Shamanic Hilarious Exorcisms: An Interview with Jarett Kobek

Whoever you are, you need to read I Hate the Internet by Jarett Kobek. Seriously. Kobek’s novel will challenge, entertain, educate, and possibly enrage you, but this wild comic romp is the smartest work of fiction I’ve read in years. I Hate the Internet follows a colorful cast as they navigate the pitfalls of gentrification, sex, social media obsession, and the hegemony of American capitalism. Buy a copy and read it. Your mind will thank you.

Chuck Augello: What should someone expect when he or she picks up I Hate the Internet and starts reading?

Jarett Kobek: A bad novel that functions as something like a shamanic hilarious exorcism of the horrors bequeathed to the world by Silicon Valley and its moneyed backers.

CA: A subtitle describes the book as a “useful novel.” Why is it useful and how should readers use it?

JK: I’m interested in a rather unfashionable idea—the Victorian novel of moral instruction. That’s not what I Hate the Internet is, at all, but just the old idea that a novel could be an instructive instrument hints at uses beyond what has become the de facto standard: the experiential pilgrim’s progress of white people as they suffer beneath the lash of rent cheques, learning very little other than their own transformative place in the neoliberal hierarchy.

I Hate the Internet attempts to diagnose the problems of the moment, hopefully while encouraging readers to think about received technology and wisdom. That’s a use. But it’s still very much a novel.

CA: Almost all of the characters are introduced with a reference to how much eumelanin is in their skin. It becomes almost a refrain. Why was this important?

JK: The default assumption of most literary novels is that its characters are white, thus making any character who isn’t somehow abnormal and described in terms coded along racially essentialist thinking. It struck me that the best way by which to avoid this, while also talking about embedded power structures, was to make sure that everyone—especially the white characters—were identified by their race while also making a critique about the arbitrariness of the social constructs which confine our lives.

I also like the idea of books that point out white people are actually pink. In ATTA, all the White people are consistently referred to as such, which is a way of describing Europeans that you can find amongst people who live in the Middle East.

CA: One of the central themes is that we live in a society that hates women, and the subtitle tells us the novel is “against men.” Yet it’s a woman, Ashley, who triggers the abuse against the unfortunate Ellen Flitcraft. Why is the novel “against men”? 

JK: It’s difficult to look at the Internet and feel it’s anything other than a series of elaborate mechanisms crafted by men which have subjected women to an enormous amount of bullshit. Men built all the technology. It’s men who run Silicon Valley, it’s men who profit off Silicon Valley, it’s men who fund Silicon Valley. It’s a very backwards place.

As for Ashley, I personally read her actions as a critique of the way that something like Twitter works—an easy, for-profit device encouraging people’s worst behaviors and impulses.

CA: You describe the U.S. coverage of The Arab Spring as “advertisements for multi-national corporations” like Facebook and Twitter. I thought the same in 2010—It was as if nothing was allowed to happen in the world without branded social media getting the credit. Your thoughts?

JK: You’ve summed it so well that I’m not sure what else to add.

The American coverage of the Arab Spring—which is a stupid name based on the pretense that some shit which happened in Europe in the mid-19th Century is analogous to situations in the Middle East—had no particular connection to reality. It was an advertisement for Facebook and Twitter.

I went to Cairo a few weeks after the fall of Mubarak. No one mentioned Facebook or Twitter, although I did see the Facebook logo spray painted on a wall somewhere. I assumed this was done by an employee.

CA: What role does the gentrification of San Francisco play in the novel? 

JK: Gentrification is the prime mover of the book—everyone’s life is re-ordered around it. Which is a very accurate picture of San Francisco in the last five years.

CA: The novel envisions the dominant social relations of the Internet as essentially exploitative, with artists, and non-artists, too, providing free content for the largest, most powerful corporations on Earth. Do you think the Internet might have developed differently? Do you see any way this might change?

JK: The Internet could easily have developed differently. What we have is the result of business interests and government collusion. The technologies serve these masters first and everyone else second.

The only conceivable way for change is through some kind of cataclysmic planetary disaster, the establishment of a Fascist regime that will wipe the Internet away as it destroys us all, or the embrace of ad blocking by all users of the web.

Guess which will arrive first!

CA: While Adeline, the main character, winds up receiving her share of Internet abuse, it seems more of an annoyance to her than anything actually hurtful. She seems up for the challenge. Do you see her as a model for how artists might successfully manage an “online presence”? 

JK: I don’t see Adeline as a model for anything, but she exists in contrast to a character like Ellen Flitcraft because Adeline has put saleable objects into the world.

The only powerless people on the Internet are the ones who have nothing to sell. Almost anything can be embraced by capitalism, but you have to have the product available. The Internet has created a market economy in which most people either have no commodities with which to protect themselves or, worse yet, are giving the fruits of their labor away.

CA: In one comic passage, you list all of the things about which people on Twitter are outraged. It’s funny, but very true. Why do you think these platforms attract so much anger?

JK: They’re built to inflame. In theory—and I say theory because Twitter is not profitable—the idea is that the crazier and more upset people get, the more they’ll reengage with the platform, and each reengagement creates a new opportunity for advertisement.

CA: The novel has several references to the “slave labor” that drives the production of tablets and smart phones. The disconnect between Silicon Valley’s self-image as moral and emancipatory, a la Google’s “Do No Evil,” and the business-as-usual capitalism of its actual business practices is a recurring theme. Most people seem to view companies like Apple and Google as inherently “good.” Why do you think most people are so eager to drink the Kool-Aid?  

JK: The complexity of most people’s lives prevents the necessary free time required to sit around wondering about the evil inherent in their cellular phone. But not me!

We’ve also suffered about thirty solid years (longer in California) of worsening public education, which seriously diminishes the capacity for the kind of critical thinking required by life in a system of global evil.

Also, Americans really don’t want to hear bad news.

CA: What were some of your influences in writing this novel? I sensed a strong connection to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions?

JK: You’ve hit that one on the head. I’ve borrowed Vonnegut’s formal device of defining everyday objects in comedic terms straight from Breakfast of Champions. (I hope that’s all I’ve borrowed from that particular book, as I find it enormously frustrating.)

Otherwise, I was mostly thinking about stand-up comedy and how American novelists exist in a space which is much more restricted than that of the professional comedian. If you go see Kevin Hart at Madison Square Garden, you’re going to hear more about the hot-button social issues of our era than you’ll find in the work of most novelists. You might not agree with every idea you hear, but it’s at least an attempt at engaging with serious topics.

The stand-up comic is as much a writer as any novelist. (Arguably more so, because no one expects novelists to do a good job performing their work in public. The stand-up has to not only write material that is thematically cohesive but which must also jump through the hoops of both writing material for performance and then performing it.) Stand-up comedy is where the general public goes to engage with serious writing.

So it seemed crazy, as a novelist, to try and not take some of that territory back. You can read the whole book as a stand-up routine.

CA: If you had to recommend one novel, other than your own, which would it be? 

JK: Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig.

CA: I’m looking forward to your next book. What are you working on currently?

JK: A semi-secret project that will be announced soon, and a book in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s first album.

Jarett Kobek is a Turkish-American writer living in California. His novella ATTA (Semiotext(e); 2011), an imagined first-person account of the 9/11 hijacker, was called “highly absorbing” by the Times Literary Supplement, and has been the subject of much academic writing. He’s currently working on a book on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series.