‘The Comedown’ Is Like An SSRI For After You Read ‘Infinite Jest’

Talking with author Rebekah Frumkin about her debut novel

"Oh my god, that's my dream," Rebekah Frumkin tells me over the phone. We're talking about her debut novel, The Comedown, and, after Frumkin comments that the novel could serve as a much-needed antidote, or even an "SSRI for after you read David Foster Wallace," I suggest that this should be the headline for our interview: "The Comedown Is an SSRI for After You Read Infinite Jest." Frumkin, it's clear, approves.

It's the rare debut novel, though, that finds itself comparison with DFW's opus (even if that comparison is deliberately oppositional), and yet The Comedown more than deserves that kind of consideration. Taking place from the perspectives of over a dozen different characters, who are either members of two sprawling families—the Mittwoch-Blooms and the Marshalls—or intimately related to one clan or the other, The Comedown follows the disparate journeys of each individual, as they pursue with an often insatiable hunger wavy, warped versions of the American Dream. 

Hunger, or appetite, is a resonant theme of the book. Whether for drugs, money, love, or a sense of belonging, the characters within The Comedown are insatiable in their desire to get more and more of what they want. But, of course, there is an infinite number of things standing in the way of each person getting what he or she wants—including, at times, themselves. 

But as much as The Comedown is an epic in scope and intention, it is fundamentally different from what our culture usually prioritizes as epics, those door stopper novels usually written by cis, straight white men, in that The Comedown offers an array of American experiences, voices from places of traditional privilege—white and straight and wealthy—and from the perspectives of those who don't. It grapples with big issues—race, sexuality, economic power, religion, the weirdness of Florida—and Frumkin imbues each page with a specificity and near-disorienting dark sense of humor. But, much as your eyes do at night, you adjust to the darkness, and a whole new world opens up to you, one filled with an infinite amount of things to explore, to learn and relearn about, to consider maybe for the first time.

Below, I speak with Frumkin about what inspired her to write this novel, what parts were most difficult for her to write, and the problem with well-meaning "liberal" white women.

What inspired you to write this book, about these people, in this time and place? Or, I guess, times and places.

I think what inspired me to write this novel was my own growth as a human being, and the opportunity to see that reflected in the denouement of a narrative and in the addition of characters to that narrative, was, like, subconsciously what was motivating me. I actually started writing this novel with just three to 10 white men [as the characters], and they were in this money and power triangle, and they were like fighting each other. I wanted to write a muscular, manly novel, you know? I was in my early 20s and not really understanding how marginalization worked, and how sort of oppressive social forces were at play even in literature; even in creative circles, you could still encounter these oppressive forces, and I was kind of playing into them. And then I experienced illness-related complications, and it spurred me to think about how narrow in scope the book was and how much bigger I wanted it to be—how much bigger it could be—and so I started to explore different avenues, and try to create characters that were more indicative of the cross section of individuals on a city street.  

And [for Cleveland and Florida, where most of the book takes place] the interesting thing, too, [is that] Cleveland and Florida have this in common, where they're places where people are accustomed to feeling defeat. Cleveland, especially, before LeBron, they're used to feeling a lot of defeat; there was a lot of dying industries, and all the car manufactures kind of closed up shop; there's just a lot of jobs that were lost. And in Florida, Florida is just like... I don't even know what's going on in Florida. 

One of the ones who I found most fascinating was Jocelyn, who is a privileged white woman with lots of pretensions to progressiveness. How was it to write from her perspective?

Jocelyn was a delight to write because she was sort of like the punching bag of the novel. She is white hypocrisy, she is a white feminist. She does not understand the degree to which her neo-liberal meddling does harm and how, in the community she's claiming to help and these causes she's claiming to advance, she's actually setting them back, just by being the way she is, which is narcissistic as fuck. So to write Jocelyn, I simply had to look around me, but also look inward at my own hypocrisy and ways in which I had acted earlier in my life, and even later gone on liberal crusades instead of behaving in a way that was like intersectional and mindful. 

Did you incorporate different parts of yourself in all the characters to some degree?

Basically, I took something from myself that I know exists—I took the white hypocrisy, I took the anxiety, I took the queerness—and I built a character around it, and I gave that character distinguishing features, as the character saw fit. Which is kind of a way of saying, like, I just sort of wrote blindly with no real plan in mind... but, yeah, that's kind of how I'd say I went about it. [laughs]

Not to sound super-corny, but that idea of having a bit of yourself in all these very different people... isn't that ideally, like, the human experience? That we realize that there is something that we can connect to with every person? It's not even exactly seeing yourself in the other characters, but it's just a reminder of the vastness of humanity.

I mean, that's exactly how I would say it.

And, I mean, there are ways in which that's a comfort, but there's also a lot you do with this novel, that art is supposed to do, namely, make people uncomfortable. And one way you do that, I think, is through the fact that you present these characters in all their imperfections with no moral judgment of them. Even though some are, like, maybe "better" people than others, there's no moralizing whatsoever, even as we, as readers, come to our own moral judgments on certain characters, like Jocelyn. How did you avoid the dichotomy of "good" and "bad"? Like, how do you make their appetites—and some of them have very rapacious ones—not be the only thing that defines them?

