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.