain, and that can either make you very depressed, or very giggly, or both. Children of the Gadget is not a funny essay, but there’s humor in it because humor is, quite frankly, sometimes the only way to keep from totally losing hope.
Makes sense. There is a lot of absurdity in Southern New Mexico, and you’ve really tapped into it. About this part of the country, you write that it’s “stuck with one foot in two epochs, the ancient and the futuristic ungracefully fused.” What’s your theory of why Southern New Mexico seems to attract everything from bizarre rabbit hunting to drone warfare training to aliens abducting its citizens, or so they say? Why is SNM, as you say, “the underbelly of the West”?
Well, geographically we’re at the bottom of the country. So: underbelly.
But New Mexico is also toward the bottom of America in terms of population density, with something like ten people per square mile. Many people move to NM because they’re not particularly fond of neighbors, and people who don’t like neighbors tend to be people who like to do weird things. I mean that on an individual level, but also with corporations and government.
Robert Goddard probably started all the modern manifestations of this, back in the 1920s. He got kicked out of some big city for building (mostly exploding) rockets and so he moved to SNM. Then he had a big breakthrough with liquid fuel and successfully launched a big one. Ever since Goddard, there’s been this kind of tug of war for land use between aerospace and agriculture.
Although these essays were written over several years, they have a thematic and linguistic continuity that is surprising for a collection of essays about such disparate topics as the objects in your living room, John Wayne, atomic bombs, aliens, skydiving stunts, violence in Juarez, and many more. One gets the feeling that you wrote them and then years later weaved in those themes and tropes after the fact. How did you manage to make a collection of essays feel like a book-length essay with chapters?
The idea of this as a book of linked essays was there from pretty early on. Only maybe two or three of them were written before I suspected I was working on a collection of essays that would be confined by region, linked by theme and voice and characters. Also, I tend to ramble in the same ways always, tend to be obsessed with the same stuff. The upshot to this is that, as you say, there is continuity: hopefully it reads like a book rather than a collection. The downside: if, in the first few pages, the cut of my jib rubs you the wrong way, you’re unlikely to change your mind down the line.
Since we’re talking about structure, is there a rhyme or reason to the structure and arrangement of the essays in the book?
We had a table of contents with section headings that got jettisoned. Like:
These are roughly the stages of an acid trip. You drop. You’re nervous. You explore. You turn inward. You have some epiphany. Then the gritty comedown. Essays about the military-industrial complex fit easily into “anxiety.” Essays about space fit easily into “emergence/outer limits”. Etc.—with a gritty comedown in Juarez. That structure remains. We just cut the headings.
Also, the whole thing is loosely modeled after a descent into hell, Dante-style. Get bored and track that: lots of purgatory and hellfire and inferno sprinkled around.
Anyway, the two of them combined, the acid trip and the descent into hell, that’s what you might a call bad trip. The epigraph lays this out.
The structure of the book is a bad trip.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about what is next for you. What writing projects are you working on or plan to put into the world?
There are two more New Mexico books coming down the line. Then, because I now live in Louisiana, maybe a Southern Louisiana essay collection.
Who was that sad guy who planned to record an album about every state? I’m gonna write an essay collection about the bottom half of every state.