Ron Currie Jr.‘s second book, Everything Matters!, is one of the more appealingly strange novels I’ve read recently. Imagining a world that’s slated to end on June 15, 2010 (at 3:44 p.m. EST), it deals heavily in disaster stories, the nature of God, and the alternate realities. It engages with the notion of how much control we have over our fate (the title’s exclamation point might easily be replaced with a question mark). It’s also rich with tonal shifts, shifting from broad comedy to a very sober description of the loss of a parent and back to satirical jabs that place Mike Huckabee as the sitting president during the end of the world.
“I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that one,” Currie wrote me when I asked about that particular plot point. At its core, though, the novel is a surprisingly heartfelt story about family, following its protagonist, Junior (the “fourth-smartest person in the history of the world”), as he tries to serve the best interests of his dying father and of his brother, Rodney, who recovers from an early cocaine addiction to become a star player for the Chicago Cubs. Currie answered a few more questions about the novel via e-mail.
All sorts of apocalyptic stories get referenced in your novel, from the Challenger disaster to nuclear catastrophes. How much time did you spend with apocalyptic-themed novels, movies, and stories while working on this book?
It’s an obsession of mine that has been more or less lifelong, so it wasn’t necessarily a question of what I was reading/viewing while working on Everything Matters! Pointing to any one thing as the primary cause of this obsession is tough—is it just a case of innate, hardwired interest, a mystery of genetics, or does it have more to do with growing up under the nuclear canopy of the Cold War’s latter stages? All I know for certain is to this day I’m still fascinated by dystopian or apocalyptic scenarios, so I’m a big fan of writers like Vonnegut, Orwell and Huxley, George Saunders. And I’ll drop just about anything to watch one of those “this is how the world may end” shows on television. Judging by the popularity and ubiquitousness of these programs, I’m not alone in my fixation.
You’ve gotten dinged in a couple of outlets for the book’s title—one argument being that any novel could profitably be titled “Everything Matters.” Did you struggle with the title for the book?
No, not really. I anticipated that some people wouldn’t like it, just as I anticipated that a certain type of reader and critic would choke on the book’s earnestness. Which is fine. I’m pretty weary of the hyperirony that seems to have taken over just about every form of popular culture—it’s so obvious, and easy, and too often only half-funny, which is not funny enough to justify its existence—and to an extent I conceived of the book as an antidote. The title is reflective of that: declarative, straightforward, earnest. Your usual highbrow title—the kind that seem designed to actually obscure what the book is about—wouldn’t have worked here.
The omniscient narrators who speak to Junior have shifting degrees of control throughout the novel—early on they take a “stance of supportive neutrality” but later play a more active role in the story’s events. Were you concerned that such a shift would seem arbitarary instead of playful? Or should we read the voices speaking to Junior as representive of the fickleness of God?
A careful read reveals that the omniscient voice is somewhat unreliable, and I think that’s what you’re getting at here. At the beginning of the book, for example, they claim they know nothing for certain about the future except for the inevitability of the comet impacting the Earth. But later on in the story they reveal, conclusively and repeatedly, that this is not true. And as you note, they pledge not to interfere in the events of Junior’s life, but are moved, eventually, to break this promise.
Often, the disasters you describe in the novel are mediated: We see the Challenger explosion through the TV coverage of it, nuclear catastrophe through a TV special on Nostradamus, a plot point about a standoff at a Social Security office through news reports on it. And that seems pitted against the very visceral, intimate reality of Junior’s personal “disaster”—the loss of his father. Do you feel that we’ve become desensitized to life-and-death matters, because they’re pushed at us so frequently?
Not at all. In fact, I think the opposite is true: we believe we’re desensitized and tough, because violence and death pervade our media, but there’s a big difference between seeing someone catch a bullet on TV, and the puke-inducing adrenal response of witnessing in person, or being a part of, a real act of violence. Anyone who’s spent time in the world’s poorer corners, where life as a commodity is severely devalued, can’t help but be a little taken aback by how sheltered and safe we are here. Recently at the college in the town where I live, a couple of students were roughed up by security guards after a party got out of hand. One of the kids ended up with a nosebleed, and the following day hundreds of students turned out at a rally wearing red shirts to—I shit you not—symbolize the blood that had been spilled. It only takes experiencing one act of genuine brutality to put the kibosh on such sensitive overreaction, but clearly none of these kids has been there.
The novel includes a line from a Flaming Lips song as an epigraph, and there’s also a reference to the song “Race for the Prize.” (At least, I’m assuming it’s a reference—the themes of the song and that part of the book are similar.) What role did the band’s music play for you while working on the book?
The same role that all the music I love plays in the writing of my books—I’ve learned a ton about how to tell a story in prose from listening to great music. I wanted the epigraph to be longer, because that entire song (“In the Morning of the Magicians”) perfectly captures Junior’s dilemma: the question of how important our love and industry are in the face of the Universe’s infinite indifference. That the Flaming Lips were able to do in three minutes what took me three hundred pages sort of illustrates how much storytellers can learn from good songs.
You, like the central characters in the novel, are Maine natives, but the Chicago Cubs play a critical role in the plot of the novel. Have you spent much time in the city, or were the long-suffering Cubs just another “disaster” that fit well into the book’s theme?
Ah, the poor Cubbies. They’re a little harder to like these days, what with the clubhouse full of whackjobs Pinella is charged with corralling, but I still pull for them. In fact, I think every real baseball fan would be pleased to see them win the Series (except maybe Cardinals fans). I’ve spent a little time in Chicago, and I love it there—all the bustle and excitement of New York, except tinged with that midwestern agreeableness.