Novelist Frank Cassese discusses extreme ideas, challenging philosophy, brutal music and forbidden ideas.
We all know the first part – “Never to have been born is best” – but Sophocles’ chorus goes on, doesn’t it? Anyone remember the rest?
You’ll forgive my rhyme. The full passage, from David R. Slavitt’s modern translation of Oedipus at Colonus, reads:
Never to have been born is best.
Everyone knows that, and a close second,
once you have appeared in this life, is a quick
return, as soon as you can, to where you came from.
In our light-headed youth we carry
blithe ideas, not knowing what blows await,
what hardships are bearing down, closer and closer.
Murder, hatred, strife, resentment, and
envy are lurking, and then, behind them, bitter old age,
powerless, friendless, with evils our only neighbors.
Within this dense thicket of dismal verities we may locate the taproot of Western disenchantment, the germinal essence of a grim and abiding sentiment that would gain resonance in the lamentations of Job and Hamlet and in the searching remonstrations of Dostoyevsky’s rotating cast of cheerless narrators. Millennia after Sophocles led the chorus, Unamuno described it as “the tragic sense of life,” but not before Schopenhauer would descry the full baleful predicament – in panpsychist terms – as the manifestation of a “negative will” that burns blindly through the cosmos. These days you can shake your dark dust through the analytic sieve provided by Benatar’s asymmetry or wallow in the “malignantly useless” universe that is Ligotti’s full-stop. Or you can chortle over the pithier expressions of deep pessimism that replicate in a culture-bound patchwork of memes and bumper stickers and half-regretted tattoos. What remains to be done is your own affair. Cast about for salvation or whistle past the graveyard. Become a keyboard proselyte or clutch for solace in whichever Zapffean gambit suits your mood.
Or you could get on with the grisly business of killing babies. Sophocles set the bait, after all. It’s right there in the part that you had forgotten – about what ranks “a close second.” It reads a bit like a joke, doesn’t it? Maybe it was. Get back, Jojo. But the best jokes are laced with wormwood, as Frank Cassese knows too well. Frank is the author of Baby Killer, a richly textured comic-horror novel written from the perspective of a reclusive young misanthrope who, if we can trust his stated motives, wants only to protect the wee hatchlings from what hardships will inevitably bear down, closer and closer.
Infanticide, in life and lore, is an old subject. Saturn devours his son and Medea has her vengeance and there’s another bloody mess in a McDonald’s bathroom stall. Understood as a rite of maternal – or filial – privilege, baby killing has been quietly tolerated or excused or condemned, depending on such norms and contingencies that have prevailed in different times and cultures. There is a vast scholarly literature that can be consulted, if you are so inclined. For present purposes it should only be noted that the eponymous transgressor in Cassese’s novel has been conceived at stark remove from such narrative tropes and brute realities that typically involve the slaying of helpless infants. Frank’s protagonist – if that’s even the right term – is playing at a different game, and he, like his creator, breaks the rules.
Baby Killer is not a how-to manual. It is a work of fiction, and a memorable character study. It is Frank Cassese’s second novel and it was released by my own microscopic publishing venture, Nine-Banded Books, in late 2019. In the exchange that follows, Frank talks about Faulkner’s subversive side and Schopenhauer’s smile. He talks about death metal and quantum entanglement and Patrick Bateman and sleights of narrative and Law & Order and the perilous joy of murdering one’s (fictional) darlings. Won’t you be his neighbor?
CHIP SMITH: I never know where to start with these things, but a couple of readers have asked, “Who the hell is Frank Cassese?” so let’s go with that. What can you tell us about background, and about how you came to be a writer? I’m pretty sure you’re a real person, yes?
FRANK CASSESE: I hesitate to start off by waxing philosophical, but the “who are you?” question is always the toughest to answer, and it brings to mind an anecdote regarding one of my heroes, Arthur Schopenhauer. He was walking through a Dresden park one day and got lost – both literally and metaphorically, apparently – in the beauty of a flower garden. A park official noticed old Artie acting strangely – which for him probably meant he was smiling, or at least not scowling – and asked him who he was. Schopenhauer turned to him and said he wished the official could tell him. So what I’m saying is, I wish you could tell me.
