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Birnbaum V.

Charles Yu

Our man in Boston puts the mighty Charles Yu in the ragtop and interrogates him over his background, dystopian fiction, lawyering for a day job, his lack of a creative writing graduate degree, Apple thingies, and why economists operate under pen names.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

Los Angelino Charley Yu didn’t take a direct route to writing by graduating from Columbia Law School. Since then he has published two story collections, including his most recent Sorry Please Thank You, and a highly regarded novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Based on his debut story collection, Third Class Superhero, Yu was selected by the National Book Foundation as one of its “5 Under 35.”

Sorry Please Thank You collects 13 stories that idiosyncratically fall under the title’s three categories, as he explains in the chat below. His deadpan satiric style renders a near future that brings to mind George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut, brilliantly lampooning our bleak fate, emitting shock waves of melancholy. He is particularly adroit at inscrutably providing explanations of the workings of things that can’t possibly exist.

His engaging sensibility and an eye for the oblique is apparent in this review Yu wrote of Murakami’s 1Q84:

Most people can’t, or at least don’t, read a 925-page book in a couple of nights. In fact, if you happen to have any of the following: (i) a television, (ii) access to the Internet, (iii) one or more children, (iv) regular bathing habits, or (v) gainful employment in a job where your responsibilities do not include getting paid to read books, it would probably be difficult to finish a book this long in a week, or even two. Life just gets in the way. For argument’s sake, let’s assume it would be closer to a month, a month in which a typical person might take 30 showers, eat 90 meals, spend maybe 200 hours at work.

In our lengthy chat (below) in the shadow of a statue of Gustavo Sarmiento (I salute you if you know who that is) on Boston’s Commonwealth Mall, we spoke of Yu’s childhood, his unteachability, his reticence to indulge in personal gadgetry, his reading habits, the specific gravity of his fiction, the fact that we had the same case for our iPhones—Oh yeah—and his next project, which currently has the adjective ‘dystopian’ attached.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Where were your parents born?

Charlie Yu: They were born in Taiwan.

RB: Are you referred to as an Asian-American?

CY: Um, because of my face?

RB: It’s an American oddity, the way we designate ethnicities. No one says, “He’s a Kenyan-American,” or an Angolan-American. Same thing with Latin American—you don’t say “Brazilian-American”—

CY: Right.

RB: Although people do say Chinese-American, but not Thai-American or Viet-American. Does that mean anything to you? What do you call yourself?

CY: I have not identified myself as an Asian-American writer. I am aware that others have identified me as that. For instance, tonight I am reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop [in NYC]. And I haven’t been there before. I didn’t do anything with them for my first two books, and I am excited to do something with them now, because it will be an interesting conversation and an interesting group to meet. But it is not like I have an active network of other Asian-American writers who I talk with regularly. Or at all, really. So certainly not when I am writing, or even when I am thinking of the book going out into the world, do I think, “This is a book by an Asian American writer.” It’s not about that.

RB: You were born in Los Angeles.

CY: I was.

RB: And the schools you attended?

CY: Public schools in L.A.

RB: What’s involved in being Taiwanese? Are there specific holidays and foods and music?

CY: A little bit. I will say, aside from the writing, my parents and specifically my father are involved in Taiwanese-American civic organizations and political and social organizations. So I was raised to identify as Taiwan-American specifically. That was my first language. It’s not the language I have anymore, for the most part—I mean, I have a little bit.

RB: What form or dialect of Chinese do the Taiwanese speak?

CY: Well, call it “Taiwanese,” but in its own language it would be called Ho-lo or Tai-gi. Basically a language that was spoken in the Fujian Province where a lot of people who ended up in Taiwan spoke that language. It is still spoken in Taiwan, although the official language is standard Chinese. So it’s sort of a private language in a way, because it’s spoken by people who consider it their native tongue but you don’t hear so much—in Taiwan you don’t hear it.

RB: The only thing I think that may distinguish you from native-born Americans is that your parents probably didn’t want you to be a writer—

I took a year off between college and law school, then went to law school for three years. As soon as I graduated from law school I started reading fiction again—more and more of it.

CY: Um, they wanted me to become a doctor (both laugh). And I was a failed doctor. I did not get into medical school.

RB: The idea of you being a writer, how did they look upon that?

