“A Novel Should Be As Overwhelming as Life”: An Interview With Cody Goodfellow

Cody Goodfellow’s sprawling novel Unamerica is a heady, indescribable work of fiction. It’s literally a cult novel: Unamerica focuses on the conflict between two warring factions within a massive underground city located on the border between the United States and Mexico. It’s a surreal place abounding with strange subcultures, corporate overlords, and weird drugs. And, despite this novel’s size, it never lags: visions, violence, and a pervasive sense of danger are constants across the narrative. I talked with Goodfellow about the novel’s genesis, cyberpunk authors, and Sorry to Bother You.

There’s a lot going on in Unamerica: a psychedelic drug with massive ramifications, a preacher with uncanny abilities, and the underground city in which the novel is set. Was there one of these elements that came first? How did all of them converge on the same book?

To be sure, this is a book that ate a couple smaller books.

I feel dragged reading a novel that isn’t some kind of a clusterfuck, where there’s just one thing happening. I prefer to cook that kind of thing down to a short story. A novel should be as overwhelming as life.

The setting of Unamerica first occurred to me in LA during the ’92 riots. Watching how eagerly the police moved to a paramilitary footing to contain the response to the King verdict, it suggested that the riot wasn’t chaos at all, it was a laboratory. Someday, my roommate and I thought as we cruised the perimeter of the Watts demilitarized zone, this would be the new normal, where the system tolerates a certain degree of unrest and violence as the price of inequality, where every nasty propaganda screed the Soviets flung at us back in the day comes true.

Naturally, we were on a lot of drugs all the time, reading cyberpunk novels and listening to what paranoid schizophrenics told us at Jack In The Box, so the messianic drug angle inserted itself early. More than the drugs and the crazy people, though, what shaped the moment was the guiding myth of Los Angeles that unifies millions of narcissistic sociopaths and delusional maniacs, that their mental illnesses are marketable. The idea that your trip could be the world’s trip, that you could fix everybody and get obscenely rich selling whatever you’d fucked your own head with, was the natural devolution of the great American myth of the lone inventor, the Man with an Idea.

The religious zealots originally were part of a seed for a more conventional “evil comes to town” horror novel, but they were the perfect foil for a drug that lets you talk to God and fixes everything. We’re facing a millennial crisis point and a terminal environmental crisis, where new models of ordering the universe and relating to the world and each other explode out of the secret hothouses and compete to become dominant narratives, like Christianity, capitalism and crackpot race superiority theories. We’re no more rational than we were when we could get lost in a desert for two generations and worship golden calves, but our fate as a species hinges on somehow making a collective cognitive leap to becoming those painfully ethical, godless eggheads on Star Trek. It’s tempting to dream of a magic bullet that could immanentize a new age, even if it’s another crap TV show that lets us down, rather than put in the work and make the sacrifices to secure a sane future. Changing our thinking is hard work, and we’re never worse at it, than when under duress, and we’ve never been more stressed out than we are now.

If I’m not mistaken, there’s a passing reference to the 2016 election at one point in the novel. To what extent did contemporary American politics shape Unamerica — and did this process continue as you edited and revised the book, or was there a place where you needed to pause?

I had to push to put that bit back in after the publisher went over it, but it wasn’t to score a political dunk or to make it feel current. I wanted to make a point about disinformation, and how isolated people in Unamerica really are, and by extension how isolated those who avidly follow politics are from the American mainstream, who just want their bread and fucking circuses.

We freebase the news and associate on social media with other news junkies and we live in this model of impending civil war, but a growing plurality of Americans have no idea who their congressman is, and couldn’t give two shits what the Mueller Report said… but even the densest political illiterate, sadly, is aware of Trump. In a place where any “news” one receives is part of a constant disinformation campaign, one might be skeptical of the news that Trump won the election, but you’d have no way of disproving it, where any video of the outside world is a deep fake, and the boxed-in social media in the city is rife with planted rumors and lies.

It was important to me to set up Unamerica not as a partisan thing, but the necessary invention of the market, tacitly approved by both “sides.” When we do something awful as a nation, we carefully redefine it as apart from every precedent. Our terror campaign on the Middle East in response to 9/11 was a crusade to spread freedom and Burger King; our torture program was enhanced interrogation techniques. Ergo, our concentration camps will have fabulous multiplex theaters and a bottomless salad bar.

Over the time from the novel’s conception to publication, we’ve seen conservatism do an endless Harlem Globetrotters number on liberals and the media, defining our expectations of government ever downward, while ceding more and more power and control to corporations, so only the degree has changed. I was always attentive to how to keep it so intense yet plausible, that any intelligent reader would be torn between thinking this was inconceivable and inevitable. At the same time, seeing the boom in immigrant “camps” turn into a shadow prison system as the incarceration industry gets involved, I feel like my book should have an expiration date on it like milk.

