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A witty remedy for 'Information Sickness'

American-Statesman (04/12/2003)

By Brad Buchholz

SAN MARCOS —Our culture is killing us. The culture of information is killing us. There’s so much fat-free, substance-free, vote-for-me, buy-two-to-get-one-free, worship-thee, “register online for a discount” pap floating about in the pop culture-capital universe that it’s begun to make us sick.

Information Sickness eats away at our soul. It substitutes easy-to-consume bytes for knowledge. It inhibits our capacity to understand.

But fear not! Texas-based novelist Tom Grimes — doctor of language and word, the man who has identified Information Sickness and documented its symptoms — has come to our rescue. Grimes is pretty sure Information Sickness is a virus. It’s copied information. It’s caught, carried and transmitted by all of us.

What’s more, the author may have found the cure. It involves laughter. It involves satire. It requires spending a few hours with “WILL@epicqwest.com (a medicated memoir)” — Grimes’ savage take on the perils of “post-ironic, techno-capitalist culture” and one young man’s quixotic journey to transcend them.

This novel, Grimes’ fourth, is in structure unlike anything he’s ever written, though in theme “WILL@epicqwest.com” is similar to his last novel, 1995’s “City of God.” While “City of God” was relentlessly scary in its appraisal of a culture that has lost touch with meaning (“Reality is whatever you delude yourself it is”), “Willl@epicqwest.com” is relentlessly funny: “Nothing cures a case of existential despair faster than a dose of popular culture. . . . If truth is beauty and beauty truth, why aren’t supermodels philosopher kings?”

“WILL@epicqwest.com” is wry, jaunty and taut — only 184 pages — a comic-quest novel that winks at Holden Caufield, Hamlet, “The Odyssey.” Its protagonist, Will, is a college student at the University-on-the-Interstate in a town that looks a lot like San Marcos, where (in real life) Grimes just happens to be the head of the graduate creative writing program at Southwest Texas State University.

Will is an over-medicated soul in a lost land that’s filled with “cheap food and spectacle.” His course load defines him: “Great Diseases in History,” “Existential Philosophy and the Hollywood Tradition,” “Art History and Advertising Techniques 101,” “How to Create An Investment Portfolio” and “Advanced Volleyball.” He knows one line of Shakespeare — “Let me compare thee to a summer’s day” — from a jingle for an orange juice commercial. His seven-letter security password is “consume.” His only insight into Jesus is “an episode of ‘Amazing Tales’ and videos broadcast by the Christian rock channel.”

But in a moment of inspiration, young Will sees the light and seeks to save the world from Information Sickness. Wearing the cloak of the classical epic hero, he embarks on an information-age quest, kind of like, you know, clueless but resolute in the face of such dragon-messages as this:

“There is no capitalist conspiracy. We are the conspiracy. We buy the software and the soft drinks. We don’t care if a megalomaniacal dunderhead like me gets elected. We are the truest of the true democracies. We have got the leaders and the shabby culture we deserve. And the world is welcome to share in the bounty of the dreck we produce — for a price. For this is the meaning of America: to stand for nothing, and charge for everything.”

Austin American-States-man: So Information Sickness is really killing us? You’re not just talking symbolically or metaphorically. . . .

Tom Grimes: If it’s not killing us, it’s certainly re-shaping human consciousness.

It’s killing us spiritually? It threatens substantial living?

It bodes the end of modern consciousness, something that began with Hamlet, Descartes and Don Quixote. We are entering a new age of consciousness. . . . We’ve moved beyond the Descartes maxim, “I think, therefore I am” toward something along the lines of, “I am thought, therefore I am.” We are “being thought” by information, by the culture at large, by demographics and marketing, the huge corporate and physical forces that shape us. One of our fascinations with celebrity comes out of the fact of, “They’re thought about, therefore they matter at a higher existential level than the rest of us do.” Religiously . . . existentially . . . psychically . . . this is causing a major shift in our sense of self.

Your book suggests that, as carriers of the virus, we’re a party in our own demise.

This is Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where we like the things that strip us of our humanity. Part of the reason I wrote the book in a comic sense was because I just didn’t think the world needed another gloomy prognostication about the end of human consciousness. . . . Will’s voice is 18 or 19 year old. He’s on that cusp. He still retains some of that adolescent innocence. Information is overwhelming him. It surrounds him. . . . Yet he manages to retain a sense of being able to let go of the rest of the world, to let go of the noise and the chatter that inundate him.

Reminds me of a lyric from a Loudon Wainwright III song: “This thing we call existence/who knows what it all means?/ Time and Life and People/ are just glossy magazines.”

