Ben Purkert makes the path from poet to novelist look easy with his debut The Men Can’t Be Saved, which is funny and sharp as hell. Purkert has managed to take a poet’s eye to the worlds of branding and labor, creating a hilarious book filled with beautiful sentences and profound ideas.
We caught up over the phone to discuss finding room for comedy in serious literature, the use of metaphor in the novel, and the original NC-17 B.C. shock poet himself, Catullus.
I love the book. I thought it was deeply funny. Your poetry is often quite funny. Did you set out to write a novel that’s funny or was it like something that you discovered as you were getting into it?
I love poetry for many reasons, but one of the things that I did sometimes struggle with as a poet was finding ways to bring humor onto the page. I had models, there are definitely poets who do that, whether it’s someone like Heather Cristle or James Tate or Morgan Parker. There are some poets who manage to weave in humor, but it always felt like I couldn’t indulge that part of myself fully. And I’m not blaming poetry for that. I think that maybe I could have gone deeper in that exploration. But when I started writing prose, it allowed me to speak in a way that felt very unfiltered, especially a novel in the first person. And so I could kind of riff and I could almost monologue with Seth. That, I think, allowed me to go to some places that creatively I really wanted to, but I hadn’t explored as much in my poetry. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be a comedian.
Robin Williams was my idol. I just loved what he did. Especially when you saw someone like him or Jim Carrey take on more serious roles, which I feel like we’re seeing more of now. Another comedian I loved was Janeane Garofalo, who had so many different gears, and a comedian who could do really good comedy, but then move to a darker place. That was my shit. I loved that.
Janeane Garofalo is somebody who I only saw her do stand up live once in New York. And it was easily top-five best stand ups I’ve ever seen. She’s brilliant.
She’s so good. It has always really struck a chord with me, this idea that something gets classified as either a drama or a comedy misses out on the fact that so much of life happens between, and straddling, those two worlds. That was all part of the pleasure and also the challenge of writing this book.
Working in the mode of a literary novelist, there is this idea to take yourself seriously. I feel like what’s such a breath of fresh air about your novel is that you take on serious ideas in a way where you see the humor in it. There are two things that are often difficult to address that you write about in ways that are both elegant and funny. One is sex. And you also write these reprehensible characters. Not Seth specifically, but I think there are some characters around him who are reprehensible without ever making us think that this is your viewpoint.
That was something I had to learn as a novelist because all my background on the literary side is in poetry. People talk a lot about the challenges because there are so many brilliant novels written by poets. One of the things that people talk a lot about is the challenge of plot and, one-hundred percent, that makes sense. But for me, the greater challenge, which I don’t think is talked about as much, is character. My training as a poet really equipped me pretty well on the sentence level, but the idea of creating multiple characters who each has to have their own interiority, their own motives, their own quirks, all those things, that was a skill set that I had never developed. And I had a lot of fun, honestly, creating characters around Seth, who saw the world completely differently than he did, and also exerted a lot of pressure on the character. And a show that for me was really influential was Mad Men. When I was working as a copywriter at a branding agency, it was exactly the same time that Mad Men debuted. I was so drawn to that show for its characters, how electric they were. Just how well drawn they were. And I thought if I could write a book that looked at that same world, but through a contemporary lens, I might have something.
It was very satisfying for me to read the novel, because I didn’t I didn’t read the back copy about what it was about. I was so struck by that big plot twist that happens early on, when Seth goes from being a copywriter to a barista. When that happened, I was taken aback in a very pleasing way.
The novel itself gets branded, right? Once you have interviews like this, and you give readings, and you do Q and A’s, and once the book is shelved in a bookstore, all sorts of people have to make determinations about what labels you attach to a book, right? And so one of the labels that is easily attached to this book is a workplace novel. And it’s not that I don’t think that’s true, but to your point, I’m sensitive to the fact that the beginning of Seth’s downfall happens early in the book. For folks who worked in branding and advertising like I did, my hope is that those opening sentences, those opening pages will really pull them in and capture something about the agency world, but we don’t stay there for very long because Seth doesn’t stay there for very long. When I started writing the book, I thought that I was writing a workplace novel. I didn’t expect my main character to get laid off as quickly as he did, but I will also say that when I was working at the agency, it was the great recession. I started working there in 2007. And the next thing I knew, friends all around me were getting axed. I didn’t expect those layoffs to happen either. But sometimes, life works that quickly.
