David James Keaton writes highly inventive hybrid novels that cross genres. He has a new book out, Fish Bites Cop!, a subversive mixture of prose styles that threaten the status quo of those who seek certainties within the genre heavy side of fiction. He is an author who refuses to yield to the dictates of those who wish to curtail the innovations of the novel. David met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about mutation and dialectic.
Tell us about your new book and whether you think hybrids are stronger than cops.
“Fish Bites Cop! is a collection of horror, dark crime, pulp, and slipstream lampoonery that gleefully rips on police officers, security guards, organized religion, firefighters, police officers, bounty hunters, dyslexic paramedics with dog complexes, police officers, military, middle management, and even more police officers. Bad cop movies are usually just bad cop movies. It’s time they paid for it.”
Who’s stronger? Right out of the gate with a riddle, eh! Okay, I’m thinking there are several answers here, since there are several kinds of hybrids. First, we’ll talk about the car. Since Heisenberg on Breaking Bad drives a hybrid, and since he’s successfully eluded every branch of law enforcement for so long, I would say hybrid cars are stronger than cops. Also, that car was directly used as a murder weapon at least once. So it’s also stronger than robbers. Next up, hybrid people. Whenever I think about hybrid people, I think about either Patricia Piccinini’s beautifully horrible sculptures or The Island of Doctor Moreau. So I would say, based on the Wells’ book and the movie versions, and how every adaptation ends with a revolt against authority due to the brutal form of law-enforcement delivered in the “House of Pain” (or the electric-fence form of discipline in the Brando remake), that human hybrids are stronger. Finally, what about hybrid cops? That’s a very good question. And at first glance, someone might say Robocop proves the effectiveness of hybrid cops pretty definitively. But only if you haven’t seen Robocop 2. So here’s the clip that settles that debate.
And don’t get me started on the Robocop remake, which seems to be a hybrid of man, cop, and Power Ranger. So my final answer is that the only hybrids not stronger than cops are hybrid cops.
Thinking of The Island of Dr. Moreau, do you think mutation is the future?
If mutation is the second-most important thing driving evolution like science tells us (next to natural selection), I would answer yes. But this reminds me of something David Thewlis said in one of my all-time favorite movies, Mike Leigh’s Naked (I won’t even say “something David Thewlis’ character said” because legend has it most of this movie was ad-libbed anyway), so I’ll springboard off that:
“Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday…and just as that froggy could never possibly have conceived of Shakespeare, so we can never possibly imagine our destiny.” – Thewlis as Johnny as Thewlis
See how it’s probably no coincidence that David Thewlis was also in the horrible remake of Island of Dr. Moreau? Although I think he was originally cast as the Val Kilmer character and they swapped ’em out (which was terrible for the movie, but fun for Val Kilmer). But I would agree with him, mostly just because it’s a lot of fun to say “fish to fowl to fowl to frog to frog to mammal…” which I do sing every chance I get. So I agree completely about us not being able to imagine our destiny, because obviously it’s more idiotic than any of us could possibly comprehend. I mean, look at me. I quoted an actor bullying right past a writer in order to bastardize a philosopher. The froggy had no idea how fucking ridiculous we’d end up. Then again, there’s that one frog that routinely tries to eat things it can’t swallow, and it dies looking real stupid. So fuck him. Google “frog” and “Christmas tree light” and you’ll see an example of the Future Frog I’m talking about. But don’t Google “frog mutations” because you will be staring right into the monstrous face of our thousand-eyed, eight-legged, spiderfrog destination. They used to say you could judge a society by the nature of its prisoners. But in reality you can judge a society by the nature of its frogs.
Mike Leigh is famous for his use of improvisation. Do you think we are losing our ability to improvise and if so why?
I think people are certainly less likely to think fast on their feet these days and talk their way out of a situation, which is tragic. The dull-witted, the slow-witted – they’re the quickest to resort to violence. When was the last time a verbal victor punched someone in the face right after they got off a great zinger that psychologically destroyed their opponent? What a bad sport that person would be. Actually that might be hilarious. Depending on who is in the wheelchair. Some great specimens of “improv” I used to seek out were videos of stand-up comics dealing with hecklers. I’d watch hours of that stuff. Watching them halt their shows to verbally decimate drunks in increasingly creative ways was quite a thrill. Like watching a well-oiled athlete make the big play (or deal with a stray animal on the field). But lately, the heckler ammo seems overly prepared in these YouTube clips, as if the heckling is always expected. Which means that we’re not really thinking on our feet when we take these jokers down, and there’s no need for celebration anymore. We’re not witty. We’re just stacking up possible comebacks in the mirror as we always anticipate a probable world of altercations. Don’t let Travis Bickle fool ya. This is no way to live.