One thing that really helped me write this book was to watch someone I love, love a person with an addiction. And it's not a romantic love, but more of like a close familiar love, which kind of makes it more poignant—not that romantic love isn't poignant to me. This person whom I love, we'll call this person A, let's say, person A would always suffer at the hands of person B, and I'd be like, Wow, person B is really bad, the things they've done are very bad, they should feel bad. But the more I learned about person B, I learned about their life, I learned about their children, their family, I learned a lot, actually, I was like, Well, clearly things aren't all bad. I had to reexamine that situation. Nothing had changed, I just learned more information, and person B had become more human to me. Essentially, I was like, Wow, this is really complex because there's this whole web of interactions between person B and the world, and person B and person A, and person A and the world. And nothing added up to, "Oh, the bad drug addict," or "the long-suffering caretaker." It simply doesn't add up to that. This book was a way for me to explore loving and caring for those who are difficult to love, because I love every single one of those characters—even the most awful character I'm still invested in. 

And then some of the characters aren't awful, but just go through awful things, even though it doesn't fully define them. I'm thinking of the Tarzan/Tweety chapter, which is one in which a teenager comes to term with their sexuality, and it has some profoundly upsetting moments, but also ones of real beauty.

I was very self-conscious about making sure that it wasn't, like, another queer sad story, where it's just like, they're still unhappy after they come out, and they get bullied, and then their partner dies.   

How much of this did you have plotted out when you first started writing it?

I really didn't have anything plotted, because I was really committed to writing that triangle of straight white men book, and it was gonna be really short and funny, and I had a perfect vision for it. [And then,] someone in workshop, when I submitted a section, a woman was just like, "Where are the women? There are no women in this." And that was the beginning of my awakening to a broader, bigger novel, because I was just like, Why am I leaving out women? Like, what's that all about? I mean, I write from the male perspective almost automatically because I grew up reading white men, and it's been like a decade-long process of reprogramming. And we have to get over that area of miseducation, but I think that workshop comment started me thinking about that. I was just like, Oh, maybe I should start writing from the female perspective, what's wrong with that? But, yeah, I just didn't have anything planned until I was still hammering plot stuff out with my editor after the book was acquired.

It's definitely more of a character study than just pure plot, but writing some of the characters, specifically the ones who are a different race and gender than you... was that difficult?

I definitely felt the need to basically be as transparent and empathetic and sensitive as possible when writing characters of color, because I think that a lot of the times—not all of the time—but what I personally have seen a lot of is white writers being like, "Okay, it's time for my big award; it's time for my laurel. I'm gonna write a character of color." I'm so sorry to bring up Infinite Jest in this interview, but I always remember this really racist part in Infinite Jest where, for absolutely no reason, there's this super-racist monologue of a black woman. It's outlandishly offensive; I am shocked that in 1996 with Will Brown or whoever it was actually let this go to print. But that was David Foster Wallace being like, "Hey, look at me, I can write in any voice; like, take that Bret Easton Ellis. My dick is bigger. "So in a lot of that kind of behavior, my feeling is that people should be able to write across difference, and a person with privilege should be able to write a character who is marginalized, but, boy, have they gotta do that with empathy. 

And I think the key is, they've got to distinguish between having that character and breathing life into that character and treating them well, and telling a story that's not their own. And so I've had a lot of conversations about this with [writer] Tony Tulathimutte. He read a draft of my book just for everything—he was reading for structure, plot, style, everything—and he was just like, "Hey, just so you know, this person of color, this is really fucked-up. You really fucked this up." And I was like, "Yeah, fair. That's completely fair." And we talked about how it's not my place to be like, "Okay, this is the black experience in America." Like, it's really not my place to weigh in on that. And I thought I was avoiding that, but, in fact, I was sort of over-indicating things about race that made me come across as disingenuous. And then, I pulled back and was like, Okay, this is my place, let me stay in my lane; I can have this character of color, and I can have the truth of the character, but I can't get on some bizarre soapbox and start like shouting off about the marginalized experience that doesn't belong to me

So that's why I was really careful with the entire Marshall family. Race forms their experience, but I gotta be really fucking careful. Race forms their experience in so far as they must live under white supremacy, just like sexuality forms my experience in so far as I must live under a heteropatriarchy. But the unique aspects of their struggle is not mine to write, not mine to touch on, so I made sure to kind of leave that out, whereas characters like Tarzan/Tweety, I am able to comment on the history of that queer kind of oppression. 

The thing is, people don't understand that identity also comes into play for members of the dominant culture. Like, men are affected by gender in the same way that feminist women are; it's real, it affects them. They just derive power from it, whereas some women are disempowered by it. And when you derive power from something, that thing is somehow erased, but the reality of that thing still damages us, and you just become powerful sans context. So I was using that kind of as a guiding principle writing the book, too, where it's, like, the book was originally about three white men, but it was supposed to be making a mockery of masculinity. And I think that I didn't lose sight of that goal, even as the book theme multiplied and the scope expanded, I still wanted to make sure that I pointed out how ridiculous white men are. So Tony Tulathimutte and Okezie Nwoka, those are the two people who read my whole manuscript. They were two readers, who are friends of mine, [and] these two guys picked up on the race aspect.

It's such an important balance to strike as a writer, having to be aware but also not letting yourself be handicapped. Having trusted readers go through it and then give you their ungarnished opinions is probably the best possible thing, as long as you're receptive; it's what every author should have or should want to have, so they're not pulling a David Foster Wallace and having a dick measuring contest with Bret Easton Ellis.

That's actually the highest compliment I could possibly receive. That it's like the SSRI for when you think about David Foster Wallace. 

That's actually like a good headline: "The Comedown is like an SSRI for after you read Infinite Jest."

Oh my god, that's my dream, actually.

The Comedown is available for purchase here.

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