Mike Heppner's novels offer a plethora of pleasures—rich local color, gonzo riffs on pop culture, characters whose sangfroid can mask a sophisticated silliness, equal helpings of Gass-like profundity and Elkin-esque vulgarity, and an appreciation how fringe the most American of American lives often are—but their “so much” never balloons into “too much”
Mike Heppner, We Came All This Way, Thought Catalog Books, 2015. excerpt
Click here to read the first two chapters
We Came All This Way is the first novel in eight years from the author whom Entertainment Weekly calls ‘… a fearsome cultural critic disguised in a novelist’s clothing,’ and the Washington Post calls ‘… a young master of this old art.’ It’s the story of Roseanne Okerfeldt, a thirty-one year old mother of four who finds her life in Grand Rapids, Michigan stultifying, and runs off with her brother and eldest child to live on a decommissioned oil rig in the middle of the North Atlantic.
There, Roseanne and the thirty-seven other residents of ‘Mobility’ (as they call their new home) struggle against the elements and their own basic oddness to establish an independent society based on utopian principles of cooperation and self-sufficiency. As the months pass, the pressure increases on Roseanne to return to Michigan and confront her former life, while Mobility itself—with its delicate balance of extreme personalities—splinters toward chaos.
Roseanne tells her own story in a comic, aware, and self-deprecating voice, starting with her childhood in suburban Ohio, her early marriage and pregnancies, and her experiences on Mobility, which involve pirate attacks, the vague omens of a Belgian soothsayer, and a man with blue skin. We Came All This Way is about finding a place in the world and trying to grow up before your kids do.”
Welcome to nowhere.
We are a loose collection of individuals who have made a choice and come to this place. Some of us are related by blood, others by circumstance. Our numbers were once thirty-eight and now they are ten.
We live on a manmade island located fourteen nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Our President is Wallis Crim, 34, born and raised in Milner, Ohio. My name is Roseanne Okerfeldt, President Crim’s personal assistant. I’m also his sister. I’m thirty-one, separated, with four children. The twins, Mary and Connor, live with their father along with their older brother Vance in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Star has chosen to stay with us on the island. Other full-time residents are as follows:
Dr. Emmanuelle Snow, 35, medical advisor and Head of Surgery. Dr. Snow also has an eight-month-old son, Sander, who was born on the island.
Dr. Clement Snow, 73, technical advisor.
Charity Blaise, DDS, 41, Head of Dentistry and Dr. Clement Snow’s second wife.
Stephanie (“Steffi”) Blaise, 12, child of Dr. Blaise’s first marriage.
Neil Laporte, c. 40, cook and fisherman.
Gavin Baptiste, 48, Head of Security.
Together we are citizens of the Independent Island Nation of “Mobility,” which is also the name of a wheelchair manufacturer in Moline, Illinois.
“Short stories are gems. Novels, however,” according to one of my favorite creative writing teachers, “are big bags.” Mike Heppner’s work both affirms and challenges this judgement. For while Mike’s novels are capacious, and even though their contours may be occasionally lumpy, they are anything but prone to shapelessness. His latest book, We Came All This Way, is a fine example of how well he understands what novels can hold, as well as how big-hearted his acceptance of the form’s limitations are. Mike’s novels offer a plethora of pleasures—rich local color, gonzo riffs on pop culture, characters whose sangfroid can mask a sophisticated silliness, equal helpings of Gass-like profundity and Elkin-esque vulgarity, and an appreciation how fringe the most American of American lives often are—but their “so much” never balloons into “too much.” His responses to my always-more-than-can-manage questions below are characteristically unassuming. Fish around in their crannies and explore their seams, however, and, just as with Mike’s fiction, you’ll find that his comments re-define your expectations more than they conform to them.
1) How did the character of Rosie Okerfeldt (nee Crim) first introduce herself to you?
As a voice. Especially when you’re writing in first person, it’s often what comes first. In my mind, I heard a woman telling me what her life was like growing up in Ohio, and I just followed her voice. As I came to know her a little better, I found her to be “a tough cookie,” like many women I’ve known. She’s smart but pretends not to be; she sometimes makes questionable choices, but there’s an odd bravery to them. I tried not to decide too much about her ahead of time, but to make her acquaintance gradually, the way you would with a real person. Writing requires good listening skills. You don’t want to impose too much upon your characters, or at least I don’t. When I started writing the book, my daughter was only a few months old, and so I was thinking a lot about the peculiar exhaustion that often accompanies that time. Inevitably your characters wind up being a reflection of your own strengths and weaknesses.
2) This novel participates in a long and distinguished tradition in which utopian schemes are viewed with great skepticism. What, in your opinion, is the worst way in which a utopia might go wrong?
I’m not the person to offer a particularly erudite response, but I will say that social movements sometimes go wrong when they become too expansionist in their goals. In that sense, I think the people of Mobility had the right idea. Our mutual friend, Joseph McElroy, turned me onto Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, which has something to say about this.
3) There’s a great deal, and a great variety, of humor in We Came All This Way. There is the book’s pointed satire, of course, but there are also moments of near-slapstick as well as observations that, in their bemused resignation, would not feel that out of place in Lake Wobegon. What, as you see it, is the role of humor in so-called “serious fiction”?
