The "First Great Millennial Novelist" on Porn, Drugs and Becoming a "Golden God of Clarity"

private citizen
Jun 17 2016

The “First Great Millennial Novelist” on Porn, Drugs and Becoming a “Golden God of Clarity”

June 17th, 2016

My favorite line in Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, is one in which Linda, a wannabe writer whose main creative outlet is ingesting different drug combinations, sums up the creative writing proclivities of her college peers: “Ooh, I had these Mennonite neighbors and they were so weird! My Romanian immigrant aunt had a stroke and said such inadvertently profound things! Fucking please.”

If Linda is describing the kinds of stories you like to read, then maybe skip Private Citizens, which forsakes poignancy-porn for funny, sometimes cruel satire that’s very enjoyable, if at times stressful, to read. Private Citizens has been called “the first great Millennial novel,” and won glowing reviews in New York Magazine and The New York Times. Tulathimutte recently appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers.

The novel follows four 20-somethings living in San Fransisco in the years after their 2005 graduation from Stanford, as they grapple with their race, class, gender, mental health and professional identities: Linda (the aspiring writer with rage issues mentioned above); her ex, Henrik, a white guy with a history of trauma and bipolar disorder; her college roommate, Cory, a Jewish social justice warrior who doesn’t know how to use email; and Will, a Thai-American tech consultant with an inferiority complex and a disabled fame-whore girlfriend.

Along the way, they consume plenty of drugs, including heroin, coke and prescription medications, and explore addictions to porn, eating disorders, self-help and self-sabotage. Tulathimutte avoids either glamorizing or moralizing about drug use–though we do learn that smoking is “the sexiest way of hating yourself.” Drug use and addictive behaviors are, instead, woven into the fabric of daily life, as they are for many of us.

We meet at a bar in Brooklyn, shortly before 32-year-old Tulathimutte is scheduled to read from Private Citizens at a “Literary Death Match.” (He later tweeted: “I just lost literary death match lol”).

Tulathimutte is extremely friendly and talkative; his rapid-fire, hyper-articulate speech resembles his writing. And like any good millennial, he’s not afraid to market his brand: He’s wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the cover of his book on the front, and the back of the book on the back. His parents, unbeknownst to him, had gotten them made for family and friends, then taken a group photo with which Seth Meyers surprised him during his TV appearance.

 

Sarah Beller: Substance use occurs throughout your book, and Will, one of the main characters, has an apparent porn addiction. I was intrigued by the Excel spreadsheet that he made to organize his porn. Can you tell me more about the idea behind his porn addiction, if you consider it one?

Tony Tulathimutte: Having this phenomenon where you can encode things like music and images, increasingly every part of our life that can be digitized will be, and in great volume. The fact that these things are manipulable, that they’re raw data that can then be used for some other purpose, explains a lot of what we call addictive behavior around the internet, because it is a form of power to feel you have this mastery of organization over things. Which is why people trust data journalism, and “big data” insights and things like that. Now there is this very easily available quant view—which is right now very incomplete and skewed, in a lot of ways—but it still gives you the feeling that you have the hard numbers on an ineffable problem or concern in your life. It can be intoxicating.

I wanted to keep this part kind of subtextual in the book, but Will is someone who feels like he’s had very little say over his sexual destiny. He can’t do anything about being short and Asian, and the fact that nobody’s going to be attracted to him strictly on that basis, and that’s something he teases out through this spreadsheet. But one thing he does have absolute control over is his pornography. It’s an indulgence in an ersatz form of sexuality—and I don’t want to denigrate people who use porn or say that they’re losers…because I would be calling myself a loser. But in some cases, when you fail to be able to have an alternative, then the consolation becomes all the more important and the more valuable to you. The more you want to make it reflect exactly what it is you want sexually.

There’s a line that says something like, “Will stopped stroking his cock and started stroking his chin instead,” because he’s become addicted not to the pornography but to the mastery over this form of data that represents his sexual life.

 

So he’s mastering something he doesn’t have access to, or hasn’t in the past? But at the point at which we meet Will, he does have this very attractive girlfriend, Vanya. And we realize she’s sort of addicted to plastic surgery. Is her addiction also about trying to control something she doesn’t have much control over—her appearance? [Vanya was paralyzed as a teenager in a freak beauty contest accident.]

Vanya is very strong. She gets paralyzed—and she makes a career out of it [by founding “Sable,” a social network for the disability community]. Will, at the end, gets blinded, but she says, “That’s not a big deal, we can get over this—we can spin straw into gold.”

