An Interview With Adam Wilson
The author of Sensation Machines talks viritual reality, Occupy Wall Street, and much more
Last year, I met the writer Adam Wilson and read his latest novel, Sensation Machines, which had been newly-issued in paperback. The novel is near and dear to my heart—a story of New York, rapacious capitalism, Big Tech, and whether a version of socialism can ever fly in America.
What I like about Sensation Machines is that it’s big, busy, and doesn’t lack for ambition. In near-future New York, Michael Mixner is a financier on Wall Street who has run up disastrous debts, his lifestyle no longer sustainable. His wife, Wendy, is a branding expert trying to recover from the stillbirth of their child. A virtual reality game known as Shamerican Sykosis is so popular that players spend their entire lives there, refusing to engage at all with life beyond pixels. Climate change, of course, has rendered the world increasingly unstable and the economy is teetering on collapse. The pivot point of the novel is the murder of Michael’s wealthy best friend, Ricky, during a protest staged by neo-Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. A second, more violent #OWS has consumed Manhattan, which is the furious foreground to an even bigger debate happening in the novel’s Washington—whether Congress can approve a universal basic income plan that would send $23,000 annually to every American. Wendy, in one of the novel’s twists, is conscripted into doing the bidding of a mysterious and very wealthy man who wants to see the UBI project defeated altogether. Wilson wrote Sensation Machines before the pandemic made direct cash relief, at least temporarily, a reality. And if you’re a fan of Eminem—one of Michael’s great obsessions—there’s plenty for you in this novel.
Featuring writers and great writing is something I want to do more on this Substack. As some of you might know, I’m a novelist as well, and my next book is out in February. Literary pursuits, in this cacophonous age, deserve to be explored and elevated.
Wilson, who is also the author of the much-lauded Flatscreen, was gracious enough to take my questions, via email, on his latest novel. Our conversation is below.
Tell me about the process of writing Sensation Machines. How long did it take you and how did the novel evolve as time progressed and current events changed?
I started working on the novel in 2011, with the idea that I’d write something based around the 2008 market crash. However, after much research into that event two things became clear. One was that I was too lazy a researcher to write the kind of book I’d envisioned—one that would capture, with verisimilitude, the tenor of life inside a place like Lehman Brothers in its hour of reckoning—and two, that there wasn’t a need for that book anyway, as there was a surplus non-fiction on the subject, some of it quite good. At which point I had the bright idea of setting my novel in a nebulous near future, and inventing my own market crash, the specifics of which I could bend around my story’s needs rather than the other way around. This worked out beautifully for the five years it took me to draft the novel. Then Trump was elected. Suddenly the dystopia I’d imagined didn’t seem nearly dystopic enough. I had to pretty much entirely reconceive of the world of the novel. The solution I came up with was I to set it in the years following the Trump presidency, a moment that I imagined—quite presciently, as it would turn out—would see the progressive left's fantasy of a corrective swing toward European-style socialism thwarted by the neoliberal powers that be.
Occupy Wall Street is an obvious backdrop. What made you decide to reckon with a new version of that movement? How did you go about imagining the political battles around UBI that take place in the novel?
These answers will bleed into each a bit, but as I said, I started working on the novel in 2011, in part as a way of trying to sort out my own feelings about Occupy, a movement I fundamentally supported, but also one that seemed doomed to failure. As I continued to work on the novel, it became an interesting thought experiment to imagine what such a movement might look like now-ish. As for UBI—which, in the novel, is not the Libertarian UBI that Andrew Yang planned to funded by stripping federal benefits programs, but a socialist UBI to be funded by taxing Wall Street and the wealthy—it struck me as kind of a perfect vehicle for the idea I was trying to explore regarding what I cynically see as the futility of socialist movements in America. UBI is a very logical, practical idea, especially in a world where automation is coming for everyone's jobs. But it’s also one that I don’t think will ever gain traction in this country due to how important the Prostestant work ethic is to our national identity.
Did any particular novels or novelists inspire you to write Sensation Machines?
Yes, many. Setting out, I knew I wanted to write a “big canvas” novel. My first novel, Flatscreen, was about a twenty year-old stoner who never leaves his mother's basement and who learns everything he knows from movies and TV. There were big ideas in it about media, post-9/11 America etc., but they were explored through the lens of a purposely narrow worldview. With Sensation Machines, I set out to do the opposite, in part as a challenge to myself. As a further challenge, I wanted to try to do so without sacrificing the intimacy of domestic realism. I know it's uncool these days to cite him as an influence (not to mention hubristic to suggest the comparison), but I must admit that reading David Foster Wallace in my twenties is probably what put the idea in my head that a novel could be as grand in scope as Pynchon or Gaddis, while also retaining some kind of essential human warmth—I mean, Infinite Jest is essentially a family drama wrapped up in a techno-futurist conspiracy. Zadie Smith is another writer who does this, and White Teeth and especially her later novel NW were also influential during the writing of Sensation Machines, as were Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, both of which blend the personal and the political in ways I sought to emulate. James Wood pejoratively dubbed Wallace and Smith “Hysterical Realists”, and complained, essentially, that in trying to do too many things at once, they didn't really succeed at doing anything. I think he’s wrong, but I also admit that I'm attracted to the idea of the beautiful failure. This may be tangential, but of all my gripes with publishing these days, probably the biggest is that, with some exceptions, the novels being published by big five houses are too perfectly sculpted for my liking. I sometimes wonder if my favorite novels—and to get back to your question, all of these books influenced Sensation Machines—would even be published if they were written today: Stanley Elkin's The Franchiser, Norman Rush's Mating, Paul Beatty’s Slumberland, E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Bruce Wagner’s I’m Losing You, Martin Amis’s London Fields—etc. Some of these books are only a few years old, but I think a lot has changed even in that short time.
Facebook has announced the Metaverse, not long after your novel grappled with a nation transfixed by VR. What is it about simulated reality that drew you in as a writer? How much of a societal threat is it, in your view?
Oh man, that’s a difficult question. Maybe this is a cop out answer, but I guess I’m less interested in VR itself than in the slow erasure of the borders between what we consider “reality” and what we think of as simulation. It seems to me that VR is really just a natural extension of the ways that those borders have already been blurred by smartphones, smart TVs, smart watches, and presumably even, like, smart vibrators. In terms of it being a societal threat, I think of it less as a threat to our human souls or whatever, than to any last hope we might have of saving the market from total manipulation at the hands of a few mega-powerful corporate entities.
Michael is a fallen creature of Wall Street. On one hand, we can hate him, because he made his money in ludicrious ways. Yet he’s ultimately a sympathetic character. Tell me about the decision to write from the perspective of a person in finance. What drew you to that world?
I went to a school in a wealthy suburb of Boston that, for whatever reason, produced a lot of investment bankers. I was friends with many of these future bankers. And I don’t know, maybe they joined frats in college and learned how to make their own roofies or whatever, but I mostly remember them as being nice people who were good at math. When Occupy got going, I found myself down in Zucotti Park protesting the fact that these nice guys, collectively, seemed to have totally fucked over many, many Americans with the subprime mortgage crisis. I guess, in a larger sense, I wanted to write a novel about the role of the individual in world historical events, and also in the ways that world-historical events impact individual lives, and making my protagonist a derivatives trader seemed like an effective way of exploring those questions. But it also seemed like a worthwhile challenge to try to find the humanity in a person who, at least in theory, everyone seems to hate.