An interview with Adam Wilson
Bankers, Eminem, and almost happy endings (?): Adam Wilson stops by to discuss his novel Sensation Machines
The last time I saw Adam Wilson, it was in the Before Times, on the 1 train, and I was scribbling last-minute thank you notes to my MFA thesis advisors, one of whom I had never met. (MFAs are weird like that.) Adam, the generous thesis advisor whose face I had not sufficiently googled, was sitting next to me. As we got off at the same stop and walked toward the same campus, I started to wonder if it wasn’t a milquetoast-y faux pas, in 2018, to write thank you notes to anyone at all.
This is the kind of flub that Michael, the hapless, self-conscious lead of Adam’s novel Sensation Machines (SoHo Press, 2020) might make. Michael also spent some time at Columbia University (as an undergrad, he fostered dreams of becoming the Jewish Eminem), but by the time we meet him he’s a failed financier, living in a Near Future Times pretty continuous with the current news cycle: wildfires have claimed California, surveillance capitalism is that much more profitable and entrenched, and extreme inequality has rendered New York a tinderbox for class revolution. The novel’s perspective rotates between Michael and his wife, Wendy, his opposite in every way, not least in that she’s highly professionally capable. She’s brilliant at her branding work, for one — though her clients are all terrible people — and none too pleased to hear that Michael has bankrupted them both after making the very ill-advised and unimaginative decision to invest their entire savings in...the very bank he works for.
If Michael is beginning to strike you as a comic vehicle, then this book is probably for you. But while you could happily read Sensation Machines as a tragicomic techno-thriller, what most captured me was the way the story stakes itself on a moral-political challenge: the viability of socialism in America. At the heart of the book is a heated national debate over a Universal Basic Income proposal to grant $23,000 annually to every American. The people most likely to prevent it from passing aren’t Republicans, but a lukewarm, liberal professional class.
Here’s a capitalist tycoon telling a lefty professional like Wendy the hard truth about herself:
“There are a lot of people like you who are waiting for the right person to come along and tell them there’s nothing wrong with the way that they’re living these lives. Do you know the term psychic foreclosure? That’s what people want. A one-size-fits-all system of belief: no gray areas, no tricky ethical quandaries. License to live as you already are. That’s what we’re here to give. We’re here to tell them that just because they went to Wesleyan and smoke fat blunts of Kush and favor a Chinese sweatshop worker’s right to a fair and speedy lunch break, it doesn’t mean they have to go against their own fiscal interests. It doesn’t mean that socialism is the way forward.”
I emailed Adam to ask a little more about framing these kinds of ethical and political quandaries in fiction, and how his approach differs from critics’ recent fixation on the performance of morality in the contemporary novel. We also touched on systems novels, failing marriages, and the art of apologizing for a teenage obsession with Eminem.
Adam, hello! Welcome to this email chain. To start, could you say a little about what was on your mind when you were first drafting Sensation Machines and/or push back at any of my overtures above?
Hi Jessi, thanks for that kind intro, and for taking the time to chat. No pushback necessary, although I do think that if Michael were in your same situation on the train, he’d have found a way to make the situation ten times more embarrassing for everyone involved—probably by rapping.
I initially conceived of the novel a decade ago, during the first Occupy protests. My intention was to write a novel set around the 2008 market crash. After some initial research, however—research that included reading, for example, Aaron Ross Sorkin’s not un-boring 617-page history of the crash—I became resistant to the idea of writing what I realized would essentially be an historical novel. I didn’t wish to be beholden to the timelines and logistics of actual events, so I had the bright idea of setting my book in an imagined near-future where I’d be free to invent my own market crash, the specifics of which I could bend around my novel’s needs. This was all well and good for the five years I spent drafting the novel. Then Donald Trump was elected president. Suddenly, it became difficult to imagine what the future might look like. It also became clear that the dystopia I’d envisioned wasn’t nearly dystopic enough.