CY: Not kindly. They weren’t supportive at first. When I was in college—I mean I think they were, because I had been writing poems since I was a kid, they were like, “Sure, have that—you are not seriously thinking you are going to support yourself doing that?” I don’t still, but it is increasingly becoming part of my life. But it’s still not my primary job.

RB: How much of your life do you spend lawyering? What kind of law do you practice?

CY: I work in-house at a company. So as jobs like this go, it’s an excellent job for a writer. I have very regular hours—9 to 6:30, 9 to 7.

RB: What is the company’s business?

CY: Digital domain: The company does digital effects for movies, commercials.

RB: When you reached the age of saying “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” what was it you aspired to do?

CY: I wanted to write. I had no idea—I wasn’t actually writing. I wanted to.

RB: Why?

CY: One thing that triggered it for sure—I was a senior in high school and a friend of mine gave me a copy of Poetry magazine. And it was the first time I had really seen, even though I had been writing poetry—maybe if you go to school in Boston, New York, somewhere that’s not L.A.—I don’t know, you run into literary magazines more often. I hadn’t personally run into too many literary magazines. Something about that—it would have happened eventually anyway because when I went to Berkeley there were tons of literary magazines—student-run and others, at Cody’s Books and Moe’s Books. So I spent tons of time as an undergrad reading every literary journal I could get my hands on. I worked on a couple, reading submissions, and I minored in creative writing (in poetry). I took several poetry workshops with people like Thom Gunn and Ishmael Reed. So I wrote a bunch of poems in college. I wrote one short story in college. It was a disaster. I sent it to a workshop and they did not accept me. I figured I had nothing to offer the world of fiction so I just stopped.

RB: For how long?

CY: I didn’t write another story again until I graduated law school four years later. I took a year off between college and law school, then went to law school for three years. As soon as I graduated from law school I started reading fiction again—more and more of it.

RB: Were you a reader as a child?

CY: Yes, I was always reading.

RB: Were your parents readers?

CY: My father was—my mom not so much. He reads a lot. By training he is an engineer, a mechanical engineer for 40 years, and he just always had books around. A lot of science books, but also a lot of how-to and self-improvement books.

RB: So that’s why you write the stuff you write. (laughs)

CY: In a way, maybe, yeah. I mean, I remember him always being in his home office surrounded by books. They were impenetrable to me—mostly because of the subject matter, but also those were my dad’s books. Just to see that many books in one place.

RB: Who directed you to the books you read?

CY: I don’t know, because—

RB: What years were they?

CY: 1993 to 1997. In high school I was reading just anything that happened to catch my eye in a bookstore. The Internet wasn’t really a thing yet. So that was driven just by things that caught my eye. Although already a process of selection is going on there.

RB: And the reading assigned in school—Moby Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, Mark Twain, did you follow that also?

CY: Yeah, The Old Man and the Sea, Crime and Punishment. Sure. I took AP English in my senior year. We read a bunch of the classics.

RB: Did you enjoy those books?

CY: Probably not as much as I should say I did? (laughs) They were medicine. (laughs) On the one level I don’t know much about education policy, but it seems like it would be hard to get something relevant, like Howard Zinn, approved for a public school. But on the other hand, why not?

RB: I was thinking of John Sayles’ recent movie Amigo [and novel, A Moment in the Sun), which deals with the Philippine-American War—it’s never mentioned in history texts. Do know anything about it?

I work at a place where lots of people are creative. I almost preferred an environment where I felt like an alien. I had to keep this part of me secret, do it late at night.

CY: Nothing.

RB: Right. One discovers things in American history that are anomalous with professed values. Anyway, you go to law school and start writing again. An epiphany? Boredom?

CY: I don’t know. I think it was a little bit of realizing I was going to enter a—

RB: A dead zone? (laughs)

CY: Not quite a dead zone. Yes, a clean zone. I was going to enter an environment where I couldn’t take any of that with me. I’d have to every day put on my work clothes—my work costume, really—and be this person I knew absolutely I was not. At first I worked for a New York law firm where you had to be very—they were old school, white shoe. I could already tell that was going to do things.

RB: I understand the environment in a New York law firm being tight-sphinctered, but you are working in what seemingly is a more creative place. Don’t they have basketball hoops in the office and the student lounge where you can ride your BMX around?

CY: There is a little of that. In some ways that makes it harder, because having that really clear separation between work and writing—when I go to a place where creativity is not shunned—before it wasn’t part of the job. Now I work at a place where lots of people are creative. I almost preferred an environment where I felt like an alien. I had to keep this part of me secret, do it late at night.

