Like another bold book that’s just hitting the shelves, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, Matt Dojny’s The Festival of Earthly Delights is a novel from life, though the life that it’s from — to judge by the book that resulted — must be radically, grotesquely different. Dojny’s novel is high entertainment: a wildly heightened and distorted assembly of painfully funny, jaw-dropping misadventures that resolve themselves, in almost classical style, into a big old-fashioned technicolor ending. No less a literary funnyman than Gary Shteyngart called The Festival of Earthly Delights “A glorious novel” — with exclamation marks! — and I can’t help but agree. This is a quintessential summer book, but not the kind that you’d want to take to the beach, if only because it would turn you into the kind of snorting, cackling deviant that people tend to move their towels away from. Also, it has funny pictures.
Boyd Darrow, the novel’s epically star-crossed hero, has just landed in the tiny Southeast Asian country of Puchai (“The Kingdom of Winks!”) with his grouchy and distinctly less-than-faithful girlfriend, Ulla. In a series of letters to a mysterious figure from his past known only as “Hap,” Darrow narrates a string of cultural gaffes and psychosexual misadventures as his relationship and professional life and understanding of the world in general are radically and permanently Puchafied. But the country of Puchai itself is the real star of the novel, from the atomically smelly garong fruit everyone finds so delicious to its national fondness for the music of the mid-career Eagles and the Festival of Taang Lôke Kwaam Banterng Sumitchanani, the “Festival of Earthly Delights” of the title, the absurd and improbable celebration of which also serves as the rococo end of the novel itself.
In tribute to the novel’s theme of cultural dislocation, and to its author’s storied past on the Asian subcontinent, this interview was held in a Malaysian karaoke parlor in midtown Manhattan. Dojny, for reasons unclear to this writer, had smuggled in a bottle of Rémy Red Berry Infusion.
John Wray: You worked for a while as an actor in karaoke videos in Singapore, if I’m remembering rightly. I know that you drew on many experiences from your time in Southeast Asia when you were plotting out Boyd Darrow’s misadventures in The Festival of Earthly Delights — how come acting in karaoke videos didn’t make it into the book?
Matt Dojny: I’d originally planned to have Boyd’s journey more directly mirror my own — the first half of the book was going to be set in “Puchai” (my fictionalized stand-in for Thailand), and the second half was going to recount Boyd’s travels around the continent, including a stint doing some karaoke-acting. However, if I’d stuck with that structure, the book would’ve been 1,000 pages long, which seemed kind of excessive for a first novel, so — hey, do you want to perform “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” [Smashing Pumpkins], or can I?
JW: Wow, this interview is heading south in a hurry. Go ahead.
MD: Here, try a sip of this of Remy Red. It tastes like a strawberry popsicle soaked in turpentine.
JW: Ugh. Okay.
Unlike a lot of novels that arise more or less directly out of the author’s coming of age, yours seems unfettered by any particular desire to represent your own life accurately, or even fairly, which may be part of the reason it’s so hilarious — you’ve given yourself the freedom to shape the material for maximum kick. Was transforming Thailand into the fictional (and very weird) country of Puchai an important step in that direction? Did it liberate you to get especially freaky?
That version of “Bullet” made me just a little uncomfortable, by the way. The lyrics really seemed to speak to you on a fundamental level. Do you consider yourself an angry person?
MD: No, I don’t think I’m particularly angry. But, I will admit that the lyrics “Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage” speak to my innermost being. Is that so wrong?
In answer to your first question: I mainly set the novel in Puchai because I’m lazy, and didn’t want to have to do a lot of research about Thailand. I loved living there, but it was more interesting for me to make up a new culture rather than having to interrogate an existing one. If that allowed for maximum freakiness, then, bully for me. Does that answer make sense? I feel like I’ve gotten drunk too early in this interview. This Remy Red might’ve been a mistake. I’m switching to beer. You pick a song.
JW: I’m going to vote for something classy this time. Do you do women’s voices?
MD: Not in my daily life. But I’ll do my best.
Did you have any particular models in mind when you were writing this novel? I’ve been trying to come up with some guesses, which hasn’t been easy. Kingsley Amis keeps springing to mind for some reason — especially his masterpiece of institutional satire, Lucky Jim. But maybe that’s just because Kingsley Amis was an angry writer too.
MD: I like to think that I’m not as much of a misanthrope — or a misogynist — as Amis was, but, that being said, Lucky Jim was absolutely a reference point — my book is basically half campus novel, and half epistolary novel. Oh, and half bildungsroman.
I’d like to reiterate that I do not think of myself as an angry writer — I feel like you’re still picking up on the powerful reverberations of that Smashing Pumpkins song.
And, with all due respect to Mr. Green, I’m going to pass on that song request. I feel like for a karaoke performance to be truly successful, you have to know the song inside and out, and my kinship with that track isn’t deep enough. Can I do some Otis Redding instead? Maybe “Try a Little Tenderness?”