Is there an increased challenge to writing satire in the current political climate? It’s something that came to mind both as I read this and last year when I saw Sorry to Bother You — that sense that bizarre depictions of capitalism taken to extremes are starting to feel all too plausible.

It’s a truism by now that satire can’t keep up with current events, but I think social critics have always felt that way, more or less, that human mendacity, ignorance and insanity always threaten to run over any attempt to shame it with metaphors. I think the ability to process change or misrule like we’re witnessing now is a fleeting phase in our development and decay. Watching the cyberpunk writers who defined the future for my generation run into a wall where they were as future-shocked as the rest of us –– Gibson swearing off futurism to focus on modern thrillers, for instance, while Sterling’s fiction got hackier as it grasped for transparent metaphors for contemporary trends ––I started to think I was getting too old to make Unamerica relevant, even as I was inching towards having the technical chops to pull it off.

I love Sorry To Bother You because it was so grounded in relatable daily struggles that so seamlessly twist into nightmarish outcomes, but I wonder if an older filmmaker could have even come up with or appreciate it. It’s like those high-pitched ringtones that aging teacher’s ears supposedly can’t perceive, in that it so incisively defines the perfect metaphors for the shitshow of terminal capitalism in a way that rings so much truer than the clanky corporatist horseshit they’re pushing on kids, with monolithic YA dystopias that one messianic young person and their band of sacrificial misfits overturns with their superior merch and believing in yourself, or something.

Was there anything that ended up too bizarre or outlandish for you to factor into the book?

Sadly, no… I gave my id pretty much whatever it wanted. (How can you get people to regularly donate semen for research purposes? Simple… blowjob machines in all the restrooms!) There were countless places where I had to rein in my obsessive tendency to go down rabbit holes with shit that fascinates only me… what would happen if they put cocaine and kola nut back in Coke, how every catastrophe from the 80’s to today was informed by procedures perfected in Unamerica, etc. I had to cut myself off from research and stick to the story, because there were so many irresistible digressions, if I indulged them, this book would make the most opaque Pynchon tome look like a Chick tract.

There are a few references in Unamerica to 90s rave culture, some of which pop up at unexpected times. What was your own take on that, both at the time and a few decades later?

For better or worse, rave culture was my Woodstock. Where I first broke my brain’s ability to perceive reality, where my ego died, where I finally found unconditional love for the world and my fellow humans, for as long as that lasted. There was this sense as Ecstasy and acid and the underground dance movement blew up, that it was going to change everything, the same way the flower children thought their revolution was going to abolish the establishment and usher in a new golden age. The revelations I experienced in that era were a double-edged sword, though. Every time you come down, you have to accept that the transcendent exultation you felt was just a button in your brain getting pushed, the vision of holy light just a tape your brain keeps on file for when you die. Realizing that you didn’t see God, you just felt what religious fanatics feel every day.

We broke all the patterns they’d conditioned into us, but when we came out of the clubs to change the world, they were waiting for us. They repurposed the music and visual aesthetics, which were designed to break up linear thinking and induce an ecstatic trance, to sell shit and break people. The psychological torture techniques employed at Guantanamo and black sites around the world basically trap the prisoner in a bad rave turned up to 11. We thought the co-opting of our revolution meant we were winning, but when we tried to move into activism with the Occupy movement and anti-capitalist rioting at World Bank conferences, they called in our student loans, and the revolution died, and the only lasting epitaph is Moby lying about who he fucked in the 00’s.

In Unamerica, I tried to dig up all that unexamined shit as a mirror for the familiar backdrop that produces a religious zealot, the ersatz spirituality of the 3AM moment when you’re peaking and you think you’ve discovered something truly miraculous, and believing that if you could only put this shit in the water, all of humanity’s problems would be solved. The protagonist in Unamerica reinvents French situationist tactics and Leary/McKenna utopian drug theories to try to weaponize enlightenment and enact the same kind of spiritual awakening that trailer-trash Taliban evangelists pray for. Fool that I am, if the Weathermen reformed, though, I’d probably join up…

In your acknowledgements, you cite a host of writers as having influenced this book, from social critics to cyberpunk authors. Is there a particular shelf or subgenre that you’d personally file Unamerica under?

I would file it under sf, because it can do a lot more damage there, and that genre really needs the pain. I know a lot of readers hate chocolate in their peanut butter, but I tried to make this a science fiction novel that reacts with horror to the future we’ve created, so while it’s set in the present, it focuses on how technology and the market has changed us by giving us everything we think we want, at the expense of what we really need. Many sf purists will spurn it because of the sleaze and gore, and many horror fans will skip it because of the politics, but I feel like sf that doesn’t engage with popular culture and real human nature is sterile and irrelevant, while horror that doesn’t engage with what we’re really afraid of, rather than evil dolls, zombie apocalypses or bad shit happening in a cabin in the woods, is just ugly porn. And while we wait to see what the market that’s never played fair by us when we had labor and capital to offer will do with us once we’re all obsolete, we should be shitting our pants.


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