The idea for this interview actually started a few weeks ago, when we were going back and forth about my systems novels post. I wonder if you could say a little more about your own relationship to “systems novels” and how you were borrowing from or pushing against this framework while writing Sensation Machines. One thing that comes to mind, at least for me, is the level of agency or control the characters do/don’t have in influencing their immediate environs. In a Don DeLillo novel, for example, that agency factor is usually close to zilch. In many ways, Michael and Wendy’s schemes also serve to reinforce the futility of their own actions, revealing the extent to which prefab financial and political machinery govern their lives. The one place they do have more agency, however, is in the context of their failing marriage, which they both put in an honest effort to save. (Or so it seemed to me.) Can you comment on that sense of agency — or lack thereof — and how it’s operating in this book, both on the domestic and macro (“systemic”?) scales?
Very much at the heart of the book is this question about agency, and about the roles of individuals and their choices in world-historical events. I grew up in a Massachusetts suburb where a lot of kids grow up to be investment bankers. Some of these guys—and they were usually guys—were your typical Wall Street assholes (even as children!), but others were seemingly smart, nice people who, for whatever reasons, ended up on Wall Street. During the Occupy protests I found myself thinking a lot about these guys, who seemed to have merged with each other and morphed into a single cartoon villain responsible for all of society’s ills. But what did this mean about them as individuals? How complicit were they in what their banks had wrought? Had they participated in a sort of mass decision tree that led to the mortgage crisis? Or were they interchangeable gears in a machine that existed long before they came along and that would almost certainly outlive them? Could you be a good person if you worked on Wall Street? And maybe as importantly, what kinds of rationalizations would you need to make in order to think of yourself as a good person? I had similar questions about certain of my former college classmates: smart, nice people who voted for Democrats, but who also now hold senior positions at the kinds of corporations that seem, at least to me, to be ruining the world. And of course, as I started writing, I realized I was mostly, if indirectly, asking these questions about myself and my own complicity in a system—American capitalism—that I tacitly accept, largely because it treats people like me pretty well. I’m still not sure I have answers to any of these questions, but the great thing about writing a novel is that you don’t have to answer them, only pose them.
To get back to your question about systems novels though, it’s not so much that I wanted to push back against them so much to test their assumptions and see if they held up. Maybe part of the answer is that I have a somewhat tortured relationship with the Systems Novel in general, and with DeLillo in particular. I’ve read all of DeLillo’s books and even his plays (Game Six: pretty good!), and he certainly sits toward the top of my personal pantheon. He’s an amazing stylist, and though it’s not what he’s known for, I also consider him among the 20th Century’s great comic novelists—for my money, there are few things in literature funnier than Murray J. Siskind’s monologues in White Noise. But I also sometimes find DeLillo’s work—and it feels blasphemous to say this—a little bit cold. Or maybe not cold so much as, um, not particularly intimate? I guess what I’m saying is that he’s not a character-driven writer; he seems much more interested in using character as a vehicle for exploring language rather than vice versa. For this reason, his books don’t pull me in on an emotional level in the way that my favorite character-driven novels do. Not that they’re unsuccessful because of it. It’s actually when DeLillo moves into a less satiric mode and gets all earnest about baseball or America or whatever that he sometimes loses me; I know I’m probably in the minority here, but I find parts of Underworld a bit grandiose, and borderline sentimental. The best DeLillo to me is the DeLillo of White Noise, or End Zone, or even Amazons, in which the impulse toward grandiosity is undercut with irony. That said, one thing I was trying to do in Sensation Machines was to write a book that resembles a Systems Novel, but that also has the intimacy of character-driven work of domestic realism; achieving this seemed essential to those very questions about agency that I wanted to explore. If it sounds more than a little hubristic to think I could pull this off, I should add that a) I’m not saying I succeeded, and b) it’s not a particularly new idea—what I’m describing is essentially another tradition, that which James Wood pejoratively dubbed “Hysterical Realism.” Wood would disagree—he thought books like Infinite Jest and White Teeth were more interested in “how the world works than in how somebody felt about something”—but anyone who’s read the Don Gately sections of IJ knows that’s wildly incorrect.
