“People are sick, kid. They scare me”

Excerpts from Jarett Kobek's latest novel, BTW, detail the complex relationship between dysfunctional father and son

BTW_Jarett Kobek

Jarett Kobek released ATTA in 2011 on Semiotexte, a controversial book, both a political allegory and a humanizing, fictional biography of 9/11 highjacker, Muhammad Atta. Kobek's an individual, a unique voice for a generation – a generation confused, a generation mixed-up, straddled between Gen X and Millenials; a generation that had to take its first steps into adulthood while in the wake of 9/11; a generation that had to adjust to social media as its principal means to interact; a generation that saw cassette tapes, CDs, and mp3s in the short course of a decade; a generation that had both The Wonder Years and The Jersey Shore, that had both Shania Twain's "Forever and For Always" and R Kelly's "Thoia Thoing" in the same Top 40.

BTW is a continuation of themes found in ATTA, an exploration of the multicultural experience in America. As the son of a Turkish immigrant, Jarett Kobek tells of the tragicomedy of a young college graduate adrift in Los Angeles. It's in this that Kobek's BTW protagonist finds himself where anyone in their early twenties would flock to in the City of Angels: Grauman's Chinese Theatre, getting drinks at Hollywood's Boardners, backyard "BYOB" parties, though it's in these accounts littered with banalities that Kobek finds his strongest material.

The following is an excerpt taken from Jarett Kobek's novel, BTW, out now on Penny/Ante Editions.

BTW, DIECISIETE (Chapter 17)

Two hours later, Khadija prayed. I read Silas Marner in the living room, obeisances offered towards a different kind of deity, supplications to the puissance of George Eliot.

The bedroom door left carefully ajar, her shadow visible through the open space, standing and kneeling and bowing. I heard her whispering voice.

For the first time in my life, I was around a person who believed in God. Not in a vague all-smiling paternal figure, not in an abstract permeating force, not an alien intelligence from Sirius B. In the one true God. A hard ideal of wrath.

A God that recorded every spurious orgasm on His celestial Abacus. A God that created the world. A God that demanded supplication and prayer. A God that controlled Fate and Destiny. A God that meted out punishment and reward.

“My father believed in the secular world, in America and in the pleasures of human flesh, but these things ruined him”

When I was twenty years old, I’d dreamt of Kansas, of being on the streets of a small nameless town. A friend waited, a wholly imaginary person, an oddly shaped playwright with a triangle of red hair. He carried my luggage.

We visited a field of golden wheat. The sun presided over us, low and huge. The crop swayed for miles. In the distance, I saw a combine.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It harvests,” said the playwright. “It cuts the wheat down, separates the grain from the straw and then the chaff from the grain. It was harder before mechanization. The wheat would be cut with a scythe, then bound and thrashed. They put it on a floor and beat the wheat with a flail until it broke from the straw. Even with the straw gone, the seeds were mixed in with the chaff, the husk. They waited for a windy day and threw the wheat in the air. The grain weighs more than the chaff. It falls back to the earth and the chaff drifts away. Then you’ve only got grain.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I grew up on a farm,” he said. “My father did, too. His father’s father was a farmer before him. It’s in the blood.”

My father believed in the secular world, in America and in the pleasures of human flesh, but these things ruined him. He gave himself over to alcohol, to self-pity and despair.

“Rich men lashed your family blood into the soil of a country that could see you not for who you are but only for what you weren’t”

Khadija adopted the religion of her family but transformed it into a hazy, permissive thing. Yet still she prayed, bowing like a peasant before her feudal lord.

Some fake it easy. Others are useless.

I suppose she thought of herself as someone suffering under burdens which I could never understand. Burdens of her parents, burdens of race, burdens of faith.

Seven years with Tabitha Brown didn’t teach me a single thing about what it means, in the gut, to descend from slaves in a nation built on the enslaved, to know that rich men lashed your family blood into the soil of a country that could see you not for who you are but only for what you weren’t.

About the weight of history, of your parents and your people. About living in a country that treasured the memory of Thomas Jefferson. The original interracial Lothario, the white knight of jungle fever, the clever cocksman of miscegenation. The architect of human freedom who fucked six children into his dead wife’s half-sister Negro slave. A man who literally, actually, owned his relatives.

“And then, before me, 7 World Trade Center crashed”

But wasn’t my handwringing some fucked up bullshit, too? The condescending presumption that the lives of black folk could be measured only through metrics of emotional extremity. That suffering was the final arbiter of human experience. That the simple stupidity of pain could imbue wisdom.

I was on Manhattan for 11 September 2001. I was there and I saw it happen. After the towers fell, I snuck from the East Village across Houston Street. I knew lower Manhattan like an extension of my body, knew that if I went west I’d hit a cluster of less containable streets and guessed that after the Holland Tunnel there’d be no crowd control. Down 7th Avenue, down Varick, Canal over to Hudson, then west and down Greenwich.

I got four blocks away, just south of Washington Market. A small crowd had gathered. Crude barriers kept us from going any closer. Flames licked out of the South Tower’s remaining lattice work. Huge plumes of grey smoke drifted east.

And then, before me, 7 World Trade Center crashed.

In the moment before the crowd ran north, before I ran with them, I had no sorrow. Not for anyone who’d died on the planes, not for anyone in the buildings. Fear struck deep in my bones. Fear for my father, afraid of the coming vengeance. Afraid that wheat would be harvested.

It was then, I think, when I realized that society isn’t much more than people clutched together as a preventative remedy against the dread of dying abandoned and unloved, but no matter how many eyes gathered around a body to watch its final ugly gasps, everyone still died alone. Friendship and family didn’t amount to anything. The senseless struggling and worrying and personal affronts and prejudices and judgments and orgasms can not prevent the empty dark meaninglessness from settling over the witnesses. Love only makes the grief worse. Love only seasons the meat.

“The world will weigh nothing and from the yawning mud we shall sprout forth like leaves of grass and be reborn and die again”

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?

I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die.

Soon enough my father will molder in the earth, the flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, crumbling away into dust. Me too. To the atomic particular will my body return. The Karacehennems will be less than a memory. All of our mortal cares will perish.

The world will weigh nothing and from the yawning mud we shall sprout forth like leaves of grass and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again and be reborn and die again.

An eternal series of resurrections. We shall stumble from episode to episode, imbuing each with the temporary delusion of importance only to discover five years later that we’ve forgotten what happened.

Mehmet’d been right all along. Life really was a joke.

What else could you do but laugh?

Comedy for all, tragedy for none. 

BTW is published by Penny/Ante Editions and is available now

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