Does that answer the question? Probably not. I also can’t really address the question of my “real personhood” – although that’s another topic we can spin some philosophical yarn on if we had more time. But for facility’s sake, let’s keep things on a firm phenomenological plane and say, yes, I am a real person. Like the Baby Killer, I’m an only child, and I grew up a lonely and alienated kid in a lonely and alienating New York suburb, which I suppose is part of the reason I ended up in such a solitary and alienating profession. It’s not the only reason.
I’ve always loved telling stories and having them told to me. Among my earliest memories are those of my mother reading to me before bed. I used to get angry when she’d fall asleep before finishing the book, so I’d nudge her awake and insist she finish, regardless of how late it was. Lateness was never an issue for me. Even as a child I’d stay up most of the night. I’m an inveterate insomniac, and I usually don’t get to bed much before sunrise. I really despise the daytime. Sunlight is so depressing. I’d like to give the person who invented blackout blinds a special citation or something.
Since I was very young, I knew I wanted to write. It was around second grade or so when I started writing vampire stories on those long yellow legal pads in my father’s office. My mother dug one up a few years ago. I think it was written in crayon. Maybe I should go back to it. Vampire books sell pretty well these days, I hear.
Anyway, writing was pretty much all I ever wanted to do. Though I do also enjoy playing death metal guitar. I’m clearly drawn to commercially viable endeavors.
Your first novel, Ocean Beach, deals with an intimate relationship between a brother and sister and its aftermath. Baby Killer is about a solitary young man who kills infants. That far too glib, I know, so feel free to sort it out. But what I’m curious about is the connective tissue. Apart from the discomfiting (or appalling) fictional terrain, my sense is that both narratives are concerned with the burden of interpersonal entanglement. Am I wrong? Is there an underlying theme in your work?
I really like that phrase: “interpersonal entanglement.” It makes me think of the concept of quantum entanglement, where a pair or a group of particles is somehow inextricably bound with each other even if they are spatially separated by great distances. Einstein called this kind of interaction “spooky,” and as far as I know, even now, no one can fully explain these mysterious relationships between particles. In my first novel, that was sort of what I was chasing, how two people can be drawn to each other, can be a part of each other, in a way that they are not expected to be, in a way that is culturally and socially shunned. I took the example of a brother and sister who are in love, but I don’t like the term “incest.” It has such an ugly ring to it. It’s derived from the Latin adjective “incestus,” which means “profane” or “sexually impure.” That’s not the game I was hunting in Ocean Beach. It’s really about this inexplicable bond, this genuine love, that two people find themselves feeling for each other, two people who happen to be siblings. If, by the random hand of fate, they hadn’t been related, there might have been no issue. Their love might have been seen as something normal and pure. Or perhaps they wouldn’t have been in love at all, had they not grown up together. So you’re absolutely right that both books deal with the problem of interpersonal entanglement, and perhaps Ocean Beach even more than Baby Killer. It’s precisely this entanglement, this (to all evidence) indiscriminate throwing together of two people, that causes a kind of explosive chemical reaction that eventually drags them both down.
But let me fall back on another hero of mine as we segue to Baby Killer: Jean-Paul Sartre. Also a guy who preferred the scowl to the smile. One of his better-known lines, “Hell is other people,” has become something of a pop-culture punchline, but it pretty much sums up human relations, as far as I’m concerned. I’m of the Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all school, where man is wolf to man and the only reason we aren’t at each other’s throats all the time is that we have organized society, the Leviathan – the government, religion, family, institutionalized morality, etc. – there to keep our dark natural urges in check. And again we come to the concern of interpersonal entanglement, but in a very different way. With Baby Killer, it’s a much more complex and nuanced approach to the concept. He hates humanity. I mean, this guy absolutely abhors human existence at a very basic, conceptual level. Though the term never explicitly appears in the novel, he is an antinatalist par excellence, a nihilist of the highest order. To remain in an existentialist framework, he sees existence as absurd, often comically so, but then there’s the strong Schopenhaurian instinct running through him, where any possible lightheartedness about the absurdity of life is outweighed by tragedy, pain, hopelessness, and futility. The book starts off at the point where he can no longer laugh at the tragic absurdity – he can only cry. And yet he can take action, which is exactly what he does.