JW: I’d never discourage anyone from performing that number. It also resonates with my next question, which touches on the sensual side of your writing. To wit: there’s a lot of sex in this book — a lot more than one tends to encounter in contemporary fiction by polite and well-spoken young men. Katie Roiphe would never have had to write her polemic in the Atlantic Monthly (or wherever that was) if the culture had more novelists of your stripe. What purpose does sex play in the novel? Were you setting out to write our generation’s version of Updike’s Couples? And don’t you worry what your mother will think?
MD: I absolutely worry what my mother might think; I’m even chagrined that she’s likely reading this interview. Hopefully she doesn’t know about the Internet.
My natural inclination is to be shy and retiring, and yet I also felt obligated to explore the more cringe-inducing corners of my psyche while writing the book. I’m guessing that inclination is somehow related to my Catholic upbringing? Anyway, I guess the purpose of my acknowledgment of the existence of human sexuality in the novel was to make myself and my family (and probably the reader) as uncomfortable as possible…Speaking of which, instead of Otis Redding, I’m going to sing “My Humps.” Hold my beer, please.
JW: Jesus. That was actually really, really good. I feel as if I’ve never truly heard that song before. And now I’ll never be able to erase it fully from my mind.
MD: That was the effect I’d intended.
JW: I wanted ask about the drawings in the book. There are so many of them, and they’re so illustrative, that the experience of reading it comes close, at certain points, to that of a graphic novel. Did you ever consider going in that direction with the story?
MD: My background is as a visual artist, and, when I first conceived of working on a book, I originally thought it’d be mostly art, with a little bit of text. I didn’t really think of myself as a writer back then, so this approach allowed me to ease myself into the concept of being a novelist. Once I started writing, the text took over, and the illustrations became secondary, or, at least, subservient to the story. I’d love to do a graphic novel someday, but it seems like so much work. It took me four or five years to write this book — if it had more art and fewer words, I’d probably still be working on it.
Can you do me a favor and do a rap song? I want to level the playing field after that Black Eyed Peas number. I feel unclean now.
JW: I’m not sure I have the sense of rhythm required for hip hop, but I’ll do something in that general direction. How about “Work It” by Missy Elliott? That song has always spoken to me for some reason.
I’m now going to do something that I strongly disapprove of and get annoyed by in interviews, which is to bring up specific episodes from your novel and ask about the stories behind them, as though the whole point of writing fiction weren’t the excitement and challenge of making things up. But I have to ask: did you, at any point in your time in Asia, have a job interview with an embittered Vietnam veteran gone native who asked you to smuggle a tiny bottle of his urine back to America, just so you could pour it out on to the ground when you arrived?
MD: The character of Sam is, in fact, based partially on the Vietnam vet who ran the language school where I taught English in Thailand. In reality, though, the man asked me to smuggle a bottle of urine into Vietnam and pour it onto the ground, not America. I’m sure he’d been through some terrible things there, and I fully understand why he might’ve had an adverse reaction to the young American backpackers such as myself who were now tourists in the country where he’d once fought. The image of the tiny vial of urine stuck with me, though, and seemed like it should be repurposed for the general reading public.
JW: How about the brothel in the novel — “Meowy X-mas?” Did it exist, and did you go there, and did a buxom and well-intentioned bar girl actually swallow your wedding ring? Feel free to pass on this question if answering it will ruin your life.
MD: First of all, I want to go on record as saying that your flow is formidable. Don’t sell your rap-skills short.
Regarding Meowy X-mas: I actually didn’t get around to visiting any brothels during my visit in Southeast Asia, and I have never had anyone eat my jewelry, so I had to rely on my fiction-making skills for that scene. I did, however, go to a bar in Singapore that was full of very ruddy and overweight middle-aged Englishmen and their incongruously beautiful 20-year-old Singaporean love interests. It had an unsavory vibe that makes me think that, in retrospect, it was basically a more evolved version of a brothel. I wasn’t actually propositioned there, but maybe I was too obviously poverty-stricken. Or maybe it was my lack of ruddiness.
Okay, I’m going to sing a Lionel Richie song now. You have a problem with that?
JW: Depends on the number. May I suggest “All Night Long?” Not sure I’m ready for a ballad from The Lion King right now.
I was impressed to see an ecstatic blurb from Kristen Schaal on the back of the book — I’ve loved her ever since she played the stalker fan on Flight of the Conchords. How did you get a copy of the novel to her, and do you know if she’s currently single?
MD: Kristen used to live upstairs from me and, back in the day, would walk my dog, before she went all Hollywood on me. She is very awesome, but I’m pretty sure she’s in a committed relationship — maybe you could woo her with your rapping skills.
Now, what should we do next — maybe a duet? What would you say to a little “Islands in the Steam?”
JW: Dear lord. If that’s not a sign that this interview’s over, I don’t know what is.
Image courtesy of the author.