I also noted that a lot of the systems that appear in the book aren’t necessarily as anonymous as I usually associate with systems novels. Wendy’s corporate boss, for example, or the tycoon who lectures her in the excerpt above, embodies the self-perpetuating ideology of controlling and preserving wealth at all costs. What’s the value of turning systems into talking heads?
My intention was to give faces to the faceless villains, to remind readers that within every corporation there are actual humans making decisions, and that those people often make those decisions for reasons that are more personal than political. But I also think a large part of the value—at least in this novel—is comic. Whenever you’re writing about big ideas in a work of fiction, there’s always the danger of it feeling didactic. One thing I’ve found is that by sticking those ideas into dialogue—and I 100% learned this from DeLillo—it can take what might potentially sound self-serious and bombastic and make it funny and entertaining instead.
Okay, on to morality: For the past few years, critics have been taking contemporary novelists to task for seeming to “virtue signal” in their fiction. As the argument goes, intelligent characters use self-awareness to anticipate or diffuse moral or political tension, especially around issues of race or class privilege.
I feel like Sensation Machines drives at some of the same ideas while inverting the techniques. Most characters are pretty willfully unaware of their flaws (and probably funnier and more human for that). And though it’s often comic, the deepest structure of the book takes the form of a kind of thought experiment: What if socialism and universal basic income were on the brink of being politically achievable, and you—not without grave financial worries of your own, but, being the kind of person who purchases contemporary novels, likely better off than many—were expected be a major part of funding it? A high-powered liberal professional like Wendy, for example, struggles with her misgivings about UBI’s great equalizing effect and the sacrifices it demands of her personally. Is this novel asking a certain type of reader to put her money (or at least her reading habits) where her mouth and Twitter feeds have been? And how does this kind of structural framework for “morality fiction” differ from the, well, performance of morality in fiction, or online?
This is a great question that I have no idea how to answer. I don’t consider myself a moralist, though I guess all satire is inherently moralistic to some degree. But I certainly didn’t set out with the intention of writing a moral novel. I’m not really sure, then, how to account for what I’ve produced, a book that does seem to fundamentally explore questions of morality, except to say that, if it succeeds, then I think the reason is probably because it offers little sense of moral superiority or even certainty. I guess what I mean is that the book, I hope, is sympathetic to the dilemma the characters face, which you’ve outlined above: how much of your own comfort would you be willing to give up for the greater good? It’s a tough question to answer, and like the characters in the novel, it’s one I’d prefer not to have to. But of course I am repeatedly answering that question on a smaller scale every time I buy cat food on Amazon Prime instead of at my local bodega where it’s slightly more expensive, or every time I click “unsubscribe” because I no longer wish to receive emails asking me to donate money to a progressive politician whose cause I support. So I guess it’s more that I’m asking myself to put my money where my mouth is, and then being honest and admitting that I often say no in response.
Maybe this is neither here nor there, but I often think of a very smart guy I went to high school with who, for some years, made his living playing poker, both online and in Las Vegas. I remember once, after a number of drinks, I confronted him about his choice of profession. Didn’t he feel like he was wasting his intelligence by putting all his energy toward mastering a card game in order to accumulate wealth? Didn’t he want to contribute to society? I’ll never forget his answer, which I still consider one of the most amazing rationalizations I’ve ever heard. He told me that he did contribute to society by spending so much of his winnings at expensive bars and restaurants. In his mind he was essentially Robin Hood, stimulating the economy, and recirculating wealth to the service workers of Las Vegas. This sounds absurd, of course—the flaws in its logic are obvious—but I’m not sure it’s actually that different from the rationalizations we’re all making all the time about our spending and behavior.