When I think of the narrator’s relationship to deep pessimism – and implicitly, antinatalism – I’m struck by a certain irony. He imagines himself to be a kind of exterminating angel rescuing newborns from a tragic fate, yet his ruminations often suggest baser motives and grievances, and of course he’s given to sadistic impulses that only add to the sum of suffering that he ostensibly abhors. This reminds me of David Benatar’s ancillary “misanthropic argument” – that a strong reason not to create people is that people do horrible things.
Interesting. I hadn’t thought of that connection to the misanthropic argument, which is strange because Benatar is such a deep influence on this book, and on my writing and thinking and views on philosophy and life in general. I agree that there’s a certain irony here, but I’m not sure about the Baby Killer having sadistic impulses. Yes, of course his actions create suffering, but he genuinely believes that, on the whole, he is reducing the sum total of suffering by cutting short lives that would ultimately increase the gross suffering in the world. Does he get some degree of pleasure by killing? Yes. We are essentially hedonistic creatures, and everything we do is ultimately motivated by the promise of pleasure – however far off and unrelated it might seem to the immediate action – and the reduction of pain. There is catharsis when he unleashes the rage that he has quietly harbored for most of his life, and certainly some satisfaction as he attempts to exorcise all that sublimated bitterness about the hand that life has dealt him.
But most of the pleasure he takes in the killing is in believing he is doing the right thing according to his moral code, a code which is, in the Nietzschean vein, beyond good and evil. In his mind, the action he takes is, above all, corrective, by saving the ones he kills from a lifetime of suffering. In fact, I don’t want to use the word ‘victims’ for the ones he takes, because he would not see them as such. For him, they are the ‘“saved,’ the ‘spared.’ They were unlucky enough to have been born, but lucky enough to have crossed paths with him at such an early stage, before the ravages of existence could really begin to take effect.
But since you mentioned it, the reference to the misanthropic argument might be one more reason that the Baby Killer could be seen – or could see himself – as a humanitarian. Regardless of whatever sadistic intent may be there, or whatever depraved pleasure he derives from the killing, he is, knowingly or not, following Benatar’s reasoning and perhaps further reducing suffering by preventing someone who would do more harm to the world from being able to carry out this harm. So it’s not just about sparing the babies themselves from suffering, but sparing those they would eventually harm. If hell is other people, then the fewer people, the less intense the hell. It’s not a perfect formula, but it’s a start.
Stepping back a bit, how did Baby Killer come about? I mean, it’s not every day that one picks up a novel written from the perspective of an unrepentant child killer, and yet … here we are.
Faulkner plays something of a role in the novel, or at least, his work plays something of a role in the Baby Killer’s life, and it’s not a meaningless detail. Besides being one of the great monsters of modern American literature, there are some serious elements of transgressive imagination in his work. You have Temple getting raped with a corn-cob pipe in Sanctuary. You have the specter of incest running through the heart of The Sound and the Fury. If Faulkner were writing today, I’m not sure the major houses would touch him.
In any case, there’s another connection to Faulkner and the birth of Baby Killer. A professor once told me this story about how Faulkner came up with the idea for The Sound and the Fury, and I’m not sure if it’s apocryphal or not, because I can’t find any mention of it online, and if it’s not online, it surely never really happened, right? – but I’d like to think it’s true. Apparently, Faulkner was sitting in some Mississippi park one fine day, smoking a pipe (corn-cob, I presume) and enjoying the afternoon, when he was transfixed by the scene of a little girl in a dress riding a playground swing back and forth, back and forth. According to the professor, this image burned in Faulkner’s brain and gave him the character of Caddie, and from that single scene, The Sound and the Fury unfurled.
Coincidentally, I was sitting in a park one fine fall day (not in Mississippi, and not smoking a pipe, corn-cob or otherwise), and this young father walked by strolling a baby along the concrete path in front of me. Now, there was obviously much more involved in the germination of Baby Killer, as there was certainly much more to the inception of The Sound and the Fury than the image of a little girl on a swing, but it was definitely this one scene that kicked things off in my mind. The kindling was already there – my deep appreciation of antinatalist philosophy and nihilism, a distaste for the cult of baby-worship, general misanthropy, etc. – but this image of a young father sauntering past me with his kid was really what lit the flame. Also, I happened to be reading Faulker at the time.