I thought a lot about Vonnegut while I was writing the book, particularly the second half, once the characters reach Mobility. Sometimes when I wondered if I was being too broad or straying too far from “reality,” I would ask myself whether or not Vonnegut would care. Often we look to older writers for permission to push ourselves a little. To the extent that serious fiction seeks to be all-encompassing, humor is a big part of capturing the fullness of life. That said, I tend to believe that in writing, humor just happens. I don’t think I ever write to emphasize the humor in a scene. I try to be mindful of my characters and how they might plausibly act in a given situation, and whatever humor might come out of that is a welcome bonus. As a part-Scandinavian, humorlessness is my default mode (though it’s the same humorlessness that forms the crux of Scandinavian humor).
4) Little more than midway through We Came All This Way, Rosie admits: “I didn’t want to face the consequences of my actions. The consequences of my actions were bullshit.” This seems, to me anyway, like one of the most genuine moments of grace in the entire book, as so many of the other individuals populating Mobility appear incapable of such an epiphany, even one that doesn’t really generate much in the way of “character development.” (I mean only that Rosie’s subsequent actions and choices appear to be influenced little by her admission / anti-confession.) Are epiphanies functional in the world of this novel, are they just drastically curtailed, or is all they can accomplish just a multiplication of the bullshit?
There’s a certain shared insanity that sets in as the novel goes on, which might upset the chances of anything as rational as an epiphany taking place. If I have a preferred narrative structure, it might be that of order into chaos; an incremental loss of propriety, which is sometimes reflected in the writing itself. My novels start out in business suits and wind up in torn and bloodied togas. I find myself writing a lot of argument scenes. Though I don’t like arguing in real life, I admire the shape of an argument on the page, the way talking points gradually give way to brute, almost pre-verbal expression.
5) We Came All This Way is also the story of one writer’s growth, and of one writer’s attempt to cope with the crises that come with realizing that one has become, of all things, a writer. One of my very favorite scenes in the novel in this regard comes near the very end, and involves Rosie and her single-volume edition of the OED. But does the end of this novel coincide with the end of Rosie’s life as a writer?
I think Rosie is writing for a specific purpose, to tell her side of the story. The novel takes the form of a mea culpa, but it’s a mea culpa on Rosie’s terms. She knows she needs to acknowledge her wrong-doings—primarily the abandonment of her three infant children—in order to rehabilitate herself in the public eye, but at the same time she wants people to understand that she felt pushed into doing what she did, and the pressures that caused her to leave her family could’ve been alleviated had other people been more understanding. As a confession, it’s fairly skin-deep; she’s making a flimsy gesture in order to get herself out of a jam. That’s her purpose in writing, and a somewhat sketchy one: to gain full forgiveness while avoiding full responsibility. Once she’s divested herself of that need, I’m not so sure the impulse for her to write would survive—thus the scene at the end with the OED.
6) Among all of the “big subjects” We Came All This Way addresses, would you agree or disagree that class is one of them?
I hadn’t quite thought of that. The Egg Code notwithstanding, I tend to avoid big subjects in my fiction, or at least I try to avoid being overly aware of them as I’m writing. Class is certainly an issue in the sense that being independently wealthy allows Dr. Clement Snow (the founder of Mobility) the leisure to develop his social theories and the capital to put those theories into action. There’s also a certain class stratification that occurs in the book’s fourth and final part, by which point so many people have left the island that each social “class” essentially consists of one member. (Vonnegut again, Galapagos in particular.) So I think you’re right. For me, “theme” often comes late in the process—it’s rarely a starting point.
7) If you could make one choice for Rosie’s daughter Star, what would that be?
At least to get more direct input than what she’s receiving from her mother. Rosie has a lot of positive things to offer her daughter, but those things need context, balance, other perspectives. It’s possible Star won’t receive enough of those other perspectives if she remains where she is.
8) Place, and associated (but not always commensurate) notions of home make themselves felt acutely in this novel. What attracted you to the brand name-studded Ohio of Rosie’s child- and young adulthood?
I grew up in Michigan, near Detroit. My mom still lives there, and I drive across northern Ohio three or four times a year when I go out to visit her (I don’t like to fly). I know the I-80/90 corridor pretty well. Ohio is a place I pass through, which certainly doesn’t qualify me to write about it. I think I do understand the Midwest a bit—I wanted Rosie to grow up in a place I had a rough cultural and geographical familiarity with, but wasn’t too close to home. Over-familiarity can be distracting to a fiction writer. In fact, Rosie’s hometown, Milner, is made-up, though I imagined it to be somewhere just south of Cleveland. As far as “brand name-studded” goes, I’ve long had a fantasy of actually living in a shopping mall. I’ve been massaging an idea for a long novel set entirely in a shopping mall, with each chapter centered around a different store. So: chapter one, “Pottery Barn.” Chapter two, “Art of Shaving.” I don’t know if I’ll ever actually write it. I suppose I’ve just given it away. I’m interested in the ersatz, the faux, the value neutral—I think it must have something to do with being morbidly inclined, like many Swedes. I like the smell of hotels. Signage. You know what I’m talking about.
9) Your career as a novelist essentially spans the last decade and a half. And your first novel, The Egg Code (2002) was one of the first literary documents I can recall reading which attempted a genuine engagement with the ways in which the Internet—not nearly as instantaneous and social in its textures then as it is now—is transforming our experience of both our world and our own humanity. I find, for lack of a better summation, more machinery than metaphor in how the phenomena of online existence are treated in We Came All This Way. How has your own relationship to the Internet adjusted and grown over the course of your writing life?
