Mr. Wang

Further Conceptual Description

Excerpted from Letters with Chris Butler of The Beatnik Cowboy

“. . . one of the vital roles of art going forward [might be as] a process that works against fiction! […] [Poetry] could play a role in the life of every human being, in how it’s like a universal process of making sense of our lives. This would be contrasted with the Utopia of Pure Fiction […] . . . a democratic human use of poetry isn’t aiming to create utopias, whereas commercialized art for whatever reason, does seem to set out to do that; in the form of the dominant role of escapism. […]

[MR. WANG] contains no elements of utopia whatsoever, though it does contain those necessary operations of the imagination in which, one distills a lot of patterns in one’s life, and reduces complex voluminous events, to their basic essences and archetypes, in order to tell a self-contained story, in which, it’s no longer fair to then call it true, but rather, a fictionalization of true events. At the same time, although it probably sounds grandiose of me, I took for a kind of model, what I understood the poet Byron did, when he wrote Don Juan, in taking the structure of an epic poem, to veil what I presume, was a lot of art inspired directly from real experiences. My idea was as he wrote a mock epic, to write a mock James Bond novel. Though the point was at every step of the way, only to take that structure as a conceit. It starts out in third person, a mode which lends itself to a somewhat objective way of writing fiction, especially where it’s clear the author is writing a character based on themselves. And while there are commonplace themes of deception and intrigue within the basic reality of the narrative, part of the poetic implications of the literature, is to attempt to get in conversation with spy tropes, to politicize them, in terms of how the authorial voice, or poet, one might say, treats of them. As the story unfolds it gradually shifts to the first person, in a move that mirrors the ways we come to understand some of the deceptions which ultimately structure much of the conflict of the narrative. The ‘spy’ part then, always remains an obvious conceit, and thus is used to make social, cultural, and political critique—à la, as I understand, Byron was essentially trying to do with Don Juan.

How I’m trying to relate this to an idea of art against fiction is because I think a meta goal of the work, is to essentially probe a question I’ve been interested in since coming across it posed by Orwell, as the idea of what makes art different from propaganda. And the thesis would be that propaganda is fiction or the truth carefully modified with fiction, that nonetheless presents itself as if it were fact; whereas art is honest to you about the fact that it’s lying, and yet, in this way, can ironically tell a kind of ‘truth,’ or demonstrate very objective ways that truth, as we often think of it, can be manipulated. Lastly, it’s often overwhelmingly played for humor, or a kind of satire, as the main qualities the protagonist would ever share with James Bond, are the mundane negative ones, like being a brutally hard drinker, or roguishness that results in a tortured relationship with a married woman. But there’s also a broader political parody I wanted to make in how the struggle of the protagonist essentially amounts to a little labor struggle, because, if you’re at all familiar with James Bond, or the Bond novels—or even the very reactionary, far right politics of espionage—Bond-type figures are often out to destroy left or labor revolutionary movements. There’s a classic Cold War paranoia or deliberate form of propaganda, which frames the organic movements from below, of oppressed people organizing to liberate themselves—even if, often alongside an ideology of Communism—as all dupes of some sort; all just puppets of some all-encompassing “Communist” Conspiracy. So I got a lot of poetic joy in making the protagonist an anarchist, because that’s the type of figure a traditional spy character would be working to undermine; and certainly would never be the ‘hero’ of such story.

[…] [The] James Bond pretensions, aim at deconstructing Cold War tropes when the US is in a Cold War II of sorts with China. […] [And] I’d argue [it] moves in the direction of an art against fiction, because it isn’t the narrative that hijacks the standard spy story. Traditionally, if I were a writer of pure fiction—like those who write superhero stories—I could write a standard spy story if I wanted to. One would start by reading a ton of spy fiction, to where one understood the genre in and out; one would then pair this with research into actual espionage. Finally, one uses their imagination. Writers of pure fiction also, of course, insert a lot of reality into what they’re writing; parts of their personality, and what have you. But, ultimately, the narrative and genre conventions remain fully embedded in a logic of pure fiction. In [MR. WANG] I’ve done the polar opposite. I’ve in every way attempted to keep the narrative, characters, setting, completely real and based on real events. Furthermore, the elements of being an exposé and critique of the ESL industry, are completely informed by real elements of that industry, and thus, it is a real critique of that industry. The story’s primary conflict is a labor struggle, and that is because I did in fact resist the precise working conditions I was under in more or less the exact same fashion as the protagonist does.

Core to the novel are political, philosophical and psychological elements, but what drives the narrative forward beyond equally important romanticism and eroticism, I believe is its humor. Much of this arises out of external factors, or that is, humor based on real events and experiences. However there’s also an internal humor—and critique (satire)—which develops as the novel gets further and further in—when enough has happened and enough symbolic and thematic groundwork has gotten laid, that the Poet or Speaker can start to make certain analogies or conceits, which take as their semantic kernel, not only Spy Tropes necessarily, but also a basic political Cold War ‘Manicheaism.’ So for instance, what starts out as a critique of corruption in a mundane industry, later broadens such a critique to see a baseline corruption in all of capitalism. Moreover, what might start out as the general prejudice that China is an authoritarian menace, would eventually open up to critique all nation-states, and especially, the American Empire, as deeply authoritarian as well, although in ways which are ultimately a bit more ‘hidden.’

There’s a lot of doubling going on, both in the narrative and the inner symbolic logic—as one might expect—to the extent that how much the traditional reader might want to read the story as having clear cut Good Guys and Bad Guys, would also require said reader to do some self-reflection, and really consider exactly who they would be aligned with in the logic of heroism and villainy in the story, were they to apply its symbolic logic to their own ideological convictions and material allegiances. Why I ultimately see the whole as being ‘against fiction’ is because it attempts to break down a lot of indoctrination and ideological biases that the standard American (and Western) consciousness would likely have. It also reflects in this way my own such internal journey along the same lines.”