Your story in this week’s issue, “The Grow-Light Blues,” involves a man at a tech R. & D. firm who becomes the guinea pig in an experiment to see whether people can absorb their required nutrients through light. Where did this idea come from?
I’m not so sure. I think the idea came from a need to build on the opening scene. A misanthrope named Carl walks into a party, and there’s something wrong with his face. It repels people, which only aggravates his misanthropy, and finally drives him to do something sort of obscene. Since he works at a tech company looking to cash in on the future, it wasn’t a stretch for him to be a subject of a medical experiment gone wrong, a kind of walking cautionary tale against his company’s drive to disrupt and innovate. It’s possible that too many of my characters, whether this is mentioned or not, are the subjects of terrible medical experiments. Anyway, Carl’s boss, Kipler, proselytizes the sort of invention that hides in plain sight, that doesn’t require the customer to adopt new behaviors. Not a new gizmo out of nowhere but a novel use for a device we all take for granted. Grow lights already exist, and they already work, just not on people. Yet. The future of food is precisely the kind of problem to attract a forward-looking company, and it wasn’t too hard to get inside some characters who, however foolishly, feel that they might have solved it, no matter the ethics.
Have you been drinking Soylent, which is not really so different from the Jug system described in the story?
Oh God, no. Even the rabid guzzlers of the stuff—the workaholics in Silicon Valley who view regular meals as “pain points” that keep them from their workstations—seem to say it tastes like death. In order to save time, and not worry about nutrition, you can drink a chalky slurry that tastes like a liquefied fossil. It apparently doesn’t digest too easily, though. So just to be safe, given the audible churning it produces in your torso, you should maybe wear a diaper. Otherwise, it sounds great. Some of the best reading I’ve done in the past year is on the message boards where people discuss their use, and modification, of chemical-laden homemade drinks like this. What’s sad and funny and baffling is how quickly some meal-in-a-bottle advocates will sign away the tremendous pleasures of food, including the social pleasure of shared meals. I don’t mean to sound all up with people, but I don’t think we understand what will happen if we systematically chip away at our emotional and physical and intellectual joys and comforts in the name of efficiency. Or maybe we do. To me, Soylent tries to solve a problem that already has a superior solution: real food.
Your hero Carl’s face is badly and permanently disfigured by the “human grow light.” The story is obviously satirical, but do you think that an R&D firm would actually go this far?
I hope not. I doubt it. It verges on torture, right? I could see it happening in a smaller shop, with fewer ethical imperatives. Maybe a single person alone in a garage. Even Carl wishes that the technology could be tested on some hidden patch of skin, but I guess the story wanted a maniacal C.E.O. who needed the face to be the test zone. Kipler seems convinced that people will use the human grow light only if it’s embedded in their existing screens, which they look at all day.
The story is narrated in what people call the “close third person”—that is, although Carl is referred to as “he,” what we read are, for the most part, his internal thoughts and responses to the world around him. Why did you choose the third person, and not the first, for this story?
Third person provided the on-ramp into Carl’s head, and at the same time I could rely on the literary toolkit that Carl, if he were the narrator, might not naturally possess. In third person, I could give background on Carl, provide the technological descriptions of the grow light, step away from Carl’s immediate perspective to speed things along. I suppose first person might have worked, but it just never presented itself, and soon I was in too deep with the approach I’d chosen. There’s so much spleen and anger in the story, along with hot streaks of despair, that the first person might have seemed whiny and self-centered. I could be wrong, but third person here felt more like unauthorized surveillance. It’s hard for me to think of Carl as someone who could actively know what the story wants to show about him, who could have his shit together enough to relate the story in his own voice.
In your last story in the magazine, “The Dark Arts,” the main character was getting experimental medical treatment for a rare immune disorder. You mentioned then that you yourself had struggled with an immune disorder. Do you think that medical/physical extremity has become a central theme in your work?
I suppose so. Maybe I would call it “vulnerability,” rather than “extremity.” But then we’re just talking about mortality. I see what you mean, though. The sky tends to fall, and people get struck down a lot. This is comic as well as tragic to me, and I guess the challenge is to find some range. You can’t just introduce characters, make them sick, and kill them, and expect people to care. Or laugh.
Unlike many of your stories, “The Grow-Light Blues” has an unexpectedly hopeful, almost redemptive ending. Why the positive twist after so much negativity?
Near the end, the story seemed sufficiently bleak, and I worry about emotional monotony and its resulting numbness. Reversing the emotional current of the story might be one of the ways plot makes the most sense to me, swinging back and forth between moods. Giving Carl a sort of reasonable life by the end seemed so unlikely that I think I got interested in trying to make it come about. At the same time, I’m not sure how redemptive the ending really is. Carl rebounds toward a kind of sentimentality, and even he seems to know that his positive outlook is just wishful thinking. That actually seemed more potentially upsetting to me than just having him affirm his negativity. We watch him arrive at hope, and maybe that state is even more painful, since we know it can’t hold.