While New Yorkers can be blind to events in other cities, there are many reasons to sympathize with San Franciscans in Joshua Mohr’s new novel All This Life. Specifically, gentrification (the Mission is finally going the way of Williamsburg, in case you didn’t notice), addiction to tech, and a yearning for societal interaction that social media merely imitates.
The book opens with a devastating suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, splinters into a multi-narrated, fast-paced story of damaged characters in various stages of trauma recovery, and calls them all back to the Orange Widow for the climax.
Mohr, who read at the Franklin Park Reading Series in August, is back in town this week for the Brooklyn Book Festival’s Bookend event at Word with Robert Kloss and another reading at The West. We asked him about San Francisco’s activist reaction to gentrification, the virus of technology, and why he would open a novel with a suicide. (After this Q&A, I got on so well with Mohr that I agreed to moderate the event at Word Sept. 17 and read with him on the 16th at The West.)
Gentrification, especially in the Mission District, is a major premise in your book. “Google bus” demonstrations made national news. Do you think San Francisco’s activist culture makes it more resistant to gentrification than other cities?
I’d love to say yes, but it seems like that activist culture is thinning out, being displaced, victims of the same social and economic war that’s ripping San Francisco apart. Demonstrations that used to turn out thousands are now hundreds, or even less. The current mayor, Ed Lee, is all about monetizing everything, legislating out all instances of the STRANGE culture that made San Francisco a hive of artists, a beacon for Beatniks. Historically, this is a place that has welcomed every misfit, oddball, and outcast. We came here because we had no other place that wanted us. Now, that’s not the case. Now, San Francisco only cares about the real estate market, pleasing start-ups, etc. It’s sad and infuriating. I know so many talented artists who have left, but I’m burrowed in like a tic. No one will take my overpriced, small, drafty, daughter-sleeping-in-a-closet apartment away from me. Nobody! I’ve got fucking principles.
Ha, meat space! I love that. I have a two year old, so I think about this all the time, pondering how I can help cultivate her love of meat space. I don’t want to demonize technology for her by any stretch, turning it into a taboo, like that mean minister in Footloose who keeps the whole town from dancing. I love dancing! I love meat space and sometimes I even love my iPhone. I’d love to teach my daughter moderation with technology, use it to augment her real life, enhancing it. But not so reliant on a digital ecosystem that it comes to the detriment of her analog existence.
It’s hard to miss these intertwined themes—tech, and gentrification, which, in San Francisco, is arguably caused by the tech sector making a robust living from Silicon Valley. How much is San Francisco’s gentrification problem a self-replicating cycle?
We’ve seen this before in San Francisco, in the late 90s, the big dotcom boom led to a dotcom bust. It happens in every major city, from iteration to iteration. But the businesses that are thriving right now seem more sustainable, which doesn’t bode well for the cost of living or this thing called culture. When I can’t write, I sometimes go see shitty action movies, and when I saw Godzilla, which (spoiler alert) culminates with a big battle between preposterous monsters in downtown San Francisco, the whole area being destroyed, I suddenly stood up in the empty theater and shouted, “That’s what we need! A giant radioactive lizard to decimate this fair city so artists can live in the rubble!” That’s probably the only thing that can save San Francisco from turning too caucasian, too rich, as homogenous as a suburb. If you know any radioactive lizards, have them text me.
One of your plot points concerns a young woman whose boyfriend posts a sex video. Porn has become somewhat de-stigmatized, alongside the “pornification” of pop culture, yet we also have opposing arguments like Rashida Jones’ documentary Hot Girls Wanted and Bree Olson’s recent anti-porn admonishment to young women. What’s your take on internet pornography’s relationship with mainstream culture?
Pornography has and will always be a part of our lives. That’s not new. But what All This Life examines is two new versions of it: revenge porn and tragedy porn. First, the former is investigated in the novel via a character whose boyfriend posts a video of them fucking without her consent, a kind of digital rape. This is happening more and more, and the technology makes it so “convenient”: back in the day, maybe you flashed a dirty Polaroid to nine people, but now, with a few uploads, it can be viewed by millions. That’s scary and seemed fertile material to write about.
With the latter, tragedy porn, that’s how the book starts—a boy captures a mass suicide on his iPhone and posts it to YouTube. What are the ethics around that? What are our cultural responsibilities? Violence is its own fetish, and these questions thrum through the whole book.
I wanted to do for San Francisco what Colum McCann did for Manhattan in “Let the Great World Spin.” That novel opens in the 1970s, with Philippe Petit walking on his wire between the Twin Towers. New York City is immediately cast as a principal character, paying homage to a town that McCann loves, and I adore San Francisco in the same way.
Of course, his opening is historically accurate, and I set out to find something that actually happened in San Francisco to launch All This Life. But I couldn’t find something that worked, that spoke to the book’s themes, and so I made it up: A brass band walks to the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge and one by one they all jump. That’s the novel’s opening image, its point of entry into the book’s emotional ecosystem.
Once the video of the tragedy is posted, we can dig into the crannies of the novel’s chief motifs. We are all complicit, all involved. That’s the beauty of art: It transcends all boundaries if its pure interest is existential. All This Life is a love letter and an indictment, showcasing a city I love and detest. And yet I only live in it some of the time, the rest of my days spent online, a username, an avatar. That’s really what the book is about: the collision between our identities, the conflict to find a way to honor ourselves in a world seemingly hell bent on alienation. But I’m an ol’ softie and remain cautiously optimistic that we’ll figure it out, and if that’s too cloying, we can always get that radioactive lizard on the horn, put us all out of our nuanced misery.