RB: With three books, your secret may be out.

CY: (both laugh) Yeah, it may have leaked out.

RB: You have been mentioned with George Saunders, which I think is apt. The similarity I see is that there is a high specific gravity to your stories, a richness—some story collections I can read in one or two sittings. In your case I can only read, at most two stories at a time—I don’t think I have finished with them even after I have read them. Has anyone else made that observation?

CY: Yes. People haven’t articulated in quite that way, but in the way that they seem they can be reread, you can come back to them. There is more to them than there seems to be on the first reading. Which I think is a good thing. There are some writers, like [Donald] Barthelme, who—the influence might not be obvious but the obliqueness is something I picked up from him. That’s not something I heard about even as an English minor. Then to read something like him and wonder who has been hiding this. And then to realize he was publishing in the New Yorker for years and years—

RB: Pricksongs and Descants? No, that was Robert Coover.

CY: I read Forty Stories, Sixty Stories.

RB: Also, there is something extremely interior and introspective about your stories.

CY: I hope so. (laughs)

RB: Not that one learns much about the external—you have pretty much fabricated it—not exactly a travelogue. Usually there is one character working through something, some dilemma, some—not a problem but some given.

CY: Yes, and usually some distance from where they want to be, some longing. And they might or might not be traveling toward that.

RB: There is a cast of melancholy overlaying the stories (laughs).

CY: Yes, that’s fair.

RB: What is the reason for dividing the stories under the section headings that are the collection’s title?

CY: It helped me in thinking about them. As I revised them, they did feel at first like 13 really random things. And that bothered me a little bit. I still had lots of editing work to do anyway and when I thought about the revision, even though it may not be the most organic—I have had people ask me why a story falls under one heading when they felt it was more of another. I fully acknowledge that some of the stories could have been placed in any of the categories, because those are pretty vague categories, but in thinking about those words—it helped me tie them together in the editing process.

RB: I didn’t give those section headings a moment’s thought. Although the last story puzzled me—the section title seemed off. What’s wrong with them being 13 random stories?

I wrestled in high school and ran track very slowly. I was a mediocre wrestler and a below mediocre track-and-field person.

CY: Nothing.

RB: You wanted more (both laugh). Why are these stories called science fiction? One of your books has that in the title.

CY: It does and that’s fair. I am not upset about that, although I do think you are right. The novel is one thing that is, for everything else it is, it is also science fiction. I think it is. The story collection, there are other people that could have published this and the words “science fiction” probably wouldn’t be associated with them.

RB: Like George Saunders.

CY: Yes. Other people might say “dystopian.” Labels seem to attach to certain people and stay there.

RB: Perhaps the more original you are, the more likely you will be stuck with an handle of some sort so that people don’t have to be original in talking about you. It’s early but I haven’t seen many reviews of this book, which I expected based on the success of How to Live a Science Fiction Life.

CY: There has been coverage. NPR and the Boston Globe had a good review. That was one of the papers that didn’t review my previous book, so I was really happy to get this one.

RB: I wonder if reviewers care about story collections. Your first book was a story collection.

CY: Going into this I was a little worried, because as a short story collection you don’t see as much coverage. Even what my publisher has gotten so far has been pretty shocking to me. Maybe that says something about where my expectations were.

RB: Supposedly story collections don’t sell. On the other hand publishers continue to publish them—seemingly more than ever.

CY: There are a lot, yeah.

RB: E-books probably make publishing story collections easier. Your stories are tailor-made for some kind of augmented e-book—visual embellishments that could be done on an e-reader. Have you thought about that?

CY: Actually, yes. For this book we did a book trailer, which really isn’t part of an augmented e-book.

RB: It’s funny, but everyone is doing trailers.

CY: Yeah, that was fun, but I was thinking afterward—it’s too late now, but it would have been fun to put video stuff into this e-book. For the novel we did do an enhanced e-book; we had links and other things that were only on the enhanced version of the book. It is something I am thinking about more and more.

RB: Did readers notice?

CY: For all the work that my editor and I put into it we were hoping for more.

RB: Any reviewers?

CY: No, it was people on Goodreads saying that the enhanced e-book was really neat. It wasn’t a lot of people, but I noticed at least a dozen people really liked the extra feature and thought it added to the reading experience. It was fun. It wasn’t like we forced it on to the book. It felt right for some of the book.