I like your phrase, “more machinery than metaphor,” and I think it suggests something about the way we evolve over time. As we get older, life itself becomes more machinery than metaphor. When we’re young, there’s a tendency to over-experience everything; to perceive connections, draw parallels, inflate the mundane and material to the rarefied level of metaphor. That’s what’s great about being young. When we’re twenty-five (my age when I started writing The Egg Code) the Internet is not only a metaphor for American society at the turn of the millennium, but also the fragmentation of our own individual consciousnesses. When we’re forty-two (my age now) the Internet is a way to pay our doctor’s bills online. But that’s also what’s great about being middle-aged! The Egg Code wasn’t widely read when it first came out, but I do think it retains some value as a snapshot of where our national discourse was located in the months before 9/11. Not my intention at the time, obviously.
10) All through my reading, I wondered particularly about Rosie’s brother, Wallis. I mean, I could not make up my mind about him. Rosie thinks the world of him, and cuts him no end of slack, but I’m less enamored of him. Perhaps because I’m concerned that there’s something unhealthy in Rosie’s constant re-validation of his genius and purity of intention. And then I wonder if Wallis isn’t the one of Rosie’s “victims” who suffers the most, if her worship hasn’t warped him, or at least paralyzed in some manner not utterly unlike the car accident that has confined him to wheelchair. If there were one more “Wallis and Rosie” scene you could write for We Came All This Way, what might that scene entail?
I share your feelings about Wallis. I always found him to be an enigma—we never really get all that close to him—but whenever I tried being a bit more emotionally forthright about him on the page, it rang false. I ultimately decided to embrace those reserved qualities as being true to his character. There are people who rarely disclose their feelings, even to their closest relatives. Rosie asserts that Wallis is the most important person in her life, but what she values in him is largely a projection borne out of her own shortcomings. Their actual conversations tend to be about trivial things, like suntan lotion. I suppose an additional scene might’ve involved Rosie and Wallis engaging with each other in a more candid fashion, but it just didn’t feel in character for either one of them. I think it’s fair to test your characters, but when they continue to resist what you throw at them, sometimes you just need to let them win. By the way, I don’t think of that as being a dereliction of a writer’s duties—it’s just being a good listener. - Joe Milazzo
Mike Heppner, This Can Be Easy or Hard, Thought Catalog, 2014. read it at Google Books
This collection of five stories and four essays showcases the work of Mike Heppner, the writer whom Entertainment Weekly calls, "A fearsome cultural critic disguised in a novelist's clothing," and whose funny and biting fiction has been praised in Esquire, The Washington Post, and The Millions. Most of these pieces have not been published before. Featured performers include: a deluded Lothario, a man obsessed with corn, Charlie Watts, the dude from Def Leppard, and a sweet old lady who meets her untimely end at a Boston Market.
"Heppner does a very rare thing – he captures delicate human moments without being precious. Floating like dust in afternoon sunlight, his scenes are illuminated bits of life made strangely beautiful and poignant by his storytelling. Bound together by self-effacing humor, his work is deeply-affecting and well-observed. This collection of short stories murders everything but the undeniable throb of life and love." —Zaron Burnett III
Mike Heppner, Nada, Kindle Singles, 2013.
In this darkly funny and often unsettling novella, Mike Heppner ("The Egg Code," "Pike's Folly," "The Man Talking Project") introduces readers to Nada Zilch, a social omnivore and reality TV star with a taste for staying up all night and pushing people's buttons. Always the loudest, smartest voice in the room, Nada has chosen her victim for the night: Billy Gallagher, an NYU professor who is struggling to put his own excesses behind him. What starts out as a business proposition between two strangers quickly evolves into a cackling ride through Manhattan at night, where the laughs are all fake, the drinks are all paid for, and the buzz and the hangover merge into violence at first light.
"In 'Nada,' a fever dream of a story, Mike Heppner writes with both humor and a no-holds-barred authority about one crazy, booze- and drugs-fueled night in lower Manhattan. It's a fantastic, utterly compelling read; I dare you to put it down."- Mako Yoshikawa
"Heppner is a fearsome cultural critic disguised in a novelist's clothing.- Entertainment Weekly
"Mike Heppner could well be the only novelist working in the postmodern style who consciously strives for accessibility and comparative ease of understanding."- Peter Quinones
"Mike Heppner [is] surely one of the most interesting young writers out there."- Gary Fisketjon
Lo, the tortured life of the creative writing professor at NYU! Doomed to teach (albeit on the tenure track), forced to “sell out” (by exploring the possibility of working with indie film starlets), and cursed to spend time with 19-year-olds (in order to sleep with them), Billy, the protagonist of Mike Heppner’s Kindle Single “Nada” is truly adrift in New York. Quietly resigned to the banality of academia after an initial burst of glamour, he is caught in the orbit of the titular Nada -- the aforementioned indie film starlet, and a shallow, destructive fraud -- for a scant 18 hours, with increasingly distressing returns.
Seemingly taking cues from the earlier works of Bret Easton Ellis, Heppner’s tale alternates seamlessly between hypnotically mundane and fever-induced nightmare. It’s enough to make a reader wonder if he intentionally chose a name close to the insane title character of Andre Breton’s surrealism-defining tome “Nadja”.
To underscore its nihilism, “Nada” has some late-breaking, unearned dramatics, but it is otherwise a fascinating (if somewhat depressing) work. Billy may be the type who can’t write, and thus, as the saying goes, teaches, but Heppner is clearly the type who can, and does -- beautifully. - Leah E. Friedman
Mike Heppner, The Man Talking Project, Another Sky Press, 2012.
