Q&A: Mark Doten on ‘Trump Sky Alpha,’ which imagines the president ruling the future from a blimp
Ever read a crazy book standing up, yelping in horror, transfixed by the way it’s both insane and all too real? Mark Doten’s new novel, “Trump Sky Alpha,” might give you this feeling, imagining as it does one logical but dark conclusion to the current administration: our former reality star governing from a floating blimp, upon which corporations pay massive fees for a limited number of seats, while other blimps around the world also fill with paying customers, all of it moving in synchronicity, the whole thing live-streamed on YouTube.
Naturally, this leads to the nuclear apocalypse, during which our most electric place to discuss what’s happening is … Twitter. More upsetting and delirious than Doten’s previous novel “The Infernal” — which tackled the Bush administration and its war in Iraq with a Robert Coover-esque level of playful density — “Trump Sky Alpha” is a vivid and explosive story, an urgent one that reemphasizes wholeheartedly the fact that Doten, also an editor at Soho Press, is one of our keenest and most inventive prose writers working today.
Tell us about your previous novel, “The Infernal.”
I used an array of generally dishonest narrators, mostly politicians, but also media and internet figures (L. Paul Bremmer, Dick Cheney, Osama bin Laden, Mark Zuckerberg) that I hoped would capture something about those years, especially the mendacity, the cruelty, and the criminality of U.S. foreign policy, as well as the extraordinary distance of most U.S. citizens (including myself) from the actual lives of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, even and especially in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
Now for the genesis of the this book: Is there an origin story?
This book began in late 2015 with the question: What would social media be like if the world was ending?
Perhaps relatedly, how did you come to write an opening sentence that is 3½ pages long?
I love a long sentence. Different writers — Virginia Woolf, Thomas Bernhard, Beckett — use them in different ways and create different effects, from capturing the passage of time to the unfurling of a compulsive line of thought.
How did you render Trump with such bonkers nuance?
He’s angry and reactive, he’s all surface.… He can generally only hold a couple sentences in his head at a time, but still he plows forward relentlessly, so his speech is fascinatingly erratic. Of course he has deep grievances that he holds onto, that can crop up in his speech in almost any context. Trump’s speech patterns remind me of relatives with dementia, so perhaps that’s where the humanity comes from: he’s got this supreme self-confidence and self-satisfaction matched with equally severe insecurity, and he flails through every public statement as if he’s battling his way out of a fog.
The book ultimately centers around a journalist named Rachel, tasked with hunting down the shadowy group who took down the internet, leading to the bombs.
Rachel is an avoidant character — her life is build around avoiding the fact that her wife and daughter died. And then she finds a way to get back to them, to visit the place where they might be buried, which is her real quest in the book. There are theme massive things in her life she doesn’t want to think about, and yet she must think about them. I loved writing that, because it’s a central conflict for all of us, whether or not we live in a world of ruin — what does one do with the unthinkable, whether it’s loss in your personal life or the massive crimes and global devastation that we enable as U.S. citizens.
Then the memes: How much revision did it take to imagine so authentically the way Twitter would chatter about the end of the world?
I could have worked on it endlessly; I’m glad that my publisher gave me deadlines.
As was true with “The Infernal,” there’s some interesting typographic choices here, with the design of chapter headings and the overall feel of the book seeming quite advanced.
The table of contents was modeled loosely on a flavor of Linux that hackers use to test vulnerabilities in big networks. I asked them to set it in a monospaced, sans serif font, like a command line, and the production people did the rest. I was very pleased with what they came up with.
You have written a novel in which a novel seems to have changed the world. What’s your take on the power of and role for books in our current age?
Take José Rizal, a Filipino novelist of the Spanish colonial period, who is discussed by characters in “Trump Sky Alpha.” His writing helped to inspire the Philippine Revolution, and the Spanish executed him for it. Most books, of course, don’t lead to revolutions.
I’m very interested in the way that culture fits into systems of power, and even books that may not seem to have any direct cultural impact — books that may pretend to be apolitical, perhaps especially those — they’re out there, and they’re doing something, for better or worse.
Doten will read from “Trump Sky Alpha” on March 20, 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz.
Graywolf, 192 pp, $16
Nathan Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”
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