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T.C. Boyle: The Grim Prognosticator

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T.C. Boyle: The Grim Prognosticator

Author T.C. Boyle is a rarity among writers, equally accomplished in crafting both novels and short stories. He’s won numerous accolades in both genres, and his newest book is a collection of short stories called The Relive Box. His most recent novel, The Terranauts, is the fictionalization of a real and true event, the early 1990s experiment in ecosphere, closed-system, living, Biosphere 2.

In Boyle’s hands, this real-life experiment turns into a barn burner — or should I say biome burner — the story of the eight scientists who inhabit the enclosed system, resulting in plenty of sex, treachery and despair.

Boyle doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in humanity’s ability to quell its selfish, destructive tendencies, and so he is one of our most cautionary literary voices writing today. His body of work reveals how we are largely motivated by lust, ambition and selfishness. I would argue, in fact, that he is one of our most important environmental writers.

By bringing humor and horror to the human predicament, Boyle shines a dreadful light on our shared journey toward almost certain demise. Hey, at least we get to laugh at ourselves along the way.

You’ll see what I mean Tuesday, Nov. 14, when Boyle comes to Butler University, as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series.

Boyle lives in Santa Barbara, California, but when I spoke with him on Oct. 10, he was visiting Millbrook, Connecticut, researching his current writing project (Outside Looking In).

We began our conversation by digging in on a collection of a dozen stories in The Relive Box (published Oct. 3 by ECCO, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers), his 27th published book. For the uninitiated, this book is a great sampler on his work, from the serious to the absurd. I wanted to dig in on four stories in particular, starting with my favorite of the collection, “Are We Not Men?”, the story of hybrid creatures created by designer genetic technology — i.e. CRISPR, a genome editing technology, enabling modifications of an organism’s genes.

The Relive Box by T.C. Boyle

The Relive Box by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle: You know I’m always looking to nature and our place in it as my main theme and fascination. I became aware of CRISPR a couple years ago. This is front-page stuff … buy your own CRISPR kits and mess with things in your kitchen and create your new bacteria or new molds and so on. I just wondered: Is this a good idea? What kind of problems will arise when you can select — according to the genetic makeup of you and your spouse — all the features of your child. You can see where the consequences are bound to lead: to make us not human  anymore. It just seemed to have flown by everybody. It’s inevitable that we will have designer humans.

JIM POYSER: Tell me more about the technology — it’s about altering DNA, right?

T.C.: We’ve been able to do that for some years now, but CRISPR uses an enzyme that allows it to be done much more easily and quickly. Some of the examples that I use in the story – well, all of them except for the dogcat and crowparrot — already exist. That’s part of the joke, it’s already here: the superpig and the supercow. We have always genetically crossbred our creatures in order to get the chicken with the big breast and so on. And now we can do it in the lab where we can change creatures at will and make anything we want. As I say, once the dogcat is out of the bag…


JIM: Or the crowparrot. What does that creature say in the story?

T.C.: It says, Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! And at dinnertime it says, Big Mac!


JIM: I love the hilarity and humor of that story. “Are We Not Men?” is a particularly good cautionary tale on how we humans constantly mess things up.

T.C.: One of my joys in writing stories and novels is to just explore things that disturb me. It’s a what-if scenario of course, but also: what does it mean? What are the possible repercussions of this? A Friend of the Earth, for instance, [published] in the year 2000, deals with global warming, projecting to 2026, and everyone says “Well, you’re so prescient to predict this.” I reply, “Not at all. I read the news like everybody else,” and wonder what it will lead to next.

JIM: Do you feel the need sometimes to try and balance your vision so you’re not perceived as too negative?

T.C.: No, I don’t care about that in the slightest bit. I’m just an artist making art. And people can take it for what they will…. I am simply exploring it for my own purposes — and these stories are the result.

JIM: I see a direct connection between “Are We Not Men?” and another favorite story in the collection, “The Relive Box” about a technology that allows people literally experience their past by viewing it repeatedly. It seems every new technology quickly overtakes us.

T.C.: If they’d had computer games when I was a boy, I would have never read a book. That’s just the way it is. “The Relive Box” is a story about gaming, of course, and our obsession with it. But also it’s a story about memory and reliving our experiences. Some of the science there — retinal recognition — exists.

JIM: I found it particularly poignant how the characters are so deeply interested in using this technology to understand themselves and the choices they made over a lifetime.

T.C.: As we all do, Jim, in how imperfect our memories are. If such a device did exist — and by the way I’m working on it in my basement lab and will be marketing it by 2020, and $5,000 is the opening price —

JIM: Can I get in on the ground floor of this?