Is there a particular event that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
I once read about how when Nietzsche first started using a typewriter (a necessity when he started going blind and had to retire the quill), this machine affected not just his writing, but his actual philosophy. The short, staccato bursts of thought that came out of those keys turned his work into something like telegrams, memorable sharp statements that look great on epigraphs (or epitaphs). Not necessarily better, but different. I found a similar thing happening (or maybe more the opposite, but a noticeable change nonetheless) the more I mastered new forms of typing technology (I started out with handwritten stories in notebooks, then moved to the Smith Corona, the abacus, etc.) And the faster and more accurately I could get my words down, the better I thought I’d become at achieving the more conversational voice I was always reaching for. I still hope that as insane as my prose can get, it still could be a story someone rattles off from the passenger’s seat of a car. But sometimes I worry if the speed sacrifices the benefits of an internal zero draft, like that invisible step before the first draft, a filtering that happens somewhere halfway down your arm before the words leave the fingertips and hit the screen. Maybe slower equals smarter, and we’re leaving this further in the dust with every ergonomic set of keys. So it was probably my job close-captioning that really ruined me forever. Specifically, my former job typing the captions for reality television and/or “gonzo” pornography. This basically means I would be given a video depicting a roomful of unscripted assholes battling to talk over each other at all times (sometimes actual assholes). And I would have to type exactly what they were saying. This forced me to learn a keyboard like some people learn a guitar.
Do you think we live in an era where people are increasingly socially engineered?
I actually researched social engineering last year when I had a bit of a David Mamet resurgence while working on another project, revisiting those tricky smooth con artists of House of Games and Spanish Prisoner (who also talk in telegrams). Those are two long-con flicks that are very entrenched in the social engineering aspects of manipulation, especially “pretexting,” that part of the con early on where you have to lead your victim into your storyline in order to make them think it’s their own idea. This way, the scammer can dovetail his or her scam into the narrative so the entire thing seems like a natural progression of an original conversation. So when you ask if people are becoming increasingly socially engineered, I’d have to say, “Hell, yes!” Sticking with pretexting, this is precisely what’s going on every time some fool asks you about your day with the intent of telling you about their own. Every time someone introduces a topic only to miraculously make you feel bad with their surprise ending of bad news. Every time someone asks you if you liked a movie, book, or song before they reveal their own opinion of it. So if you find that you’re getting more and more frustrated with people who get in the last word, maybe it isn’t the last word at all. It’s the first word. And it came out of your own mouth. Another thing about “pretexting” is that it sounds like something you’d do with your phone. This is no accident. Studies show that texting while driving is the equivalent to a 0.8 blood alcohol level. So pretexting while driving, which may be defined as what – thinking about leading a text-message conversation in a direction that’s ultimately beneficial to your thumbs? This would probably be equal to a blood alcohol level of 3.9. So in conclusion, pretexting can get you killed. Just as pre-ejaculate can get you pregnant.
Do you think both characters in Mamet’s Oleanna are socially engineered and what does the play tell us about ideology and Hegel’s dialectic?
Oh, man. Oleanna. I’ve only seen it fifteen times, so I haven’t quite figured it out yet. Near as I can tell, the play, which supposedly had couples arguing on their way to their cars about who was right, Carol or John, and contained an overall message that was quite the mystery, is all but revealed in the movie version where the acting is less stagey and more “method” (at least as close as crazy Mamet can get to realism with human speech), where Carol becomes excruciatingly wrong with her escalation of obtuse horribleness. So if we were to treat the entire play as a con (this is, of course, if we’re still talking about the deceptive versions of social engineering, right? Not the poli-sci (pronounced “Polly Sigh”) version where parenthesis can comfortably exist within parenthesis), then an argument could be made that Carol is employing the “quid pro quo” technique of social engineering, and she randomly went to every professor she had, feigning helplessness, until one of them blustered into her trap, smug with confidence from his big new house purchase and promise of tenure and ready to lower his guard long enough to be snared and eaten by political correctness. Now, if we instead think of John as the main engineer (in the play), here you might have not quite a con man, but maybe someone who cultivates a harem of sycophants by dealing out average grades until they come to sit at his feet with all those books climbing the walls behind him like goons with their arms crossed over black T-shirts.