EPUB - full novel
Triumphs and failures of life as a writer turn tangible in this four-sided fiction. A ten-year-old boy’s father lectures on the folly of taking a teacher’s praise to heart. A writer details the dreamlike landing of a two-novel deal, and the feeling of abandonment when his publisher is too governed by the bottom line to take risks on later novels. A successful writer counsels a beginner so anxious to write something worthwhile that she’s dying from lack of sleep. With honest, precise prose and indelible characters, these and other narratives within The Man Talking Project flesh out what inspires, torments, and sometimes kills the devoted artist.
Mike Heppner’s accomplishment goes beyond his first two Knopf novels into the new and challenged no-man’s and everyone’s land of American publishing. A brave achievement.- Joseph McElroy
An artful examination of modern life, and modern love, with perfect dialogue, wry humor, (and) psychological insight.- Neil Peart
The most interesting work of new fiction I’ve read this year… Word for word, sentence for sentence, these novellas come closer to rendering what it’s like to live right now than most anything else out there.- Joshua Furst
A brilliant piece of writing… innovative, interesting and absorbing…- Clare Dudman
…rich and complex, keeping the reader thinking about the story long after the last line. Heppner weaves a kaleidoscopic narrative of varying voices, mirroring perfectly the complex dynamic that connects each person within the inextricable tangle of family and human relationships.-The Chapbook Review
Mike Heppner, Pike's Folly, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006; Vintage 2007.
Nathaniel Pike, a headstrong billionaire, is purchasing a piece of federal land in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and turning it into a huge, inaccessible parking lot. Orbiting Pike and his aspirations is a cast of perfectly flawed eccentrics: Marlene, who is shy and vulnerable but also a budding exhibitionist; Stuart, Pike’s assistant, who is Marlene’s husband and a failed writer; and Heath, who films Marlene’s public nudity and turns her into an Internet star. In this grand tale of the folly of the modern world, Mike Heppner skewers the extravagance of wealth, and the class that grows up around that wealth, even as he casts a humane look at the people involved.
An indictment of wasteful American capitalism, a satire of political correctness, an exploration of America's guilt for unspeakable slavery-era crimes—Heppner's second novel (following The Egg Code, 2002) is all of this, sometimes exhilaratingly, sometimes wearyingly. Hugely wealthy, 40-something Rhode Islander Nathanial Pike, throws quixotic millions at frivolous projects. His latest: buying and paving over a beautiful tract of New Hampshire wilderness to erect a mountaintop Kmart. While Pike's flailing novelist-secretary Stuart suffers writer's block, Stuart's wife, Marlene, battles an increasingly uncontrollable urge to strip in public. Meanwhile, Greg Reese, a fellow Rhode Island moneybags, is unhappily bound to his family's dubiously conceived philanthropic foundation; its secret raison d'etre is family guilt over the sexual abuse and mass-murder of dozens of slaves (whose bodies are unearthed on property Pike previously owned). Surprising connections come to light as the FBI and a hoard of activists work to publicly discredit Pike, and Reese's wayward daughter (a budding filmmaker) and her boyfriend (an obsessive fan of Beach Boy Brian Wilson) struggle to understand the powers and evils of wealth. When all of these disparate parties finally clash in Pike's new parking lot, the hero is both obvious and unlikely. Though the competing plot lines overwhelm the story, Heppner's prose is ax sharp, and he fells a great many American demons in putting forth his haunting and redemptive vision of New England's past and present. - Publishers Weekly
Self-made Rhode Islander Nathaniel Pike, as eccentric as he is rich, buys a piece of federal land in New Hampshire's White Mountains and builds a parking lot on it--an intentionally utterly useless endeavor dubbed the Independence Project--then adds a fully staffed and stocked Kmart. Meanwhile, his counterpart--Gregg Reese, from old money--is managing his family's philanthropic funds so badly that he seeks a state subsidy. Pike's personal assistant is Stuart Breen, author of one literary novel, whose wife Maureen's compulsion to be naked leads to her arrest for public indecency. As in The Egg Code (2002), Heppner takes on modern culture with its pretension and hypocrisy, from art critics who take the Independence Project seriously to wasting money honestly earned versus giving money from an evil source to charity. But with characters you hardly care about and pedestrian prose, this is better commentary than fiction. - Michele LeberOn the first page of Mike Heppner’s second novel, Pike’s Folly, we’re introduced to the “excitable man”, Rhode Island tycoon Nathaniel Pike. Pike employs what could be eitheralert pragmatism, intentional shiftiness, or downright sleaze depending upon your perspective. He finishes a sentence with “…and I say that to you as a fellow Republican.” Informed that his partner in conversation isn’t a Republican, he quickly shifts course with “Oh. Then I say that to you as a fellow Democrat.” This is perhaps a nod to the Joseph Heller of Good as Gold. Indeed, a few pages further in, we learnt that another character with attachments to Pike is reading Heller. This is an interesting technique, both acknowledging the master and having the character acknowledge them at the same time, and it immediately activated my radar to be on the lookout for more of it (which I believe we see, later on, in regards to both Phillip Roth and Richard Yates). This is just one of the numerous, rich multi layerings that Heppner employs, with the result that the novel is infinitely flexible to many different readings and interpretations. Just as there are kinds of writers, so there are kinds of readers, and there’s something for everyone in Pike’s Folly. Roland Barthes once wrote a 150 page book about a story of Balzac’s that’s just thirty pages long, and I can easily imagine this new novel by Heppner accommodating such a project. The book is highly enjoyable precisely because it could be read simply at face value, as entertainment, or analyzed in great depth in the jargon and manner of the many “-ism’s” of theory.
