Manhattan Loverboy & The Fuck-Up
Arthur Nersesian is a real New York writer. His novels are a celebration of marginal characters living in the East Village and trying to survive. Nersesian's books include The Fuck-Up, The East Village Tetralogy, and now just published by a small press based in New York, Manhattan Loverboy. Nersesian has been a fixture in the writing scene for many years. He was an editor for The Portable Lower East Side, which was an important magazine during the 1980s and early 90s. Akashic Books has recently published novels by Lauren Saunders, Jose Latour, Henry Flesh, and Yuri Kapralov. In fact, when The Fuck-Up came out in 1997, MTV Books picked it up and reprinted it in a new edition for hipsters everywhere. Soon Nersesian was no longer known only to a cabal of young bohemians on Avenue A. His work has been championed by The Village Voice and Time Out.
Manhattan Loverboy is the bizarre story of Joseph Aeiou. He finds out one day that his financial aid has been withdrawn and he can't finish school. Joseph tried to find out who's responsible. This leads him to Mr. Whitlock and a lot of trouble. Joseph's life is turned around and he becomes a pygmalion for a strange business. It's a mystery of the poor and the rich. It's a fabulous novel that can't be defined.
Arthur Nersesian can usually be found at a Starbucks on East 9th and Second Avenue. That is where we met to talk about his new novel.
AL: You were profiled in the latest issue of FHM. It was all about how writing a novel is not worth the time, and how you should want to do something more useful. Did you feel exploited by this journalist?
AN: I spoke to the interviewer for a while, and he used what he wanted, and threw away the rest. I feel exploited by you too. But it's controlled exploitation. You have to understand that in FHM Magazine you are going to get that whole wacky tongue-in-cheek tone throughout. I respect that. They should be making fun of people who got a degree in Literature in college.
AL: When did you start writing the new novel, Manhattan Loverboy? Has this been a novel which has been around for years and is finally now published?
AN: I began this book and wrote the bulk of it in 1989. I had written a collection of stories, and was trying to round out the collection with a decent sized story. So I wrote this and didn't know where it was going and wrote ninety pages . I tagged on an ending and it never seemed finished. I kept returning to it. It took on a life of its own and became a novel. The original came out in 1993. I wasn't happy with it. Recently, I did a rewrite for this new edition.
AL: It's a weird title and misleading for a story which seems like a update on a Kafka novel. It should be called The Cog in The System, since it is about a character, Joseph Aeiou, who is an adopted child, who gets involved in political and financial subversion?
AN: Some authors start with a title or have a revelation. I knew that I had this story and needed a title. I was looking at some old poems of mine and found one called "Manhattan Overboard." Since the tone was so intense I thought that would be a funny title. I told a friend the title over the phone, and he said: "What? Manhattan Loverboy?" I said "No" but his title was better and I kept it, because it was about Manhattan, and the main character was both a "man" and a "boy."
AL: Who are some of the writers who inspire you? There was the Kafka feeling with "The Sweet Smell of Success."
AN: I loved that movie. There was no deliberate mimicking of any writer on this book, but I heard many comparisons. I didn't think that I was following any writer consciously. My greatest influence until the day I die will be and always has been the city. I write against the city. I try to absorb all the shit around me and then squeeze it into fiction.
AL: How different is Manhattan Loverboy from the early novel, The Fuck-Up? The thing about you writing I like is its unpredictable nature. You're always pulling the rug under the characters and the plot.
AN: It's different in style and tone. The Fuck-Up is somber and I tried to be fairly social realistic. The new book is slightly surreal and off the wall. As far as the plot goes, if you can see the end coming up and can predict it, there's no point in reading it. If can anticipate where you are going, then it's pointless. To that end, I don't over-plot or over-outline my novels. I have a general idea where I'm going, and I try to stop until I get there in the writing, and check out my options. I always try to find something unexpected and yet consistent with the ideas and the story, and whatever I'm dramatizing. But I really want to surprise myself. If I can't do that then no one will be surprised. What's the point?
AL: You've had an erratic publishing history. The Fuck-Up was published by Akashic Press in 1997, and then picked up by MTV Books. There was actually commercials on MTV advertising your book, which is rare, and even stranger since Akashic is a small press, and publishes mostly Downtown urban writing.
AN: Manhattan Loverboy was sent to MTV Books and several other major publishers as well. They all passed on it. Frankly I think it was too clever and witty and wacky for them. It is a better book I think because it has more ideas, takes more chances, and is extreme satire, where The Fuck-Up wasn't. I am more proud of it for those reasons. The funny thing is that Manhattan Loverboy has it's own following. There are people who love this book who don't particularly like The Fuck-Up, and visa-versa. Some people have been able to finish Manhattan Loverboy, including my mother.
AL: How was your experience with MTV Books? I find most of their books to be sort of light reading and not backed up by experience and details, as I see your books. They seem to be putting out books for people who don't really read and watch a ton of television.
AN: I have another book, called Dogpark, coming out with MTV Books in the fall. Corporate publishing is a business: it's exactly that. They certainly have an artistic integrity. It's about selling books, figures, and demographics. MTV is their publicity outlet and their audience, and to their credit they're trying to bring some of these TV watchers as readers. That's commendable. More people watch movies and TV obviously. How sophisticated are their readers and how developed are their tastes in literature? That's another question. They're trying really hard to tap into a youth market. The editors there look at a lot of manuscripts. It's not an easy genre or to find writers in. You can take more chances with a small press like Akashic Books.
AL: I noticed that you don't make much reference to music and bands in your novels? Is that a deliberate choice or you don't following what music people are listening to?
AN: That's a sore point for me. I always lived in lower Manhattan, and I lived on 16th Street and 3rd Avenue since 1973. The point is that this is a very musical area for Indie bands, CBGB's, The Academy of Music, and so on. I never really got into that. I saw rock and roll as a homogenized factor for American teens, and absorbed them from what would be an intellectual and literary culture. Initially I had some hostility towards that. Most teens perceived rock and roll as a form of rebellion, and I guess still do, but nowadays seeing a punk is like seeing a hippie back in the 1970s: it's such a cliche. It's not a rebellious act anymore. It's just so sad to see a punk rocker who has a leather jacket and spiked hair today. You might as well join the Republican party. It was a cliche twenty years ago. Music is a small part in my work. I usually celebrate the lamest love songs in a mocking way. It's what I hear in the background at cafes where I write. Most people just ignore it.
AL: Do you write full-time now or do you work at some job to support yourself?
AN: I just got fired from my crappy job of ten years. I was teaching in the South Bronx, which was a noble chore, bringing light to the darkness. I too have Irish ancestry on one side as does Frank McCourt. I write pretty steadily. That's all there's left for people like me. I'm not invited to any parties. I've been excised from the community very slowly. I used to collect string and stack stones, and now my pastime is writing novels.
AL: Was Manhattan Loverboy sort of an attack on yuppiedom and the obsession with the stock market? The silent repressed margins fight back?
AN: This book is about how the city used to be versus what the city is becoming. It's about how the city changes people and is changed by the people. Is it getting better or worse? It's always a different place. New York City is not a good place to be if you're broke. If anyone buys my books, I'll come over and wash their dishes just out of appreciation.