From any conventional perspective, Baby Killer’s protagonist is loathsome – and not just because of his crimes! He’s spiteful and vain and he often seems to be motivated by a kind of moral rectitude that verges on absurdity. Yet I gather from what you’re saying that the character is at least partly informed by your own sensibilities, and even by a kind of philosophical outlook. I’m struck by the difficulty of this, and it seems fair to wonder what separates you from your literary persona. It’s certainly true that you manage to introduce layers in the narrator’s personality and backstory that arouse empathy, but the terrain remains dark.
The danger lies more in associating the author with his creation. Let me make one thing absolutely clear: I am not the Baby Killer. Our paths diverged when I walked out of that park alone and he left with a kidnapped baby. Naturally, there are elements of the character that are informed by my own sensibilities, if only because this ‘loathsome’ character was born in my head. Does that make me loathsome? Maybe. I’m thinking of that line in the preface to Boris Vian’s The Foam of the Days: “…the story is entirely true, because I imagined it from one end to the other.” Loathsome or not, I think I’d rather have a drink with the Baby Killer than with most other humans I’ve met. But of course, he doesn’t drink. And neither do I.
Philosophically, there might be some common ground between us, but I hesitate to go there, only because it doesn’t really matter. I suppose you could say that he’s some sort of radically perverted manifestation of my interpretation of certain aspects of antinatalist philosophy, or a sick, ghoulish extension of some deep dark fantasy that can only ever be acted out in fiction.
But going back to my hero for moment, Schopenhauer: he would surely agree with your description of the Baby Killer’s motivation, and he would probably raise you by saying that everyone is spiteful and vain and driven by their own self-centered code of morality, and that morality itself is a ridiculous concept when one considers the cosmic absurdity of existence. Morals are meaningless, sub specie aeternitatis, but this doesn’t necessarily give one license to do whatever one pleases, regardless of the consequences. Schopenhauer was, after all, a Kantian, in some senses, as is the Baby Killer, in some senses. As loathsome as it is, he is acting in accordance with a certain moral code, and I would say he’s pretty loyal to it, more so than most people are to their own codes. As far as spite and vanity go, I can’t defend him on those accounts, other than to say that I haven’t met many people – or anyone, really – who are not, at least at times, prey to both. To borrow from James Joyce, we are all creatures “driven and derided by vanity.”
The more that I think about it, though, the more I take issue with the description of the Baby Killer as loathsome. He does some extremely loathsome things for sure, but I wouldn’t call him loathsome. Of course, Sartre would say we are our actions; we are what we do, and therefore if we do loathsome things we are loathsome beings. I’m not completely convinced of the unadulterated truth of that statement, because it gives short shrifts to the intention behind the action, which, in my view, is often just as important as the act itself, if not more. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a single human being who has never harbored loathsome thoughts or intentions, regardless of whether he or she has ever acted on them.
It’s funny because I can almost imagine a procedural crime novel depicting the same events in a very different – and perhaps more palatable – way, but Baby Killer is distinguished as an immersive first-person narrative. Was it challenging to adopt and sustain the point of view of a transgressor? Did you worry about alienating the reader?
The story would definitely be more palatable if told from the point of view of the pursuers rather than the transgressor, but palatability is among the last things that concern me. The greatest characters in literature are, shall we say, less than palatable. Who jumps to mind right away is the Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I’ve recently revisited. This guy is one of the most powerful and memorable characters in late twentieth-century fiction, and he is just about as unpalatable as you get. And yet, I salivate for the scenes in which he appears, such as that first time we get a glimpse into the depths of his depravity as he gently dandles a little Apache boy on his knee one moment, only to murder and scalp the kid a moment later. For me, the most memorable characters are usually pretty fucked-up people: Dostoyevksi’s Underground Man, Celine’s Bardamu, Ellis’ Patrick Bateman, any one of Houellebecq’s protagonists.
