The Future Won’t Be Long

Jarett Kobek

An essay by Michael Moreau

Jarett Kobek

A Friendship Within the Ruins of New York

Novelists are creators of worlds, and we read novels in large part to be pulled into places different from that in which we lead our quotidian lives. But, we don’t appreciate Anna Karenina only because it allows us to briefly inhabit Nineteenth Century St. Petersburg and Moscow, but also because we grow to care about Anna and Levin nearly as much as we do for those closest to us in our own lives. Or, we may be repelled by the characters while at the same time being sucked into their worlds.

Jarett Kobek is a master at drawing readers into the worlds of his characters.

In a narrative that shifts between the first-person to a third-person narrator who seems to be a part of Atta’s perverse world, Kobek’s first novel, Atta, tells the story of Mohamed Atta, thought to be the ring leader of the 9/11 attacks. It is a meticulously researched and chilling work.

His second novel, published last year, i hate the internet, is in some ways a meta novel in which Kobek steps out of the story to tell us what he is doing, including telling us that “this is a terrible novel.” It is set in San Francisco, which the narrator says is the, “most beautiful city in America… filled with the most annoying people in America.”

The book also introduces us to Adeline, a graduate of Parsons Art School in New York, who moves to San Francisco to become a comic book illustrator, and her best friend Baby, who is a best-selling New York-based science fiction writer. In the novel (and in reality) San Francisco has been overtaken by techies, many of whom live in the city and have driven rents and property values to ridiculous heights, and who are chauffeured to Silicon Valley in the ubiquitous vans emblazoned with the names of Google, Facebook, and Apple.

I loathe the word prequel but Kobek’s new novel The Future Won’t Be Long is a prequel to i hate the internet. And, it is also about a city in decay of another kind than that of San Francisco.

Kobek’s new book is about so many things that it is hard to pin it down to any one thing. It’s about sex in the 1980s and ’90s, mostly gay but also straight; the squalor of a New York City left to rot (it nearly filed for bankruptcy in 1975); the gay club scene set in the East Village whose leader is convicted of a grisly murder; the challenges of writers and artists in a post-literate era; and the solace of friendship.

The book is set mostly in New York’s Lower East Side and particularly the East Village from 1986 to 1996.

There are two narrators with the perspectives shifting throughout the book. One is a gay man who goes by the invented name of Baby (we never learn his real name) and Adeline, the student at Parsons.

The trope is that one comes to New York City to invent a life or to find oneself is truer than for a gay young man like Baby who comes from what he describes only as a “Podunk little Wisconsin town” to the city that doesn’t care what you are or where you come from and where you can shed your old identity and remake yourself.

Right out of high school, where he was a track star (this is important at several points of the narrative), he heads to New York where he says “I am yours. You may conquer me. I submit to your underground system of the soul. I am yours.”

Soon after he arrives, he is rescued from a squalid apartment with drug-shooting roommates by Adeline, who whisks him away to her dorm at Parsons. Adeline is a rich girl and arch ironist from Pasadena. Of her first semester at Parsons, Adeline says: “Darlings, you’ll believe me when I say that in such a heady environment, your Adeline heard some very dubious questions being asked whilst even more dubious theories were floated.” Thus, her narrative voice flows throughout her half of the book.

The second narrator of the book, when he first meets Adeline and she asks his name, says to himself, “why should anyone know my real name? I moved to New York for the same reason as anyone else. To escape myself, escape the past, escape all previous knowledge.”

He tells Adeline: “Call me Baby Baby Baby.”

She says, “May I simply call you Baby?” It is settled. That’s who he will be.

In what could be almost be an affirmation of Tolstoy’s opening of Anna Karenina—“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—Baby tells us in the opening paragraph that he has moved to New York “not long after my mother killed my father, or was it my father who murdered my mother? Anyhoo, in a red haze of blood and broken bone, one did in the other.” We’ll wait until the end of the book to find out the fantastical way his parents died.

Adeline’s family unhappiness stems from a brother’s suicide and the unexpected death of her beloved father—events that likely triggered her mother’s alcoholism, a condition that doesn’t seem, however, to hamper her financial acuity and her keeping Adeline living comfortably in New York City.

