An Interview with Peter Mountford Seattle, WA · November 2014 · Interviewed by Connor Guy
Peter Mountford is the author of two novels—A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, which won the Washington State Book Award, and The Dismal Science, a New York Times Editor’s Choice. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, Conjunctions, Salon, and Boston Review. He lives in Seattle and works as an events curator for Hugo House, where he also teaches.
Your first novel was called A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, and the second and latest, which I have here in front of me, is The Dismal Science—after Thomas Carlyle’s famous term for economics, I’m guessing. So even just from your titles one can intuit that economics is a prominent concern in your work. Why did you decide to center so much of your writing around economics?
These two books are linked to each other in a number of ways, and economics is one of the main bridges between them. The first book tells of this young guy who works for a hedge fund, he’s been broke for a while, so he’s alarmed and delighted to be suddenly making this enormous, laughable amount of money. He also feels like he doesn’t belong in this place—or any place, maybe. And he thinks, ‘Well let me just see how long I can trick these people into keeping me on the payroll.’ I felt this way myself as a kid—maybe everyone does. The second book, The Dismal Science, tells of this middle-aged Italian vice president at the World Bank—he’s a career economist—who is also struggling with his sense of identity. His relationship to money is very different, of course. He’s ready to retire early.
So both books deal with the subtle and pervasive ways that money operates on us: how we lust after it, how we hate it, we’re ashamed of it. It’s everywhere, and people refuse to talk about it honestly. “What do you do?” is the question people ask at parties. They mean profession, of course, but it’s all code for money, too, and yet the verb is so general it could mean anything. What do I do? I breathe and sleep and eat. “How much are you worth?” is the corollary question, but we don’t ask that of people because it’s thought of as crude. We talk about it in gossip magazines, but not to someone’s face.
Still, this is all in our guts—capitalism is tattooed onto the DNA of people who are born and raised in the U.S. Upper middle class people are sort of aware of this, and like to act horrified by it, which is why they don’t ever want to talk about money. You’re more likely to know the dirty details of someone’s divorce, than the dirty details of their bank account.
The flap copy on The Dismal Science calls it “an exploration of the fragile nature of identity.” What brought this topic to your attention? Were you thinking about your own identity—as a writer or otherwise?
Like a lot of writers, I feel like an alien species. As a child I spent a few years in Sri Lanka during the early years of their civil war—we arrived about two weeks before the war broke out, and stayed for years. And then I returned to Washington DC, which is where everyone’s mask is surgically attached to their face. I was at a very preppy school, and I didn’t fit in at all—I was odd, I had this slight Sri Lankan accent, was listening to punk rock already. And a few months after we were back, I was in fourth grade, my mother died of lung cancer, pretty abruptly. So, if I wasn’t already an alien, now I was strange and I was marked by death. To complicate matters, I was also very outgoing and social, was tall and witty. So I wasn’t really a shy kid in the typical sense, but at the same time I found it almost impossible to participate in communal activities. I was always, after that, an observer of the strangeness of everything. And I think that way of interacting with the world sort of makes people into writers.
Well, in your identity as an observer then, I kind of saw this journalist character, Vincenzo’s friend Walter—is he a stand-in for you, or do you relate particularly to him?
No, no, I don’t think so—I mean, I can identify with Vincenzo and I can also identify with his daughter. My father was an executive at the IMF, so I know that world intimately. But I wasn’t outside protesting as Vincenzo’s daughter does. Still, I did always feel like I was trying on identities. But that’s a failing project. That’s the problem with Gabriel in A Young Man’s Guide—he truly believes he is no one, or that he can be whoever he wants to be in a given situation. He’s unaware of his center, of his true self, and it’s ruinous.
Vincenzo, meanwhile, is all too certain about who he is, and doesn’t care for it. He’s an accomplished individual in a lot of ways, but the sense of satisfaction from the achievement is gone. There’s just no pleasure to be had there. His wife died a few years earlier, his daughter has moved away. He doesn’t really have a community, he doesn’t necessarily believe in the moral imperatives of his job. And so he begins to realize that he had set up his life to have a certain type of existence, and it’s not going to work without his wife. All of the structures of his identity, the whole architecture of his sense of self, is in danger. And so he sets about a kind of kamikaze movement, a strategy of just breaking things that keep his identity intact, he’s just torpedoing himself into things in his life to further dismantle himself.
I think there’s a kind of natural fear about, ‘How far am I going to go toward erasure?’ But the reality is that complete self-erasure is impossible, short of suicide, and that doesn’t even work.
There’s a kind of myth—in our country in particular—about reinvention. Our popular culture promulgates this idea that you can be whatever you want to be, and that you can somehow remake yourself, that your history can be erased and you can then start over. And I think that is completely impossible. I think you cannot and should not attempt to erase your history. Mary Ruefle, at the beginning of Madness, Rack, and Honey, writes, ‘In life, the number of beginnings is exactly equal to the number of endings: no one has yet to begin a life who will not end it.’