She’s somebody who has even fewer compunctions about the malleability of identity than Will does. Will has sort of thrown up his hands in disgust at the real world, and has invested everything into this narrow domain of virtual things that he can master. And he doesn’t consider himself a loser for it. This is as valid a way to live as any, but it does emerge out of certain neuroses. In Vanya’s case, she wants to succeed everywhere, she wants to win everything, she’s got limitless ambition. She’s not going to let a little thing like a nose she doesn’t like keep her from having a perfect nose…

In a broad way this represents a lot of the kind of attitude I saw when I was working in Silicon Valley. You get people who are hyper-steeped in privilege, who are really good at what they’re doing and never have anybody say no to them. That’s not to say that they don’t work hard or that they don’t have difficult lives in other respects—Vanya has had to work very hard to overcome her disability. But it is to say that it gives you this very warped and bubbled perspective of what’s achievable—what’s changeable—in your world.

 

At one point the character Henrik says: “The worst thing about pills is that they work.” How do drugs fit into this cyborg-like, malleable sense of identity? 

One of the themes is the way that privilege can actually stunt you from development because it can stunt you from adversity. If you can’t overcome these challenges, you’re going to sort of keep on coasting along, even to the point where your stuntedness is inhibiting your happiness. Pills are a version of this.

Now, I’m on a million different pills. There are some that I rely on, some that I take because it makes things easier for me—they’re essentially palliative—and others that I take for “funsies.” I’ve had the experience of taking a pill and wondering, am I taking a short-cut that is actually stunting me in some way? How much is the placebo affect—the inherent lack of belief in oneself—to blame for the dependency?

There’s an even more sinister edge underlying this—and this comes up for Henrik—if you have a bottle of pills in your house, it means that you also have a means to kill yourself at any time. In a way you can always do that, but pills are this very gentle, non-visceral way of thinking about suicide. Drink a pint of Scotch and a bottle of pills and just sleep it off.

 

But for Henrik, not taking his pills becomes life-threatening as well.

Exactly—to be somebody like Roopa—a hardcore naturopath [who convinces Henrik to quit his meds], who is just like “ugh, chemicals,” is equally un-nuanced and dysfunctional. And weirdly blinkered too, because a lot of people who are into this sort of thing extol the benefits of tea, which has caffeine.

 

Was the character of Roopa informed at all by where you grew up, in the “Pioneer Valley” of Massachusetts? I’m familiar with its culture of homeopathy, crystals and other non-traditional palliatives. 

[Laughs.] Here’s the thing—I grew up in my parents’ basement playing video games, I didn’t soak myself in the culture of the Pioneer Valley all that much. I was very insulated from what was going on around me. That being said, I went to a high school that was super, super liberal—the Green Party won our mock election by 70 percent.

Up until two years before I went it was an all-girls’ school. I was one of five guys in our graduating class, and our mascot was the Unicorn. Yeah—go Unicorns!

But weirdly, I don’t think I’ve talked about this in an interview before: I was totally Straight Edge up until I was 21. I was brought up by parents who—the Asian parenting thing extended to this total abhorrence of drugs and alcohol—they don’t drink, they absolutely forbade it. And they don’t fuck around with punishments either.

But once I turned 21 I realized, like a lot of people do, that a lot of the scare-mongering around drugs and alcohol is just over-protectiveness on the part of parents who have nothing to gain if you get drunk and mess up one day. Then if they do fuck up and use drugs and alcohol, they’ve gone against your word and so you’re kind of off the hook. But I didn’t have a single drink throughout all of college.

 

That’s impressive…

I did it by really having a chip on my shoulder, thinking that I was better than people who drank or did drugs, because I thought—look at these people at the frat house making asses out of themselves while I’m sitting here with my EANAB (that’s what they called it at Stanford—”Equally Appealing Non-Alcoholic Beverage”), sitting there in full control of my faculties, my dignity perfectly intact, and my dick very dry.

 

If you feel comfortable saying, I’m curious about which drugs you take these days—either for health reasons or for fun.

Well it all changed when I was 21, when a girl I had sort of a crush on offered to make me a drink. It’s gonna be so good, she said. It was about two fingers of Popov and this synthetic, artificially sweetened fruit drink called Fruite—disgusting, that’s in the book—and it just tasted like anti-freeze.