As far as ideology, that’s a pretty rich word, but I take you to mean the German sense of false consciousness, which I definitely see operating in the way neither Carol nor John seem fully convinced of their own position, never aware of the roles they’re playing and the consequences of their actions. It’s damn frustrating to watch them appear so out of control of the impressions they’re making on each other and the escalating effects of that. And a bit of blame could fall on Mamet for yanking their strings in directions where the audiences screamed, “What?! He/she would never do that!” (actually, who’s to say what a bone fide “he-she” would do, as a hermaphrodite watching a Mamet play would likely have to argue with him/herself all the way to the car). But maybe that then makes us reflect on the ways we are out of control in language, all caught in that spinning whirl of human action and history. I don’t know if the promise of the dialectic (of synthesis, movement toward the concrete from abstraction and alienation) is achieved in that. Maybe it is for Carol, who reveals the implicit contradictions and slippages in John’s highly abstract approach to their material relations. I’ve never thought of it this way before, but I’ll rewatch the film with it mind. So that’ll make a sweet sixteen viewings, which has got to be a luckier number.
Ben Jonson wrote some of the greatest plays about confidence tricksters from The Alchemist to Volpone. Do you think ultimately people con themselves and all a con artist needs to do is tap into their belief structure?
Yeah, The Alchemist endures because of how much fun it is to see greedy people deserving to be scammed, but I think that play’s other legacy is the way it has influenced thousands of crime novels and films with the simplicity of its opening – by starting things off with a group of criminals (the same people who can so easily run rampant over the rest of the populace), already at each others’ throats. We want to see them make fools out of people, but only if they’re made fools by the end.
So, yes, I think tapping into our flawed belief structure is a good shortcut for the well-crafted con. The basis really. To quote Mike, the slick con artist in House of Games, oilier than an athlete, who’s operating about three levels deep so he can openly confess his ultimate crime to the victim any time he wants, “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”
Of course that’s how it works. We’re such needy creatures that this is the easiest thing in the world.
How much satire exists in your fictions?
In my new collection Fish Bites Cop!, there are probably a half dozen instances of overt satire. That’s if I really know what it is. I guess I use it as a crutch sometimes, hoping people confuse the heartfelt with the satirical and “vice” versa, this way both are easier to swallow. “Three Abortions & A Miscarriage (A Fun What If?)” has some of the most obvious Swiftian satire in the book (not to say it’s about eating babies or anything, because it’s way worse than that). And the western “Three Ways Without Water (or The Day Roadkill, Drunk Driving, and the Electric Chair Were Invented)” is exactly what the title advertises, even though some readers thought I was joking. So, yes, plenty of satire, accidental or otherwise. And speaking of plays, I did stick a little play in the middle of the book, called “Friction Ridge (or Beguiling The Bard In Three Acts).” It’s a combo of satire and love letter to Shakespeare and buddy cop movies. Maybe a love letter to the ’80s arcade game Tempest, too. This play was acted out once at the University of Pittsburgh, and only the truly sarcastic should apply (a certain N.W.A. song was cranked at the climax).
I just realized that those long story titles might give the wrong impression. So let me assure you that this book promises to deliver at least five of the dreaded one-word story titles we were always warned about as undergrads.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m revising a novel called The Last Projector. It was called The Last Projectionist, but I changed the name because of all the psychological “projecting” I realized was going on in there (before that it was called Spunkwater, a tribute to Tom Sawyer, but those were much simpler times). It contains three intersecting story lines, dealing mostly with a former paramedic turned porn director in the twilight of his career, and also details the mystery surrounding the cover-up of an assault in the back of an ambulance by some noble but misguided paramedics. One paramedic finds himself implicated in rape and subsequently murder when his attempts to spare a woman from the knowledge of her own assault backfires. This woman digs deeper into her own case, at first simply to discover who fathered her child, but then uncovers a deeper corruption among hospital staff and dangerously inept local law enforcement. There’s plenty of grappling with reality, and at least one use of a drive-in movie screen to bring the three story lines together in a way that (as of March 7th, 3:55 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) has never been attempted before. The climax and last scene of the book clocks in at 200 pages right now, which sounds crazier than it is in context. I’ll be sending out queries in a couple weeks.
What else in your novel has never been attempted before?
I’m pretty sure this will be the first book where a villain masturbates into Venus Flytraps. I know this because when I search for any possible variation of this on the internet, the results are only my own conversations where I’ve brought this up in an interview for no good reason. Again. This is what happens when I pretext while driving.
Thank you David for a great and perceptive interview.
Read more about ‘Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities’ at Comet Press.
You can pre-order Fish Bites Cop! at Amazon.com.