RB: When I spoke with Ben Katchor, I was surprised how open he was to adapting his book The Cardboard Valise to other media iterations. I thought that his great investment in the history of picture stories would make him resistant to digitizing his work, but he had lots of good reasons why it was OK, starting with that in today’s publishing his images exist in a digital form anyway. Why would I read an e-book over a real book if it is exactly the same?

CY: Sure I do read e-books, but I still prefer the hard cover. My editor at Pantheon said, “Why do we make an e-book into this sort of gray slush of text”—not to say they are all like that. Like you say, why would someone choose that over a beautiful book? Even a trade paperback is significantly more enjoyable to hold and read than most e-books. So he said, Let’s make something that couldn’t exist in paper form.

RB: Would you like to make your stories into films? Actually, why didn’t you take the easy route and become a screenwriter?

CY: (laughs) Well, my brother is a TV writer and I have some exposure to it. Among other things he’s an actor, but he writes full-time for a TV show, and I see that part of it and it is so different from what I know how to do. Which is not to say I wouldn’t be interested in trying it. But I realize how hard it is, how different it is.

RB: The effort required aside, do you imagine your stories as movies?

CY: Sometimes. The novel was optioned by a company called 1492, which is owned by Chris Columbus, and you know how those things go—it could be a while and lots of things have to happen—

RB: Who would be cast as you? That would be the trick [to having a movie made].

CY: That is the trick (laughs).

RB: Get Johnny Depp to play you, the film will be made.

CY: Exactly (laughs)

RB: I heard something about Julian Schnabel filming Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante with Johnny Depp. Aside from your legal career and your writing, what else do you do?

CY: No hobbies.

RB: When you were a kid?

CY: Not really—reading?

RB: Sports?

CY: I wrestled in high school and ran track very slowly. (laughs) I was a mediocre wrestler and a below mediocre track-and-field person. But I have two young kids—they suck up a lot of time, in a good way. They are a full-time job for my wife—she works also.

RB: What does she do?

CY: She works for a nonprofit called Healthy Child, Healthy World, which promotes environmental health for children.

RB: I was actually interested in what cultural diet you are on. Movies? TV?

CY: Not a lot of movies. Books and TV.

RB: Even though access to movies is so easy?

CY: I don’t watch as many movies as I’d like to. I read a lot of science, pop science.

RB: Like Jonah Lehrer?

CY: Not his new one, yeah.

RB: It may be an adult-onset contrariness but I don’t find that stuff, Lehrer or Gladwell, interesting. There is a wave of commentators that people are accreting to that I am not impressed by—the Freakonomics people, the MIT guy who wrote about lying. Our sense of fact and reality is so malleable these days. How do you learn about books that you read? Do you have writer friends?

CY: Not a lot. I have just friend-friends. I meander. One book will lead to the next. Bookstores—although that’s getting harder and harder because L.A. doesn’t have a lot of bookstores. We have a couple of Barnes and Nobles.

RB: Dutton’s?

CY: Dutton’s is closed—it closed a couple of years ago. A huge bummer—I live about a mile from there.

RB: Odd, given L.A.’s stature as the biggest book market in the country.

CY: Is that right?

RB: So I have been told.

CY: Really. I wonder what the books are that people are buying. We do have some good independents—Skylight and one called Vroman’s. They have author readings.

RB: It seems to be a huge misconception that L.A. is hotbed of illiteracy. There are a lot of writers in Los Angeles who are not screenwriters. There’s a new book publication—The Los Angeles Review of Books.

CY: Yeah, I wrote something for them. To go back to your question of how I find stuff, it’s through those journals and place like that—constantly shifting between the five or six places I know.

RB: I don’t quite get the wailing about the decline in review space—there is lots of good attention paid to books on the Internet. And the New York Times Book Review is like a book-shopper. And there is a new book pub in Toronto and Minneapolis, Revolver. There’s another L.A. mag called Slake. So it’s not as if there wasn’t any sound and fury.

Economics is a powerful way of thinking about the world. But embedded are these assumptions that are so ingrained that it is hard to see that they are just assumptions.

CY: That I had not heard of.

RB: Do you follow political events?

CY: A little bit.

RB: Will you write an Orwellian dystopian story? Is that your intention?

