Q&A with Noah Cicero, author of Best Behavior
» There is no positive reinforcement in American literature to think about one's life.
Noah Cicero in action / Noah Cicero
Noah Cicero is a writer living in Ohio and his recently released book, Best Behavior is his sixth book. It has a political bent mixed with modern blue-collar America. It's a slightly biographical account of the writer Benny and a trip to New York City in comparison to a restaurant worker's life in Youngstown, Ohio. The novel was first published at his blog and an excerpt can be read here. Below, Noah answers question about the working class, about American values, lit scenes and how to write a novel that defines a generation. Best Behavior is out now from Civil Coping Mechanisms and can be bought here.
The back of your book says this is your 'boldest work yet.' Do you agree with that assessment or have you been bolder in other places?
This is the first time I had so many different types of parts in one book. The book has an introduction, a Youngstown part, a greyhound part, and two NYC parts. All the parts required a slightly different voice and tone. The Insurgent is very revealing, probably the most internal and honest book I've written, but it only required one voice and tone. Best Behavior required many different voices. The pace of the Youngstown had to be slower because life is lived slower in the midwest. We don't have places to go like people in NYC. People in NYC walk fast trying to get places. People in Ohio, just stroll around in their cars, they don't care about getting anywhere, they get places and just do what needs to be done. The Greyhound is strange because being on a bus is so static but at the same time moving, you are on a bus that is going somewhere, you are leaving somewhere but at the same going somewhere, but for the mean time you are trapped in this strange box with people you've never met before, and you have to keep yourself busy for six hours while the bus is moving. The ending of Best Behavior was written in my usual style, very very quick, I just wanted to get to the point and not make a huge thing out of it.
The book starts off with an author's note about 'books that define a generation' and how you tried to capture that, or at least wanted to research it. But, do you think those books set out to be generation-defining books? Or is it a more organic process? and with so many 'niche audiences' today, can there be one generational book? Is that now an impossible task?
Personal opinion only: The World War II generation had several books that defined them, The Naked and The Dead, On the Road, and Revolutionary Road. The Naked and The Dead defined what it was like to be a soldier in World War II, On the Road defined what it was like to be an artsy strange person, and Revolutionary Road defined what it was like living after the war in nice little comfortable neighborhoods raising their kids. But there is also the plays No Exit and Waiting for Godot which came out in the 50s, which I think my generation have generally read. I feel that those five books thought about in terms of relating to each other give a really good portrait of what people were feeling and thinking in the 50s. I mean it is the same thing with Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson and Thoreau, adding in Charles Dickens and Dostoevsky, and relating them together. I suggest to everyone to write a book that defines their generation, I really hope one day that an ex-soldier from Iraq or Afghanistan stumbles upon what is going on the Internet and has some existentialism and writes a book that is readable and isn't just mainstream glory crap.
I think you mentioned the beats in a few places in this book, and it reminded me quite a bit of the John Clellon Holmes book, Go which attempts to capture the beat scene, i.e. the parties, conversations etc. among a certain group of writers. Did you set out to capture this group, to have a 'record' of the interactions? And if so, why did you feel that was important? And why change the name of some of your writer friends, when mentioning other real-life writers by name in other parts?
I read Go years ago. That is funny. I don't think I thought about Go when I wrote it. Probably On the Road or The Sun Also Rises. I did want to capture the lives of the parties and what it was like being alive at that time. But I think the movitation is always for oneself when you are a writer. I wanted to record for myself, to read later in life, when I am old and can't walk anymore and have run out of witty things to say, and everyone I know is either dead or live somewhere far off, I will still have that book. So the initial motivation was for myself.
I didn't mention them by name because things didn't happen exactly like that: and I don't think a lot of people know who these writers are so they wouldn't care anyway. Like I've given the book to people I work with, they don't care about what writers are in the book. They just want to read a book.
With that, maybe due to that Nylon mag article, maybe due to your blogging, etc., you've become very associated with Tao Lin and Brandon Scott Gorrell and Zachary German and Sam Pink, whom all have a very distinct, flat style... but I don't really see your stuff falling into that as much. Is that association an aesthetic appeal or just more of a like-minded mentality in writing, interests? Or do you think it used to be more apparent and now you're changing your style and writing?
I think in general we are all existentialists and assert moral relativism through special attention to language to an extreme not taken before in human history. It is a new branch of existentialism that we are all trying to create through literature, articles, and social commentary. I don't think there is an aesthetic appeal relation, maybe like four years ago there was, but Tao is making movies now, Brandon Scott Gorrell is writing articles, and I plan on writing a book about politics. The mediums can change, but the philosophy remains. What we are trying to do is create a philosphy with each new book or article written. Pirooz Kalayeh who makes movies, Jimmy Chen who writes articles and Victor Vazquez from Das Racist are trying to create the same thing also.
I really appreciate your book for trying to capture more of a 'working-class' perspective that it seems a lot of modern fiction does, with it's MFA-stamped correctness. But can literature still be a working-class medium, or has that been ceded over to television?
The working class reads like vampire books and sports biographies. Their highest art medium is like Lost and Jericho. Working class people do not like to read or watch movies concerning reality. They will watch Lost and Jericho that have philosophic themes in them, because they take place in fantastic circumstances unreal and wonderful. I don't think the working class was ever sitting around reading classic literature.
In other words, does fiction need to be fixed? Or how should it change?
The major publishers should publish more working class literature and more weird literature. They don't at all now, it just doesn't happen. Scott Mcclanahan's Stories V should be in the stores right now, it is well written enough, and if it had a professional editor it would be even better. His book has the potentional to sell thousands of copies and it's selling barely any. The thing about this is, when book companies and book sellers do not give positive reinforcement to working class literature or social commentary literature, the writers of that country decide psychologically to go in different directions. There is no positive reinforcement in American literature to be introspective about one's life, to think about one's social class, to think about one's place in the grand scheme of America.
In the Pittsburgh station there's a part where Benny narrates how white collar Americans don't like hoodlums, and that hoodlums had lost the American dream, but didn't cause wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or cause the economy to sink. But then in NYC there's a part where Benny and Tom discuss how America has no overriding authoritarian or myth structure to fall back on when times get tough. Isn't the American Dream supposed to be the myth that Americans stand on, in addition to their freedoms? Or is the American foundation the fact that there is no foundation, so we just stand on sinking sand?
In the past America stood on the myth of the Old Testament or Torah. The Torah is a collection of tales about a people living in a wild place trying to deal with unfriendly neighbors, raising their crops, and nature. Which is what life was like in the early days of America. Imagine early life in America, living in log cabins, fighting indians, The British being dicks, traveling out west in a wagon, feeding horses, plowing the earth using mules. All that is really Old Testament shit. Well, eventually it ended. They conquered America and put highway everywhere. So we lost the Old Testament. But we didn't move to the New Testament. We moved to behaviorism and procedural justice systems which is really good for human safety concerns, but not so good for the soul. We also moved to extreme consumerism and corporatism, which leads to decadence and a pathetic state of existence. We are pathetic now. Pathetic people who buy things and worship those things.
Love your stuff about working in restaurants. Don't have anything else to add on that, but feel free to say something.
I've worked in restaurants for 13 years now, since I was 17. I've worked fast food, pizza shops, nursing home kitchens and normal restaurants like olive garden or Lone Star. My uniform has been the apron. Soon I will be leaving the restaurant world to pursue a different type of job hopefully using a computer. I will have to hang up my apron. The restaurant job is strange because unlike most jobs, a of different types of people work there, middle-class college kids, 40 year old moms, high school kids, ex-convicts, hoodrats, illiterate dishwashers, the mentally ill, and what makes this so cool, to me, is that all these different people are forced to work together, the cultural conflicts are endless.
This book came out on your blog first, right? How did that work in the writing process? Did it shape or change your writing in a new direction? did you post the whole thing as a complete work or just post parts as you went along?
It took me six months to do the first draft. The first draft didn't contain the epilogue. I posted it on my blog for I think a month. Before it was officially published I subtracted 50 pages from the blog version and added the epilogue. Then before it was printed I went through again cutting things.
There was a lot of cutting.
If Best Behavior is someone's first intro to your work, what should they pick up next?
They should pick up The Human War or The Insurgent. I think both of those would be good to go with.