A Man on the Run Escapes His Life, but Not His Identity
Jonathan Dee explores the radicalization of white male anger in the novel "Sugar Street"
Jonathan Dee’s new novel, Sugar Street, is a fantastic subversion of an old American story. The nameless white man, sinful, remorseful, arrives in a new town with a hope to start again—except in Dee’s version, rather than westward, the man has gone east. He avoids the freeways—“full of libertarian possibility”—because he’s worried about cameras. He lacks the practical bravado of a Hollywood drifter, suffers various humiliations from his landlord, a physically imposing and ambiguously employed woman who refers to our hero as a cuck and laughs at his attempt to grow a beard, and his new moral life initially involves talking to himself in the library, eating candy bars in his room, and imagining the lives of children who pass beneath his window on their way to school.
Most notable, though, is that rather than calculated silence, Dee’s narrator engages in a spectacular linguistic event: the rant. It is a form that seems tailored to the enraged white man. Because this is also the thing about Dee’s version: our narrator is a man of privilege who is spottily self-aware, but his increasing anger at the state of a Trumpian America—his anger toward what he perceives as colonial American military efforts, his anger at protestors who, despite being sympathetic toward their views, he finds presumptuous for their faith in their efforts—delivers him to a logical and radical conclusion.
Just as satire can critique through its comedic exaggeration in representing systems of power, misanthropy in the novel can critique contemporary injustices through its ecstatic delivery of its barbs. This is what Dee has tapped into with Sugar Street: an entertaining and enlivening cynicism that belongs to the tradition of Celine, Bernhard, Gaddis, Williams. As a former student of Dee’s, I was eager for the chance to talk with him about his eighth novel, which is an aesthetic shift from his earlier books, such as his last, The Locals, and the Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Privileges.
Alexander Sammartino: This book is different for you in a lot of ways. What inspired the change?
Jonathan Dee: In my case, after you’ve been doing this for a while, some of your aesthetic choices are reactive. You wonder what would happen if you tried to do something you’ve never done. So that was part of it. But honestly, the other part is that these have been bad years. Bad years to be alive in a lot of ways. And it seemed to me that my usual approach—the panoramic, multiple POVs surrounding a single problem—seemed less and less representative of the current moment. One angry guy alone in a room, feeling trapped in that perspective, this felt like the way to go.
The book started out as a point of view experiment. I wanted to begin with a first-person narrator who was on the run from something. Then I wanted that “I” to disappear from the book, to morph into something like a straight up objective third-person, and then you would have to keep reminding yourself that, no, there’s nothing objective about this. But I couldn’t get as interested in what this figure was supposed to be narrating as I was in the figure himself.
AS: What about the character interested you so much?
JD: He’s a self-identified liberal white man, a right-thinking guy who thinks he’s evolved away from the worst aspects of his own demographic peer group, in terms of knee-jerk responses touching on masculinity and especially on race. He thinks he can step outside the aspects of his own identity that were historically bequeathed to him, so to speak. He discovers that he can’t, or at any rate that he hasn’t. He sees some disadvantaged, non-white children (surveils them, by the way, in exactly the way he objects to being surveilled himself), and he wants to “help” them, with the aid of an envelope full of money; what that money represents, where it came from, by what stretch of the imagination it is, or should be, his to be “generous” with at all: these are all classic white-liberal ideas that are more or less trampled by his excitement at the opportunity to feel good about himself. What it comes down to, mostly, is that, as a white man, he considers himself to be at the center of his own story, in the driver’s seat in terms of what’s happening to him, always. When he learns definitively that he is not—when the thing that he flattered himself he had “accepted” actually happens to him—he snaps.
Of course, if you want your likely reader to identify with a character like this, to find points of sympathetic contact with what he says or what he believes, you have to start with yourself. All such examinations, for a contemporary white writer, have to begin with self-examination, or else you’re just indulging in a kind of morally simplistic self-soothing, in what amounts to fan-fiction about yourself. There are plenty of heinous white people already running around in the world, you don’t need to invent fictional ones just so you and your readers will have someone to feel superior to. That’s artistic child’s play—worse than that, really. You have to lure the reader (and yourself) in the direction of a mirror, and then let them look into it. This is where the distinction between “craft” and “theme” becomes meaningless, by the way, because first-person narration is inseparable from the process I’m describing. Reader and writer have to cohabit, consciousness-wise, with this guy. The moment you let them examine him from the outside, you’ve given them a moral parachute.
AS: I’m curious: what initially brought you to these themes of whiteness, maleness, and extremism?
JD: There’s a lot of preaching to the choir in contemporary fiction. I don’t want to do it. You have to think about whom you’re writing for—I don’t mean in an abstract, ideal-reader way, I mean literally, who’s reading your stuff—and you particularly have to think about that if you’re a middle-aged cis-het white male novelist named Jonathan, for Christ’s sake. I wanted to write about white anger, that panicked white pushback, and I wanted to write a story about a somewhat ordinary man becoming radicalized. It’s so easy to other a character like that, to write an origin story about some Trump supporter that pretends to empathize with him while really manufacturing—and sharing with the reader—a sense of superiority to him, a sense of heroically overcoming one’s own revulsion. A book that confirms the biases (mostly correct biases, don’t get me wrong) of the reader most likely to pick up a book by me in the first place. No thanks.
AS: I remember back in your class on realism, we talked about the novel’s relationship to the moment in which it is written, and you mentioned the shitty times we’re currently living through. Do you feel there’s an unavoidable connection between the content of a novel and the state of affairs at the time it’s written? Like you as an author exist in a certain context, in a certain place and a certain time, so there’s something metaphysically impossible about removing yourself from that? Or do you think that, like, the responsibility of the novel is to capture what its current moment feels like?