Exactly. . . . Will is coming out of dot.com culture and the craze of the stock market, where everything just seemed weightless, emotionally weightless, financially weightless. The way Will just kind of floats through the book cluelessly is the same kind of the sense we had floating through the late ’90s, where everybody was going to retire a millionaire at 40 if you put $10,000 in the stock market.

I kept thinking that Will might encounter “the ghost of Thoreau” in the course of his journey — that Thoreau’s voice might represent hope, provide solace in the techno-culture. But he doesn’t show up. Did you consider such an encounter?

Will has no sense of nature. Everything to him is malls, strip malls, cars and trams and subdivisions. Nature to us is a resource. An exploitable resource. And if it’s an exploitable resource, we’ll exploit it. Otherwise, we don’t care . . . unless it serves us with entertainment, like the beach. . . .

You define information in the book as “what technology brings to the world.”

Right. Technology conveys it. And the more information there is in the world, the bigger the host there is to feed on. Information breeds more technology. So it’s a cancer. Actually it’s a virus, which needs something healthy to live on. Information in and of itself is healthy. It’s just when it’s overwhelming it becomes metaphysically crippling.

I have your book opened to this passage: “If we are what we eat, then it follows that we’re the hollow, bloated, physically and metaphysically undernourished nation of free marketers my skeletal supermodel partner suggested we were. Information Sickness could be the result of a diet of lies. Information without meaning is like sour cream without fat. We want to eat with abandon, so we create fake food. This is why information makes us sick. We gorge ourselves on it because we crave more when we should crave what’s true. ”

God! (Laughing) I guess that’s why I kept it short! I would look at the book. And as hard as it would make me laugh sometimes, I’ve also said this is the darkest book I’ve ever written. But the darkness in a way — like in Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” — came out of that unbearable lightness of being. When you connect with that state of being, when you say, I just have to laugh at things cosmically . . . you get the point. The Tragic always ends with the inevitable, which is the dissolution or the demise of mortal self. (But) the Comic is all about eternal return. We will continually be reincarnated. We will recycle and reinvent ourselves eternally.

In his heart, Will so much wants to slay the dragon or get the Cyclops. But in this 21st-century post-ironic, techno-capitalistic world, he has no dragon. He can’t find a dragon!

No. He gets the dragon’s lawyer. He gets the dragon’s attorney.

You show no mercy toward “university” in your satire — referring to the “Campus by the Interstate” or the “Campus by the Theme Park.” You say, “Only full professors who generated five times their annual salary in government research grants occupied private offices.” I guess this means you’’ll be losing your parking space at SWT?

I don’t know. Nobody’s read it yet.

But university is supposed to be the fount of wisdom and knowledge. The university should be the steed upon which Will rides on his pursuit to slay the dragon!

Unfortunately, it’s an extension of and in fact built into the old shopping mall. (Chuckle) Because education, higher education, is just an extension of consumer culture. . . . (Universities) are getting students who, for the most part, have spent the first 18 years of life as consumers . . . students who largely define themselves by what they pay, purchase or wear and not necessarily by what they know, or by what kind of existential experience or quest they might be involved in.”

Your book suggests Information Sickness is unique to the West, to a capitalist system. Can there not be Information Sickness in a totalitarian regime? Under Milosevic? Or Stalin?

I think totalitarian regimes are different in the West, in that they’re based on a sense of abundance, a sense of plenty. Consent, as (Noam) Chomsky says, can be manufactured. Consent is manufactured. Totalitarianism is 500 TV channels. It’s more open, we don’t have to repress. We can publish everything. (And) by publishing everything, you hollow everything out. Everything starts to take on the same weight. . . . A novel in a totalitarian society that represses novels, or free speech, has a great sense of import or gravitas or meaning. We don’t have that any longer.

Will’s not just on a quest; he feels a sense of mission. What’s the writer’s mission in the age of Information Sickness?

All great books to me — and I’m not saying “Will” is a great book — are innovations in form, or revolutions in form. They formally change the game. And I’m always aware of form as I go forward. Form is what gives us the means to understand the content of our world. So, to me, rather than write an encyclopedic book, “The Magic Mountain,” I wanted a giddy sense of, you know, the reader being both detached, and comically overwhelmed in a very brief form, in 185 pages. . . . The quest I’m on is to try to reinvigorate stories, because I believe in the tradition.

There’s a romantic notion. Faith in “The Story.”

Stories are like “the masks of God,” they change eternally. But the eternal truth beyond them we’re not going to know in this life. But it’s there. And I think one is an idiot to deny that. The masks change. But the eternal stays the same.

There were several moments in the reading of “Will” where I said, “You know, it’s a good thing this isn’t the McCarthy Era. This book wouldn’t have been published.

My feeling is right now that we really have to, more than ever, say exactly what we see, think and feel — because it could swing in that direction so quickly and easily right now. . .