It isn’t long after landing in the city that Baby is drawn into the gay party scene that has exploded in the East Village and will reach its apotheosis in the late ’80s with the bacchanals hosted by Michael Alig, a Fordham College dropout who will figure prominently in the story. (Kobek populates his book with real people, although Baby and Adeline are inventions.)

Besides bringing Baby to live with her, Adeline transforms his look, cutting his hair and buying him clothes so that he no longer looks like a “long-legged hick, a cornpone fresh from the farm.” He looks in a mirror and views himself as “dead sexy. And so, so, so clearly gay.”

Baby sets out to explore the city, and in one of the many lyrical passages of the book he says:

I wondered New York, its manic energy seeping into my bones. The pavement vibrated, resonating with billions of earlier footsteps, centuries of people making their way, the city alive with the irregular heartbeat of its millions of cars and trucks, its screaming pedestrians, its vendors and hustler. The roar and clamor infected my blood, transforming my walk. Gone was my lumbering gait, now I moved sleek footed and fast as a shadow.”

Early in the story, Baby shares an elevator ride with a ruffled curmudgeon who turns out to be the gay science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch, who happens to live a few floors above Baby and Adeline. Baby has rejected science fiction because his father was obsessed with the genre, but he becomes fascinated with Disch and goes to Strand Book Store, where science fiction is hidden away like pornography, where he finds a worn copy of Disch’s Camp Concentration. Baby’s exchange with the sales clerk is one of the many funny passages in the book. “I gave her the book,” he says, and, “she looked at it and laughed. ‘This looks terrific,’ she said. ‘It’s for a friend,’ I said, ‘I prefer Hemingway.’ ‘Sure you do,’ she said.”

Later Baby runs into Disch in the elevator and tells him “I loved Camp Concentration. I read it a few weeks ago. I think it’s the best book I ever read.” Disch asks him, “Have you read many books?” Baby admits that he hasn’t.

This is important because before the book ends, Baby has graduated with an English degree from NYU and has become a successful science fiction writer, none of which would have happened without his friendship with Adeline. But circumstances nearly rupture their friendship. Unbeknownst to Adeline, her mother Suzanne, who has developed a liking for Baby, pulls strings to get him into NYU and pays his tuition. She doesn’t want Adeline to know, so Baby tells her that in deference to his being poor and an orphan he has qualified for tuition waiver. When she finds out the truth she kicks him out the apartment. But this breakup won’t last long.

The book is filled with cultural touchstones such as the death from AIDS of the vanguard artist David Wojnarowicz, the death of Andy Warhol, a performance by Siouxsie and the Banshees, references to Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five, conversations fueled by marijuana and alcohol where young men, Adeline says, would talk at nauseating length about Leonard Cohen and Trotsky”—a preposterous pairing that could only be the product of mind-altering chemicals.

A fateful meeting for Adeline is a visit by a friend from Parsons, Jeremy Winterbloss, who has landed an internship with Marvel Comics. She and Jeremy eventually partner on a surprisingly successful comic book they would call Trill, whose pages are populated by a society of anthropomorphic cats.

Success comes to both protagonists incredibly easily. It is their love lives that are messy and mostly unsuccessful. Though he comes to New York an eighteen-year-old virgin, Baby quickly enters into the gay club scene and into sexual encounters that are frenetic and though sometimes one-on-one, often turn into wild orgies described in vivid detail. The sex for Baby, though often energetic, is usually mechanical, or what Adeline calls at one point “a reckless carnival of homo acrobatics.” It is miraculous that Baby survives the AIDS epidemic

When Adeline thinks she has found her true love, he winds up sleeping with her best friend Stacie, who is visiting from Pasadena. When Baby finds out about this he chases Adeline’s boyfriend down Second Avenue shouting, “You can’t outrun me! You fucking asshole! I set the school records for the fifty-and-hundred-yard dashes!” It isn’t the only time in the book that Baby beats “the living shit” out of someone.

Nearly every sexual encounter in the book is punctuated with the phrase that the parties “screwed their brains out,” reflecting the passionless quality of the couplings. “The mystery of every coupling is impenetrable,” Adeline says, while sleeping fully clothed in her friends Jeremy and Minerva’s living room in San Francisco while they are making love in the bedroom. They are apparently not “screwing their brains out.” Maybe some people really are meant for each other, Adeline muses.

