Q. Nabokov describes the term “reality” as “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes.” In “Getting Down to What Is Really Real,” you seem as much appalled by “Reality TV” as you are fascinated by it. Can you talk about its complicated allure? Why do you think it’s become so popular?
John Jeremiah Sullivan: Seven or the eight years ago, the genre started expanding—to the point where now you’d be hard-pressed to find an aspect of American life it hasn’t touched—and there came a point when you started to feel that for some people, in some people’s minds, it was actually messing with reality. The boundaries were mingling. This was years before you had a spectacle like, a recent Republican VP candidate getting her own reality show, but you could feel that coming. It’s the feeling I was interested in and tried to write about. Genres can do this thing sometimes of giving us frames to shape our lives in, to make sense of them. The novel did that for a couple of hundred years. These shows are doing it now for a lot of Americans. That’s probably not good.
Q. Much of your writing focuses on music. In one interview, you pointed to an early interest in music writing as the locus of your desire to “figure out” good writing.
Yeah. Actually, my brother was a big influence here. He was the first person I ever heard talk about a piece of art in a deeply critical way — critical not in the negative, but in the analytical sense. He was just a student of pop music from an early age. I don’t know what tripped that in him, but it was his thing. We would sit down and go through Beatles chord books together. It wasn’t just a case of rocking back and forth in front of the speaker and saying, “Isn’t this brilliant.” It was saying, “Look at this fucking bridge, look at what they did here. That’s why this is so much better”: the mechanics of it. And he and I would argue a lot. He was an early opponent. So, yes, I definitely think I was delving into and parsing music before writing, at least on a conscious level.
The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.
This description of an RV appears on page 8. I’m not much further than that in the book because I just got it this afternoon, but yeah. I have a feeling I’m going to love these essays. It’s only a sentence, yet it warns that John Jeremiah Sullivan is an exciting, adventurous writer.
The book feels good in my hands, like an indispensable map. I’m conscious of being so drawn to essays lately. (Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now is another recent example.) Maybe I’m on a creative honesty kick. I might argue that the best stories—even in fiction—are the ones carefully drawn from real life. Make it real.
Anyhow, I’ve only just begun to read this. Fingers crossed.
Traffic was thick now. Llewis turned up the crappy radio in the van as we moved toward the hotel. The DJ played a song called “Slow Motion” by Vybz Kartel, probably the hottest dancehall singer in Jamaica right now. At that moment, Vybz was in jail, suspected (in the vaguest terms) of having gotten involved in Dudus-related violence. “But we’re hoping he’ll get out soon,” said Llewis as he drove. “Maybe this Friday.” This was the music Llewis loved best, not the old stuff (which he knew and respected). If the Wailers were playing now, this is what they’d be into. A young couple in a car next to us grinned and bobbed their heads to it as we rolled by. I’d never been wild about dancehall, but now I the last wailer realized it was because I’d never really heard dancehall. You can’t just “listen” to dancehall. It happens; you have to be there for it. The DJ was mixing together three or four different songs. Kartel’s hypnotic voice floated over the top of beats that would suddenly vanish, leaving only spacey bass-throbs, as the words kept running. “So this is now?” I asked. “Right?” “This is right now,” Llewis said, stabbing his finger at the radio. “This is Right. Now.”
At the hotel, I downloaded “Slow Motion.” It was somewhat limp, in this version. It sounded like a karaoke mix of what we’d heard in the car. Vybz did not live on the computer. He was in the air over Kingston.
You see what I mean, I hope, about there being something off in these stories. The storks started slaughtering the chickens.
Much of the intra-animal violence seems to suggest sheer madness. Chimps have repeatedly been documented engaging in “rape, wife beating, murder, and infanticide.” Elephants on the African savanna have been raping rhinoceroses, something that is evidently just as startling to zoologists as to the layperson.
Broadly speaking, Sullivan is interested in American culture: from its sugary and omnipresent mainstream (MTV’s The Real World, Michael Jackson) to its dustier, quieter corners (forgotten blues records, ancient cave paintings in Tennessee). There’s not a bad piece in the bunch, most of…
“Oh yeah,” she said, “I’ve already seen MJ here, and Cameran [two other, more recent Real World faves]. There’s been a bunch of Real World people here.”
“I’ve been watching it since high school,” I said.
“Oh, me too!” she said.
Then I reflected that, for me, this meant since the show debuted; for her, it meant since last season; which in turn caused me to reflect mournfully on what a poseur she was. Did she even remember the Miz’s cast? Probably she knew him only from The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, which—although he is awesome on that—is not the best place to get insight into what makes him such a powerful fun-generator.
I suspect that on some level — the conscious one, say — I didn’t want to be noticing what I noticed as we went. But I’ve been to a lot of huge public events in this country during the past five years, writing about sports or what ever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird implicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry around with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen.
It’s one of the worst TV shows ever made, and I seriously do not mean that as an insult. It’s bad in the way that Mexican TV is bad, superstylized bad. Good bad. Indeed, there are times when the particular campiness of its badness, although I can sense its presence, is in fact beyond me, beyond my frequency, like with that beep you play on the Internet that only kids can hear. Too many of my camp-receptor cells have died. Possibly One Tree Hill is a work of genius. Certainly it is about to go nine seasons, strongly suggesting that the mother of its creator, Mark Schwahn, did not give birth to any idiots, or if she did those people are Schwahn’s siblings.
It was late afternoon now. We were heat-drunk and fatigued and still hadn’t really even begun. We discussed some more and agreed that we should take the opportunity to smoke some of the weed I’d bought, to make absolutely sure that it wasn’t shit, that we wouldn’t be inadvertently insulting Bunny with it. We would be like the king’s tasters, I suppose. Where could this be done safely, though? Contrary to what you might think, Jamaica is not a place where you can just lie around in a park and smoke ganja all day.