I first heard about Jordan Castro’s debut, The Novelist, on Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan’s podcast Red Scare, which is fitting since the book is, much like that podcast, a highly ironic, hyper-self-aware look into the effects of contemporary internet culture on attention spans and the ability to produce “authentic” cultural work in our era. The Novelist is more than that, though. In particular, it profoundly reflects addiction as a universal human condition.
Despite its heavy subject, The Novelist is utterly relatable and delightfully humorous. A first-person narrator describes in minute detail his attempts to work on his debut novel one morning while he is constantly distracted by social media, the need to shit, and the desire to consume caffeinated drinks that, he convinces himself, will grant him the ability to write. In various passages, the novelist ironically considers his love/hate relationship with social media:
“In practice, Instagram did not produce beauty, or candor, and lent itself only to a different type of lie. In short, Instagram was vanity and Twitter was pride. Twitter would kill everyone and then kill itself; whereas Instagram would only peter out, slowly disappearing into a kind of pleading void.” He reflects on this while sitting on the toilet, an activity that receives over 20 pages of attention in book that of just under 200.
“Diarrhea was a pain to wipe, taking what felt like forever and using unseemly amounts of toilet paper, while the best poops often resulted in the much sought-after ‘one-and-done’—when the first wipe was also the last. Of course I also double-checked after a one-and-done, so it was never truly only one and done, but the satisfaction lay less in the actual number of wipes and more in the knowledge one gleaned of oneself: that even in one’s most archetypically unclean endeavor, one was clean.”
This scatological digression, which illustrates the meandering character of the narrator’s thought processes, is just one piece of the tapestry of avoidance strategies that he employs while (not) working on the manuscript of his novel. His work in progress is based on his experiences of drug addiction.
I should mention at this point that whatever the resemblance this narrator may have to the author, the novelist in the novel is not “Jordan Castro”—that name is reserved for a character who embodies our narrator’s idealized role model. Jordan Castro the character is a famous writer frequently piled upon online by people who have not actually read his books but are quick to make moral judgments about their content—and who has just published a first-person narrative about drug addiction.
Paralyzed by anxiety, the novelist in The Novelist can only work once he abandons his original manuscript and begins a “second novel”—thus far, just some notes in which he attacks a former friend. He imagines these writings are the beginnings of a contemporary version of Thomas Bernhard’s controversial 1984 book, Woodcutters. However, he returns to his first manuscript and the anxiety of influence that informs his relationship with it, the notion that nothing original can ever be said about addiction and that all drug narratives are dull:
“It was not a mystery why people did drugs, nor why, when they became addicted, people quit. Because of this obvious fact, which was one of the few uncomplicated realities of life, every book about drugs was inherently less interesting than every book that was not about drugs. Of course, I loved drug addicts and recovering addicts. It was the impulse to write that one could not trust […] And yet, I had started a drug novel.”
His strategy to evade the typically “sentimental and unseemly” portrayals in first-person addiction narratives is to write his novel in the third-person present tense, which he hopes will allow him to avoid the worst stylistic effects of excessive self-identification with the protagonist. However, it is clear to the reader of the first-person narrative in The Novelist that a mere formal choice does not alter the essential relationship of autofiction, especially of confessional addiction narratives, to the author’s subjectivity.
Of course, the ultimate model for the type of drug narrative that the narrator decries is Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), a Romantic text that the scholar Alina Clej, in A Genealogy of the Modern Self (1995), identifies as one of the most important prototypes of modern subjectivity. According to Clej, De Quincey attempted to constitute intoxication and addiction as excentric perspectives capable of transcending capitalism but ultimately succeeded only in commodifying his subjectivity in the burgeoning literary market, thus establishing a model for future “intoxicated” writers. The narrator-novelist in Castro’s The Novelist struggles with similar effects of the commodification of self-presentation through contemporary technology and social media, which themselves can be addicting:
“My brain felt glitchy, like a malfunctioning computer; my thoughts were like unwanted pop-ups. […] I moved my hand toward my pocket, like a reflex, to make a note about my thoughts being like pop-ups, then remembered that I didn’t have my phone.”
What makes The Novelist such a good book addiction, however, is the combination of this self-conscious exploration of always-already mediated subjectivity with the ironic juxtaposition of the narrator’s “current” and “former” addictions. In The Novelist, it is the use of social media and caffeine that are subjected to the minute, detailed scrutiny usually reserved for the administration of “drugs of choice” in addiction narratives, while the novelist’s previous use of benzodiazepines, heroin, alcohol, and tobacco figure much less prominently.
This reinforces an idea eloquently expressed by the psychiatrist Carl Fisher in The Urge: Our History of Addiction (2022), namely that addiction is probably best considered as a spectrum of common patterns in human behavior rather than a discrete, easily identifiable illness caused by particular chemicals. Fisher is inspired, among other things, by the Buddhist notion that all human suffering derives from a common “addiction” to the self. The universality of addiction shines through in The Novelist, in which self-aware irony balances with an earnest consideration of suffering and the search for a meaningful transcendence of it:
“The problem is not ‘pain vs. pleasure’ or ‘suffering vs. happiness,’ but something more like ‘pain vs. purpose’ or ‘suffering vs. meaning.’ Meaning is the arch value, I typed, not suffering.”
After finishing The Novelist, I returned to Castro’s Red Scare interview. In it, he lauds the academic Michael Clune’s memoir of heroin addiction, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin (2013), as the best book ever written about drugs. (Clune is listed in The Novelist’s acknowledgments and contributed a blurb to the back cover.) In particular, Castro mentions Clune’s definition of addiction as a “memory disease”, which is also cited by the narrator of The Novelist. This refers to the phenomenological effect by which the addict perceives every use of the substance of choice as something familiar but also something entirely new, free of the automatization of perception. For Clune, this is the true trap of addiction, which connects to the notion of addiction as a universal human.
Despite the merits of this highly original interpretation, I find White Out excessively long, unstructured, and vague in its theorization. In contrast, The Novelist is a study in the economy of plotting, ironic description, and the communication of ideas about the addictive nature of the self. This is why it may be one of the best books about addiction.