WARNING: This interview was conducted in late 2014 and concerns Kool A.D.’s novel Not OK, which at the time was known as O.K., but is now the unpublished prequel to OK, which is just out from Sorry House. If you are the type of reader who prefers interviews about published books rather than those about unpublished prequels, you are advised to pursue other interviews.
KOOL A.D.’s debut novel, O.K., is reminiscent of the drawings of visual artist KOOL A.D. as well as of the music of rap artist KOOL A.D. If you don’t know, you better ask somebody. If you’re asking me, I’ll tell you what’s distinctive about the work of KOOL A.D., no matter the medium, is its eclectic and idiosyncratic melange of people, images, sounds, ideas, and references. His source materials are as broad as you could hope and the consciousness he filters them through is witty, playful, political, subversive, and deeply intelligent.
If you’re someone who has been waiting for the novel in which Anne Carson appears “in a pink velour FUBU tracksuit sniffing poppers,” your wait is over. If you’ve been looking for a book in which large reptiles are taxis, O.K. is also that book. Celebrities you’re not sure if you’ve heard of on Hunter Thompson-drug binges channeling theorists you haven’t read? Plenty of that.
The novel is as fluid as its narrator, who metamorphoses (a la Kafka’s Gregor) into LL Cool J, Steve Buscemi, Donald Duck, and many others, or more often combinations thereof. It flattens any neat distinctions between fantasy/reality, online/offline, thought/action, exposition/plot, intoxication/soberness, and perhaps most fundamentally dreaming/waking. There is no way to read it but to jump in and move with the dream-logic. For this reason, I found Chuang Tzu, of the philosophers invoked in the novel, the most helpful, in particular his butterfly dream, after which “he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou.” Subjectivity in O.K. is a function of environment, needs and desires, and the present moment. The notion of stable identity over time doesn’t begin to obtain.
While the shifting self is culturally produced from our everyday world and the book is therefore of pop culture, it isn’t for it. Rather, it sucks up the textures and personalities of pop, de- and recontextualizes them, subverts their cliches, and empties them of signification. Justin Bieber is Adorno is Tupac’s hologram. If Reality Hunger were a recipe, O.K. would be its cake. You can have yours and eat it too.
We conducted this interview over email. I used my computer. He used his phone.
THE BELIEVER: Tell me, is everything O.K.? Is the moon?
KOOL A.D.: Everything is not O.K. A lot of cops shooting black kids and getting away with it and I guess it’s nothing new but things seem to have reached a spectacularly terrifying boiling point right now. Israel seems particularly fucked up as of late too. Afghanistan and Iraq don’t seem like they’re doing so well either. Mexico has been going through some shit. Ozone layer seems fucked. Peak Oil, deforestation, polluted oceans, pharmaceutical monopolies, massive corporate tax evasion/bank fraud/general fuckery, record-breaking incarceration rates, truly insane economic disparity, a global atmosphere of paranoia and xenophobia, Militarized Prison Industrial Complex in full effect, etc. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some things that are O.K. This book is I guess mostly concerned with rooting out a reason to live despite all of this, looking for the occasional O.K. moment to be found in a world of suffering. And I mean, on an extra “grand scheme of things” level we’re all a tiny speck in a vast essentially infinite universe and someday we’ll all be dead, so like in that sense I guess you could say everything is O.K., but I guess in that sense you could say anything. Moon seems pretty O.K.
BLVR: When Hui Tzu asked Chuang Tzu how he could sing after his wife’s death, he answered: “When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.
“Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.”
Question would be something like: Is it too early to understand fate?
KOOL A.D.: Yes.
BLVR: Last summer I saw you perform with Run the Jewels. Killer Mike has gained a bit of a national presence lately as one of the smartest people speaking on Ferguson. What was he like to work with, tour with, talk to, etc.?
KOOL A.D.: I was a casual fan of Killer Mike before that tour but on that tour Killer Mike became one of my favorite rappers and one of my favorite dudes, period. That dude could talk all day and I’d sit there with a bowl of popcorn. I don’t know if I can tell you like a specific “lesson” I learned from him, just observing dude move through the world and interact with people I soaked up some game.
BLVR: You invoke and engage so many novels and novelists in O.K., and of such variety (e.g., Proust, Kafka, Gatsby, Tao Lin, Dan Brown). What kind of novels are you reading these days?
KOOL A.D.: I started 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (R.I.P. Also R.I.P. Roberto “Chespirito” Bolaños), the first three parts were tight but the last two I couldn’t fuck with. Catching up on some recent Haruki Murakami I used to read all of his shit, it’s very relaxing stuff.
BLVR: I read 2666 about, oh, almost five years ago. The Part About the Crimes has lingered in my thoughts more than just about anything I’ve ever read. What couldn’t you “fuck with”? The kind of violence? The amount? That it’s based on real femicides in Juarez?
KOOL A.D.: Funny thing, I actually read 2666 about five years ago, too, but left it on an airplane when I was halfway through part three. Recently saw it again and bought it and started it again from the beginning because I had sort of forgotten the specifics. I guess my problem with part four is that I kind of would rather have just read a straight nonfiction account of the Juarez stuff. I didn’t quite understand the choice of changing the city to Santa Teresa (or the changing of Bobby Seale’s name to somebody else in part three for that matter) and the laundry list of murders/rapes/kidnappings gets a little Law & Order SVU when it’s put into a fictionalized world. It was a rare instance where I felt his trademark Bolaño “postmodern” vibe wasn’t quite doing it for me, like I guess I just wanted “the straight story” as complicated a desire as that is? I understand he was trying to make this horrible event be felt in all its emotional weight but it all seems to get lost in the murk. I found it having almost the opposite effect, these murders washing over me and me starting to feel numb and desensitized. So after about a hundred pages of that, I skipped ahead to the next part and read about a hundred pages into a Nazi bildungsroman before I gave up. Wasn’t finding it “relatable” I guess. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of the dude, Savage Detectives was one of my favorite books. And part one of 2666 on its own is one of my favorite short novels. Maybe I’ll give the whole thing another shot in like another five years.