It almost feels like the kind of like thing that happens sometimes in a David Lynch movie, where everything seems just fine. And then that conversation happens where Seth becomes freelance. It’s so funny and jarring and so real. It felt like you had to kind of lay the groundwork for that to get even deeper into this reality of what the economy feels like in 2023.
A lot of us have experienced it. In the 1960s, in the era of Mad Men, when you were fired, you were fired. And that was obviously incredibly painful, but it was clean, right? You dealt with that and the devastation of that and the economic impact of that, but it allowed you to move on. What I have found in the agency world of today is that it’s just different. We’re gonna move you from a full-time job to permalance. And then you’re gonna be bumped down to freelance. It’s harder to simply walk away. It’s just more fraught, even from a narrative standpoint. I think Seth really struggles with the fact that he’s not fired. He lives in this in-between.
Have you worked as a barista? It felt very lived-in, very realistic.
Yes. I wasn’t fired from the agency where I worked, but when I went to get my MFA, I needed a job. And there were freelance opportunities for me to stay in branding, but I wanted to get out of that world. I wanted distance from it. So many writers that I admire advocate for – if you’ve got to get a job to pay the bills, get a job that doesn’t involve writing at all, like something physical with your hands. So I worked at a coffee shop. Really not that dissimilar from the one Seth works at.
I feel like a lot of male novelists have a hard time with female characters. And I felt like you did such a great job at making characters like Josie and Ramya feel distinct, and that they had their own internal lives. And was that something that was a struggle for you? Or was that something that came naturally?
I needed each of the characters to feel one-hundred percent alive. Josie, for example, is a graphic designer who works at the same agency as Seth and they’re hooking up at night in their boss’s office. I didn’t want her to just feel like an office hookup, that wouldn’t be fair to her. That wouldn’t invest her with the vitality and complexity that she needs, even if she exists in a work of fiction. I really wanted the descriptions and the dialogue to make every character feel like they were fully present. Having said that, the book is titled The Men Can’t Be Saved. Those male relationships in the book, particularly between Seth and his former coworker, Moon, I do think those are the relationships that are the most under the microscope.
I was so fascinated by Moon, because at first I was thinking, “Oh, this guy is such a scumbag,” but you really allow every character to feel fully human and fully invested. Each character is as much a part of his or her downfall as the circumstances of their life. Religion is a part of this book, too. What’s your personal relationship with religion and how did it become a part of the story?
There’s a lot more Judaism and religion in the book than I ever expected. I think that’s one of the joys of writing a novel. And this can happen in poetry, too, but I do think that with the breadth of the novel, it forces you to reveal certain things that are buried deep in your subconscious that you don’t know are obsessions. When you’re fifty pages, one-hundred pages deep, stuff starts coming out. It’s the difference between having a therapy session that only lasts forty-five minutes, and the bell rings, and they immediately cut you off, versus a two-hour long therapy session. The novel is definitely the two-hour long version.
Judaism means a lot to me on a number of levels. My mom is Jewish, my father is not. As a consequence, I’m Jewish, and I was bar mitzvahed, but also the choice to identify as a Jew is something that I’m really interested in, both as a Jewish person, as well as someone who worked in branding. An organization like Chabad, which comes up later in the book, you don’t walk into Chabad unless you strongly identify as Jewish. You’ve got to be all-in to walk into that door. You’ve got to wear it.
I went to a panel discussion at Poets House years ago and Ben Lerner was there. I asked him what he found to be the difference between being a poet versus being a novelist, as far as the actual words on the page, and he said that he found that there were some sentences that he could do two or three different ways and it didn’t matter, it kind of worked the same. Did you find something similar or find something different as you were approaching writing a novel?