CY: (laughs) Yeah, I think so. We’ll call it sci-fi, of course.

RB: Have you started it?

CY: I have not. But that’s something I have been making notes on, to get away from the interior and think about something larger.

RB: What are some recent books that have impressed you?

CY: I really am enjoying this book called ECONned by Yves Smith. That’s actually a pen name—

RB: Economists have pen names?

CY: She blogs under that name—I can’t recall her real name.

RB: She must be related to Adam Smith.

CY: She worked at Goldman Sachs and now she is explaining why things are so messed up and specifically why we shouldn’t trust economic models and things that are presented as the science of economics. And how captive regulatory agencies are, government agencies are, by the way of thinking, but the thinking [itself] is captured. How the boundaries of the debate have gotten to a place where left and right have both shifted to a position where the market is viewed as some mystical thing that will always guide us to the right answer. That’s the kind of thing I really like.

RB: I have this unexamined bias that economists are have the largest grasp of general knowledge. Amartya Sen, Gunnar Myrdal, Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stieglitz—they all seem to know so much. Does Yves Smith strike you that way?

CY: I get that from her. And she is specifically looking at how many economists are—that economics is treated as a science that is as rigorous as physics. And that is just a mistake. Economics is a powerful way of thinking about the world. But embedded are these assumptions that are so ingrained that it is hard to see that they are just assumptions. Someone like her—she has a way of thinking that I am certainly not comfortable with, and I greatly appreciate the way she sees things and how illuminating it is.

RB: Thankfully, Paul Krugman’s columns are not theoretical, but his analysis of conventional wisdom seems very understandable and sensible. What fiction have you read?

CY: Recently? I really, really enjoyed Ben Lerner’s novel.

RB: Leaving the Atocha Station.

CY: The interiority of it was impressive.

RB: Do you feel compelled to finish books that you start? I have put books down that I am enjoying but don’t feel like I need to continue.

CY: Isn’t it weird when that happens? You’ve enjoyed it yet for some reason you put it down.

RB: Who are the highly regarded speculative fiction writers? China Miéville?

CY: Yeah, definitely. Kim Stanley Robinson. I was in Key West earlier this year at the Key West Literary Seminar. This year James Gleick organized it and he brought a number of fiction writers like Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem and Margaret Atwood, China Mieville, and the theme of the conference was “Yet Another World.” And it was about speculative fiction, specifically science fiction.

RB: But none of those people would be identified as such.

CY: That’s right.

RB: Which doesn’t mean that you can’t write about the future?

CY: That’s right.

RB: Just like Cormac McCarthy—at least for one book.

CY: That’s what happens [to] a certain kind of writer if you are considered literary, and then you aren’t called a speculative fiction writer. But those people are all highly regarded.

RB: I used to read that stuff and I just stopped. I can’t read current sci-fi, like William Gibson.

CY: He was there, too.

RB: Some of Lethem’s earlier novels were speculative fiction.

CY: Yes, definitely—As She Climbed Across the Table, it was set in a university but it was about a little bubble universe that was formed and it’s a metaphor—the metaphor is actually a literal object in the universe. It was a fascinating idea. William Gibson is, to me, at the intersection. He says really interesting things—if there was a Venn diagram of literary and science fiction writers, he would be at the center of it.

RB: So how was this conference?

I would have been an abject failure in a writing program. I am not unteachable, but I am probably the only person who can teach myself. I don’t learn extremely well, formally. I wouldn’t even consider myself a very good reader. Maybe a slightly above average reader.

CY: It was four days and I didn’t skip a session. I got a lot out of it. And the people I talked to were my favorite kind of person—well, not my favorite kind—people who love reading and know more about books than I will ever know.

RB: (laughs)

CY: And yet they don’t write. It’s like, “People like you exist—I wish I were one of you.” (laughs)

RB: Well, you can’t have writers without readers. That’s one benefit of the explosion in writing MFA programs—more readers. Do you regret not having gone into a writing program?

CY: No, not really.

RB: I guess having three published books would make that moot.

CY: I think I would have been an abject failure in a writing program. I am not unteachable, but I am probably the only person who can teach myself. I don’t learn extremely well, formally. I wouldn’t even consider myself a very good reader. Maybe a slightly above average reader.

RB: Meaning?

CY: One thing is I don’t feel like I nail all the information. I don’t remember it vividly—it all gets mushed together inside somehow. I am currently reading Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours.

