In Ken Hollings’ new novel, Destroy All Monsters, the Gulf War never ends but spirals into endless conflict, a modernized, updated sequel to Vietnam. Science fiction at its most fantastic—but in another sense, simply an amplified version of the way things turned out in real life. Hollings seems comfortable in the gray area between between coincidence and conspiracy as he speaks with me about his novel, the Gulf War, Elvis and the CIA, and the end of human life as we know it.PopMatters:
Apparently, the [Destroy All Monsters] manuscript has been in process for quite some time.Ken Hollings:
Has it been? Yes and no. It took a long time to pull together. A lot of time was spent structuring the material and sifting through Gulf War coverage. It’s funny because I was invited to curate a season of films at the Lux cinema.PM:
This is the—KH:
“But then I’d have to kill you.” It was conspiracy theory as a kind of social history of reality. About those moments when all these post-war certainties that were fostered for a while, probably until Kennedy was assassinated, which kind-of punched a hole into reality. And I was trying to match films with connections. For the last night, we showed Tribulation 99, which is—I felt quite a close affinity with it because it’s made up entirely of clips and found footage of old movie trailers and newsreels, with this insane story about how aliens had overrun Latin America and the CIA. Watching this film unfold I was like, we’re definitely on the same trajectory here. As Burroughs said, we have to storm the reality studios every now and again, we have to keep on rebuilding people’s certainties and knocking them down again. So I’m certainly up for mixing fact and fiction and strange elaborations of events.
In [Arthur and Marilouise Kroker’s] The Last Sex, which came out in ‘93, there’s a piece of mine called “Electronically Yours, Eternally Elvis,” which is the beginning of the Destroy All Monsters project and it deals with Elvis as a kind-of homicidal android. That’s where it all started, was from this. The idea was that a couple of Japanese technicians work at Science City, which is a research site outside Tokyo. They’re on an anti-immune program for AIDS research. They’ve created a sort-of artificial life cell which is known as AL/VI5, and it won’t do what they want it to. And one of them just gets really impatient and says, right, just flush it, just take it out of the system. I don’t want to see the little thing anymore. And they just flush it and it becomes Elvis’s twin. It goes out on the ‘net and it becomes a virus and it becomes Jesse and starts tormenting Elvis.
And so later on—because Elvis actually had a dead twin. The first one was born dead or was dying and was certainly dead by the time the doctor paid a visit. Gladys, legend has it, was already so convinced that she was carrying twins that she’d given them both names. So it was Jesse Garon and Elvis Aaron. So there is this notion that all the way through Elvis’s life he was shadowed by this dead twin, this other self, that maintained the promise, if you like, because—it was a totemic being, it couldn’t make the mistakes Elvis did, it couldn’t go to the excesses that Elvis did. So in the novel, Jesse Garon remains the young Elvis that everyone wanted to remember.PM:
Well, that gets to another question. From reading everything you’ve written, there’s this preoccupation with Godzilla movies and Elvis and that sort of thing—KH:
Yeah, because the conventional wisdom is—if you’re talking about serious things, you should talk about serious films. Do you ever have a crisis of faith? What led you to think that this was the place to look?KH:
I had one crisis of faith. There’s always a moment when you’re working on a big project when you have an, “oh, my, God, what am I doing with this?” It probably lasts about three hours but it’s the worst three hours of your life. And I had one, and I did have a moment of, Why am I spending time worrying about people in rubber suits? What is it? And—it’s my subject, you know what I’m saying? They have always spoken to me in a really direct way, they have always intrigued me. They—Elvis, this sort of stuff, is what’s drawn me into the world. Neither of them have ever let me down. But really, it’s the connections that I love, the language, the way they talk, it’s the complete lack of any explanation—you know, science just happens. There’s always a camera on a monster, there’s always one there. They suddenly have banks of monitors, and they can just see.
