Chronicles of Now: Why is the national crisis in your story unnamed? Why is it a specter?
Ben Fountain: I had the notion for a story like this a couple of years ago, when I started noticing these plain white delivery vans showing up in my neighborhood in North Dallas. And they were Mercedes vans. They had a high roof, and they were just kind of ugly and spooky, and especially spooky for the fact that they had no logo or branding displayed anywhere, which is, you know, very unusual for our time, because branding is the air we breathe these days. And so I saw these vans around, and writers, if your head is working correctly, you’re always walking around with What if? in your head. What if? What if? What if?
And so I thought, What if some kind of crisis happened someday—and I was thinking about a financial crisis—but What if the day came when these vans, instead of delivering stuff to your house, they showed up to take stuff away? How would that work? And what would it do to the psyche of an individual? But, you’re right, I didn’t foreground the pandemic. I don’t know. It’s just a question of instinct, intuition. I just felt like I’ll leave it kind of vague exactly what has happened, although there’s clearly a financial element.
CON: Who do you imagine is behind the guys showing up and un-delivering a consumer good? Because I think that is what makes it feel so creepy. What forces are at work in that kind of dystopia?
BF: It’s got lots of layers, and so let’s start at the macro level. I think, the way things have evolved in the economy and society in the last 40 years, so many of the things that affect our lives these days—the decisions—seem to take place far away, and in these places that we only have the dimmest sense of what they’re like—corporate boardrooms, situation rooms—and they have a profound effect on our lives. But we feel like we have no control over these things: corporate decisions, government decisions. I mean, in a way, that’s the neoliberal paradigm. These things that affect us on the local level, an individual level, they are decided far away by powerful people who do not answer to us. And I feel like if the need arose, or if the desire arose, corporate America could certainly pull enough strings in the government with the way things work now that if they wanted to de-deliver goods, there would probably be a way to pull it off. They’ve already pulled it off in many ways for many years.
But for your immediate question, How would that trickle down? Well, people are desperate for work. People are always looking for work, especially if times are tough, and so if you put out the call for recovery techs, people are going to show up to apply for the job. But, of course, these particular recovery techs, they look like ex-football players. They are big and muscular, and even though they’re soft-spoken, the threat is implied: If you don’t cooperate, we’ve got the muscle to get what we want, so it’s just better to go along.
So many of the things that affect our lives these days seem to take place far away, and in places that we only have the dimmest sense of what they’re like—corporate boardrooms, situation rooms. We feel like we have no control over these things: corporate decisions, government decisions.
CON: Wow. It’s so terrifying because I can see it so clearly: the conspicuously unbranded white van. That image, for some reason, it’s one of those things that’s creepy because it’s too clean, like a Stepford wife.
BF: I like that a lot: the Stepford van. Yeah, and they’re white and, come to think of it, I’ve never seen a dirty one, and I’ve never seen a dinged-up one. I mean, it’s like they’re off-the-shelf and purposely designed not to draw attention to themselves. It’s like, “Oh, don’t mind us. We’re just driving around the neighborhood. We’re just part of the scenery. We don’t even have a flashy logo to draw attention to ourselves.”
CON: I guess there are places where eventually that would just blend in. Eventually, you don’t ask about the white van and just hope the white van’s not coming for your things.
BF: At a certain point, we would all know what those vans are about. And in the story, I also mention UPS, FedEx, Amazon; they’ve all still got their vans out busily at work, and I suppose deliveries are still being made. So it’s almost like Russian roulette, right? Is the van gonna stop at my house? And is it gonna take away, or is it gonna deliver?
And, by the way, that’s a great way to divide people, to separate us, to break down solidarity: You pick people off one by one, or you select households one by one. If it was an entire block or an entire city, people might get the notion that “Hey, we can stand together on this” and put up some meaningful resistance. But when it’s just you, that’s when we’re weak.
CON: The spookiest part of the story is that they know precisely where our stuff is. Like, we’re talking on Zoom right now, and if someone was eavesdropping on this stream, they’ll see precisely where some of my stuff is. Are we just stupid to let companies know so much about us?
BF: Yes. In a word: yes. I think we’ve given too much of ourselves away in the pursuit of convenience and pleasure and instant gratification. And I’m perverse enough and enough of a moralist to have distrusted for the past 15 years all this convenience. I grew up when Sears Roebuck was the only place you sent away to get stuff, and it took six to eight weeks to arrive at your house. And talk about delayed gratification. But when it started getting to five-day delivery, three-day, two-day, one-day, and then, my god, same-day—
It’s almost like a force of nature to me or a law of physics: For every action, there’s gonna be a reaction. And it just seems to me, in my little moral universe, all this convenience will have to be paid for at some point. That’s just my own little karma wheel ticking along. And I can’t justify it, I can’t defend it. It’s just my head working.