There’s always talk about readers craving ‘sympathetic’ or ‘likeable’ characters, and of course those words are very relative and completely open to subjective interpretation, but what matters to me more than anything is that a character is compelling. I’m inhabiting his world, getting a glimpse into the sacred interior of his mind, so what I want most is something that will ignite passion and pique interest, even if I dislike him or find him reprobate. The worst thing is to be left cold. A British writer friend of mine says that Americans have what he calls “Forrest-Gump Syndrome,” always looking for that loveable underdog, the soft, innocuous, non-threatening character that is so easy to like for some reason. It’s very un-Nietzschean. It would have been much more interesting if Gump had died in Vietnam and the movie followed the crippled and caustic Lieutenant Dan through various picaresque adventures. But it wouldn’t have made nearly as much money.
As far as alienating the reader, I would probably have more readers if I’d written a straightforward procedural, but the only honest way to tell this story was from the killer’s perspective. Otherwise, it would have been a book about baby-killing, rather than a book about the Baby Killer. It’s really a character study above all else. The story is his and only his, and it must be told in his voice. I think it’s the kind of book that, from the title alone, will attract the kind of readers it should attract. Anyone who picks up a book entitled Baby Killer probably knows what he’s signing up for. The original title, as you know, was Last Caress, a nod to the great nihilistic punk anthem by the Misfits. While I love that title – and the song – ultimately, going with it for the book would not have been as honest. I think it would have alienated readers more – a kind of bait-and-switch – unless of course they were Misfits fans.
The narrative voice also suggests certain literary precedents, or at least some inevitable comparisons. Dostoyevsky’s wretched diarists come to mind, along with works by Knut Hamsun, Jim Thompson, Michel Houellebecq, Evan S. Connell, perhaps even Lovecraft – and one early reviewer has already commented on the curious resemblance to Patrick Bateman of American Psycho (which, as we’ve discussed, I took to be intentional). I suppose you might take this as a cue to talk about Baby Killer in relation to Bret Easton Ellis’ famous unreliable narrator, but I’m just as interested in your perspective on the value and difficulty of this curiously resilient form of narration, where trust is never assured and the reader’s engagement seems to entail a degree of vicarious complicity.
The funny thing is, I never thought about any kind of allusion or relation to American Psycho while writing Baby Killer. It wasn’t until your initial comment and then the reviewer’s mention of it that I realized that there is a connection, and a fairly obvious one. But most of it has to do with the gruesome nature of the killings, and perhaps some of the narrator’s obsessive quirks. Apart from that, the Baby Killer has very little in common with Patrick Bateman, and the mission of the book is entirely different from that of American Psycho. As far as the other authors you mentioned, I’m flattered to be named in the same breath as them, and each one is certainly an influence (though I’ve only recently come to discover Connell).
You’re right to bring up the unreliable narration, as it is a central component, and in the case of the Baby Killer, it’s obvious that there’s a lot going on over and above what he’s telling. But we must assume that every first-person non-omniscient narration is unreliable, to varying degrees. I’m thinking of the observer effect in physics, where, at least according to some interpretations, the very fact of observation, the very presence of an observer of a phenomenon, necessarily alters that phenomenon. So in effect, there is no such thing as pure truth in observation. The same can be said of narration: a story is being strained through the voice of a narrator, and regardless of the reliability of the narrator, we’re being told a version of the story, his or her version, unless we’re talking about a Rashomon-style thing or a God-like omniscience. And even then, what’s to prevent us from assuming that this God-narrator is not willfully deceiving us, much like Descartes’ evil demon who presents the illusion of a world before our consciousness? What I’m saying is, yes, the Baby Killer perhaps falls into the literary category of unreliable narrator – he contradicts himself, he breaks his own rules, he rationalizes and makes excuses for himself – he does things that most of us do to make it through the day, and I think that makes him all the more relatable – “Human, all too human”– and I think this ‘“humanness’ is part of what raises him, characterologically, above his loathsome acts.
We have to approach first-person narration from a Kantian perspective, where perception revolves around the perceptor rather than the perceived. It is the subject that is central to knowledge, not the object. The essence of the story lies somewhere in the space between the writer and the reader. That is the ‘truth’ of storytelling. Just as we can never know the essence of things, the Kantian thing-in-itself, we can really never arrive at a kind of perfect, unadulterated truth in narration. Then again, I often find more truth in fiction than anywhere else in life.