T.C.: Yeah, yeah. For you, it’s $4,999. [Laughter] I’m fascinated by the idea. If you were able to do it [relive your life], why would you do anything else? There are a million things I would like to relive; and once you start reliving them, why bother to live? By analogy to any of the obsessive games people play, the games become more interesting than life.

JIM: Ultimately, using the Relive Box might result in fewer carbon emissions than, say, driving your four wheeler around town.

T.C.: Pretty soon nobody’s going to leave home anymore. The Amazon drone will be bringing us everything. Where’s the social interaction in that? The last place remaining is the local bar. And I’m working on the app for a virtual bar. So up it pops in your living room, the drinks are just the way you like them, and the babes never say no … who needs to go outside? Outside is nasty. There are dangerous other people out there. They might talk to you for God’s sake.

JIM: Sounds like your basement has a lot of projects going on.

T.C.: I’m a hardcore tinkerer.

JIM: This relates to the third story I wanted you to talk about: “Surtsey,” the story of an island hit by a hurricane and storm surge. The protagonist family in the story has to make its way to the local school, where everyone else has gathered as well. In a world where we never leave our homes, will it only be extreme weather events that force us to interact with each other?

T.C.: I’ve been on this global warming thing since the 1990s. …Kivalina [the island] is going under. That’s the end of it. We think of the horror of the Syrian refugee crisis. This is nothing compared to when Bangladesh floods and it’s under two feet of water, permanently. What are we going to do with everyone? Where are they going to go?

Look at the hurricanes we’ve just had. Truly frightening. And California is on fire yet again.

JIM: Which brings up another story in the collection, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til the Well Runs Dry),” about the multi-year drought in California. In it, you turn the story of neighbors in conflict over the lack of water into a comedy.

T.C.: But of course the serious problem underlying is where we are now: the worldwide fight for resources. There you have it, we are doomed. My plan as I have told you, is to die. That’s how I’m going to deal with it.

JIM: Are you going to bury yourself into the compost pile first?

T.C.: Of course. I want to be recycled properly. I am a recycling fanatic, even though nothing matters, I can’t help it …

JIM: Why is it only immediate danger that awakens us to a crisis?

T.C.: The crisis came a long time ago and there’s nothing we can do about it. We have been trying to ameliorate the effects, and I don’t want to be exclusively negative about it. When I was a child, there was no notion of recycling, the world was a big place and resources were infinite. Now at least we are aware, but is it too late to be aware?

Furthermore as you can no doubt predict there will be some kind of cataclysm coming, whether biological or nuclear war. It won’t eliminate our species entirely but will take us back to a time before any of this was in operation.

JIM: Some say we should be moving into a palliative care mode for planet earth.

T.C.: I hate to be exclusively pessimistic, I take great joy in life and in nature and in just being alive and having consciousness, but things look pretty grim. The population has tripled since I was born, resources are dwindling and we are fighting over them. Almost every country, and now I’m afraid including our own, is run by a gang of bully boys who seize power, use it for their own benefit and enslave everyone else. It’s true of ISIS and Putin … I can’t really see our democracy and our freedoms existing into the future. Nor can I see poverty being eliminated … it’s just utterly depressing.

JIM: I work a lot in schools, and recently went to a high school to visit an Environmental Action Club, and one kid said he was in the club because he had seen weather changes over the course of ten years — and so was terrified by climate change.

T.C.: It’s staggering. But to be optimistic, there is that club and he’s in it. There are some voices that can stand in opposition to the capitalist notion that we have to have infinite consumers and infinite product on a finite planet.

JIM: Isn’t that ultimately what we’re up against, capitalism and the wheel of consumption?

T.C.: We’ve had a right wing takeover of the government and now we can’t have birth control anymore. As if we need more people. Both parties are guilty of this: every seat is bought and sold by corporate interests. And the corporate interest is to make money for somebody, some stockholder, no matter what happens. You’ll notice that any kind of environmental advance for clean water or clean air, as soon as the stock market drops 100 points, we have to throw those out, because all that really matters is the bottom line of making money for somebody somewhere.

It’s all a grim prospect and I don’t want to be grim all the time — which is why I’m writing to try to get the feelings out. And why I’m out in the woods by myself… To be alone in a wild place where no one is around is what I hunger for.

We can resolve all these problems you and I talk about in a very simple way. If everyone on earth can agree — no cheating — to abstain from sexual relations for 100 years, problem solved. Great idea? Should I start the campaign?  

Jim Poyser is executive director of Earth Charter Indiana.