Comics

Tomorrow's Just Another Word: John Reed and "Snowball's Chance" Ten Years On

Ten years gone, and John Reed (playwright of All the World's a Grave and political cartoonist-writer behind Shitty Mickey) meditates on the post 9/11 condition and his 2002 novel Snowball's Chance

John Reed burst into the popular imagination with his third book, Snowball's Chance. The premise is seductive -- a work of speculative metafiction, the novel proposed a different ending to Orwell's now-classic Animal Farm. What if Snowball, the Trotsky analog, had managed to elude Napoleon's (Stalin) assassins for just long enough? What if Snowball had bided his time and returned to the farm a hero, rescuing the farm from the economic collapse that threatened with the first wave of pigs dying off? What if Snowball, had won? Wouldn't it then seem likely that Snowball would invariably turn the farm over to capitalist principles? Wouldn't that have vast ramifications on the local economy's resources?

In the scope of just one novel, John's position as one the key thinkers of the post 9/11 condition was firmly established. His uniqueness, and literary importance, lay in navigating the unexpressed operating assumptions of works that have held us in their thrall for generations. His next work, All the World's a Grave, would tackle Shakespeare in much the same way. What if Shakespeare's existing canon could be edited to produce an entirely new work? One where Hamlet and Othello were at war for Juliet, where Gertrude had meanwhile married Macbeth, where Juliet herself had an illicit affair with Romeo? And his next work after that, Tales of Woe, would directly confront the ostensibly bred-in-the-bone fascination Western culture has had with the mythology of redemption for 2,000 years.

In a rare and open conversation on the 10th anniversary of Snowball's Chance this August, John speaks about setting a cultural tone for literature post-9/11, about the project's secret roots in popculture and about his return to pop-art with his comics project Shitty Mickey, a political cartoon and deeply biting satire about election-time self-branding.

At least part of the prospect of such a conversation is how daunting it seems in those few moments before. John is not only an established voice in literature, but himself cast from an older, sturdier mold where writers are duty-bound to be great thinkers also. Like Dostoyevsky and Jefferson, Reed appears as something of a literary activist. What Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "To be a hero, you must think great thoughts also." By the time we get into it however, my actual fears are allayed. It's both easy and entertaining speaking to John. Easy because his thoughts are clear, and he makes them readily available. Entertaining because they're complex, interrelated almost like woven papyrus, and entertaining because ultimately John is able to make large intuitive leaps which he then clearly relates back to the point at hand.

"You know it's foreign to me," John says, and it's a kind of revolutionary statement. There was a slow lead-in to this idea, a kind of build-up over time. We'd begun this track by talking about John's own anticipation, a hesitancy about speaking in public. Not speaking about Snowball's Chance, but speaking about Orwell about Animal Farm and about how seductive Orwell himself had proven to be for both ends of the political spectrum. Albeit in radically different ways, with respect to the latter. John would be speaking about all of this at a reading of Snowball's Chance later in the week of our interview.

He tells me he'd bought masks, different kinds of animal masks to visually evoke the different struggles beneath the surface of both his own Snowball and Orwell's politics that proved so captivating over long drag of history. John had bought masks, he'd focused the event around animating the inner struggles, at least some of them and making them explicit. And yet, in the quiet before the show, there's a hesitancy. And it's not the familiar subaudible hum of stage fright, but a remarkably deeper concern, one that goes to the of the post 9/11 condition.

"I'm trying to publish some pieces here and there, not all about Snowball," John says to me, "But a few will be about Snowball." Then a pause, and it's a magnificent hesitation. Something that seems like we've both been ushered into a moment where we're being collectively forced into confronting the infinite. "I just have trouble looking at it word to word," John shoots back with a kind of resignation, a tone that says he's already confronted the inevitable, a tone that shrugs its best Bob Dylan kind of shrug and seems to say, "Tomorrow's just another day with nothing left to do." "I just have trouble looking at it word to word. By the time I wrote that, I knew what I was doing. But now, it just feels foreign to me."

If anything, this one interaction during our interview really frames John Reed as a writer, as a thinker, the impact of his novel, and his continuing journey as an artist. At its core this idea is about the ease with which alienation has come to be situated in the self, as a consequence of the post 9/11 condition. The story for the '60s, from Bob Dylan on, as Greil Marcus points out frequently in the masterful Bob Dylan, by Greil Marcus, has always been escaping the cage of fame. Lester Bangs certainly senses the emergence of the same grand narrative when confronting the death of John Lennon. How do we make ourselves into something new after we've already captured the popular imagination?

But this notion of the cage of fame is nothing more than redemption politics. It is the ongoing story of our seeking salvation by way of an external agency. And this notion of the external agency that can re-sanctify us lies at the heart of Orwell's neocon politics. Of course, Orwell would argue, just so long as the external agency isn't communism. John's game is far deeper. Snowball's Chance isn't the defeat of capitalism in the same way Animal Farm was intended as an ideological defeat of communism. Instead, what John offers in his speculative metafiction, is a direct confrontation of the mechanics of redemption.

This isn't the simple alienation from one's own artisanal products that communism seeks to eradicate. Nor is it the psychic redemption of the self by actively engaging in the economy that capitalism proposes. Instead, John's alienation is already situated in the self, that over time, the human mind shrinks and withdraws, reels and wrestles, and finally, turns itself to other things. How do you escape the cage of fame if you're a Bob Dylan or a John Lennon? In the myriad ways we all do everyday. We simply disavow our younger selves and their struggles and their triumphs and their failures. "I knew what I was doing," John says, "But now it's foreign to me." Not a case of "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." No, instead, tomorrow's just another day with nothing left to do.

It's this self-alienation that John attempts to trace, and this tracing that forms the backbone of a new kind of literary project. One that we get into in great detail over the long course of a New York morning.

To be continued…

The exclusive interview with John Reed will run on September 12.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.