Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Interview with Benjamin Parzybok author of Couch

Benjamin Parzybok is the author of the new novel, Couch. Three young men end up as roommates, as these things happen, in Seattle. Thom, Tree, and Eric are between everything in their lives; jobs, relationships, family and settle into a lethargic stagnation on the couch in their apartment. Then the water bed in the upstairs apartment erupts, flooding their apartment, destroying most of their stuff and forcing them to haul the couch away. Though, it's not an ordinary couch. It gets lighter and heavier depending on what direction they carry it. Turns out, their couch is a mystical item instilling a profound lethargy in the world and it is their job to return it to its home.

Couch is a magical realism quest story for modern times that explores the aimlessness in our culture. Our society has become one of jobs instead of callings, with the widest array of opportunities and choices for occupation any society has ever seen, but without the philosophies and vocations we need to make meaningful decisions. It's a funny, touching novel, that shows one powerful response to our drifting modern life. Below is our interview with Benjamin Parzybok.

What appeals to people about quest narratives?

I have always loved quests. I remember leaving parties in high school--a few sheets to the wind--and heading off with a small band of similarly inebriated people on some absurd quest late into the night. Say, to plant a tennis ball on top of a local hill, or to get our coins flattened by trains. To me a quest is a great journey into the unknown that, at the end of it, leaves you a different person. They are hard, they are instilled with meaning, and they are transformative. I think it's the single-purpose meaning that many of us crave, to be unequivocally involved in something meaningful and to devote our entire selves to it. Quests also hearken back to a mythological time when a single purpose could be so right and necessary that they might warrant this kind of devotion--a less gray world.

What can legends teach us?

I think of them as hovering above our own personalities, of being within the realm of possibility, some kind of dream or fantasy that we can nearly mold our own selves into, in our more perfect incarnations, allowing us to temporarily envision ourselves as a much larger cog in the scheme of things.

Many of the images in Couch have a very old feeling, like they come from a medieval or legend-based system of symbolism. For example each of the three main characters has a characteristic that would have had a direct correlation to something in a medieval allegory; Thom is a giant with a wheat allergy, Tree has prophetic dreams, and Eric's mustache grows at an incredibly fast rate. What can this older style of symbolism communicate to our modern world?

I worked at giving my characters a hard time. Thom deals with a number of self-inflicted obstacles, not the least of which is his own brain, which I separated out as its own character. These obstacles were sometimes epic exaggerations, where a small character flaw grows into a sort of war a character fights against himself. I suspect most of us have some kind of internal war with ourselves. Phrasing these daily struggles as if we were heroes in our own legend allows one to back off one's own life and view it with a historical and moral lens.

At one point, the characters learn that removing the "bad couch" from Seattle has had a major positive effect on the city. What do you think are the "bad couches" in our society?

From Wikipedia "Throughout its history [couches have] often been an object of derision, considered a variety of things from decadent to conformist" I love that--though I realize you're speaking of symbols, I think there is something about couches: they are antithetical to action, their intent is to make you passive and receptive, most often to a TV. I think each of us has our own bad couch. The bad couches that we have collectively I think are many, unfortunately, and not so easily separated from society. I think one our greatest bad couches is a species-wide flaw--we don't have the inability to think long-term. We don't have a species-memory, or a species-vision, and thus we continually do dumb-ass things and make dumb-ass choices that serve our needs now.

Can a novel remove those "bad couches?"

Yes, I'd like to think that writing is a form of activism. Both of a societal kind and of a deeply personal kind. I know I've certainly had 'bad couches' surgically removed from me by the works of others. I've absorbed a book and had it change my character. I don't think I was the same person after, say, reading Salinger's Frannie and Zooey, or after Delillo's White Noise or Halldor Laxness' Independent People.

One of the settings is a village untouched by the modern world, where the people still believe in magic and so the magic of their healer still works. Are the "modern world" and "magic" inherently opposite forces or is there a way for us to combine the best aspects of the two?

I think this world contains a tremendous amount of magic. It was lack of belief in magic that the 'real world' destroys in the book. And I believe that to be true in the real world as well. The more we adopt the messaging of advertisers, the scientific method, Western thinking, the more our ability to perceive magic diminishes. Of course, Western thinking is important, too, but I think science itself is now beginning to teach us that there are some very fantastical, magical things out there that we have yet to comprehend, things that force us to bend our mind, to warp our traditional way of understanding things. I recently learned my house--in the city of Portland--has no sewer line. The sewer scope (this camera they send down along a wire deep underground) showed an old brick structure that looked very much as if my house were constructed on top of a castle. Holy crap. A sewer company came to make a bid and they sent a dowser. I was amazed. It worked wonderfully--the man divined water. Now, I'm sure there's probably a scientific explanation--and Wikipedia isn't so excited about dowsing's efficacy. But I'm even more sure that any explanation, scientific or other, will just be a fancy, detail-laden way of saying what we already know: It's magic! And yes, it turns out my house was built atop an old castle.

One of my favorite creations in Couch is the "Lug-o-naut 147" a kind of super rickshaw designed to help the three heroes carry the couch through the jungles of Ecuador. It is a brilliant combination of mechanical and organic technology. Do you think we can combine our technical innovation and organic nature to solve some of the world's problems or are they opposing forces?

I went to college originally to study alternative energy design as to how it applies in rural/third world settings, and I still think this is one of the coolest technologies that can be pursued. Part of the reason it's so cool is that there's a cultural, historical and archaeological component to it--so many fabulous technologies have been invented through time by inventors working with what they have. Mud, sticks and sun. And for inventions to fit in truly with a culture, they have to get so many things right: can they continue to be made locally, do they fit with the mindset well enough to be adopted permanently into a culture, etc. I think there's tremendous potential in marrying the organic with the high tech, the historical genius with new materials. I like to think of this as Taoist technology--technology that fits into a natural flow.

The quest with the couch answers many of the questions the characters had about their own lives, especially for Thom, who most of all felt the disaffection of modern society. Can "the quest" answer those questions for everybody and if so how do we find our "couches to bear?"

I think quests in general can be very reformative and rehabilitative. There are a couple of keys to having a good quest: 1) You have to have a real goal in mind. No matter how trivial the goal is, it's important to have some sort of end in mind. While it's the journey itself that is transformative, by themselves journeys with no end-goal can feel indulgent and too self-reflective. 2) I think quests should be hard work. Right after I married I decided to try walking as far West as I could--I made it about 100 miles, not real far, but over a 3-4 day period all I did was walk and sleep in pastures, and it was enough time to clear my head and right myself into a new life. It was media
and comfort free. 3) For a transformative experience, I think it's important to make sure you're coming back to a different setting from which you left. ie: quit your job, then go on your quest. When you return, you'll struggle a little but it'll allow you to carry that quest transformation into your life.

Finally, what are you reading?

I'm reading a ton of children's books (bedtime stories! My son just now showed me The Mouse and the Motorcycle which he'd checked out from the library) and, as of 13 days before the election, copious amounts of political commentary. I just finished Northline by Willy Vlautin which was great and intense--I happened to be at a book fair and he sung a portion of his book which was awesome and I hope he invented a new genre there. Otherwise I'm between novels and would love a recommendation.

To see if Benjamin is reading near you visit his tour listing.

1 comment:

Ben Parzybok said...

Hi Josh -
thanks again for the Indie Next List recommendation. I posted about it here.

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