American Dream

Writing books is so much creepier than readers know.

Heather Rubinstein, Painting as a Non-Professional Experiment (for and from James Murphy). 2014, acrylic on canvas. 72 × 84". Painting by Heather Rubinstein, crossing out poem and writing in painting; Poem by Raphael Rubinstein, transcribed from an interview with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, where Rubinstein's poem replaced Murphy's original use of the word band. Courtesy of the artist.

Version 1: Lifestyle

I started writing my third novel, Class, in 2011. A couple years later, Kanye West told the New York Times that while he was working on his newly released album, Yeezus, in 2012, “this one Corbusier lamp was like, my greatest inspiration.” I had industrial design and the modern consumer experience on my mind then, too: the iPhone 4; British Airways’ all-business-class flight, BA1; the new residential developments on the Williamsburg waterfront; cocaine. Before my novels take shape, a handful of images and objects emerge as totems. For my first novel, it was a Jim O’Rourke album for Editions Mego and the jagged face of a granite mountain. Characters are never involved in complex plots in my books; as in my life, they dabble in Girardian triangles, or squares—it’s their circumstances I’m most interested in.

Right around the time I started thinking about Class, my parents happened to buy tickets for the all-business-class flight. They flew from London to JFK via somewhere in Ireland, where they precleared US customs quickly and efficiently, far from America’s incoming crowds. Every seat on the Airbus A318 was comfortable and folded out into a bed. The subtle work of trying to determine what precise stratum of the upper middle class one belonged to was starting to resemble medieval theology.

I also found myself lingering on the view out the window of the Hell’s Kitchen apartment my parents owned at the time. A photographer I was hanging out with in New York, in parks and cafés, would occasionally corner me to tell me that my parents had picked the wrong neighborhood. (He was living in Park Slope.) All this jockeying for social position—which I was a part of even when I wasn’t—was giving me vertigo. And for better or worse, the best jockeying in the Western world seemed to be happening in New York. There was a cloud of congested desire hanging over the city, and I was drawn to it. I started taking notes about New York the way the people in Close Encounters start sculpting that mountain out of mashed potatoes and shaving cream. Class would be my American novel, even though I was still writing in Italian. In order to tell a certain kind of story of upper-middle-class delusions, I had to get my characters on a flight to JFK.

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