Pike is the focal point around which a very funny, interesting, and recognizable human cast of personalities revolve, scheme, maneuver, and jockey for position. Enormously wealthy, Pike seems to undertake mammoth development projects for no reason, with no purpose whatsoever. Here, he build a K Mart in the boondocks of nowhere, the New Hampshire wilderness. His opportunistic assistant is a novelist named Stuart Breen who has published one novel and is having a hard time getting a second off the ground. Stuart’s wife Marlene is an opportunistic exhibitionist whose cravings to be seen naked in public are rapidly becoming less and less controllable.
The other significant moneybags in the state – and, by the way, the local color and flavor of Rhode Island are communicated with great nuance and skill – is Greg Reese, whose old money family (really old – centuries old) is the force behind the charitable Reese Foundation, where all is not as smooth as it seems. Reese’s daughter, Allison, is sliding between various forms of recreational drugs while her boyfriend, heath, aspires to filmmaking and has a special affinity for Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and the unfinished masterpiece Smile.
Around these six main characters Heppner builds an apologue that’s amusing, serious, satirical, and observing. Many interesting supporting players buzz around the principal six like mosquitoes, trying to influence the course of events as much as they can and, interesting as the main players are, the others often stand out a little more vividly. There’s Henry Savage, a Washington hack who meditates, in a hilariously self pitying moment, that men and women of the US Government agencies aren’t “evil automatons with computer chips planted in their brains”; Celia Shriver, who, at sixty seven, still displays her enthusiasm for political rallies and who has one planned for Pike, calling him a “canker sore” ; an unnamed counter girl in Dunkin Donuts who gets exasperated about giving a lost traveler some directions; and quite a few others. Very much a colorful human landscape – the ensemble of players suggests the analogy of a master drummer playing virtuoso fills between the other instruments in the group.
Significant parts of this novel are concerned with the cinema (Heath Baxter is an aspiring auteur, and Pike had film production in his past) and, as he did with Joseph Heller, Heppner demonstrates that he himself is as versed in the subject as his characters are. Besides a voluminous knowledge of movies, the author has an ability to do what screenwriters are supposed to do – show, don’t tell. That is, make word pictures that ring true in the reader’s mind. I’ll cite just one resonant example among many. Stuart and Marlene are having an argument: “Both she and Stuart were standing with their fists balled, their foreheads almost touching.” While I was reading Heppner I was concurrently reading a novel by Theodore Dreiser and I was amazed at the contrast in styles, how Heppner could say in one sentence what it would take Dreiser three ponderous pages to get to, and not only that – though Heppner’s story is greatly concerned with politics in various ways, it’s never preachy or sermonizing. A character began her political career in DC but she was “way too raw and unabashedly partisan to make it inside the Beltway, where nothing ever happened without compromise.” Again, I smiled at how, in Drieser, this simple truth would never even be acknowledged; politics would be presented as a fight to death, with definite winners and losers. What a contrast!
Another major subject the novel takes up, as is natural in our times, is the nature of the internet and how it’s changed and affected all of our lives. It does this in two important scenes, both humorous – first, when Marlene becomes a “celebrity” on a website devoted to streakers and nudists, and, second, when Heath does an online, real time interview with fans after he moves to LA, towards the end of the novel. Anyone can draw their own conclusions as to what Heppner means to imply about the nature of the web and its impact on the culture, but what I thought of immediately is how these ultra modern, up to the minute examinations of life right now contrast with the brief scenes in the novel that describe events of hundreds of years ago, scenes that gradually fill us in on some horrible events of the past, and what is common and similar in the lives of those colonial peoples with our own contemporary existence. The DNA, if you like, hasn’t changed.
For purposes of easy identification I’ll try to point out some of the themes and issues the novel as a whole takes up, and sort out which character or characters are involved in each. This list is not supposed to be exhaustive or final, but rather a starting point for anyone interested in looking at this most absorbing book in some level of detail. I noticed: the nature of democracy and the political process (Celia Shriver, Cathy Diego, Allison Reese and others want to organize a huge anti-Pike demonstration; numerous members of the Rhode Island lawmaking contingent owe Pike money; Henry Savage is a Washington lifer); the saga of a family’s skeletons in the closet, family history (the Reeses); the nature of the contrast of appearances and reality (all is not quite what it seems with Pike, as well as with the Reeses, as well as with a certain house that stands at the apex of the tale; Marlene is at her core being not at all what she appears to be); the relationship between a mentor and a mentee (Brian Wilson to Heath; Pike to Heath; and Heath to Stuart); issues of what does and does not constitute a successful relationship (Heath and Allsion; Marlene and Stuart; Carla Marshall and Bill); the usefulness of artists sharing ideas on the artistic process (Heath, Brian Wilson, the French chef Lucien; even Heath and Marlene in a weird kind of director-actor relationship); the tortured genius (Brian Wilson; Heath, marginally). These are all worthy angles.
Before concluding: a point for the literary theorists among us who might be hungering for a little indulgence in structuralism or deconstruction. In the opening scene Nathaniel Pike observes: “If I were a fruit, I’d be a banana.” Interestingly, somewhere within the next fifty pages another character is also compared to a banana. What’s the point? What’s the symbolism of the banana? How is it used as a metaphor to tie one character to another? Granted, not everyone is interested in this kind of self indulgent exercise – but for those who are, it may well bear fruit!
Pike’s Folly is impressive – sharply observant, daring, not afraid to tackle large and relevant questions, and entertaining too! - Peter Quinones
Mike Heppner, The Egg Code, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002; Vintage 2003.