BLVR: You said once that O.K. would be like The Inferno but significantly better. I’m kind of reading Chuang Tzu, and specifically the butterfly dream, as the Virgil to your Dante. Is he a guide for you? Do you know where he’s leading you?
KOOL A.D.: Yeah, I did say that, and I believe it to be true. Who’s Chuang Tzu? Naw, just playing. He seems like he was a cool enough dude. Lao Tzu seems like he was pretty cool. I feel like everything guides me and I’m being led to everywhere.
BLVR: I can hear this alternately as a spiritual statement and as a cultural one. What do “everything” and “everywhere” mean? Is it a Kanye kind of everything?
KOOL A.D.: Everything is everything and everywhere is everywhere. I guess everything and everywhere include Kanye West, among like literally everything else, yeah.
BLVR: The narrator of O.K. is a collage of people, animals, and fictional characters. There’s also the great use of this quote from Dreams of My Father: “I can see that my choices were never truly mine alone; and that that is how it should be, that to assert otherwise is to chase after a sorry sort of freedom.” I wonder in what ways KOOL A.D. is a kind of collage?
KOOL A.D.: I think all the stuff I do has a collage aspect because I feel like a collage and the world feels like a collage to me.
BLVR: You don’t include this part of the film, but in Six Degrees of Separation, Paul (Will Smith) says to Ouisa (Stockard Channing), “Did you see Donald Barthelme’s obituary? He said that collage was the art form of the twentieth century.” Here we are, twenty-first. Does collage mean the same thing now it did then?
KOOL A.D.: In this day and age, how can the collage be real if our eyes aren’t real?
BLVR: Was it Nietzsche or KOOL A.D. who said, “if you gaze long enough into the screen, the screen will gaze back”?
KOOL A.D.: Feel like that was KOOL A.D.
BLVR: Are you using all the parts of you?
KOOL A.D.: I don’t think so, but I think I’m using a good amount of me.
BLVR: Are you working toward using more? If you could, would you use all, or do you need to hold something back? What would it look like if you did use it all?
KOOL A.D.: I guess I still believe to some extent in the myth of privacy at this point in my life.
BLVR: You said in another interview that “the rigorous logic of prose is often times antithetical to the freedom of art, or at least it feels that way.” Was that true to your experience writing O.K.?
KOOL A.D.: Well I guess a lot of the book is “in prose” but some of it is more “poetically” structured or whatever and I think a fair amount of it walks whatever line that is. I guess to edit that sentence, I would say that “art” seems to operate in a spacetime that’s freer than what we typically consider to be logical.
BLVR: When Half Dennis Rodman Half Kim Jong Un is on Family Feud, I think his survey answer is from Hegel. Is he someone who’s been influential for you? The second printing of your collection of aphorisms, Joke Book, is a takeoff on the copy of the Phenomenology that I think everyone read in college.
KOOL A.D.: I like Marx and apparently Marx was a big fan of Hegel, so I try to give Hegel a shot every now and then but dude is pretty hard to read.
BLVR: What accounts for your prolificity in so many mediums?
KOOL A.D.: Boredom, drugs.
BLVR: Any particular drug? What about drugs helps you create?
KOOL A.D.: Any drug is fine. I think it’s more that I get bored so I do drugs and then I’m still bored so I write or whatever.
BLVR: Have you always written fiction? If not, what made you start? Your raps seem to go any which way they please, but does writing for songs ever feel like a constraint?
KOOL A.D.: I’ve pretty much always written in some form or another. And I mean songwriting can involve elements of fiction and fiction writing can involve a certain measure of lyricism/musicality. I find making songs to be good old-fashioned fun. If songwriting felt like a constraint I probably wouldn’t do it.
BLVR: I’d like to put a couple of the book’s questions back to you. Where does the “ambiguity of art fit within the rhetoric of revolution, if at all”?
KOOL A.D.: I guess that’s tied up in that “freer spacetime” that art seems to operate within. Art is like a think tank in which to imagine freedoms as of yet unreachable by more “logical” means. I believe Jaden Smith said that. Also if you’re trying to “revolutionize” the world and change what’s wrong with it, then what is the new world you’re bringing about? Feel like it would probably include art, which seems useful and even like “good” for people.
BLVR: And, is it fair to ask: “WHAT IS ART? WHO DECIDES WHAT ART IS? IS ART PROBABLY BEST LEFT NOT TALKED ABOUT?” (Keeping in mind that, as you also write, “Capital letters means yelling on a computer but what does yelling on a computer mean?”)
KOOL A.D.: ART IS TITE. U DECIDE WHAT ART IS. YES, ART IS PROBABLY BEST LEFT NOT TALKED ABOUT. YELLING ON A COMPUTER MEANS NOTHING, BASICALLY.
BLVR: If language is metaphor, what’s it metaphor for? Or, is reality more than a concept?
KOOL A.D.: I guess language is metaphor for existence or else maybe language is the inside of a mirror-lined donut. And I guess reality seems like more than a concept or else maybe reality is the inside of a mirror-lined donut. Is the inside of a mirror-lined donut more than a concept?
BLVR: Who is the second best rapper alive?
KOOL A.D.: KOOL A.D.
BLVR: Did you slip?
KOOL A.D.: I ain’t never slip.