It’s almost like a force of nature to me or a law of physics: For every action, there’s gonna be a reaction. All this convenience will have to be paid for at some point.
CON: So much of this, what you’re describing to me, is consumer guilt. And there are a lot of people who do think we should feel guilty that we can get same-day delivery of a new toaster, but I feel like what you’re saying is it doesn’t actually matter if we feel guilty, because the price will be paid one way or another.
BF: Let me put it this way: We want what we want, and we want it when we want it. And usually we want it now. But for most of human history, we hadn’t been able to get it now, if ever. And it almost goes against the way we’re wired to have this economic, social infrastructure apparatus that satisfies us so quickly and conveniently. I will say this: I’m not knocking materialism per se, because we are material creatures, and when the story makes the point that these things formed structure in our lives, I think that’s true for all of us except for Buddhist monks and, you know, more power to them. But for most of us living in a mainstream world, we do partly define ourselves by the things around us, the things we acquire. And that’s been true always. And so, there is a place for things. Especially meaningful things and useful things. And I think we’ve gone way too far toward material things—and at the expense of other parts of our lives, parts that are much more important, such as taking care of the people we love and being a good citizen and thinking in terms of the collective as opposed to the individual.
CON: The narrator of the story is making a concerted effort to just live his life. Even though strange people are showing up, carting away their things, they’re making accommodations to the new normal, which is a phrase we are hearing a lot these days. What is your story telling us about the human propensity for adaptation?
BF: Well that propensity goes several different directions. And we are adaptable creatures. We’ve had to be; we wouldn’t have lasted this long otherwise. But in terms of ourselves as social creatures, in this particular story, the adaptation is in the nature of each individual, each family. In other words, we aren’t thinking in terms of our neighbors, our collective. We’re scared, and it’s almost as if we’re saying, “Oh just don’t bother me too much—don’t take too much from me—and I won’t make a fuss.” You know, “Life is tough, and times are tough, and I know so many people have it worse than me, so just don’t be too hard on me, and I’ll go along peacefully.”
I think American society in the last 40 years has become a very obedience-oriented society, and it punishes you financially—and in all other kinds of ways—if you don’t go along. One of the things that’s really heartened me in the course of the last six weeks is the fact that a lot of people aren’t going along. They are kicking up a fuss about, most notably, George Floyd’s murder. And that is an appropriate fuss. It’s an appropriate demonstration, or an appropriate example of disobedience, and I think we need more of that spirit in our society.
We aren’t so much a country anymore in the minds of the critical mass of our citizens; we’re an economy that happens to have a country attached. We are taxpayers and consumers as opposed to citizens and neighbors.
CON: I’m inclined to agree with you, absolutely. One line that really struck me is “Somehow the country and the economy had become one and the same.” Is that fact now, in your opinion? Do you think that that’s where we are, or closer to where we are, in the United States?
BF: I think it’s absolutely where we are. I think there’s been a great transformation in the psyche of America over the last 40 years, with free-market fundamentalism and faith in markets as these almost immutable forces of nature that can’t be argued with. Yes, we have government, and we have neighbors who we care for, and there’s love and there’s altruism and all that, but ultimately it’s really all about economics. And these are laws of nature that really can’t be changed, or they’re immutable. And so we just have to go along. And a certain cohort in our society has benefited greatly by that worldview. It’s more than economics at this point. It’s an explanation of all of life. Which is completely bogus, and our own recent history will show that. We have been sold a bill of goods. You saw this demonstrated when the closings started to happen. My lieutenant governor in Texas was basically willing to sacrifice human lives on the altar of the economy. And I feel like we aren’t so much a country anymore in the minds of the critical mass of our citizens; we’re an economy that happens to have a country attached. And we are taxpayers and consumers as opposed to citizens and neighbors. And so there’s been a paradigm shift in our collective thinking, and I think it’s very dangerous.
CON: Do you think we can go back?
BF: Yes! I do think we can go back. I think shifting from that paradigm to a more humane and open-minded and generous, spirited paradigm—it will probably take a massive shock to the collective system.
CON: Is this not enough?
BF: You know, I thought 2008 was going to be it, the crash then. But enough people had enough competence and also required enough people to suffer—working people—that we got through that one. This time we will see, but it certainly seems like we have the ingredients of a perfect storm for an existential crisis, both financial and centered with the pandemic—I mean, they’re obviously related. I’m not wishing for a shock to the system, an existential crisis, because you don’t know how it’s going to go. But that’s probably what it would take for us to shake up our thinking.
Ben Fountain’s most recent book is Beautiful Country Burn Again, a reported collection of essays about the 2016 election. This interview has been edited for clarity.