JD: The novel or novelist has no such obligations. In terms of myself, I’ve occasionally thought about writing something that steps outside of the moment in which I’m living. But it’s not me. I can’t do it. And that’s only gotten truer as things have gotten more, you know, horrible. For me, the reason to spend my life writing has always been that it’s a way to try to make sense of what it means to be alive in this time and place.
AS: The narrator riffs on the line “silence equals violence.” He says: “Politically, I guess you could say that I’m a progressive. I firmly believe that everything about human society is progressing toward its end.” There’s a breakdown in the language that ultimately brings the narrator toward extremism. What does a distrust of language ultimately mean as the narrator becomes increasingly radicalized?
JD: Well, that was one formative, early idea I had for the book: to write about someone being radicalized. But most of the paths to that end, narratively speaking, are so simple or familiar as to not be worth pursuing. I wanted to find a different but still convincing way to get there.
Unsurprisingly, this narrator is full of contradictory impulses, if not outright hypocrisy. He talks a lot about the importance of being silent, but he continues to talk. He thinks he’s visualizing the world without him in it, but he actually can’t do that. Until the end, when he finally accomplishes what he sort of thought he was doing, or maybe just lacked the courage to do, all along. He embraces the idea of subtraction.
AS: In removing himself from the Internet, which is the more likely route, as you said, toward radicalization, there’s this suggestion of something internal that can bring us toward the same sort of extremism.
JD: The narrator thinks he’s decentralizing himself, but he still has a bunch of money, and he wants to give that money away. There’s an instinct, a reflex, toward control. It makes him feel good to give his power away. He can decide who gets it, and when, and how much; he’s still at the center, even though he imagines that he’s disappearing. This is where the book, I think, connects specifically to the idea of a certain kind of whiteness. The narration in the beginning of the book is self-flattering, right? He acts like he’s an outlaw, he thinks that he’s the mystery. But in the end, it’s the mystery that destroys him.
Part of his inability to give up his centrality is embodied in the existence of the book itself. He says right at the beginning that he’s not making any written record of what he’s doing. So it’s a kind of real time self-narration for him. It’s him talking to himself. Even at the end, his “manifesto”—I imagine him just muttering that manifesto to himself as he walks through the parking lot. Given the fact that no one will ever know what he’s saying, his choice to withhold names—his own name, the name of the city he travels to, the last name of a child he meets—the withholding of information, as if he’s still being pursued, as if he’s still eluding people, that’s just narcissism. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t confess everything, because it’s never going to exist anywhere outside his head anyway. But even in his head, he depends upon the idea of an audience.
AS: I want to ask about Celine. I don’t know if that was someone you had in mind, but I just couldn’t help but think of the comedy and the anger in Celine’s work. In Celine, that anger is more political compared to someone like Bernhard, I think, where the anger is more personal. I’m interested to hear what sort of aesthetic traditions you had in mind as you were working on Sugar Street.
JD: Those Celine books were important to me a long time ago. The difference here is that Celine was fundamentally writing as Celine. I’m definitely not writing as this guy. I might use him occasionally to smuggle in critical attitudes toward things I don’t like. But in the end, I’m critical mostly of him. So there’s a little bit more of a divide. A far as the anger goes, Celine’s narrators are never in any real doubt about why they’re angry. One of the things I wanted to capture about my narrator is the sense that he doesn’t always know what triggers it or where it comes from. It often makes no sense. It’s stupid. And yet, it can’t be denied, that masculine anger. This guy has a residual reactionary pride that he insists he doesn’t have. But then when he’s put under duress, he’s shocked to discover that it’s still there. At first by choice, then later against his will, the layers of him get peeled back and these received notions of masculinity, these received notions of whiteness, etc., that he thought he had shed himself of, turn out to still be there inside him.
An essential American idea—maybe the essential American idea, particularly as it pertains to literature—is that you have the license to invent yourself, that you are not bound by what you inherit. In the world, say, that Balzac was born into, what you possessed was what your parents and grandparents had possessed, and to a significant extent, your fate, your very nature, was predetermined. The circumstances you were born into were exceptionally hard to escape. So the radical, new-world idea was that you weren’t necessarily defined by things that happened before you were born. This represented freedom and possibility: escaping your heritage, your legacy, leaving all that behind and deciding for yourself who you are. So suddenly, post 2016 or so, I felt like I was hearing that classic American idea expressed a lot—not in a classroom, but out in the world, only it was the other side of the coin: same language, same idea, but it had curdled into a reactionary, white idea. It was defensive. “I’m not to blame,” right? “It’s not fair to blame me for what came before me. You can’t blame me for my privilege, my inheritance, my legacy. I didn’t do any of that. That wasn’t me. I get to decide who I am.” Suddenly the idea is not forward-looking or freedom-embracing. It’s angry and self-pitying and divisive.
Writers—maybe other kind of artists, too—but for writers there’s this knee-jerk sense that hope is our brand. That we might be writing critically about the world, but in the end you have to wind up on a note of love, of optimism and belief in human nature. “I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail,” right? And you know what? I’m not feeling it. Maybe that will change. But I wanted to embrace the dark with this book. I didn’t want to write another book that circled back reflexively to faith in human nature, because I feel like we’re demonstrating that human nature is kind of the issue in most ways. Novels are anthropocentric., that’s pretty hard to escape. Maybe, if we fancy ourselves the solution, we can at least sit for a bit with the idea that we’re the problem.