Failure Is Always an Option

Journalist-turned-novelist James Greer discusses his latest book, 'The Failure'

James Greer has led a curious life. He first surfaced as an editor and writer at Spin during the magazine’s early-’90s apex, a period that coincided with the so-called “Alternative Rock” revolution.

Greer then pulled off many a music journalist’s wet dream: He dated Dayton native/ Indie Rock heroine Kim Deal around the same time he joined Guided By Voices — or, as he called them, “the greatest Rock band in the world” — for a two-year run (1994-96) that would eventually inform his lively 2005 biography of the band, Guided By Voices: A Brief History.

In recent years, Greer has turned to fiction (his music-informed first novel, 2006’s Artificial Light, was well received) and screenwriting (he’s working on a number of projects with Steven Soderbergh).

His just-published second work of fiction, The Failure, is a fast and funny nonlinear riff on crime-noir novels that tells the story of Guy Forget, an L.A.-based twentysomething Dayton native who, along with his amusing buddy Billy, plans to rob a Korean check-cashing joint in order to fund a Web-based get-rich-quick scheme called Pandemonium.

CityBeat recently phoned Greer, a Boston native, to discuss the book’s influences, which range from French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard to the differences between living in Dayton (where he resided in the mid-’90s) and in Los Angeles, where he now calls home.

CityBeat: How’s the book tour going?
James Greer:
It’s been interesting. John Waters came to the San Francisco reading. It was bizarre because he ran in and bought the book and had me sign it. And I’m like, “Why am I giving my autograph to John Waters?” I completely blanked on what to write. I just wrote, “Thanks for your movies,” the lamest thing I think I’ve ever written.

Book readings in bookstores are, generally speaking, not a lot of fun. But there was one venue in Seattle — Hugo House, which was affiliated with a bookstore — that was like a cabaret space, which is a fancy way of saying that it had a bar in it, which was much more congenial for me. Bookstores are too well lit.

CB: They’re a little too formal for your tastes?
Well, yeah. It’s not something I would do for pleasure. Here I am talking down about book readings, like “Please don’t come. It’s going to be really boring.” Luckily, this is a comic novel, so I have that going for me.

CB: It’s also a really quick read.
Yes. It’s a Pop song. My last book was kind of ponderous and literary and took seven years. This one was a reaction to that in some ways. It was influenced more by the fact that I was watching a lot of French New Wave movies, so it actually has more of a cinematic influence than a literary influence.

CB: Now that you mention it, the book does have this fractured Godardian feel to it.
JG: That would be the ideal, yeah. That’s higher praise than I deserve. He’s certainly a huge influence, and I was watching a lot of Godard while writing it, especially his early, mid-’60s period.

Somebody recently compared it to (Steven) Soderbergh’s The Limey. That didn’t even occur to me until afterwards — the fact that the book was sliced and diced chronologically.

CB: It’s interesting that you mention Soderbergh. The thing that kept coming to me, especially in the conversations between Guy and Billy, was Out of Sight. The dialogue reminded me of an Elmore Leonard-esque back-and-forth between guys involved in crime.
I can see that. I haven’t seen Out of Sight for a long time, but obviously I can’t deny that Soderbergh has had an influence on me. I mean, I’m working with the guy. But that’s also just how I write dialogue, and you can list any number of influences for that, especially comic dialogue. I think there’s also a touch of Bottle Rocket, this Wes Anderson/Owen Wilson kind of riffing off each other.

It’s funny that all the references are cinematic and not literary. Artificial Light had very heavy literary allusions. I think the fact that I was working so much with movies at the time that I wrote The Failure, as well as the fact that I wrote it in France, had a big impact.

CB: It also seems to be a satire of typical L.A. noir novels.
JG: I prefer parody. To me satire connotes a lesson, like you’re trying to say something. I’m not actually trying to say anything; I’m just trying to make fun of it. It’s definitely a parody of noir conventions, especially the L.A. stuff. I just can’t take that kind of thing seriously. Living in Los Angeles, even though I’m here as little as possible, the level at which people take themselves seriously here is just too much.

CB: So how did you go about attacking the nonlinear aspect of the narrative? Did you have any specific through line?
It’s funny, when I was done I had 50 chapters and I printed them all out. I was staying in this place in France that had a big floor area, and I laid out chapters in rows of 10. I just sort of walked around and kind of rearranged them — which is where we get to the music influence — sort of in a way you would a set list or an album track order or a mix tape.

I was more concerned with the pacing and the rhythm than I was with any sort of chronological coherence, which was unnecessary because you already knew what was going to happen from the first chapter. There was no big mystery. The story wasn’t really about who did it or what happened; it’s more about how they ended up in this ineffable situation. The nonlinearity of it is also a way of parodying the conventions.

CB: The book also touches on some pretty large themes. One of the big ones is this sense that the American Dream is dying or evolving. You seem to be commenting on the fact that Americans almost feel entitled to fame and fortune without actually doing anything to earn it.
No doubt. It’s more like the death of an illusion of something rather than the death of an actual thing. But specific to our generation is the idea that you can do this without actually working.

That sense of entitlement is particularly emphasized in Los Angeles. It sort of boggles my mind. I find you run into that more in Los Angeles than anywhere else on the planet — much more than a place like Dayton, Ohio. There are different forms of it. In Dayton you run into a provincial version that is related to American exceptionalism — the idea that there really isn’t anything outside America and that anything that isn't American is weird. In L.A. it’s just as xenophobic, but it’s more self-centered and narcissistic.

CB: Speaking of illusions, that's really what Pandemonium is. I saw it as a parallel to the Wall Street fiasco, which was impacted by these guys who were creating the illusion of financial stability.
JG: Sure. One of the investment bankers in the book says, "It doesn't matter if it works." That's what people keep saying: "Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't; the important thing is that people believe that it works for long enough a time to make some money off of it."

CB: Tell me about the book’s title, which seems to work on a variety of levels.
JG: I think the title is ironic. It’s a question everyone asks themselves every day of their lives: “Am I a failure?” I don’t really think anyone is a failure. I don’t think anyone is a failure in the book — in a literal sense, yes, but in a metaphorical sense, no. It’s more of a question: What does it mean to fail at being a human being? The book provides a number of different possible answers but doesn’t actually answer that question. How’s that for a pull quote?

JAMES GREER reads from his latest novel, The Failure, at 7 p.m. May 5 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Get store details here.

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