I just want to begin by saying, I don’t know that I would have written this novel had Ben Lerner himself not moved from poetry to fiction. I loved his poems when I was in grad school and then right when I graduated, I read Leaving the Atocha Station, his first novel. That book gave me permission. It felt so effortless. In a way, it actually tricked me because I read that book, and was like, “Oh, well, how hard can it be?” And here I am, roughly 10 years later!
In terms of writing poetry versus a novel, I’ve found that things like simile and metaphor don’t function in the same way in both. When you introduce a metaphor in a poem, you can use that as a hinge to pivot away from whatever your subject was and push deep into the materiality of whatever that metaphor introduces, really going in a different direction. In a novel, you’re more limited perhaps. I was cognizant of the fact that if I’m introducing a metaphor, it’s always within the context of a larger paragraph, a larger storyline. And so it can’t be that much of a detour. That was interesting. It presented challenges and opportunities.
I would say, and this is the highest compliment that I could pay a novelist – reading your book, there is not a single sentence that falls down. You read some novels, where there are a lot of great ideas, but this sentence doesn’t work, this sentence feels lazy. I feel like you really brought your “A” game to every sentence. The opening line of the novel, “I’m tempted to lie, of course” is so fascinating because you introduce Seth as this unreliable narrator, but he’s announcing himself as unreliable. The Seth character is, in some ways, a straight man, but then in other ways, he’s the type of person who will take pills and not know that they are placebos. He’s a really interesting person and in other ways, he’s kind of goofy. Where did you try to strike that balance with Seth with how much of him to make a serious person versus somebody who you are going to kind of satirize?
It’s a hard line to walk because Seth is absurd. It’s hard to believe that anyone could have as little self-awareness as he does. He has one viral tagline for an adult diaper brand and he’s convinced that he’s the next Don Draper. As the reader, we realize early on that he’s ridiculous. And, I would hope, there’s comedy in that – in how wildly divergent his self-perception is from reality. But the risk is that he becomes all-caricature. And, as a consequence, we don’t believe him. Not that we don’t believe what he’s saying, but we don’t believe in him as a character. I was conscious of that balance. The sad reality is, and maybe this is the case for you, too – I know many men who have such an inflated sense of themselves, that I’m not sure Seth is that off, frankly, from others. He’s just one far end of the spectrum, but he’s still on the spectrum.
Yeah, I constantly find myself talking to friends who are male, whom I love and respect, and at the same time, I’m thinking, “I have insights into who you are that I can’t share with you because it would hurt your feelings.” It’s so informative knowing that you originally wanted to be a comedian because on the first page, you’ve got a poop joke, which is like, we are not in poetry land anymore, you know?
I feel obliged to qualify it and say that we’re not in poetry land today.
[Laughs] Yeah, absolutely.
One of the ways I love to surprise my students sometimes is I’ll say, “Okay, we’re gonna read a classical poet. Today, we’re gonna read Catullus.” And everyone’s eyes glaze over because they imagine anything in antiquity has to be really fucking dusty and, thus, boring. And then you bust out Catullus, and it’s like, “Oh, my God, this shit is NC-17!” Forget about poop jokes; it is just the raunchiest, filthiest, most hilarious content, and it was written more than two millennia ago.
Oh, man. I’ve gotta look into that. I’ve never read that work.
The reason I bring it up is because – and not to try to comment on “our moment” – but I do think that we sometimes run the risk of equating serious literature with unfunny literature. If we look to past generations, that doesn’t have to be the case, right? I’m not the biggest Philip Roth fan, but he’s an example of someone who we all would agree, even if we don’t like him, is a serious novelist who produced serious literature.
But his work was also quite funny, right? So this idea that seriousness of tone is what necessarily makes for serious literature, I think that’s a narrow view.
And to your point, I’m a big fan of early Don DeLillo novels. Often, they’re hilarious and absurd. People think of these big books as being completely serious, but there is often so much fun, and so much foolishness, in literature. You’ve got to get into the pages a little bit, but I think that’s a great point and I’m glad that you’re making that with your students.