A debut of remarkable depth and complexity, Mike Heppner's The Egg Code explores the influence of media and technology on a Midwestern community. The book's vast, nonlinear narrative investigates the lives of a handful of individuals with loose ties to a mysterious network management company called The Gloria Corporation. Gloria murdered the father of hyper-egotistical housewife Lydia Tree, manipulating her mother, expert cryptologist Kay Tree, into leaving her hometown to assist the developing company. Stuck in a dying marriage, Lydia's fortysomething friend Donna Skye remains devoted to her husband Derek, an author and motivational speaker on the brink of psychological collapse. Derek, a former Gloria employee, finds a friend in 24-year-old Scarlet, a sweet if hopelessly naïve disciple of his "easy steps" self-help philosophy. Scarlet's new boyfriend, Olden Field, is a self-proclaimed revolutionary who manages eggcode.com, a Web site devoted to spreading misinformation. As Olden's practices attract the attention of Gloria, his ad-exec friend Gray Hollows encounters legal trouble over a vaguely sexual ad campaign involving Lydia's son.
Though often as sprawling as they sound, these loosely connected narratives each reveal an aspect of communication's harmful effect on culture. Of particular interest to Heppner is the tragedy that results from the popularized belief in the potential for success without effort. The book's intertwining narratives and darkly humorous view of middle-class America recall the work of writer and film director Todd Solondz. Heppner, however, shows compassion and restraint in his albeit bleak assessment, rare qualities that help make The Egg Code a valuable, through difficult, work. - Ross Doll
Heppner's bumptiously clever debut novel revolves around a vague premise: the Internet has been taken over, or even formed, by one business: the Gloria Corporation. In an oblique way, Gloria affects the interwoven fortunes of an odd set of characters who live close to each other in Big Dipper Township. Lydia Tree, an outrageously aggressive woman trying to hustle her intellectually underachieving son, Simon, into a stage and screen career, is the daughter of Kay Tree, a cryptanalyst who tracked Gloria for the Defense Department. Steve Mould, Lydia's husband, is not up-and-coming enough for his wife, until he gets Simon a spot on the advertisements for the chain that owns the furniture store he manages. These lewdly suggestive advertisements are merely a ploy by their creator, Gray Hollows, to provoke his boss into firing him. Gray's friend, Olden Field, meanwhile, is producing a factoid site, Eggcode.com, in order to flood the Web with disinformation. Lydia, in a typically manic moment, has entrusted Olden with pictures of Simon for a bogus Net-driven celebrity campaign, and Olden misuses them for his site. Eggcode's pics of Simon eventually backfire on Gray's ad campaign, resulting in a concatenation of disasters: Gray's ardently longed-for firing, Steve's dismissal from his company, Lydia and Steve's divorce and Olden's arrest. Meanwhile, Lydia's friend, Donna Skye, the daughter of an old German code man who knows all about Gloria, is undergoing a shaky divorce from her husband, Derek, America's premier motivational speaker, who was sponsored by Gloria until he lost his faith. Heppner resembles the movie director Paul Thomas Anderson more than he resembles any fellow writer like Anderson's Magnolia, this novel operates on multiple levels, alternating among an evidently empathetic intelligence, an uncommon comic brio and outrageously sophomoric symbolism. - Publishers Weekly
"Eingesteckt" (short story); DTV (Munich), October 2000, reprinted 2008
"Boston Market" (short story); Bold Type, June 2002
Various Short Essays; Die Welt (Berlin); 2002-2004
"Marlene's Detour" (excerpt from Pike's Folly); Nerve, April 2006
"Untitled" (short story); Esquire.com, February 2007
"Rewind" (short story); Nerve, May 2007
"Sleeping Together" (short story); Small Anchor Press, September 2007
Talking Man (novella); Small Anchor Press, September 2008
"Taking It to the Streets: My Year in Guerrilla Publishing" (essay); Poets & Writers, Sept./Oct. 2009
Talking (non-fiction); Wild Rag, Oct. 2010
"The Courage of Joseph McElroy" (essay); Golden Handcuffs Review, Winter - Spring 2011
"Untitled" (short story); The New Guard, 2011
"On Preparations for Search: Joseph McElroy's Noir-core" (essay); Dzanc Books, 2012
"Untitled" (short story); The New Guard, 2011
"On Preparations for Search: Joseph McElroy's Noir-core" (essay); Dzanc Books, 2012
"Generic Metal Titan" (short film co-written with Timothy Naylor); 1996
Interview with Matt Lee, Hour Magazine, March 2003
I read on the Internet that The Egg Code was actually the thesis for your M.F.A. at Columbia.
Which isn't true. [Laughs.] That proves my point about the Internet. Actually, my thesis was some short stories. At that point, The Egg Code was a lot longer than it wound up being. But it was something that I worked on during the time that I was at Columbia.
Fiction writers are divided as to the merit of university creative writing programs. After going through one of the more prestigious programs, what's your take?
[My experience at Columbia was fantastic, but] there's some validity to the stereotype--the phrase is, "writing that's workshopped to death"--where you sort of overthink all of the possible things that could be wrong about a piece of writing and you don't think about what's right about it, and you end up with something that's sort of criticism proof but also ends up being uninteresting.
Well, creative writing program or not, it didn't seem that you held much back in The Egg Code. Does that have to do with being a first-time novelist?
