Samuel Says: Plumbing the Sociocultural Depths of “League of Somebodies”

It's the question I didn't ask author and critic Samuel Sattin that wakes me at 3am each morning…

Actus Secundus: Interlude, His Secret Identity Remains Secret

Here’s the question I didn’t ask Samuel Sattin, author of one of the most important novels of 2013, League of Somebodies.

We’re about 40, 45 minutes into West Coast morning conversation and while the rest of the country prepares for the now predictable snowmageddon that must surely come and linger on into the springtime, it’s hard for either of us to even imagine the cold amid this balmy morning. In his excitement, and understanding Samuel’s enthusiasm and exuberance is crucial to understanding what makes League of Somebodies so psychologically vivid as it wrestles with questions of social darwinism and social engineering, Samuel offers what can only be referenced as an invitation to a crucial insight. Any interviewer will be able to light up this particular insight for you–the idea that, sooner or later, every subject in every interview, offers their own inner psyche, their deepest most beautiful part that informs their creative projects.

But oftentimes, this display of the deepest, most passionate creative anguish doesn’t come prefabricated, rather it’s something that must be gotten at by exchange between interviewer and subject. Hence, “an invitation.” An invitation to the interviewer to probe deeper, to learn more, to push maybe just that little bit harder.

The moment of invitation with Samuel comes about midway through our conversation, at around the 45-minute mark. For the past ten or so minutes, we’ve been getting into issues of why League of Somebodies had to be a novel, why Samuel had to tilt at those neat divisions of high art and popculture; why something as culturally ubiquitous and ostensibly innocuous as the superhero genre had to find its way into something as highbrow as a literary fiction novel.

It’s at the point where Samuel says, “…And just thinking about it now, trying to breed a superhero across successive generations wouldn’t be crazy, it would be a disaster,” that I hang on to the word “disaster,” and make a split second decision. Maybe even the wrong decision. Writing this Iconographies is as much me wrestling with the idea of this piece being an apology, or a defense.

The regret, if there is any regret, is not in not recognizing the moment of invitation, but in not acting on it. But not acting on that moment of invitation is not entirely down to my decision making alone. Nor in fact is the question of whether I should be defending that inaction of not acting on the moment of invitation, or whether I should be apologizing for it. By this point in the conversation, I’d already spent some twelve hours with League of Somebodies in the last 48 — I’d been primed by the sociocultural complexity that Samuel’s presented in his novel. What’s more, the middle Hobbit, Desolation of Smaug looms on the Saturday night horizon. My mind’s already building a mutual context for the experience in the recent past of reading Samuel’s novel, the present experience of conducting the interview and the pending experience of the middle Hobbit.

And there’s also the question of Samuel’s genuine enthusiasm. Not just a busker’s enthusiasm at the prospect of promoting the book, but a genuine lived enthusiasm at the prospect of being in the world, of wrestling with these issues, of presenting these questions, grown in the fertile bed of popculture, in the format of highbrow literary fiction.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that it’s a total headrush right now. And that my thoughts are not entirely my own. And that even at the great distance that comes over time, the distance of my writing this in the brand new year of 2014, there’s a kind of reliving of that contagious enthusiasm that Samuel seems to have in spades. So maybe my re-grounding myself in the idea of the novel wouldn’t be a bad move right now.

As the story goes, Lenard Sikophsky is the latest scion in a generational line that has sought to produce, through the more overt genetic manipulation of the induction of plutonium, a genuine, live superhero from among the males of the Sikophsky line. That’s what happens, but that’s not what League of Somebodies is about. What the novel’s About, capital ay, is all the post-European sociocultural structuring of the world that was left on the table since the Revolutionary Era, that surfaces time and again, but that hasn’t fully and convincingly been dealt with.

At least one important theme that Samuel hits upon, other than the prominent one of intergenerational concerns around lineage, is the question around the democratization of art. It’s not the more easily answered and more often approached question around the “validity” of popular culture as an artform (as opposed to say, simple expression). The question of, in other words, whether or not popculture has the right to proclaim itself as art, a question that writers like Kafka and Hemingway and more recently Murakami have all wrestled with to some degree. But rather a question of the mechanics by which the concerns raised by popculture can be presented for high-art consideration. This is Greil Marcus territory — how Shakespeare is impossible to appreciate without being fully conversant with Robert Johnson or for that matter, Elvis.

But Sattin goes just that hair’s breadth further than Marcus. It’s not a question of making that initial connection between high-art and popculture, it’s a question of the “how.” A question of the mechanisms that transition us from one philosophical and artistic mode to the next, and then back again.

And it’s a question that returns us to that thing that’s looming on the horizon — the middle Hobbit. Filmmaker Peter Jackson’s raison d’être for filming the original children’s story as an almost nine-hour extravaganza broken into three episodic movies lies in the simple fact that the original novel The Hobbit simply was not a children’s tale. Well it was in it’s initial evolution, certainly. But as Stephen Colbert can no doubt tell you, in the closing stages of Tolkien’s life, the fantasy writer and Oxford professor planned on retelling the story of the Hobbit as an adult tale, more the equal of Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s original thinking was this. “There and Back Again”, the story that Bilbo writes, the story told in The Hobbit is actually the children’s tale version of events that befell Bilbo when he joined the Dwarves’ quest to reclaim their home. But there’s also the broader tale, of a forbidding doom, and the first glint of darkness seem in all of Middle Earth as Sauron arises once more.

This darker, more adult, more geopolitically grand version of The Hobbit would have seen Tolkien in his prime. And it would have allowed him to return to his beloved field of linguistics, Philology. But this was sadly not to be.

This pendulum of history that swings between Tolkien himself never completing the adult Hobbit, and Jackson doing his best to cobble together a version in an entirely different medium is almost exactly the cultural dimensions Samuel wrestles with in League of Somebodies.

So the question I don’t ask Samuel is this:

I remember, maybe the last time my group of friends and I got collectively excited about something in popculture, and I know this is dating me a bit, was Madonna’s 1999 transformation for that Ray of Light album, particularly the transformation she underwent with the video “Frozen.” It was the end of the ’90s and it seemed that from those various many house parties where we’d sit quietly in corners and speak in low tones but, y’know, “meaningfully,” about Alanis Morissette, we now stood on the cusp of a moment where we could all publicly gather and murmur in similar hushed tones, but this time in the corners of grand European plazas. Madonna seemed key to this moment, perhaps as relevant then as she was fifteen years prior with “Like a Virgin;” she was something old, and familiar and teetering on the edge of relevance, suddenly reinvented and new. I remember, just in that moment, absolutely needing to talk about her, and at the same time being aware of the way in which we talk about popculture undergoing a fundamental change. And then… nothing… That Madonna’s perhaps the last moment I recall absolutely needing to speak about a shared popcultural experience. Because in just a few years, Linkin Park articulates the New Popculture aesthetic, where each of us is alone, and each of us subjected to wave upon wave of popculture artifact. And the connections between ourselves, have been convincingly severed. And they say this in the space of just one video, their animated “Breakin the Habit” from their Meteora album. So my question is, does League of Somebodies attempt to map out exactly that breakdown, by pointing out that that drama of self-ostracization has been with us for longer than we can imagine? Longer even than Madonna and Alanis Morisette?