You cannot pretend that your past is not your past—how could you squander your time like that, to reject a part of yourself? I think our job is less to try and reinvent ourselves than to sort of get right with our past and try to live with the things we have inherited from ourselves. Vincenzo’s a person who’s struggling with that, he’s looking at his past and finding not a lot that he is excited about.
What struck me about Vincenzo’s unraveling is that there’s a kind of passivity to his destruction; he’s profoundly ambivalent. It kind of reminded me of Bartleby the Scrivener. The world is entirely overwhelming to him, and he simply has no choice but to go along with it. Is this a position with which you sympathize?
Definitely. Growing up in DC, you come up against a lot of impossibly complex issues. I’d listen to people talk about, say, a gasoline subsidy in Brazil. There are easy answers that appeal to people on the left and the right, but the reality is that if you take this subsidy away, you might wreak havoc on millions of people’s lives. It’s terrible for the environment, but maybe it benefits some poor people. But then again, you could spend that money on schools and medicine instead of gasoline. And if you take it away, there’ll be riots in the streets. There isn’t a clear answer, and the more you learn about these things, they only get thornier and more complex. It’s paralyzing.
Personally, I want to honor complexity—political complexity, personal. I want to study people who are overwhelmed by the complexity but choose to act anyway, to overcome the paralysis.
Yeah, it’s kind of like, writing, isn’t it? You have to be arbitrary.
It does feel that way. Choices, in life, can feel terribly arbitrary. Should I go to Harvard or the University of Maryland? Everyone says ‘go to Harvard,’ but that’s madness—the Harvard people I know are often very tortured, they fail horribly and never recover. If you look at the lives of these people when they’re 36 years old—the Maryland grads and the Harvard grads—it’s not quite so clear why everyone’s scrambling to get into Harvard.
Once you stare at the question long enough, you realize you’ve built in certain assumptions that are kind of ludicrous. And I think that this is the case with most real questions in life. Once you get comfortable with that arbitrariness, it’s hard to make a decision without feeling like you’re putting a blindfold on and throwing a dart in approximate the direction of a dartboard.
People argue so much about politics and ideology in supposedly literary writing. Politics, international relations, the exercise of power between countries—these are all concerns you address in The Dismal Science, but you also do this clever thing where you refract extreme political stances through a character who is a little unbalanced and also incredibly ambivalent. How did you arrive at this decision?
Well, novels are stories about people, not ideas. That said, I love ideas—I love essays, in particular—and I feel that ideas per se resonate deeply and personally within my own existence. I live very much an idea-driven life. And it’s the same with these characters I write, I suppose. They’re self-reflexive, reasonably self-aware. But they’re not stand-ins for ideas. I really can’t stand to read allegory books—I just can’t sit through it, it’s too thudding. There are just waves of contrivance coming off the page. And it’s hard to take the thing seriously as a representation of the world we inhabit.
That said, I think it was Carolyn Forché who said that effective political writing erases the boundary between public and private discourse. This is very true.
I noticed that one way you handle this in The Dismal Science is with these passages that ponder topics ranging from Dante to Machiavelli to economic policy. They read like very engaging nonfiction and it’s not entirely clear whether they represent your protagonist Vincenzo’s thoughts, or yours. It blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. What are the opportunities of playing with that boundary? Why do you think so many fiction writers are afraid of doing so?
I love the energy and velocity of a good essay as much as I love the energy of good fiction. They’re different, yes, but I want them together, or at least I want them weaving together. But in writing classes people are forever wagging their fingers when you depart from the narrative march to talk about something interesting and relevant but perhaps grounded more in the drama of ideas than in the drama of events. Maybe this gesture is a bit tangential to the architecture of the story. So what? I get bored if it’s all just story, story, story.
Well, our journal’s mission is to bring Northwest writing, and especially the work of emerging writers, to a wider audience. And from the beginning, we’ve encountered this question of: ‘what, if anything, is distinct about Northwest writing?’ What do you think about that? In your own work and in the work of the writers in your community—is there a distinction to be made?
I don’t know what is distinct about Northwest writing. There’s a good deal of it, of course. Everyone from David Shields to Elizabeth George, Chuck Palahniuk. There are legions of genre authors, poets of all stripes. Sherman Alexie lives in Seattle, of course. I see no common ground, frankly. I just see oceans of reading and writing here. There aren’t a lot of writers of color here, and I wish there were more. I guess it’s related to the demographics of the area, but I also don’t think it’s that simple—that’s an easy cop out. I’ve taught a lot of incredibly talented teens who are black, for example—these young writers who seem bound for greatness. But then I never hear from them again. Maybe it’s just going to take some time, but I think we need to pay attention, too.
When I interviewed Ryan Boudinot for the previous issue, he talked about his feeling that Seattle is on the verge of a literary renaissance—do you see that, too?
Absolutely. There are several major literary events a week here—for a city of this size, that’s quite strange. We have so many fantastic indie bookstores, libraries, literary centers. People always blame the weather—Tim Egan wrote a piece for the Times about that a couple years ago. I think there’s some truth to this. It’s miserable out nine months of the year, and so people go inside, and there’s only so much TV you can watch.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.