Yeah, absolutely. Because you don't write thinking it's going to be published. You want it to be published, but when I started writing that book I was still living in Detroit; I was working at Wayne State. I was making $8 an hour and I was writing at night. I guess the reason why the book is so opinionated was just this feeling of, whether the book gets published or not, whether anyone reads it, I'm going to say what I think, and I'm just going to get it out there. There's a real desperation, I think, writing a first-time novel. It's something that stews inside you for your entire life up to that point.
Speaking of which, you grew up in Grosse Pointe. How has that played into your writing?
Well, I've written about it. When I was younger, and the experience of growing up in Grosse Pointe was a little bit closer to me, I wrote about it more often. But the whole Crane City thing [in The Egg Code] was just another word for Detroit and its metropolitan area. I didn't call it Detroit because I didn't want people to be thinking quite so literally. You know, I didn't want it to be limited to Detroit. And yet, there's a lot of areas--like there's a town called Hedgemont Heights in the book that I always thought of as being the Grosse Pointe equivalent. Living in Grosse Pointe, I had the privilege of a really excellent public school education, which is definitely a dying quality in our country now. I had a really strenuous education.
What do you think you'd be doing right now if The Egg Code hadn't found a publisher?
Oh, man, I don't really want to think about it. People always say, "If you're going into the arts you should have something to fall back on," and I always tell them that you might as well cut to the chase and give up now, because you can't have that attitude. You have to be willing to have your life be totally ruined if this doesn't pan out. And I just don't think it's possible, for something this difficult to succeed in, to split your focus. I mean, this has got to be it. It's either this or walk the plank.
Author Q&A, Borzoi Reader, March 2006
Entertainment Weekly has written that you're a "fearsome cultural critic disguised in a novelist's clothes." One could argue the truth of this statement is borne out in Pike's Folly, namely with its descriptions of younger characters like Stuart, Marlene, Allison, and Heath. What are you trying to say (if anything) about the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today?
I don't think of these characters as archetypal or emblematic in any way, and I'm reluctant to tell people what constitutes their collective identity. To be honest with you, I have such little contact with anyone other than my immediate family that I'm the last person to answer this. Generally speaking, I think one's twenties are a time to experiment and make mistakes. Obviously some mistakes are worse than others, but when you're young, you at least have the benefit of being able to recover from a vast majority of those mistakes. I'm thirty-three now, and I feel my mistake-making days are over. I guess you could say that the character of Allison is exploring life a little and screwing up a lot, and while all that seems traumatic at the time, there's nothing particularly wrong with it. She's more together than I was at her age. Heath is in that phase too, though I think he's less likely to grow out of it. Stuart and Marlene, being a bit older, have a more defined sense of who they are, for what that's worth--probably not much.
Do you miss being in your twenties?
No, I like the age I am now. You have to get excited about getting older. I'm not looking forward to rotting away someday, but I don't need to be twenty-one again.
I've heard that true Providence history inspired much of the book. Is there a real life counterpart to the farmhouse where the Reese family crimes of yore were played out? Is there anything else that matches up to real events in history?
No counterpart to the farmhouse that I'm aware of. The brief chapters that take place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are all "drawn from fact." I've tried being accurate with my contemporary references to Rhode Island society and politics. But most of the book is a fable.
So why Rhode Island?
I was born there and moved to Michigan with my mom when I was six. Every summer I'd go back to Rhode Island to spend time with my dad. Then when I was in my late twenties I moved back to Rhode Island. I just like it. It's easy to make too much of the size, but the fact that it is so small gives it a special character. It's possible to know every landmark and vista in the state, which I think makes it unique. I don't live there anymore--my wife's job took us up to Boston about two years ago--but we get down there a lot. It's a short drive. By the way, I think not being a true "Rhode Islander" made it more possible for me to write the book. Sometimes it helps to be an outsider.
The character of Stuart is a young novelist who has written a debut novel and is married. You are a young novelist who has written a debut novel (and successfully finished your second) and you're married. Are we supposed to see a bit of you in Stuart?
I'd rather you didn't, though that's fine too. I made Stuart a writer because I wanted to put his feelings across with as little play-pretend as possible. He's a lot more passive than I am, more cynical and defeatist. But I can relate to him, sure.
In what sense?
In the sense of working toward a goal that in some respects has defined your life for a number of years (in my case, writing a novel), accomplishing that goal, then realizing you still have some time left on the earth, and wondering what to do next--that part I can relate to. But Stuart's response and my response are so different. I didn't become morose--at least I don't think I did. I just wrote a morose character and put him in a book.
Pike's Folly is, among other things, a snapshot of our imperfect world. All the characters are caught in some sort of foolishness. What made you want to explore this aspect of humankind and how did you come to the title Pike's Folly?
Pike's Folly just sounded right--I went through a number of titles but kept coming back to that one; it suggests something about the book without revealing too much. Reading from Thomas Cleary's translation of the Dhammapada: "A fool who is conscious of his folly is thereby wise; the fool who thinks himself wise is the one to be called a fool."
I have to admit that my favorite character is Marlene. Where did you come up with the inspiration for her?
She's my favorite as well. She wasn't really inspired by anyone in particular. When I was writing her, someone told me they couldn't understand why a person with so many body issues would want to expose herself like that. It made sense to me, but the challenge was getting it to make sense to a reader. She's a potentially alienating character, but I think we come to sympathize with her.
How do you go about researching a character like that?
I don't think you can. You just try to imagine what's in her heart and mind and go from there. Certainly you can find a wealth of information about exhibitionists and nudists on the Web, but I think most of it's pretty dishonest--I don't know how truthfully people represent themselves online. That's part of the exhibitionism too, I suppose.
Heath's obsession with Brian Wilson plays a big role in the novel, to say the least. Why did you incorporate this into Pike's Folly?