I had this drink and then I intensely monitored my reaction to it for the next 40 minutes—such a control freak. After that, I gave it another try, then I eased up, then from then on it was “Blue Boar, Pale Ale and Mike’s Hard Lemonade for me!” After that, I got more comfortable with drinking and drank pretty heavily for the usual reasons—to make socializing easier, to unwind after work. Also, I was working at a Korean game company where drinking was intensely part of the culture, they would have me do 10 shots of soju, then like, see you tomorrow. I would sleep it off in the parking lot.

I’ve always been accustomed to taking drugs for medical reasons, because I have this really weird neuro-muscular disorder that only a handful of people have… I’m trying to think over the consequences of naming my disorder in a publication… so I think I’m just going to leave that one there. I was on a medication that was also used to treat bipolar disorder, but also happened to treat this thing, and it was fine—it makes you feel a tiny bit tipsy when you’re on it, and I was on it for 14 years until it just weirdly cleared up the April before last. It was really strange.

After college I started taking Adderall. I’ve always had attention problems, really severe ones, but part of my whole straight-edge agenda was to soldier though, to do it the “natural way,” prove I don’t need any help. At a certain point, talking to a therapist of mine, I realized I was needlessly wasting time and suffering, and ever since then I’ve just been this brain-drug adventurer. I’m a gourmand of nootropics.

The weird thing is that I could never smoke weed. Weed was this absolute no-no for me, because I think it reacted with my medication, I would pass out on the floor, twitching and seizing, and lose my consciousness and memory. I stayed far, far away from it. To me, that was the hardest drug there is. Until I started up again to deal with anxiety after I went off that medication. Now it’s just like, eh, it makes me really stupid and hungry.

With Adderall, I thought, why not? I’ve taken all this other stuff. I’ve been on it ever since then, every day, but really low dosage, I’m not trying to get addicted. I’m not somebody with the greatest amount of impulse control.

When I started getting anxiety attacks, I started taking Xanax, and really didn’t like it, because I never had the mental clarity to do my work. I just started taking every single anti-anxiety thing, and on top of that I started to take eight, nine, 10 different supplements a day. And then I thought, what if I tried every single thing, take 100 pills a day, and see how that actually shakes out?

For me personally, there’s one substance in particular that I proselytize for heavily, the greatest discovery of my 30s, a nutritional supplement you can buy for cheap on Amazon: L-Theanine. It’s billed as an extract of green tea, it’s been around for a long time and been pretty exhaustively studied. It’s basically like a really low-key, anti-anxiety thing that also gives you amazing sleep. And if you drink coffee with it, it will turn you into a golden god of clarity.

 

What are some of your literary influences?

I’m not going to draw any kind of comparison, least of all a favorable one, but writers like Saul Bellow and Nabokov (who hated Saul Bellow)—and Martin Amis is a big one. Martin Amis is someone who also wrote about high life and low life, and drugs are a sort of common denominator between them. In terms of what got me interested in writing a social novel, The Corrections is one. The Corrections also has “Correcktall”—the brain drug, that’s used as a recreational drug by other people in the book.

 

What are you working on now?

I won’t get too far into it, but I’m writing a hybrid-genre book about rejection, a book about Thailand, and a book of literary criticism that’s written from the perspective of a supernatural critic, criticizing real-world phenomena. But in each essay the critic lives in a universe that’s slightly different. For example, there’s mummies in one universe, and so he watches Bruce Lee movies and other movies through the lens of “what are the role of mummies in these movies?”

 

That last one sounds like maybe drugs were involved in its creation.

[Laughs.] It’s very psychedelic, but written in a very sober, Borgesian style—Borges is another big influence, in terms of taking a very wild conceit and writing about it in the dryest way you possibly can.

And then my next novel, which is about stand-up comedy and video games; that’s all I’ll say about that.

I want to thank you for asking questions about Henrik, no one has asked about that yet. Everybody is only interested in Linda and Will—Linda is sort of this very conspicuous author surrogate, and Will is Asian. I can see why, though, for branding purposes, people writing these things want to implicitly make a statement about the writer…

Henrik is very passive, but he is just as important a character as anyone else, and I’ve been sort of frustrated at not getting to talk about him all that much. He’s the only one who hasn’t been stained by privilege from his upbringing, even though he’s a white man, which is the irony I wanted to inject into this. I have as much of a reason as anyone to resent white men, but I wanted to make him this kind of a wubby, this character who’s never really caught a break. I wanted to inject all of my own social awkwardness in him, and make him the one character in the book that you can root for and feel bad for. Whereas everyone else’s suffering is pretty self-invented.

 


Sarah Beller is an associate editor of The Influence. You can follow her on Twitter: @SarahLBeller.