An independently wealthy hipster finds himself helplessly in love with a girl. A disillusioned bookstore clerk instinctively assembles a collective. A federal agent watches, in horror, as what at first appears to be a routine surveillance case turns disastrous. These strands, intertwined, form the crux of Counter Culture. The narrative is presented as something cobbled together from various sources—newspaper clippings, diaries, interviews, personal recollections—an approach that suits the form this novel is intended to take. A chilling meditation on coercion, Counter Culture is the first entry in what author/musician Massimo Magee’s trilogy of novels, followed by A Novel and In Three Parts.
SPLICE TODAY: In Counter Culture, Dean, the man who at first appears to be the main protagonist, is drawn into an emerging commune. When you started writing this book, did you have a clear sense of where the story was leading?
MASSIMO MAGEE: Absolutely. Given that it was conceived of as an opposite to the “anti-fiction” of A Novel, the main things were fixed from the very beginning. I knew it had to be set in the United States, for example, because I've never been there—in addition to the more plot-specific reasons. What better setting for a fiction than a country you've never been to?
As for the plot, I knew where I wanted it to start, where I wanted it to go, who was involved and why, but some of the practicalities of how the story was actually told only came about while writing. The newspaper articles, for example, were only decided on while I was writing the second part, and it was a visit to an exhibition of Albrecht Dürer's “Apocalypse” woodcuts that provided the inspiration for April's visions in the eighth part. Also, the idea for the interview transcripts more or less just popped into my head about halfway through the book, but I was working as a transcriber at the time, so it's easy to see where that came from.
ST: The newspaper articles reminded me of Michael Crichton's Next, how he sought to normalize some of the events in that story. You made this work in a pretty seamless way, the transition from present improbabilities into eventual ones. I also liked how the pursuit late in the book led through U.S. towns with non-U.S. names, as though those pursued were tracing strands of the country's DNA in some sense.
MM: Yeah, I wanted to emphasize the absurd nature of much of our present situation and show that my projections of the kind of future we could be heading towards aren't really that far-fetched. The place names were something that I picked up on when looking at maps for research. There are so many place names in the United States—and quite a few in Australia, although less diverse in terms of the places they reference—which seem to have been plucked more or less at random out of other parts of the world and other periods of history, and which give an interesting glimpse at the background, experiences, and cultural reference points of the people who named them. Places from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, the British Empire: it's all very evocative of the long and winding origin narrative that Western civilization paints for itself.
ST: Tell me about the key rings. It's a fantastic idea, that of fugitive propaganda disseminated quick; in a sense it mirrors the speed and reach of information and technology, in that generally we feel like we can't escape and can always be easily touched by any searching force.
MM: You've touched on some important themes there and I'm glad that came through. The key rings were a nice, convenient way of illustrating the reach of state propaganda that chimed well with April and Dean's situation at that point in the book (doing a lot of driving, basically), and also stayed resolutely within the confines of the pre-digital, which is a key aspect of this novel, particularly in relation to the other two and then beyond that.
ST: It's interesting to note that while the protagonists in the last two books are drawn or lured into the heart of the world's dark, ancient forces—almost via curse or addiction—Dean and April are sort of pursued across the path of those forces without being literally consumed by them. Could we argue that the effects of those forces caused the raid on the commune in the first place?
MM: This, again, is key. I think of Counter Culture as a kind of prologue to what comes later. It's the gathering of forces that only get properly unleashed in A Novel and then run their inexorable and deadly course in In Three Parts. This is inextricably bound up with the point about the pre-digital above and is one of the key underlying themes of the Triptych as a whole. It develops further in the subsequent parts after the trilogy of novels, but it's a subtle vein. What happens to the commune is basically that same process of gathering forces being unleashed and driven to their necessary end that spreads across the whole trilogy but in miniature, I think. I'm big on fractality, particularly in this Triptych, and you'll notice quite a lot of what I call “nested structures” within it.
ST: I'd be interested to see or read about the future of the America described in Counter Culture, but I'm afraid maybe it's already here. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but the older I get and the more I learn about the world, the easier it is for me to understand what leads so many down that road.
MM: I'm no conspiracy theorist either, and I like to think I try to maintain a bit of healthy skepticism, but that also means maintaining a healthy skepticism of the established narratives and the longer things go on, the less convincing those narratives seem to be.
ST: What are some of your favorite bleak endings in movies, television, and books?