I love Brian Wilson. I love the Beach Boys. Stop reading this right now and listen to "The Little Girl I Once Knew," or "Let's Get Away For Awhile." Or "Darlin'," or "Long Promised Road." I love those artists who somehow manage to straddle the line between experimentation and accessibility. This book needed a spiritual guide--a guru of sorts--and Brian got the job. Like so much about this book, I was motivated more by instinct and feel rather than some rational plan.
How do you think your writing has grown or changed since your debut novel, The Egg Code?
I haven't read The Egg Code since I put it to bed, so my memory of it has dimmed somewhat. I was trying on a number of different hats, and some fit and some didn't.
As a teacher, what advice do you have for other young writers?
Please make it worth the paper it's written on. Try to change a life--I think anything short of that is a waste of everyone's time.
What's next for you?
My next novel is so different from either The Egg Code or Pike's Folly that it's nearly unrecognizable as the work of the same person. My writing has become a lot simpler and less showy as I've gotten older. I'm trying to write more from the heart than the mind. I went through a personally shattering experience while I was writing Pike's Folly (which had nothing to do with my "writing career," but rather something much more urgent and immediate). Pike's Folly, which is a boisterous and (hopefully) loveable book, was my way of maintaining my sanity during that experience. I didn't write it because it made sense from a professional standpoint or to prove anything to anyone, but because it offered an escape from all that. The "all that" forms the subject of my next book. After that comes something lighter, but that's far in the future.
From The Christian Science Monitor, February 2009
A new book - yours for the taking by Matthew Shaer
New York - Not so long ago, Ed Medina was studying in the library of Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., when he noticed a peculiar package on a nearby table. It appeared at first to be the pieces of a abandoned essay, but when Mr. Medina peered more closely, he saw two lines of thick black printing: "Please Read!!! Do Not Discard."
"I was mostly suspicious," Medina explained later. "Like, is this for real? But the concept was too intriguing for me to ignore it completely."
As it turned out, that package was a novella--some 11 pages in length, each page split into two columns--typed up by a guy named Mike Heppner, who lived hundreds of miles away, in Belmont, Mass.
In 2002, Mr. Heppner was catapulted into the limelight when his debut novel, The Egg Code, was nominated by both The Washington Post and Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of the year. A second novel, Pike's Folly, also fared well--Esquire magazine gushed over it--and Heppner seemed poised for a successful literary career.
But by 2007, Heppner, who now teaches at Emerson College in Boston, was having trouble placing his work. "I was frustrated," he remembers. "No one was biting anymore. I felt out of the scene. I wondered for a while there if I should just give up."
Part of the problem, he knew, was the shrinking demand for literary fiction. Sales across the country were slumping, independent bookstores were shuttering, and most publishers had not yet discovered how to best reach a Web audience. Still, Heppner had been a writer for 15 years, "and if you've been doing something for 15 years," he says with a laugh, "it's hard to stop."
Eventually, he finished Man Talking, a first-person novella. The themes were simple and ageless: Why do we tell each other stories? And what do those stories mean?
Heppner thought about shipping the book off to publishers, but he worried that it might not be marketable. "It was a fairly substantial amount of work that I had put in--maybe eight months in all," he estimates. "I thought, 'Might as well put it up online.' Readers could get it for free, and at the same time, I might get a little bit of attention."
Some 4,000 readers did eventually click through the site, and Heppner garnered some blog buzz, enough to get him thinking big. A few months afterward, Heppner contacted his friend Jen Hyde, the founder of Brooklyn's Small Anchor Press.
The idea was relatively simple: Publish a limited-edition run of a second novella, Talking Man, which was loosely related to Man Talking. Then release a third novella, Man, to random locations across the United States, with the help of a network of friends and acquaintances.
Heppner, in other words, hoped to explore three avenues of distribution: online, with Man Talking; through a small press, with Talking Man; and haphazardly, with Man.
"I was very curious about how stories get into the world," he says. Man Talking and Man, for instance, are both largely concerned with matters of communication--among peers, family members, friends, and strangers. "What is the relationship between readers and writers, and consumers and producers?" he adds. "I wanted the way I presented these novellas to be another layer of commentary."
Ms. Hyde was enthusiastic. "I was fascinated," she says. "It became this great experiment. With Man, we said, 'Let's send these out into the worlds, and let's have absolutely no expectations for it,' which is kind of awesome, when you think about it, because it's something Mike's worked on, and something close and personal. And by virtue of making these copies, you're almost giving it no monetary value."
In the end, Hyde and Heppner settled on 500 copies of Man and sent stacks out scattershot to college campuses, coffee shops, gyms, offices, and airports. Each edition was bundled with a one-page cover letter, which informed readers of the Man Talking project and asked that readers send comments and questions to Heppner.
"You hold in your hands a copy of Man, the third in a series of four novellas," the letter read. "Please do one of the following: (a) read it, (b) leave it where you found it, or (c) give it to a friend."
Among the recipients of Man was Gina Hoch-Stall, a student of dance and psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. "I found the story quite touching," Ms. Hoch-Stall wrote to Heppner. "As a choreographer I am often trying to use gestures, memories, and intimate details to bring people into my dances; I feel like this is what made Man successful."
Meanwhile, Heppner and Hyde had released Talking Man in September, to a good deal of acclaim. (Talking Man will be released this month in a trade edition.) A fourth installment, Talking, is planned for a March release, although Heppner is keeping mum on the plot and distribution details. He will say only that he's "extremely excited."