And I like the way you describe narrative unreliability as entailing the reader’s complicity, because this is one of the reasons it is so ‘resilient.’ I feel that it is the most honest form of narration, even if there’s dishonesty involved in it. I don’t trust an ‘honest’ narrator. It’s like when people start their sentences with “Honestly…” or “The truth is…” or “I’m not gonna lie to you…” That’s usually when you know you’re not getting the whole story.
The book is disarmingly funny, and it’s interesting to try to locate the source of the humor. There are darkly comic set pieces that we shouldn’t spoil, but I think a lot of the humor derives from the narrator’s self-deception, which is curious since this also fuels what might be described as horror. Any thoughts on what’s going on here?
First of all, though I could’ve never imagined saying something like this before writing the book, the subject of baby-killing must be approached with humor, or else it would just be swallowed up in unredeemable horror. And while I’m all for unredeemable horror, comedy often exists cheek by jowl with tragedy, in literature as in life. The four truest words in fiction are those uttered by Kurtz near the end of Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!” It’s important to note, however, that humor is not disguising horror; it’s an integral part of it, the other side of the coin.
But with specific reference to the Baby Killer’s self-deception and its comic effect, it is this duality that I think makes him a compelling character: horror and humor, tragedy and comedy, suffering and farce. There’s a kind of burlesque quality to him. His self-delusion is part and parcel of the pain, pathos, and drollery than permeates the situation he has found himself in, and the fact that the comedy comes largely from the character not realizing his own self-contradictions is some of what makes him, I like to believe, endearing, despite the less than endearing acts that give him his moniker. It’s almost as though he’s unknowingly playing a joke on himself. We’re always funnier when we’re not trying to be funny.
Baby Killer was written before the ‘incel’ came to be a sort of cultural bogeyman, but the narrator – for reasons you may or may not want to disclose – could be interpreted through this lens. I do find it curious that the Internet barely exists in the universe of the novel, and there’s little about the story or character to suggest a political subtext. Of course, the same could be said about Joker…
I can definitely see why this character might be labeled such, but an incel, by definition, is an involuntary celibate. The Baby Killer is voluntarily celibate, and very much so. He shuns human contact of any kind. He finds intercourse – sexual or otherwise – repulsive. If anything, I would say he’s asexual, and this asexuality is an expression of his deep-seated misanthropy. His stance is anti-human, anti-life. So much about humankind and everyday human activity is anathema to him. He scorns the thought of communion with people. And yet, while I don’t want to give too much away, there are those moments when he seems to make an effort, however minimal, when he seems to want to try to connect with humanity in some way, which, ultimately, he cannot do.
Regarding the Internet: there’s a certain purity to the Baby Killer, a kind of self-sufficient wholeness. His world is almost entirely in and of itself, with precious little outside influence. His interaction with society – until he begins his mission – is nearly nonexistent, and his connection to the world is mostly through music, television, and books. It is a completely passive, one-sided connection. He does not participate in the workings of the larger world. He has retreated into a shell that allows for only the most necessary contact with the world outside of his home, e.g., trips to the store for essentials, the occasional solitary stroll around the immediate neighborhood, maybe a visit to the local park on a particularly nice day. The Internet, as unforgivingly alienating as it can be, is also a direct line into the world at large, and this is something the Baby Killer avoids at all costs. He would consider such association corrupting; it would sully the sanctity of his solitude, which he cherishes above all else, even if, somewhere deep inside, he longs for a connection. Aristotle famously said, “Man is by nature a social creature,” and that one who “either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” This speaks volumes to the Baby Killer’s being: by extricating himself so severely and definitely from communion with humanity, whether by choice or circumstance or some sad combination of both, he has all but become something other than human. Most would say beast. He would probably say there’s little difference between beast and god.
Baby Killer was written long before Joker hit the screen, but I did feel a kind of kinship between the characters when I saw the film. And I do think there are similar tones regarding their apolitical stances. Both are nihilists. Neither stands for any clear-cut political position, and yet this in itself might be seen as representing a position, if only some sort of lawless, destructively anarchic one. With the Baby Killer, though, this leaning is not nearly as pronounced, because he has significantly less contact with the outside world: he lives completely alone, he doesn’t consort with coworkers, his home is in an isolated suburb rather than a bustling city, etc.
