Bending the World: A Conversation with Jacob Bacharach Nathan Kukulski
Jacob Bacharach is the author of The Bend of the World, a very silly novel that was published by Liveright/W.W. Norton last year. He grew up in Uniontown, PA, birthplace of the Big Mac and home of Bigfoot and the Tire Giant. In high school, he was a runner-up in the Ayn Rand Fountainhead Foundation Young Fascist Essay Contest, or whatever it’s called. On the internet, he has decried and occasionally championed all manner of things as the "persona" IOZ and various others, but has lately taken to decrying and championing under his own name to promote his book. He studied poetry at Oberlin, and still writes a mean sonnet; and he recently received an MBA from Pitt, which he at least has the decency to refer to as a “bullshit degree” in interviews. For many years (full disclosure) Jake and I shared a violin teacher, who’d probably be somewhat dismayed if he heard us play today. I recently met up with Jake at Gooski’s and asked him a bunch of leading questions.
N: What was the initial seed, or were the initial seeds, of The Bend of the World?
J: I think the initial idea for the book was in fact its conclusion, which I won’t spoil except to say that it started as a sort of beatific vision of a fellow being yoinked back up to the mothership and ended up, in the final telling, as something similar if a bit more ambiguous. And I’d been noodling around for a while with this notion of a sort of love and friendship pentagram, with two sort of mirror-image couples and a best friend caught in the middle, which formed the sort of mundane skeleton on which to hang the weirder story.
N: Frank Herbert had that list of elements he wanted to incorporate into Dune – did you have any particular set pieces or characters or themes or whathaveyou you were sure would be components from the outset?
J: Well, I knew that I wanted to include a parody or pastiche of a whole variety of deep government and occult conspiracy theories, especially the Montauk Project, which I know you’re familiar with from the old Disinfo TV program and the voluminous subsequent tell-all semi-hemi-demi-scifi novel-memoirs. And I’d had the idea for the corporate satire, the company Global Solutions, for some time even before I started writing. Beyond that, I think it was less a set of ideas than a collection of beats and punch lines – “Keep an eye out,” “I have excellent night vision,” etc. – that I ended up building many scenes around.
N: After I read the first draft, my buddy Robert did a speaking gig, some kind of Tony Robbins-type motivational pep talk, at an actual org called Global Solutions. Of course I was like, "Dude, Global Solutions? For real?" So even then you were bending the world, but are you ever scared of altering reality in a disastrous way with your words? Were there any scenes that were scary to write for this or another reason? I’m thinking of how back at the outset you intimated that Johnny dies at the end, but obviously you changed your mind about that.
J: I gave up dissociatives in order to write about not giving up dissociatives, so I’m able to maintain a pretty strict delineation between the imagined and the actual, for better or worse. But actually, I was worried that I was going to kill Johnny; it was hard, in the writing, to see where or how he might be redeemed. I won’t spill the beans, and suffice to say that it is a very partial redemption, but I was glad to find that he wasn’t going to leave our plane just yet.
N: I’m glad too. What can you say about the editing/revision process?
J: The book spent about 8 months in editing. The first draft I submitted to my editor – which is probably close to what you read way back when – was even leaner than the final published version, and it’s still a pretty lean novel, not even 80,000 words. The biggest changes had to do with the way that the Pittsburgh Project, the subterranean occult conspiracy that winds through the narrative, paralleled and intertwined with the more mundane story of Peter’s – the narrator’s – day-to-day life. The original conspiracy narrative was, in keeping with its quote real-world inspiration, a real grab-bag – everything from time travel to ancient secret society skulduggery. My editor, though, noted this consistent trope in which the conspirators were using their magic or technology or whatever it was to keep going back to the past in effect to edit more perfect versions of themselves. And that had so many parallels and resonances with the main line of the story that we really worked to emphasize and expand on that idea, which comes to have real significance for Peter. Beyond that, I fleshed out the two main female characters – Helen and Lauren Sara – and added some more scenes of Pittsburgh playing Pittsburgh. That was always how the book opened, but now it also weaves through the whole book.
N: Based purely on Twitter, your editor seems pretty cool.
J: Will Menaker is a mammal among reptiles. Beneath his human mask is a real human face.
