Today I have the privilege of speaking with Nathan Larson, musician, family man, and author of The Nervous System. The Nervous System is book two of the Dewey Decimal trilogy, Post-Apocalyptic Noir (at least, that’s what I’m calling it) featuring an OCD, severely mind-screwed veteran known only as Dewey Decimal. I recently had the privilege of reading the book and absolutely loved it.
The fine people at Akashic Books have been good enough to arrange this meeting of the minds, this blind date for the literary intelligentsia (or literary intelligentsia wannabes, like yours truly), so that we can talk about Nathan, his work, and any other heavy subjects that happen to hit the table. By the time we’re done, we’ll have all the world’s problems solved. I just know it. Oh yeah, and there’s this thing about a giveaway for a free paperback copy of The Nervous System (see below to enter). Lots of fun to be had.
How you doing, Nathan? Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
NL: Thanks for the opportunity.
Q1) First off, why don’t you tell the people a little bit about yourself?
NL: I was born into a medical family during the Vietnam War at the
Bethesda Naval Hospital
in . This is where they did the Kennedy Autopsy, so,
lots of fun conspiracy theories surrounding the spot. My folks have always had something to do with
the intersection of the medical and the governmental/military. My mom is an epidemiologist who does work for
the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and yes, had a hand (ha ha) in the
development of alcohol gel hand sanitizers.
My dad, a Radiologist, worked for the National Institutes of Health,
again a fun place where (it is rumored) they carried out experiments such as
the famous “Jacob’s Ladder” debacle. I
did the black sheep thing. Got into punk
rock in D.C. as a youngster, which was bumping in the ‘80s, played in numerous
bands that orbited around the Dischord Records scene, moved to New York City in
1988 and eventually joined a group called Shudder to Think, with whom I spent
the ‘90s touring and recording. After
this I transitioned into scoring films, starting with stuff like Boys Don’t Cry and Velvet Goldmine, and this is still my primary day-job. Married a Swedish pop star named Nina in
2001, and we started splitting our time between Europe and New York. Now we live in Harlem and have a 21-month-old
boy named Nils, and that’s pretty much it. Maryland
Q2) Wow, that’s a heckuva life story! Now, your writing style in The Nervous System is something else—clipped and forceful like James Ellroy, yet filled with bits of self-effacing humor. Plus, it’s told in present tense, which is rare for Noir-esque fare. How did you develop it?
NL: Ellroy is obviously a huge influence, but I spent a lot of time in high school reading the godfathers like Jim Thompson, whose books are brutally violent and blunt, not a spare word, but also super funny in a strange way. I love his work. As for the present tense it just felt right, it felt fast and immediate, and to me lends this sense of uncertainty, because you are not listened to somebody recall events, you’re there with them as it’s all happening, and this in itself had the kind of velocity I needed to propel myself along during the writing process.
Q3) And speaking of Noir, I called The Nervous System Post-Apocalyptic Noir because… well, because I’ve never read anything like it and I don’t know how else to describe it. Major points for that, by the way. But that being said, how would you best describe your work?
NL: Thanks very much. If I had to describe this series of books, I would describe them as satire really, as well as social commentary, but really they’re intended to be consumed quickly. They’re pulp. On a more pretentious level, I consider this series an experiment in “genre” writing, and I’m kind of poking fun at (in a loving and respectful way) the noir and “techno-thriller” thing. And if I had to put a label on these books I would rather say “Dystopian Noir”, which I didn’t come up with, because I’m not describing a world where a nuclear bomb has been dropped, I’m describe a city that has been gutted demolition-style, in the construction-site sense. We don’t know who did it or why exactly the city has been gutted.
Q4) What kind of process did you go through to create your main character, this neurotic, scarred, and yet somehow relatable self-appointed guardian of the New York City Public Library? What inspired Dewey Decimal?
NL: He is a mash-up of many people I have known: he has aspects of my grandfather, my cousins, me, this homeless dude I knew named “
Chicago” (he was presumably from ) who is very
likely dead by now. Dewey Decimal
emerged pretty much fully formed and I consider him very much a living
entity. It’s huge fun to watch him walk
around and do his thing. In other
respects, he represents the rift in the modern psyche: this tendency towards
xenophobia, extreme violence, this apathy, this suspicion of the natural world
(fear of germs and the medical establishment), and yet this tremendous ambition
and industry. This desire for order and
hierarchy, this commendable notion that there is a moral fabric to the
universe… the search to connect with that fabric in an environment that doesn’t
exactly encourage such quests. The fact
that the heart is capable of cruelty and empathy in equal measure. He’s just kind of the quintessential
American, exhibiting both our worst and best qualities. Chicago
Q5) Your version of New York is one decimated by large-scale terrorist attacks, pandemics, and a total collapse of Wall Street—a New York, and America in general—populated by foreign contractors, private armies, and untold misfortune. It’s a hauntingly plausible vision of the fall of a modern hegemony. Do you think it’s a future that will come to pass?
NL: Why not? We live in a period of time where corporations can make limitless contributions to political campaigns. We are a corpocracy. There are no longer divisions between business and government. The United States military is made up almost entirely of subcontractors, big companies that also provide catering, office supplies, and construction services. They blow up a bridge in Iraq or Afghanistan and are then paid handsomely to do a shitty job rebuilding it, and the politicians who made this possible sit on said company’s board and get a kickback, which then in part goes back into getting their buddies into office. Why not apply this rip-it-down-built-it-up model here at home? And if you’re engaged in these kind of shenanigans, shouldn’t you expect to get your shit blown up now and again when it’s not you doing the blowing up?