But again, by so thoroughly eschewing politics, we cannot help but invite in the shadow of politics, and I think you used the right word when you alluded to the ‘subtext’ of politics, though you were speaking of the lack of subtext. I agree, but while not overtly addressing political issues, I think there is something to be said here about alienation and isolation in postmodern, late-capitalist society, and both the Baby Killer and the Joker are extreme examples of those who have, though I shudder to use the cliché, “fallen through the cracks” and cannot return to the surface. Or better, when they do return, it is as something entirely different: a ‘beast’ or a ‘god’ or some profane mutation of both. A sort of debauched Zarathustra coming down from the mountain to wreak havoc on the unenlightened herd.
In a sense, Baby Killer is anchored by a soundtrack – or a kind of playlist curated by the narrator. Can you talk about the role of music in the novel? Also, do you listen to music when you write?
Music plays a vital part in the Baby Killer’s life. Many people would probably say the same, but it’s a bit more essential in this case because, as mentioned earlier, he has almost entirely ostracized himself from society and barred himself from human interaction, so in some fundamental fashion, music is one of his very few lifelines. It is arguably the most crucial connection to the world outside his shell, though at the same time it also serves to keep him enclosed in this shell, because he relies on it for company, as a sort of surrogate community. The bands and musicians he listens to have all but become his friends and family in absentia, so much so that he considers leaving a few of them his fortune in his will. This speaks both to how close he feels to music and how withdrawn he is from everyone and everything else.
In terms of the song lyrics that are cited in the narrative, they are specifically chosen (by the narrator) to accompany whatever he’s doing at the moment: driving, working out, showering, cleaning up a messy basement, boiling a baby. But there’s much more to the role of music in the novel, and for this I must bring Schopenhauer back to the table. He saw the world as ’embodied music.’ For him, music is the highest form of art, a direct manifestation of the will, and the strongest palliative in his philosophy of pessimism. Music is a pursuit that supplies its own goal – Kant called it purposiveness without purpose – and it is the only way to approximate relief from the burden and boredom of existence, from the never-ending need and the self-perpetuating desire and endless ennui that constitutes nearly every moment of our waking lives. I say “approximates” because nothing, not even the sublime genius of music, can truly save one from the inherent agony of existence. It can, however, more than anything else, salve the suffering. At least a bit. At least temporarily. As T.S. Eliot said: “You are the music while the music lasts.”
So music for the Baby Killer is more than a substitute for human companionship and a soundtrack to his life; it is a means of transcending – or feeling as though he’s transcending – the strain and stress and mundane horror and existential terror that infects the daily grind for the thinking person. Music is as close to salvation as he can get. It offers a reprieve from life, transitory liberation from being in the world. Of course, what he really longs for is permanent release; “sweet lovely death,” as the Misfits say.
I do not listen to music when I write. I need as much quiet and solitude as possible. Noise and human presence take me totally out of the zone. I would love to be able to sit in the back of a café like Sartre at Les Deux Magots, smoking a pipe and sipping a café crème and scribbling away in the midst of all that chatter and commotion. But that’s a nonstarter for me. I don’t smoke and I prefer straight strong American coffee to espresso and I can’t write a word with noise or people around me.
Apart from the song lyrics, the narrative is sprinkled with literary and cultural references, some of which you’ve mentioned. But there are also deeply embedded allusions, perhaps including some that I missed. It feels like a trail of clues. Is there a strategy at work here?
That’s a tough one. I think some of them are so deeply embedded – perhaps unconsciously so – that I missed them too. The literary and philosophical references stem from his education and interests, and they are directly related to his views on existence. Eventually, he acts on these views, and his actions are largely informed by his intellectual and cultural pursuits, so I think their part in the narrative is pretty clear.
A less obvious but still important one is how the Baby Killer likes to watch TV, especially the Law & Order franchise. Part of what draws him to this show is its fairly clear-cut demarcation between good and evil, right and wrong, crime and punishment. He revels in the naive simplicity of this, finding comfort in the concept of justice, where the righteous are avenged, the criminals are caught and penalized, and some semblance of balance is restored at the end of each 42-minute episode. Perhaps he wishes the world were this cleanly delimited. The Baby Killer realizes that most people – pretty much everyone but him – would see this quest as vile and downright evil, but he believes so strongly in the virtue of his calling that no one can convince him otherwise. He secretly or subconsciously laments the fact that he is misunderstood, and he would wish for his own version of a Law & Order world, where people would somehow see that what he is doing is ultimately for the greater good, and most importantly, for the good of the babies themselves; a world where he would be rewarded for his self-perceived altruism instead of maligned and hunted down for it.