I guess, ultimately, the kind of “morality fiction” I wish to avoid is that which reinforces moral certainty within both author and reader, the kind that leaves you feeling like there’s a clear delineation between the heroes and villains of the universe, and you, gentle literary type, are one of the heroes. When I was first sending this book out on submission, a couple of readers suggested that the problem with it was that Michael wasn’t enough of a villain—that he was too sympathetic. They wanted him to be more like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. But to me, that misses the point entirely. I’ve always thought that the best fiction is the kind that makes the reader profoundly uncomfortable by forcing them to confront something ugly in themselves that they’d rather not acknowledge. The problem with the kind of virtue signaling fiction you’re talking about is that its effect is something like the opposite.
Speaking of privilege, which goes hand-in-hand with discussions of whiteness: How goes Eminem? Is this just one of the novel’s better jokes, or is Michael’s apologetic fixation pointing at something more sincere?
Well, it’s sincere in the sense that I do find Eminem fascinating. Before I started writing this book, I actually had the idea to pitch a monograph on The Marshall Mathers LP to that 33 ⅓ book series. But again, it ultimately felt like it would be more fun to have a character in a novel explore the subject, which would free me from having to construct an argument about his cultural influence that would stand up to scrutiny. By putting the argument in Michael’s mouth, I was able to both make it and point to its absurdity, to both take the subject seriously and treat it as a joke. So I guess the answer is: Yes.
Though it’s mostly a techno-thriller disguised as the story of a marriage (or vice versa?), Sensation Machines isn’t without a metafictional bent: Michael has a goal of writing a biography of Eminem (I groaned when he thought he might be able to get a large enough advance to help pull him out of debt); his friend Donnell is a talented blogger who analyzes NBA salary structures through a Marxist lens; the decline of journalism is generally bemoaned by all; the novel’s final scene takes place in a bookstore. Why did it feel important to bring the written word—and its possible decline—into a novel that’s ultimately about class struggle and the eventual triumph of techno-fascism and surveillance capitalism?
I’m not sure it felt important so much as inevitable due to the fact that I’m the person who wrote the book. I’ve never been a banker or a doorman, but I have thought a lot about Eminem, NBA salaries, the decline of journalism, and the disappearance of bookstores. And as is probably clear by this point, I’m not, like, the most exhaustive researcher. I’m sure there are writers who would have gone and tagged along at an investment bank before writing a novel like this, or taken a temp job as a doorman—sort of the method acting approach to writing. Verisimilitude doesn’t particularly interest me; if it did, I’d probably write non-fiction. When I got notes on a draft of this book from a novelist friend, I asked her if she found Donnell believable as a doorman. Absolutely not, she said, but I did find him believable as a doorman in an Adam Wilson novel. I guess the answer to your question, then, is that I’d like to live in a world where people are constantly arguing about hip-hop lyrics and applying Marxist theory to conversations about NBA basketball. Writing that world is the closest I can get to living in it.
For all its bleakness, I found Sensation Machines to be consistently funny. But—spoiler alert—I especially appreciated that there’s this poignant, almost happy ending. (Yes, happy! Even though everyone has become a walking metadata mine, i.e. a ‘sensation machine’...) I admit I felt sort of relieved for Wendy and Michael for having separated. They met so young (as college students) and for all their mistakes tried sort of desperately to make things work. Were you hoping to put this particular spin on the story of a marriage in decline, that sometimes we can be happy for people who find a peaceful way to leave?
One of my favorite things about talking to people who’ve read the book is that everyone has such a different response to the ending. Some people are convinced that Michael and Wendy will eventually end up back together, and others think that splitting up was best for all involved. I love that you were relieved by their breakup! I’d rather not say what I think. I will say, however, that my original pitch for the book, which I thought was pretty good, though the powers that be ultimately decided to cut it from the back cover was: What’s love worth in a commodified world? Which is to say, I do think Wendy and Michael love one another, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can make their marriage work. As for your larger question about the “almost” happy ending, again, I think it can be read in a number of ways. In the one sense, yes, Wendy seems content with how things have ended up. In the other, as you point out, she and everyone else have become human data mines! Is the point that personal fulfillment comes at a societal cost? Or that personal fulfillment is a thing independent of the overarching systems that give structure to our lives? I honestly don’t know.