N: I remember a kid with three eyes too – was that character just scrapped or will he be recycled for whatever the mysterious new novel is?
J: Oh, yeah. His head breaking open into a thousand-petal lotus flower gets recycled as a sensation that Peter has, extraordinarily enough, while playing a game of racquetball at the Y. But that whole scene got cut. The three-eyed kid may get resurrected in a subsequent book. I liked him.
N: What can you say about the mysterious new novel?
J: I will say that it is vaguely the stories of Abraham and Isaac, that it takes place in western PA, both Pittsburgh and Fayette County, that it involves the Mon-Fayette Expressway, Marcellus Shale drilling, goofy non-profits, bad architecture, and an immense buck that may or may not be God. I’m really enjoying writing it right now, although I am having a bit of a crisis about a title.
N: Eh, it’ll come to you. What have you been reading lately?
J: Man, my reading lately has been strange. I just read Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith, which may be my new favorite SF novel. Actually, speaking of Frank Herbert, it’s astonishing how much he cribbed from Smith, something a friend of mine pointed out to me on Twitter, which is what got me reading Smith in the first place. The tone, of course, is totally different; irreverent where Herbert was serious and loopy where he was mystical. Highly recommended.
N: Norstrilia is amazing! I love how the stroon comes from giant “sick sheep” and that’s it – no elaborate working out of their life cycle or relationship to the ecology or how they make the drug, like Herbert did. What else?
J: I read a great novel called The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill, who is an Anglophone Quebecois novelist. It’s the story of a pair of gorgeous, vaguely incestuous twins in Montreal who are the children of a sort of separatist Canadian Gainsbourg character. Anyway, it’s got this great Twin Peaks Red Room/Black Lodge vibe. I’m reading Poor Things by Alisdair Gray, who’s probably more famous for Lanark. It’s his version of Frankenstein.
N: I’ve been meaning to check out Gray, since Iain Banks talked him up a bunch.
J: You should. And I’m reading a collection of short fiction by Palestinian writers from Gaza which is published by a small British press, which I’m hoping to review in a month or so.
N: Cool, what’s that called?
J: It’s called, succinctly, The Book of Gaza.
N: See, titles are easy! What authors, aside from Chabon and Conrad and Moon/Nichols, would you say inspired Bend...?
J: Believe it or not, I feel like I was really inspired by Graham Greene, despite the relative domesticity of the setting. One thing is that BOTW is actually a fairly religious book; I mean, no one really goes to church, but a lot of characters’ worldviews are quite influenced by their natal religions. And the butting up of the workplace and the mundane with the political and the corrupt is very much of a piece with his work.
N: I can see that – characters contending in vain with vast forces they don’t understand until it’s too late, or at all, plus their own banal impulses. Very relatable, to use a horrible buzzword. What’s inspiring you as you work on the new one?
J: Genesis. That shit is weird and fantastic.
N: Ha! I’m much more pumped to read your new book than to see that Noah movie.
J: I loved the Rock Lobsters in the Noah movie. I sort of admire Aronofsky for conning the studio out of a hundred million smackeroos to make that gorgeously terrible piece of total crap.
N: Cool, I might torrent it in that case. Besides Lebowski and Jurassic Park, what films have most influenced you?
J: Barton Fink, another Coen Classic, and Dr. Strangelove. The Wrath of Khan! Certainly the first three Indiana Jones movies – especially The Last Crusade, what with all the misapplied Grail lore. Also, Le souffle au coeur, which was an early seventies Louis Malle movie that has great jazz and one of the more shocking sex scenes of all time, not in the least because it seems, in context, so not shocking.
N: Okay, what is your favorite sex or love scene in literature, excluding fanfiction and the cliff-climbing scene in God Emperor of Dune?
J: It’s hard not to pick the cliff-climbing scene in God Emperor... What was Frank thinking?
N: It was the stroon, I mean spice talking. What else?
J: Well, I’ve always been a fan of the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, or the tender marriage between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick.
N: I still have a Moby-Dick-shaped hole in my brain. I read Typee in the spring and really dug it though.
J: Melville is my fave. Moby-Dick somehow got made into an object of worshipful reverence and therefore has all the popular appeal of a long church service. It was ruined for everyone in tenth grade. But it’s just this great, gaudy, goofy, glorious mess of a novel – like, it’s not a goddamn cathedral, it’s an amusement park. It’s the Kennywood of American novels.