DeLillo’s first book Americana is set in the advertising world. DeLillo was another writer who really shaped my conception of what this book could be.
Something that you do so well, which I feel like the best literature does, is the book is always operating on multiple levels. You have that quote, by Vivian Gornick at the beginning, “He was a man…he heard the sound of no voice but his own.” You have this way that Seth is telling the reader his relationship is with Josie. And at a certain point, she brings up sexual harassment in the office, and she sort of lumps Seth in with that group. At that moment, I was thinking, “Okay, how much of what Seth has told us about his relationship with Josie is true. What’s he left out?” I think you really do a nice job of leaving room. We have glimpses of what the world looks like through somebody’s eyes who isn’t Seth.
I was interviewing the novelist Antoine Wilson for the Back Draft interview series for Guernica and he said something that has always stuck with me – we were talking about the first person in fiction versus the third person and he was saying that the first person is just the PR department. Obviously, you’re in the person’s head, but they are trying to put forward an image of themselves, a version of reality, that is favorable to them.
It’s a funny notion, this idea that it’s like we have an ad man upstairs who’s trying to sell our story to the world. That’s what first person narration really is. It’s not necessarily the character’s honest thoughts – I mean, I suppose they could be honest, but all of it is spin on some level. We have to try to figure out as the reader, “What is Seth trying to pull over on us versus what is authentic?” Because I do think that there’s an authentic self buried in there somewhere.
Absolutely. We wouldn’t be able to follow him for a whole novel if we didn’t believe in his plight to a certain extent. Working on the Back Draft series for Guernica, did you find that to be an instructive part of approaching writing a novel?
Hugely instructive. It feels a little funny to admit this, but in many ways, I started the series specifically because I needed help with revision. I wrote the first draft of this novel really quickly. It was a euphoric creative process for me. I had basically the full draft in under two months.
But here’s the thing: I had no damn idea how I was going to revise it. Because I really didn’t have much of a fiction background to equip me for that job. And so I thought, I’ve got this draft, I’m excited about it, but it needs a ton of work. How am I going to edit this? And I thought, well, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a series where writers were really open and vulnerable about their early drafts and how they evolved them? And I thought, I can’t be the only person who wants this. Other people might find value in it also. That was really how Back Draft began.
It’s so funny because in New York, there are a lot of obviously talented writers, but more than most writers I know, I think of you as a student of writing. I would see you out at readings. I think it was at the Greenlight for the Stephen Florida book launch. I was speaking with you, and you were mentioning that you were interested in fiction and you would kind of light up about it. I don’t know what I expected, but then I read your novel, and it’s very clear from the first page, “Okay, this guy is serious.” It’s very inspiring to see how you really love other writers and that you go out and support their work. Is that something that you try to pass on to your students? How did you kind of come about as being such a student of writing?
I’m really honored by the question. In my experience, writers need terrific self confidence, they need to have incredible confidence in themselves, while at the same time being the most insecure people I’ve ever met.
I don’t know any writer worth their salt who doesn’t vacillate between one and the other throughout that spectrum on a given day. I think that, for me, I was never that great as a writer. All of my worst grades were in English. I just loved it, though. I think that I have this awareness that, okay, I don’t have this special talent, there’s always going to be other people in the class who are doing stronger, smarter work. But if I love writing, if I really live and breathe it, I will engage in a process of making that is artistically and creatively and personally fulfilling.
I wanted to approach it in that way of always growing and always learning. I also think that I’ve learned a lot. My friend Hanif Abdurraqib, he did the launch with me for this book, and he’s been such a dear pal and advocate.
He’s such a tremendous writer.
Such a tremendous writer and someone who moves from poetry into other genres also. He shows me all the time what community can look like, in terms of showing up for other writers, in terms of humbling oneself before other writers. You never know what you pass onto your students, you never really know what makes it through, but if, on some small, small level, I’ve passed some of that on, that would be a terrific honor.
Photo Credit by Beowulf Sheehan