MM: Probably the best example of a really well-done, bleak ending in a book that I can think of is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It’s one of my favorite books anyway, but the ending really stays with you and leaves you feeling like you’ve had an encounter with something authentically dark—and it’s not just bleak for the sake of it, either. Samuel Beckett’s Molloy is another one in this vein. Although not really dark in the “evil” sense that Blood Meridian is, it still leaves you with this kind of queasy, seasick feeling.
As far as films go, the cylinder machine scene near the end of the film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is also magnificently bleak, cutting and unflinching, in an otherwise funny film. That one stayed with me for a while. I suppose it’s that unflinching quality that I’m most drawn to, rather than simply bleakness. I think it’s important to confront things as they really are, with unflinching honesty, because that leads to more meaningful work.
ST: Rereading Counter Culture, I noticed the reference to one of these radios in the early going and laughed, like, "of course!”—given their significance later in this book series. Do you own a shortwave radio yourself? If so, when did you get it and what have your experiences with it been like?
MM: Ah, the shortwave radios. I don't actually have one myself, but I went through a spell of spending a fair bit of time listening to live streams of numbers stations on the web late at night and the one that caught my ear the most, by a long shot, was “The Buzzer.” There's something genuinely unsettling and otherworldly about immersing yourself in a stream of completely baffling, alien sound that's clearly being put out into the world for a reason but one that's almost completely unknown. It's quite entrancing and the fact that it's being broadcast 24/7 as you listen makes it even more so. It's that mystery—the idea that, no matter how developed we think we are, there will always be things we don't and cannot understand.
ST: What was the significance of the “Dean's” real name being a secret? My impression was that the idea was that he could have been anyone in a way, and this sense presenting him as a sort of "everyman" figure.
MM: Well, it's partly to present him as an everyman, but also partly to give him an air of mystery and, maybe most importantly, to underline the fictional nature of the text, which is crucial to its place in the trilogy.
ST: When you were writing about the siege on the commune, did you have any real world analogues in mind?
MM: No, that scene is pretty much entirely fictional. It's really the inevitable, logical convergence point of most of the major threads in the book up to that point, I think.
ST: Woodcuts—or carvings—figure into this series in fairly significant ways. When you were figuring out those descriptions, did you have any physical models that inspired you or that you referred to?
MM: Those came entirely from my own head, actually. I wanted to describe them in enough detail, enough times and in a sufficiently academic, dispassionate way that they became completely tangible and real—like a museum piece or item in an exhibition catalogue—while being completely fictional. Carvings, to me, strongly evoke the ancient, early stages of humanity’s use of writing, and it was important that they should be able to draw on that “timelessness” in some way.
ST: Did you have a model or ideal for the government agent who becomes—or is revealed as—a major player in the novel?
MM: Well, he started off as being based on Edward Snowden, but evolved along a different trajectory with different motivations as time went on. Rather than being simply a kind of cipher character, he’s more like my reading of/response to/struggle with Snowden’s actions and what they mean or could achieve.
ST: One thing that's unusual for a trilogy—these three books have ties and connections, but if you read any one without being aware of the others, you'd come away satisfied from an audience perspective. Was that something you were thinking about while putting the books together?
MM: I’m really glad to hear this. It’s very important to me that the three novels in the trilogy can stand on their own two feet but it’s also something that’s very hard for me to judge the success of because I’m so close to them.
I want the novels to stand alone for a number of reasons but mainly because, as I mentioned before, they’re part of a larger project called The Triptych. The Triptych is a work of what I'd feel comfortable calling “21st Century Literature.” It’s a multimedia, digitally-oriented project that recognizes the unexplored potential of the digital environment and starts to investigate what these new possibilities might mean for literature. One of its central themes is the rise of the digital world (the Internet, digital files, data) and one of the defining features of the internet’s (and the wider digital world’s) impact on culture is the segmentation or fragmentation of things: films are split into a million little clips on YouTube; CDs and records are shattered into cascades of disconnected tracks on file sharing sites; books are filleted, quoted, adapted and splattered across a million web pages and wikis; photographs are photoshopped, captioned, glitched and sprayed all over social media.
People might access only a fraction of these excerpts, in any order and over any timeframe, and only a few will go on to seek out the entire work. Even fewer will actually get through it all. I want to reflect that in The Triptych by making sure that the individual parts can stand alone and be appreciated in isolation, while also having more to offer to the committed person who takes the time and effort to get—and get through—the whole thing.
ST: Something that you run a risk with Counter Culture is tone and perspective, in a kind of gamble that the overall impact of the story might be diluted in some way. To your credit, because without giving anything away, your ending delivers a gut punch that lingers.
MM: I'm glad you say that, because it was all built to lead to that point!
Read the first part of our conversation here.