RB: There’s a great piece on Jim Harrison.

CY: I haven’t gotten to that one yet—I am looking forward to it—but I have read his survey of how-to writing books. I think that interview with Harrison is “The Art and Practice of Not Giving a Shit” or some amazing title.

RB: One of my favorite observations by Harrison goes something like, “People, when they get a dog, want the dog to be like them, when really they should be more like their dog.” Have you read Jim Harrison?

CY: A little bit.

RB: I’d start with his memoir, Off to the Side. You have more touring to do?

CY: A couple more and then back in L.A. And then some festivals in the fall.

RB: And then you start writing the next thing?

CY: Right.

RB: So do you use a pencil? (both laugh) Do you have a smartphone and all that stuff?

CY: I do now. It’s my wife’s hand-me-down. I would have never bought it otherwise.

RB: Why?

CY: I have a weird resistance to having things—it looks like we have the same phone case.

RB: The Otter case. Great case.

CY: I don’t see many people with it.

RB: Seemingly indestructible.

CY: Yeah, we were convinced that our kids would break our phones. Apparently you can drive a car over them.

RB: Do you use social media?

CY: A little bit. Twitter.

RD: What other evidence of surrender?

CY: (laughs) That’s it for now. I have a very, very old computer that my father-in-law, who can fix anything, gave me.

RB: Tablet?

CY: My wife bought me one and I gave it to her.

RB: She knew you would.

CY: Yeah, that was smart. (laughs)

RB: And your resistance is based on?

CY: Um, I am not good at it. I am interested in it in terms of speculating about it, and I love reading about it. But personal gadgets, they make me feel so terrible because I know I’m using about 2 percent of the capability of the gadget.

RB: We’re alike. Since I can’t or don’t read manuals [usually badly written] I know there is stuff I should know. I have a little Canon camera that is like it has a whole movie crew built in (both laugh). It can do everything. What explains the fact that people will line up for hours to buy a new Apple thingie?

CY: I don’t know. I was in an Apple store the other day with my kids—my wife was working and I took the kids just to stroll around. There was a person teaching a class on how to use your phone and hordes of people around every station.

RB: The new Disneyland. A little scary. It makes no sense to me; why would you buy something that just came out?

CY: It’s something if I could write about it, I would, but it still mystifies me. I don’t know. Maybe that’s part of my reluctance—I don’t want to feel like I want gadgets and then go down that rabbit hole. Maybe it’s an addiction and you can’t stop it.

RB: One thing stands out about Apple: Their stuff is easy to use.

CY: Maybe you have hit on what it is, in that the genius is partly, maybe mostly, allowing people to feel like they have this awesome power. They don’t feel confused by the device; they feel empowered. You know that famous Arthur Clarke quote about “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” An iPhone is sufficiently advanced—it’s essentially a magical object that people can buy and feel “I have the whole world and I don’t even have to look at the user’s manual, just my finger.”

RB: Apple doesn’t even include user’s manuals. [This is not true—ed.] One of their top executives recently claimed that Apple wasn’t in it for the money. They’re just interested in making good things. One does wonder about their manufacturing process.

CY: Yeah, the articles about Foxconn—that doesn’t trouble me so much about Apple specifically. I assume that any product I am using—going far enough back in the supply chain or even one step back, it’s a huge problem. I don’t know if you’ve read Benjamin Kunkel’s novel Indecision.

RB: It’s on my bookshelf, but no.

CY: The central conceit of the novel is there is a pill you can take that will cure indecision that allows you to be decisive. I don’t want to spoil it—you find that out early in the novel. Later on he makes a trip to Ecuador and finds a magical fruit that if you eat you know the origins, the provenance, of everything that you see around you. I would love something like that—although that kind of knowledge might be paralyzing. You could literally never do anything and feel OK—you would know the real cost of what you are consuming.

RB: Someone posted on Facebook the logos of all the Olympic sponsors, none of whom were in any way contributing to good health.

CY: Yeah, right.

RB: It’s impossible to be pure and very hard to be good—if you aspire to some moral conduct.

CY: Yeah.

RB: Sherwin Nuland cites the quote by Philo of Alexandria, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

CY: Hmmm.

RB: I expect in few years we may talk again.

CY: I hope so.

RB: Thanks, it’s been good talking with you.

CY: Yeah, you too.

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum