POSSESSION IN THE GAME: An Interview with Thomas Kendall

POSSESSION IN THE GAME: An Interview with Thomas Kendall

Surfaces. With How I Killed the Universal Man (Whiskey Tit Books, 2023) Thomas Kendall probes a foreshadowed future, where the chemical world becomes virtual. Environmental collapse backdrops a society dependent on its own breakdown, where, by a process of osmosis, the surfaces we need in order to touch each other dissolve. Wielding genre as an extension of his will, Kendall has delivered a novel equal parts neon drenched neo-noir and philosophical inquiry. I spoke to the author about this exhilarating book.


Rebecca Gransden: For me, Lakerman’s journalistic assignment performs an investigative function that is mirrored by the novel’s interrogation of reality. What was your intention for the book at the conceptual level?

Thomas Kendall: Wow, thank you. That’s such a generous insight and really key to the conceptual framework of the novel. I wanted to write a book about narrative which was simultaneously extremely narratively driven and encompassing all the traditional pleasures of plot. The only way I could conceive of doing this was through noir. Noir uses style to mitigate the confusion of an incomprehensible reality and places the reader in the position of the detective. This allows an immersion via style in the subsequent investigation or mystery. The book is also supposed to be structured in such a way that it becomes more ‘game-like’ as it progresses. I wanted the reader in a sense to ‘play’ as John Lakerman, so the slightly distanced identification the reader felt with him, coupled with certain recognisably appropriated and warped aspects of genre, would, as the novel progressed, cause the reader to call into question their own agency.

In many ways How I Killed The Universal Man is conceptually the opposite of my first novel The Autodidacts. I think if The Autodidacts is in some way a book about writing eg the creation of a structure to house an unfixable emotion then How I Killed The Universal Man is a book about reading and what it is to possess or actively try to take on the shape of another consciousness.

I had a childhood anxiety about telepathy, that people could read my mind, and this anxiety very much fed into the conception of the novel. The traditional representation of telepathy is very language heavy, reading a mind etc. However, I started to think that the concept of telepathy, a real telepathy, would necessarily go beyond language, especially given that so little of our experience is really articulated, even internally to ourselves. In fact, most of the time when we are summoned into language it’s really difficult to explain the most basic things. Genuine telepathy, I thought, would be impossible as it would involve the becoming of the other person and a total ego death. However, conceiving of telepathy in this manner gave me a way out of having to talk about language as a way of knowing and instead to think about it as another non-rational, and wholly prosthetic, sense organ.

I think literature as a technology is still so advanced. It’s almost like a forgotten technology at this point. It is absolutely a form of magic. The act of reading is an act of possession and thinking about that in relation to games, where the illusion of choice often becomes a faculty of skill, was really productive when it came to structure certain scenes in the novel.

RG: Everyone, he had written, knew identity was incoherent, reductive and fundamentally unstable, a series of nodal points in a complex and interrelated network the scope of which was too fraught to ever really cohere or integrate enough into an ‘individual.’ And yet everyone was still taught to individualise. This created powerless individuals addicted to the system of individualisation, a lobotomised self. You, by dint of loss. It had been this castrated individualisation that had led to the burnt nerve ending of the earth, environmental collapse, commodified nihilism. People knew this in their hearts, he wrote, knew that they had suffered a profound loss.

Lakerman’s journey is defined by the question of identity, and identity is perhaps the book’s central theme. What prompted you to undertake such a close analysis?

TK: The short but truthful answer is… I don’t know. The glib and truthful answer is: The book was its own prompt. However, the relationship between subjectivity and identity is an ongoing theme for me and is something that perhaps links my first novel The Autodidacts and How I Killed The Universal Man.

I think identity by definition acts as a boundary and boundaries by definition function to delimit or contain. This is not necessarily a bad thing but worth questioning. The concept of the ‘individual’ as it stands within the ideology of western civilisation/capitalism is fundamentally promoted as the ethical good and an ontological truth but any practicing individual is basically intolerable to society. So, it was interesting to think about the way the focus on the self, on individuality as a given, ultimately disempowers and curtails our experience of reality. How divorced we become from the fundamentally relational nature of existence. How difficult it is to organize for any idea of a greater good. I think I’ve always been more interested in the experience of a thought, its structure, than I necessarily am about its content. The action of a thought, its experience as a thought, always ruptures or disturbs the sitting identity and as such I think identity is something always in flux or at worst tectonic.

Which isn’t to say that identity isn’t of importance. It’s clearly inescapable as a category and with all too real and tragic consequences for those whose identities are marginalized and scapegoated. I want to make it clear that I’m not devaluing in any way the struggle for identities or dismissing the very real histories of trauma or the pride anyone might, and should, take in serving their communities etc. However, within the fight for liberation there is always an underlying goal of escaping the reduction of identity. This suggests the paradox of individualism requires a loss of, or freedom from, identity even as it requires identification for recognition.

RG: The body is under scrutiny throughout the novel. From data mining at a bodily and cellular level to surveillance from apps and implants, the physical faces assessment and mapping from many channels. What use is the body in the world of How I Killed The Universal Man?

TK: The body, I think, is the central setting of the book. It’s seen as both the grounds of possibility, a terrain and the final limit to transgress. However, since it has also been relentlessly subjugated by a culturally ingrained dualism and reduced to an appendage by capitalism, it’s simultaneously the ultimate source of frustration. Something to bypass with drugs and entertainment. A minefield of desires in which desire is always towards physical death. I think it’s extremely indicative that there’s a persistent fantasy of the bodiless ego, you know, the idea that consciousness could be uploaded untethered from the body? If you could divorce consciousness from the body it would basically be a portal to hell as far as I can imagine.

I was quite ill a while back and I had this epiphany post-fever, post-vomit and post what felt like a series of samba-like death rattles, about how the particular horror of being violently sick is this demonstration of how little bearing what you consider yourself to be has on the processes of your body. The ‘I’ is so centralized and privileged in our general perspective but its impact on the body is so negligible, and when you’re sick it reveals exactly how conditional consciousness is. There’s this impenetrable reality beneath or behind, or effectively parallel, to our thought and I found that quite an interesting idea to explore in terms of agency.

RG: The intermingling of the biological and technical, genetic code and computer code, both at a material and symbolic level, is addressed in the book, but what seems to be of greater significance is the transfer and exploitation of information. Biological processes are analyzed, deconstructed, isolated, and controlled, while at the same time subject to categorisation in alignment with the computational language of statistics and the machine. What was your approach to this aspect of the book?

TK: Those elements exist at the density they do in order to demonstrate the qualitative element which invariably escapes analysis, which evades categorisation. I think this aspect of the book is a critique of rationality and disputes the possibility of quantifying experience even as the methods by which data is curated become increasingly invasive. I don’t want to keep saying it’s capitalism but there’s unquestionably a similar process involved in the act of rationalization and the act of commodification. Baudrillard was right to point out that information has a corrosive effect on meaning but I think behind that corrosion there remains an insoluble potential which has yet to undergo, and might be able to reformulate, the processes of meaning. Yes, data and information are arguably objectively real but are they exhaustive of the total? What they point to remains unquantifiable. To act as if they were the Truth of our behaviors, or sufficient to understand them, seems to me wilfully myopic. I very much side with the notion of the qualitative even as a materialist. I think there are immeasurable truths. There’s beauty in the recognition of the inexplicable. And there’s something inexpressibly worthwhile in that recognition which I think can only be achieved through its failure.

RG: How I Killed The Universal Man presents a world filled with absurdities and contradictions, where packaging is recyclable while the world burns and plant burgers are engineered to mimic flesh and blood. The commodification of ethics seems not to have been the result of a nefarious plot, but the outcome of the convergence and gradual dominance of systems. How do you view the book’s relationship to ethics?

TK: In a sense the novel hinges on the response to an ethical question the reader can, if they want to, elaborate upon. It’s the novel’s final level. My general standpoint is that what is ethical increases possibility. What is possible calls into question any fatalism. To maintain a belief that things can be otherwise. That’s where the hope is.

I think depressingly there is no nefarious plot, although the existence of Edward Bernays suggests some svengali-like powers of manipulation and intentionality on the part of capital, but I do think there’s an argument to be made that corporations are actually demonic life-forms we have conjured from another reality through the blood rituals of profit. They meet all the conditions for life: They eat, breathe, reproduce and shit all at a scale we can barely comprehend. The economy is the ultimate ‘mythic’ beast etc. The beast that has come to swallow the world.

The satirical element of the novel revolves around the commodification of health and what are essentially correct ethical decisions and the way those attempts to life-style an idea, to pre-package its meaning, not only appropriate but actively piss on and ruin any potential communicative authenticity. So that what might have been possible through those forms gets tangled up in a process opposed to its aims. Ethics or the health of the public body only becomes a genuine concern when it threatens the market. Therefore, the market’s embrace of ethics is never taken up from an ethical position and so the moral also becomes subsumed by the way the logic of capital unhinges itself in order to swallow its own bullshit.

RG: At several points the question of the artificial and the authentic, the synthetic and the organic, the natural and manmade is raised. The book explores the idea that these distinctions in themselves are based on false assumptions. What inspired you to examine this area?

TK: I think this is where the notion of autopoiesis really influenced the novel. Autopoiesis views life in terms of a kind of self-constructing machine. The construction of an autopoietic system is not concerned with ‘truth’ but rather interpretation at the point of existence. Our perception of reality is determined by the material conditions of our biology even as our biology is subject to change.

The question isn’t whether the response to reality is correct, only if it is internally coherent enough under certain conditions to exist within reality. There is no ultimate view, or any object that can be perceived from all perspectives. So, fundamentally we can’t define nature, as nature contains within it the virtual potential of things to come into being. All things that exist must shelter themselves from their conditions through form.

In an interview I read between you and Bryan Allen Carr he says ‘there is nothing unnatural in the entire universe.’ and I think this is absolutely the truth. Everything is the result of there being potential, a potential that is always virtual until it becomes actual. There is life and there is movement and there is a kind of grounds of possibility which I think artists are kind of duty bound to tend to.

RG: Hot evening air begins to sweep through the emptiness as Lakerman walks away from the sea and towards the wreckage of suburbia. He sees a pill-shaped carpark and a mouth and throat of empty Italian and Spanish restaurants, an abandoned CVS store, and a Trader Joe’s creaking with decrepit cutouts and long faded branding. This was what Lakerman had once thought of as template space. The architecture of lonely convenience, lego life. Exportable. The last owner of the CVS had foreclosed on the commercial property over sixty years ago and nobody had tried to buy or rent any space since. No one was interested in claiming the external now, Lakerman thought, space is distance, burden, a constant reminder of failure.

The book often sees the physical, material world in a melancholy light, and the narrative moves to include the fleshly body in these terms. What is the relationship of consciousness to the body in the novel?

TK: I’m kind of committed to the idea that consciousness and the body are so closely entwined as to render any attempt at categorisation a glitch in the logic of being? Since language can’t really handle that idea, the relationship between them is always in flux but with the constant that the body is a necessary condition for consciousness. The anxiety of consciousness is, of course, that it might be a complete illusion. An epiphenomenon or side effect, a trade off for getting opposable thumbs to twiddle. What if consciousness had no real effect on our actions and that all we could possibly hope to change is our relation to the inevitable? The question seems ridiculous given our first hand experience of ourselves but at the same time arguments for free will and, I think, a clear-sighted analysis of our own behaviors don’t convincingly suggest any kind of mastery or ability to choose. On the other hand, altering consciousness clearly alters what the body produces.

The melancholy and its relation to the body, which is the instrument of perception to begin with and which has to interface clumsily with language, is perhaps tied to the learned alienation of the way we relate to the physical world. There is this un-healable division between the physical and the mental within capitalist ‘culture.’ I do feel that we are losing the world and that begins with an alienation from the body.

These two counterbalanced ideas play out in the novel through the way Noumenon allows the taker to function as normal even as the user experiences an entirely different way of being.

RG: When it comes to style, the book has a sinuous quality. What was your intention regarding stylistic choice?

TK: It’s difficult for me to discuss intention because I tend to write intuitively, and so the style is very much in flux at the beginning and develops over the course of drafting. There is a lot of rewriting. Knowing that it was going to use a noirish framework, however loosely, and that it was going to be ‘future set’ helped establish the exteriority of the narrative.

I’m sort of amazed that I wrote a science-fiction novel, it’s not something I expected to do at all.

RG: Even without midnight’s cosmetic Lakerman recognises the carpark’s drift of concrete from the Youtube video. The one he’d seen the boys stumble through, the one that had felt like a hallucination. In the blue of twilight though the place is a dump. The ground like a partially scaled fish, flaked with glass and crudely split open. Every thirty to forty feet: upturned pushchairs with kicked off wheels. Trolleys with their front ends cratered in. Jagged glass, rubbled concrete, dirt acned with fags, the earth scarred with inflammations of melted plastic, lesions of wrappers dropped in wax-like patterns, their prime colours candying the landscape. In the dwindling light he can still see and smell the way blood and piss have fused into stone and earth. Permanence was a case of being there till the earth moved around you or you moved into the earth.

Your use of environment is frequently disorienting. The cinematic neo-noir backdrops take on an uncanny air, and the sense of place becomes confused. What are your thoughts on the novel’s use of location?

TK: I think the use of location is one of the key structural elements of the novel, providing as they do a series of plateaus or problems. These are the last vestiges of social space and their islanded nature, their lack of interconnection, reminded me of a game map in which one can collapse space through some shortcut of teleportation once it has been discovered. It may cost you three days but that’s just seconds. So, I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the way games are structured and how the sense of space and time within them is often locally vast but globally shrunk. The key with each environment was to decorate it with enough details of interest that its functionality to the narrative was both shrouded and emanating from within like a trinket the reader is predisposed to home in on.

The concept of world building and the novel’s speculative element was all new to me as a writer and the way I approached it (after a lot of failure) was through (duh) focusing on the world.

RG: How does the finished novel compare with your original vision for it?

TK: I wrote a version of it before that was absolutely unreadable and which I had to totally scrap after two years of work. I wasn’t sure at that point if I could write, or if I wanted to write anymore. I’d lost all confidence in myself. This was before The Autodidacts was published and during the many years in which it was being rejected. I’d even saved up money and paid for an editor to have a look at the first draft. They didn’t make it to the end and basically sort of questioned if I really wanted to be a writer. Haha. But I kept writing. I don’t even know why. And then, once I realized I was going to have to continue to write, that it wasn’t a choice and I ought to enjoy the process, the book as it is now started to really take shape. I had the ending in mind and concepts in place but the structure was totally different. Both my novels’ first drafts were poly-vocal but they never worked… maybe with novel number 3 I’ll finally be able to get it right.

RG: The book is philosophically dense, with questions raised on intentionality with regard to consciousness and the nature of predictability. Signifiers are confused, symbols corrupted, and themes frequently self-referencing. What do you regard as the philosophical core of the book?

TK: That’s tricky… I have a reading list haha but hopefully no-one requires it to experience the book. I guess the core philosophical position relates to potentiality and what I’ve been privately calling ‘a positive armageddon.’ I’m kind of fascinated with the question of agency: whether we have it, whether we can achieve it, whether a probabilistic universe provides the possibility for it etc.

If anyone is interested in the reading list I’ll post it btw.

RG: She says “Whatever do you mean child?” and you point out to her the three micro-zones of liminalities composing your reality: To the left the starlit night, to the right the midday sun and ahead of you the magic hour, stretching on forever. You are afraid to stick your head out of the window and look behind you. You, John Lakerman, fear that the world has disappeared, that you are a lit fuse travelling towards some unexplored kernel of potential that will turn reality inside out. What if behind you there is only a hard nothing, the other untouchable side of this wall of yourself.

Is there a tether, or anchor, at play in the novel?

TK: There’s a kind of hope threaded through the book and there is love. Although How I Killed The Universal Man is less overtly and conceptually concerned with emotion and beauty than The Autodidacts I think they both consider them as central questions that have gotten lost in contemporary existence.

Otherwise the only tether or anchor at play in the novel is the reader.


Thomas Kendall is the author of The Autodidacts (Whiskey Tit Books, 2022).

Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at Tangerine Press, Ligeia, Expat, BRUISER, and Fugitives & Futurists, among others. Her books include anemogram., Sea of Glass, Creepy Sheen, and Figures Crossing the Field Towards the Group.

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