N: Ha! You’ve read a lot of presumably horrible prose too, which I’ve not had the stomach to attempt – Glenn Beck’s novel springs to mind from an old IOZ review, and all those Thomas Friedman columns, but you’ve ripped apart countless others. Which is the most entertaining in its badness? Or the least?
J: The least entertaining bad prose is the cultural commentary in The New Republic, which is like cheap beer – really filling, and you don’t even get drunk. The best? Well, I dunno. Actually, I have been reading a lot of Thor comics from the late eighties and early nineties lately, and the writing, especially when the Asgardians start dropping thees and thous, is just terrible, but the stories are so utterly kooky and cosmic that I can’t help but love them.
N: I know thou hast worked with some real mythological characters. How was Barney the Dinosaur? Can he open doors?
J: Barney is totally helpless, an evolutionary dead end.
N: Thank God. Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you now or have you ever been a member of the OTO (or an OTO), Freemasons, Priory of Sion, Rosicrucians, Illuminati, or any occult organization aside from the Cultural Trust?
J: The closest I can claim is that I attended exactly one meeting of the Cub Scouts when I was in elementary school – probably second or third grade – in Greensburg. All the other boys had blond hair. It was like the fucking Hitler Youth. We made bird feeders by rolling pine cones in peanut butter and sunflower seeds. It now occurs to me that this may have been some sort of occult rite. Anyway, I immediately quit, citing my eugenic discomfiture with the whole thing. This is actually an article of faith in my family. “Bacharachs don’t join things.”
N: What a beautiful tradition. So okay, Pittsburgh is a weird town. What’s the weirdest thing about it?
J: Is the weirdest thing that they still never found that B-25 that crashed in the Mon? I’ve always loved it and wondered what alien bodies they were ferrying around on that plane.
N: Dude, the plane was obviously a hologram.
J: A hologram of a hologram? I’ve always thought that perhaps the plane was real, but the river is not.
N: It smells pretty real sometimes. What’s the most obnoxious thing about Pittsburgh?
J: The resolute refusal of drivers to utilize their turn signals. As a fellow cyclist, you know what I mean. Jesus Christ, the number of times I’ve been cut off. Why don’t they use their turn signals? What are they hiding?
N: We’re back to conspiracy vs. emergent dickishness, but I’m going with conspiracy here. It’d also be cool if more people understood what a passing lane was.
J: I really want a bumper sticker that says “My other car is, ‘Hey you! Yeah you! Faggot Lance Armstrong!’”
N: The yelling’s another thing, it’s like verbal chemtrails targeting bikers!
J: No, dude. You’re wrong. It’s an outgrowth of the HAARP program. The Pittsburgh accent vibrates on the precise frequency necessary to control the ionosphere.
N: That’s not how HAARP works, but okay. If you could chose from the infinitude of worldlines, what kind of stuff would the ideal future you’d inhabit feature?
J: Less cars, more whales, more large flightless birds.
N: I like that one too. What else? You like all kinds of weird food, what’s the most Satanic thing you’ve ever eaten?
J: I’ve had a variety of blood soups. You find them in a lot of traditional European cuisines as well as in East and Southeast Asian cooking. I’m a big fan. Make you strong.
N: I'll take your word for it. Okay, I recall at one point a fluffy white kitten spoke to you in a British accent. What was its message?
J: Don’t bag the groceries.
N: Ecologically sound advice. What do you think that pulsating orb is that's moving all crazy?
J: Turns out UFOs are just as confused by Pittsburgh’s paper streets as the rest of us.
The Bend of the World is available locally at Caliban Books, East End Book Exchange, Mystery Lovers Bookshop, and wherever else fine books are sold. If you buy it from
Amazon, you’re part of the conspiracy. Jake blogs at jacobbacharach.com/blog/.
Nathan Kukulski edits books and
attends a parking lot.
The Bend of the World is available locally at Caliban Books, East End Book Exchange, Mystery Lovers Bookshop, and wherever else fine books are sold. If you buy it from Amazon, you’re part of the conspiracy. Jake blogs at jacobbacharach.com/blog/.
Nathan Kukulski edits books and attends a parking lot.