Q6) I understand this is supposed to be a trilogy and not a full-blown series—which, truth be told, goes against the grain of the publishing world today (and ever since the pulp days, really). Everybody and their mother has a series these days. Why not you?
NL: Because at one point I said I was going to write a “trilogy,” which was sort of a Tolkien joke at the time, struck me like a prog-rock thing, but the idea solidified in my mind and now I feel compelled to wrap this whole deal up in three volumes so I can move onto something else.
Q7) In most stories with main characters with amnesia, one of the main conflicts is the struggle to learn their past identity. In the Dewey Decimal series, you turn this trope on its head by having Decimal actively trying not to discover his past. With this in mind, do you believe, as Freud at one point did, that repression or amnesia is a kind of mercy on the part of our subconscious? Or does the truth trump everything else?
NL: I think there’s a kind of wishful fantasy thing going on, on my part, like wouldn’t it be kind of lovely to be totally cut free of your past? And at what point does the past stop mattering? But I think what this character is discovering is that the past takes its toll on your body and mind, even if you do not consciously acknowledge it. There are events that are just so huge and damaging that they can’t be tramped down. Also it’s fun to play with the truth...the truth is subjective, in my own life I don’t think I could describe a life-changing event “truthfully” because it would be so colored by my own baggage. A great example of this is these formative childhood memories we all have. There was this huge dog…I fell into the water…then he hit me etc etc. In my own life I’m quite sure that 50% of the stories I repeat and tell myself are actual memories are in fact either total bullshit or completely warped descriptions of an event, changed by whatever my desire for them to represent might be.
Q8) The psychological trauma brought on by war factors heavily into the story—Decimal’s amnesia, his “lost moments,” nightmares from the NIH “torture labs.” How does this play into America’s current struggle with handling veterans who have returned from conflicts in the Middle East, veterans who have sometimes withstood 5 or 6 or more deployments in a war zone? What are your feelings on the subject?
NL: I could go on about this at great length, and it would get very personal as I have several such folks in my own family who are going through this stuff. They’ve more or less been destroyed, irredeemably and hopelessly so. There’s no coming back from that kind of thing. And the
totally irresponsible and cavalier about the way its government just tosses
these people aside. It’s breathtaking and it’s astounding that people are not
rioting in the streets (I mean really truly out in the streets), but the powers
that be have done an amazing job conditioning this population to accept these
circumstances. It’s the fundamentally American thing axiom (you could be
talking about the Health Care system in general here as well, or the prison
system): if you’re weak or broken or penniless or sick, it’s somehow your
fault, ultimately your responsibility, and certainly not anyone else’s
obligation to help you. Get off my property. Mine mine mine. It’s disgusting,
and it has already morally compromised us to the point that we as an empire have
absolutely no credibility left whatsoever, just like the Romans, the Spanish,
the Greeks, and the British before us. Etc. USA
Q9) Senator Kathleen Koch. Please, oh please, tell me she is based on Michelle Bachman. Please, please, please. That would just make my day.
NL: Yeah of course she’s a really thinly-veiled representation of a Bachmann and Palin combo. Kind of a cheap character really, people either really enjoy her or take issue with her 2D quality. I’ve read reviews that single that character out as being a major flaw in this book. I would argue that the actual people I’m basing her on (Bachmann/ Palin) are themselves completely 2-dimensional, which is what makes them so amazing. They are just shells, making outlandish and ultimately meaningless statements that somehow a large percentage of our population can connect with. Who writes their material? Do they think it means anything? It’s like Lewis Carroll, it’s just total psychedelic nonsense with this malevolent overtone. I love it - and hope to God somebody in an Uncle Sam clown suit pops out from behind the screen and says “ha! We’re just fucking with y’all!” but sadly I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
Q10) And finally, another of the central themes of the novel seems to be redemption, the idea that man can (or maybe should?) redeem himself for his past. But Decimal never seems to be able to do that. Everything he touches has a way of turning to dust and slipping through his fingers, no matter how noble his intentions. What do you think this says about his character, your work, and the world as a whole?
NL: I don’t think you can be redeemed. I just think you either figure out a method by which you can live with what you’ve done, make it work for you, or not. Dewey’s struggle is kind of our country’s struggle writ very very small. Did we forget what we did in Tuskegee? Can we ignore what we did in Abu Ghraib? To the Native Americans? In
Central America? Iraq? Afghanistan? Any number of African countries? Can we as
a nation live with our history? Probably, so how do we manage that? First we
tramp down such distasteful stuff and hope it just disappears. If it comes up
we figure out how to justify it. But karmically it can’t disappear, it poisons
us, so how do we manage? These are big questions but they’re inescapable. Of
course this is not limited to America, this is a human thing, and it’s
And on that note, I believe that’ll do it. We want to leave the folks with happy thoughts, after all. Thanks again, Nathan, for answering my pesky questions, and thanks to Akashic for hooking me up with your book. Now I’m going to have to go and hunt down the first in the series—gotta make amends with my own System.
Thanks so much. I appreciate the support. Expect the third and last installment in this series Fall of ’13.
And I, for one, am looking forward to it. If you would like to learn more about Nathan Larson or his work, you can visit him at nathanlarson.net or Akashic Books.
And to enter for a chance to win a copy of The Nervous System for yourself, just use the handy-dandy Rafflectoper widget below. The prize is available to
only and will be provided by the publisher.
See the fine print for more info. U.S.