Baby’s attempts to find a single mate end disastrously, as they mostly also do for Adeline. When Baby pays a visit with his lover Erik to his family home in Pennsylvania, Erik’s mother, who doesn’t know her son is gay, catches them in bed and orders Baby out of the house. Erik does nothing to stop Baby from taking the train back to New York. It is the end of the relationship. But it is while Erik is in his life that he steps away from the club scene and gets serious about writing. On the strength of a short story of his published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Baby gets a call from powerhouse agent Parker Brickley of William Morris, who wants to represent him. He is on his way.

Once Baby is no longer just another Club Kid but a serious writer, he is invited to parties at apartments of the literati of New York. In a hilarious chapter mid-book he invites Adeline to accompany him to a party at the home of Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis, who wonders who they are, wears a suit jacket with buttons of his shirt undone. He isn’t wearing socks or shoes. He “stared at us, confused, unfocused,” Adeline says. “He’d been partying all night. Perhaps several nights. Perhaps with no sleep. Perhaps he never slept. Perhaps he didn’t know that sleep was possible.”

She learns that Ellis went to the prestigious Buckley prep school in Los Angeles. She tells him that she went to Crossroads in Santa Monica. They had friends in common. Ellis mentions a name familiar to Adeline. She later tells Baby “I used to give hand jobs to his kid brother.”

Adeline gets into a discussion with Ellis about his book Less Than Zero (which incidentally is in some ways a precursor to Kobek’s own book). She brazenly tells Ellis:

You exhibit and undeniable strain of American squeamishness. You believe in the venality and shame of sexuality and drug use, as if the clockwork of our planet stopped and started on what people under the age of twenty-five shoved into various holes of their bodies. But brother, that’s okey-dokey, the world requires prudes.”

Ellis’s response to this is to invite Adeline to join a queen in the bathroom who is snorting coke. She takes him up on the invitation.

In January of 1994, Baby and his friend Regina attend a party at Norman Mailer’s apartment launching poet Philip Levine’s The Bread of Time. Baby’s recently published Trapped Between Jupiter and a Bottle has received positive reviews. Some have compared it to the writings of John Coover, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. During the previous year Baby has, “inhaled Mailer’s work, first picking up a cheap paperback of The Armies of the Night. It was the best book I’d read in a long time.”

And although Baby’s agent had persuaded him to attend the party, he said he had no particular desire to meet the man. Mailer, like Baby’s other hero, Hemingway, had been widely derided for his public persona. He wanted to believe that, “future societies will prize my ability to separate the artist from art.”

As it turns out Baby nearly gets into a fight with Mailer for hitting on his friend Regina.

The central character of Baby’s book Trapped is based in part on Michael Alig, the party organizer and leader of the Club Kids. Alig was later suspected, and finally convicted, of killing and dismembering drug dealer Angel Melendez. Baby wanted to leave the club scene behind, but after the murder, reporters who saw Alig in Baby’s book questioned him about what he knew of the killer.

Alig has moved about freely for months during which it was widely rumored that he killed Angel. But what the book suggests that the police were generally indifferent to what happened in the East Village.

When tough former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani took the helm as mayor in 1994 he pledged to clean up the city, including the nearly anarchic Village scene. In August of 1996 the NYPD shut down the Tunnel and Limelight clubs, slamming the door on the club scene that Baby calls “cop symbolism.” He says, “It’d all gone away a long time before.”

By the novel’s end Baby is a writer of consequence. His newly released book, Saving Anne Frank, is released and merits a review by the powerful New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. She doesn’t like it. But Baby thinks, “What the hell?... Even a negative review in the Times…was way more than I had any right to expect.”

Finally, Baby reflects on his good fortune and “the way Adeline gave me my life and saved me.” She has moved to San Francisco and he misses her. “If you miss us,” She tells him to buy ticket and come to see her. “You’re moneyed,” she says. “You can stay wherever you want. I’m always Adeline. You’re always Baby. That much never changes. Location is irrelevant.”

It is friendship that remains.

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