To answer your question, two reasons why they worked for me and particularly for this project. One because I think the novel has to continually reinvent itself. There’s an idea that say, for example, in the late 19th century, the novel owed a lot to theater and melodrama. Later, it modeled itself a lot on cinema. So, for example, you have novels by Graham Greene, who also worked as a film critic. And there’s been a great exchange between cinema and novels to the extent that it doesn’t even seem remarkable. Beyond that, I think we’re now living in an age of people who’ve grown up reading comic books. The comics are another way of telling stories that is really important to me. I’ve probably learned more about narrative from reading Tintin... This is why Destroy All Monsters has been put together in the way that it has, you know, bang to bang to bang.PM:
You mean the different chapter numbers?KH:
Yeah, it goes from 001 to 200. Comic books have lent an awful lot to the way pop videos are edited, the way computer games are structured. It’s a great narrative tool. And so I use comic pacing, comic narrative style quite a lot. The other reason why I’m treating a vast serious subject in what appears to be a flimsy way is that I’ve been extremely discouraged reading some fantastic analysis of Desert Storm—we should probably talk about Desert Storm in some detail—that has been completely ignored. Or you know, has just gone out in a couple of books. Some of Chomsky’s amazing diatribes against Bush and against the American coalition, the dishonesty of it. It is like reading Cicero attacking the Caesars once again.PM:
If you look at the Highway of Death, that image speaks for itself. And yet it never really got interrogated.KH:
Exactly. It was, but a lot of people passed over it. It got ghettoized. It just got mumbled off. So it felt in a way to treat it in a grand, serious manner would defeat the object. It would be almost marching in step with how that war was perceived, how it was built up. You see, one of the things I found fascinating about Desert Storm was that—you hear a lot of talk about how the 21st century isn’t going to wait to happen, it’s just going to start, it’s starting now, and people were saying this in the late 80s, early 90s, you know. Forget waiting until December 31, 1999.
If you wanted to find a focal point of that declaration in the same way that, say, a lot of people perceive the First World War as being the real beginning of the 20th century. They’re just kicking their heels in the wings until 1914, and then suddenly you see mechanization, you see the complete deployment of mass man as an expendable commodity. That’s where the 20th century begins, that’s where mass society expresses itself and founders at the same time, almost exhausts itself. If you wanted to think a similar kind of thing for the 21st century, it would be Desert Storm. And it happened so rapidly and thoroughly that I think we almost forget how much it changed the way we look at things.
I mean the Internet, it was, what? A few avant-garde thinkers and scientists and a few people who were just ahead of the game were using the Internet. Then suddenly people in Kuwait were using the Internet to communicate with the outside world after communications were shut down. So you know, the Internet’s beginning to make itself felt. Smart technologies, all that stuff that was building up during the Vietnam war—the obvious thread is technology that is surgical, that pays attention, not to civilian casualties but to the perception of civilian casualties in terms of news reportage. That suddenly is in place but at the same time, it’s selling itself as a computer game. I don’t think many people had heard the word “Nintendo” until commentators started talking about how a cruise missile sighting up its target on your television set at home looked like a Nintendo game effect. You know, the gray, fuzzy screen, we’re going back ten years now—PM:
I remember it.PM:
How does this compare with the coverage of Vietnam? Because I remember the coverage of Vietnam was associated with the reason why the U.S. didn’t “win the war.” They showed raw footage of people having lost their legs, lost their arms, with horrible wounds—KH:
Yeah, but, for me—I mean here I am as an outsider [laughs] but it seems to me that as soon as Walter Cronkite stepped off the plane in Saigon and said, “Jesus Christ, what is going on here?” The war is over, it’s finished.PM:
He officially said the war is unwinnable.KH:
And I think also the notion that this grand, avuncular old guy—do you know the movie Starship Troopers? That line always cracks me up when they talk about Fort Cronkite. There’s a scene in Destroy All Monsters—you notice I don’t mention the President by name because I want it to go back to the Gulf War, I mean it’s based on Bush—the President gets, the pressure gets too much for him and he’s about to lose it, his grandchildren get eaten alive by one of the exhibits in the Smithsonian. A giant robot praying mantis. So the President starts hanging around the Burger King on the Washington mall just to get away from it all—PM:
Is this a different scene from when he gets the [Burger King] crown?KH:
This is what I was leading up to. He takes the Vice President there one time and gets so discouraged because the Vice President just doesn’t get anything and he’s being obtuse so the President storms out. And then he gets really guilty and that’s why he buys the crown.PM:
The Vice President said “this is not going to be another Vietnam.”KH:
Yeah, but that’s what Quayle said, this amazing phrase: “This is not going to be another Vietnam, it won’t go on for months.” And I remember hearing it going, “Months?”PM:
Try ten thousand days.KH:
So we’re only up to day 500 in the novel and it’s already coming apart. That’s why that dialog is there, to get this notion that it’s going to be over quick, it’ll be done by the 10 o’clock news. And we’ll still have time for a commercial. And it was just patently untrue. While I was developing the novel, Clinton was launching missile attacks on Iraq. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, the sanitation was destroyed. He said look, this is biochemical warfare. You’re denying people clean water and sewage. It’s going to damage them. The Euphrates was a cesspit by the mid ‘90s, and the no-fly zones were still in place. The restrictions on importing foodstuffs were a classic—I love this, Proposition 666 that was put before the UN, which is the one that denies Iraq humanitarian aid. That’s still in place. But I mean, all of this was happening while I was writing Destroy All Monsters and—this is also the reason why it has to be a bit trashy and satirical, because a lot of the things that are happening are trashy and satirical.PM:
I think that’s part of how it works. The conventional wisdom about the Gulf War is that they had these press pools and no one was ever allowed to go outside of them—I guess that’s why I’m asking these questions about Vietnam. Because ‘everybody was running around, the press was going crazy and undermining the war effort.’ Whereas in the Persian Gulf War it was very controlled.KH:
That’s in the novel, in “Biosphere,” actually, that sequence deals with the fact that there was this amazing electronic—PM:
Exactly. Exactly. Despite the fact that with all this equipment that had been shipped in, no information was getting out. There’s this scene near the end of the novel, where one of the reporters actually gets away, an ex-Vietnam reporter. One of his questions is, “What is the hardest thing about being out here?” He meant the question in terms of what do you miss most; the answer he got was, “trying to see the enemy.”PM:
That’s the video game aspect of it. I think largely even to the people in the field, it’s understood that way.KH:
So when our budding, Pulitzer-prize seeking Vietnam reporter gets out there expecting to find just plain joes, he’s actually up against push-button zombies who know more about what’s going on than he does. He’s talking to a guy who’s called “Screaming Milk,” that’s what he’s got printed on the side of his helmet. And the guy says, “Look, we’re all going to be dead. I mean, the stuff we’ve been breathing out here.” And the reporter asks, “What do you think this war is about?” And he says, “It’s about letting something die, slowly. That’s what this war is about. We aren’t ever going to get to Baghdad, most gates are closed to us, we know it. We’re just out here fighting because that’s what we know.” And they’ve gone beyond, they’re through the looking glass.
This goes back to what you were saying about, Why use trash? Why use robots and monsters? Because for me it was the only way to get close to an idea that I’m more and more interested in exploring, which is the end of the human. I don’t mean in the sense of becoming inhuman, but the sense of where innate human nature dissolves. Where it disappears into transience. When it’s affected by drugs or hormones, or extremes of sleep deprivation. That’s why a lot of characters in Destroy All Monsters aren’t human at all. I was attending a conference in London, a big thing on technophobia, where a lot of people hadn’t gotten the message yet. They were turning up saying, “Cyberspace is great, the Internet is wonderful, it’s going to break down all the old barriers surrounding art and literature and ideas.” And Arthur Kroker said, “You have to understand: in the next few years we’re seeing the end of what we consider human. It’s going to change, it’s going to end.”PM:
Has that happened yet?KH:
It’s happening, it’s going to happen very slowly, and I don’t think people are going to realize it.PM:
It’s one of those things that plays into the alternative history, and the Gulf War and all the technology becoming banal. It becomes old and it seems like that would be part of that process. The technology becomes old, and it seems that when processes become old, that’s when we start to inhabit them.KH:
I think also one of the things Arthur was getting at and why that point really stuck with me while I was writing Destroy All Monsters about the end of what we consider human. Going back to what I was saying about the First World War, in the 18th century I think the human being was postulated as a form of universal measurement. The human form became a yardstick against which the universe was measured. God became internalized, human. We’ve never been able to shake off that notion that somehow to be human defines everything. During the Enlightenment, we became defined as social, cultural, racial, sexual beings. As a consequence of that, we became good citizens, we became machine handlers, we became good soldiers.
But I think that is breaking down. And the Gulf War was a benchmark moment in that collapse. It’s a historical process, it’s an epistemological process as well. It’s about how we perceive ourselves and other people, how we perceive our relationships—to government, to corporations. And it’s something that’s going to happen. And in a sense at the moment, I can only go as far as feeling very ambiguous about it, very amoral about it. Some of the characters in Destroy All Monsters—it’s almost like, why does the end have to be so cruel? And you have to understand, there’s nothing cruel about the end. It’s just the end. It’s your little unit of measurement that thinks that this is cruel. It just happens. You can’t stop it. That, if you like, is a challenge to the reader, that moment, to consider what it means to be human. And I guess it’s the moment when I… [Long pause.] When I threw up my hands.