Coming of Age During the Bush Era: Mike Roberts Talks About His Debut Novel 'Cannibals In Love'

Books and Digest Editor

The author talks about his novel, which is set during the years of the Bush administration, and focuses on an American male who comes of age within it.
The years spanning the the George W. Bush administration were a dark time in American history, particularly during the first four which began with a controversial election, truly kicked off after 9/11, and ended in the mire of two wars. Underneath the cloak of these catastrophes was the advent of another era, the one most anticipated just a couple of years earlier and seemingly ushered in by Carson Daily and TRL: the dawn of a new millennia. And no one came to define in more than the generation of people who inherited it: millennials.

To look back at this generation now, is to see it as a skipped or bridged generation, one that could freshly remember the 90s, and had yet to envision the Obama era of change; where the internet was still young and implosive, and relationships friend or intimate was mainly conducted offline. This is the period in which Mike Roberts sets his debut novel Cannibals in Love, a rollicking and tender millennial bildungsroman. Set at first in Washington D.C. and expanding into several US states by the book’s end, Cannibals in Love is a unique document of America crash landing into the 21st century. Its protagonist is also named Mike, a young would-be writer navigating both the timeless travails of love and youth and the very real fears of his time.

Throughout Cannibals in Love, Roberts builds a powerful portrait of the early aughts, made all the more visceral by Roberts’s own experiences, much of which were used as material for the book. “Using my own first name creates an intimacy with the reader,” he says, acknowledging the sleight-of-hand this gives the novel. By connecting fictional Mike with the author, and moving his character through vignette-like experiences—fronting bands, writing a book, and engaging in several romances—Roberts is able to deep in out of what made this period so unique: that it would be the last generation to exist offline and in engage primarily and nakedly in the real world.

We sent Roberts some questions about Cannibals in Love to which he responded generously.
When did the idea for this novel come about?

Beyond that, I wanted to talk about what happened to young people – this first generation of millennials – during the chaos of the George W. Bush years. They were overeducated and underemployed, and essentially set adrift. It was important to me to begin that story in Washington, DC, and build outward.

Cover design by Na Kim, courtesy of FSG Originals

Your character is also named Mike, and I’m curious how much of it is based on events in your life, as in a Ben Lerner way, and how much of it is fictional?

It is an autobiographical novel, definitely. It is built from the raw materials of my life. Calling the character Mike is a direct acknowledgment of those raw materials. But it is also a kind of subversion of the expectation that “it all really happened.” It didn’t, of course. But using my own first name creates an intimacy with the reader. It lets them feel like you are being more direct with them, more honest. And maybe you are. But it’s also a trick. Because on some level the reader has this need to believe that you are the character. The point of foregrounding it in a novel like this is to get it out of the way. Then the story is free to go wherever it wants. I just read a quote by Ann Patchett that said: “None of it happened and all of it’s true.” I don’t know if anyone can say it better than that.

I read Cannibals in Love as a millennial American bildungsroman, specifically during the presidency of George W. Bush. Can you talk a bit about returning to that time in your memory when you wrote this book? What did you find yourself getting nostalgic for? What were you grateful to see remain in history?

For a brief period of time it felt like Washington, DC was at the center of the universe to me. 9/11; the anthrax attacks; the beltway sniper; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and even Hurricane Katrina. These events all happened in a four-year period! It was almost too much to digest. The violence stopped feeling surprising to us. The only thing you could really do, then, was react. It hardens you, but it also activates a kind of fearlessness that only the young have access to.
The politics make for an interesting backdrop, of course, but I was really trying to write a social novel. I was interested in how intensely young people live together in their early twenties. The beautiful thing about being that age is that you fall in love with everyone so easily. With your friends, with music, with art, with the cities that you live in. The surprise is that these people who you spend every waking moment with, when you’re 21, can end up feeling like near-total strangers by the time you’re 25. And that’s not good or bad, it just is. It happens to everybody.

This book is also set before the rise of smart phones and social media. And even though Mike takes a job as an spam emailer, he seems almost unprepared for the internet as it is now. (Bettina later joshes him for this). Do you see him as someone who is constantly having to catch up to the world he lives in? I noticed you still use a Yahoo email account, so maybe you see this quality a bit in yourself?