Then there are those allusions embedded in the typical middle-class suburban lifestyle he lives: burgers, pasta with canned sauce, Twinkies and brownies, oatmeal and orange juice for breakfast (more often than not eating with the TV on, of course); dragging the garbage to the curb at night; driving to the bookstore and stocking up at the local supermarket; ambling aimlessly around a bucolic neighborhood park on a sunny day. The dichotomy between the very banal life he lives and the odious mission he embarks on is what helps to create a sense of uneasiness, a feeling that underneath this seemingly ordinary veneer is something very amiss, something very… unsound. So the allusions and references to normal, everyday American life, in contradistinction to his career as the Baby Killer, hint at this blight at the center of his being, to decay at the heart of the country, to rot at the core of human being itself.
It’s possible that Baby Killer will languish in obscurity like so many worthwhile novels. But it’s also possible that it will capture the attention of a wider audience, and perhaps for the ‘wrong’ reasons. Have you given any thought to how such a book might be received?
The fate of most novels is the graveyard of obscurity. I hope Baby Killer avoids that end. By saying the “wrong reasons,” I take you to mean that it might garner attention on account of some of the more provocative and graphic elements, rather than its literary quality. As I said earlier, though, the title alone will most likely fend off the squeamish, the close-minded, and those pesky Pollyanas who only want to read only happily-ever-after love stories and books about dogs (I happen to love dogs, by the way), so I’m not sure there will be reaction from that crowd. If they somehow stumble upon it, then yes, I think there would be people prepared to condemn the novel – and its author – and perhaps that would create a kind of succès de scandale.
Of course, I’d rather the book be noticed or appreciated for the right reasons, which for me would be many of the concepts we discussed in this interview: the psychological underpinning of the character and his motivations, the philosophy running through the book, the ideas that link everything together. Mostly, I hope people enjoy reading it. But if Baby Killer does capture notice for the wrong reasons, I suppose I’d welcome that too. It’s better to be hated than ignored. As Camus’ Meursault declares in the final line of the The Stranger, “I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”
Baby Killer might be a tough act to follow. Can you talk about what you’re working on? What’s next?
It was hard to pick up something else after Baby Killer. I had a lot of trouble leaving the character behind, and I felt a kind of postpartum sadness when I finally finished. I’d grown quite attached to him. But this is normal when you invest so much into something, only to let it go off on its own into the world.
I’m working on a few things. One of them is a novel tentatively entitled The Blackest of Metal. It’s about a black metal musician who becomes so engrossed in his artistic/demonic alter-ego that he effectively becomes this dark persona and leaves behind the person he was. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with black metal and its culture, but the reference is to the second wave of Scandinavian black metallers who wore corpse paint on stage and took mythological/diabolical pseudonyms. It wasn’t just performance for these guys; they lived the ethos of their music.The most well known is probably Kristian Vikernes (a.k.a. Varg Vikernes, a.k.a. Count Grishnakh), the founder of Burzum, who stabbed to death his former friend and bandmate, the founder of Mayhem, Øystein Aarseth (a.k.a. Euronymous). Varg is also known for burning down some medieval churches in Norway, and there were several others in the scene who did a lot more than make dark music.
So The Blackest of Metal follows the evolution of this young guy from a typical American teenager who discovers music in high school to an all-out black-metal monster whose previous identity has been completely consumed by this infernal character he has made himself into. It comes to the point where he forsakes his former self, renounces his name and history, and essentially becomes this character who lives in his corpse paint and breaths black metal, for whom violence is not only inseparable from art, but is elemental to it. Creation and destruction exist hand and glove for him, and consequently, things do not end well for him and for those around him.
It has taken some time to move on from Baby Killer. It was an unparalleled experience to inhabit his world, and it wasn’t without some sadness that I left him there. Then again, one never truly moves on from a character one has breathed life into. We’ll always be a part of each other, he and I.
INTERVIEW BY CHIP SMITH
BUY BABY KILLER