Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen is a trickier novel that one might expect: Wilson pulls you in with smart, self-deprecating comedy, and you never see the sting that’s coming. Through the seemingly-familiar prism of a disaffected young man wandering through his Massachusetts hometown, Wilson examines questions of class, intimacy, and our relationship to the media that surrounds us every day. It doesn’t hurt that Wilson is equally adept at writing short, concise asides and intricate, beautifully composed sentences. I caught up with Wilson via email before his upcoming appearance at the Franklin Park Reading Series on Monday.
Throughout Flatscreen, Eli cites a number of different films and tv shows, some of which are fictional. How did you decide whether to use a real film or a fictional one?
I thought it would be fun to mix up real movies and fictional ones, in part because film titles these days so often veer into self parody, and in part so the active reader could play a kind of guessing game. One of the most fun tasks as a writer was making up all the movie titles.
While some of Seymour Kahn’s roles seem to be inspired by specific film/tv characters, Kahn himself seems to avoid a real-world analogue. Was there an actor whose career arc you had in mind when conceiving Kahn?
Kahn is actually modeled on that character Einhorn from Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. As for his career arc, I wasn’t thinking of any particular actor, though I’ve seen enough episodes of VH1 Behind the Music to know that things start well and end badly for everyone. That said, I see him as sort of a cross between Klaus Kinski and the guy who plays Captain Cragen on Law and Order: SVU, with maybe a little Dennis Hopper thrown in for good measure.
How much of Kahn’s career did you chart out before starting to write the novel?
None of it.I knew I wanted him to have had some glory, and also some very low points. I wasn’t sure what those were, but when I was writing the scene in the driver’s ed class it came to me that Kahn could be in the instructional video, and that it would be sad if he was. Much later, I added the scene in which Eli watches Wood and Nail, and sees the already wheelchaired Kahn give what might have been his great performance.
For a novel where so much intimate detail about its characters’ daily lives is given,ambiguity plays a larger-than-expected role in Flatscreen—I’m thinking ofEli’s father’s lost months in the late 1970s, among other things. Did you know from the outset that there would be these fundamentally unknowable spaces within the novel?
The truth is I didn’t know much from the outset, and the father’s missing months was something else I added later on. But I guess I knew that I wanted Eli’s family to be unknowable to him, and that at some point the reader would start to see past Eli’s unreliable narration, and understand that his parents are real people with actual lives even if Eli can’t appreciate that.
You’ve also written short fiction set in the film world; to what extent is the overlap of film and television with our daily lives a muse for you?
It’s very much a muse. Especially now with multi-function cellphones, it seems to me that the defining characteristic of our era is the amount of time we spend looking at screens. As both a cultural observer and a opportunistic comedian (not to mention, a screen-wielder myself), I’m certainly interested in writing about what ends up on those screens and how it gets there.
What are you working on these days?
I just finished a collection of short stories, and I’m currently working on a new novel set around the 2008 Wall Street crash. It’s a dual narrative about a recently laid-off investment banker who is now trying to write a nonfiction book about Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, and his wife, who is having an epistolary love affair with a death row inmate in Texas. Dirk Nowitzki narrates some chapters in the voice of Werner Herzog. We’ll see.