Mike Roberts

The important thing to remember is that technology was not all-consuming in the early years of this novel. September 11th, itself, was a television event, as much as anything. We were not sitting at our computers refreshing the New York Times website. We were watching CNN on a straight loop. The thing that the novel does try to represent is the emergence of Web-2.0, which crash-landed dead center in the middle of the Bush years. This is when things really started to change: Google, Napster, Facebook, YouTube, Craigslist, etc., all gave rise to the user-friendly internet we take for granted now. But it also gave us this mania for content, which has left us unable to decipher actual content from advertising. Worse, it has given us the word “content.” This is all part of the joke of Mike taking a job writing spam emails for money. The absurdity is not lost on him.

I think that everyone was playing catch-up to this new version of the internet, to some extent. Mike more than most, perhaps. If I share anything with him, in this regard, it is his general lack of reverence for the internet. Things will keep changing and we will keep meeting them on our own terms. I honestly think that Mike is more engaged with these shifts than he might seem.

There is a manuscript within a book that matures alongside you, A Cattle, A Crack-Up in which you eventually whittle down a 400-page novel to a 13-page short story. What is the importance of this work to Mike’s own coming of age?

The fact that his novel could be either thirteen pages, or four hundred pages, (or, ultimately, over a thousand pages!), illustrates the fragility and absurdity of his effort. This is the bind that Mike is caught in. He loses his way with this book pretty early on, and yet he can’t let go of it. I don’t actually think that Mike is without talent in the book, either. But his idea for a novel-about-cows as an allegory for the Invasion of Iraq is doomed from the start. And yet, every writer’s novel teeters over that abyss, to some extent. The only way to know if it’s worth anything at all is to write the goddamn thing over and over and over again. And, to his credit, he finishes A Cattle, a Crack-Up three, four, five separate times within the novel. He even succeeds in gaining the attention of a New York literary agent. But all the magic is gone, at that point. He can never get back to that feeling of urgency that forced him to begin the book in the first place. The suffering that he puts himself through is brutal and ridiculous – and obviously I am making some sport of it – but I admire the fact that he is willing to follow it all the way to the end. If he could figure out how to abandon the book earlier, he would do it, I’m sure.

Mike is a peripatetic character, he travels from city to city, whether by love, or restless itch. Characters come and go then occasionally come back again. Near the end, Mike mentions writing a book “assembled like a mixtape,” and seems to imagine what appears to be Cannibals In Love. Do you see this book as a sort of love letter or scrap book?

In a lot of ways these first millennials were liberated from the middle class boredom of the Clinton years. I think that helps to explain their transience. These kids proved to be more flexible and adaptable than almost anyone in this new America. Without the shackles of bourgeois respectability, they had the freedom to keep starting over. On the internet and in real life.

I had an idea of how I wanted to represent these shifts in time and geography in the novel, which is to say that I wanted to keep it all moving. I wanted to drop the reader into each next chapter and let them orient themselves for a second. If the book is working then this is part of the fun. The reader understands that they are moving linearly, and they fill these gaps unconsciously, as they read. The idea of a “mixtape,” to the extent that it relates to Cannibals in Love, has to do with the fact that we understand these transitions between songs/chapters intuitively. The author has laid it all out in advance. First we’re gonna dance; then we’re gonna fuck; then we’re gonna fight; then we’re gonna cry. But hopefully we’re going to feel like we had a good time, when it’s all said and done.

Could you perhaps explain the title?

The title itself is a metaphor for intimacy, in all forms, not just romantic. More specifically, how impossible meaningful intimacy can be for young people. They hurt each other because they don’t know any better. Although, sometimes they hurt each other because they do know better. And that’s the point, too. These relationships are combative. Behaving badly in order to force the other person to engage with you is a kind of perverse rite of passage, among the young. Especially set against a backdrop of an America that was turning increasingly apocalyptic in the Bush years.

Can you talk a bit about your current projects as both a writer and a filmmaker?

Andrew Neel and I are adapting Aziah “Zola” Wells epic Twitter story, that went viral last fall, into a movie for James Franco to direct. Rolling Stone described it as “Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj,” which is pretty much dead on. Who knows? I hope it gets made. It’ll be a fun one.

Otherwise, I am working on the next novel, which is set in Buffalo in the fall of 1990 and deals with big institutions: like football, and war, and Catholicism. I’ve been writing a lot of sex scenes, lately. And that’s about all I want to say about it for now.
by Mike Roberts
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Originals / 342 pp. / $16.00

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