An Interview with Alex McElroy - Believer Magazine

Of all the possible songs in the world, Alex McElroy once quoted to me part of the apocalyptic voiceover in “The Dead Flag Blues” on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s album F#A#∞: “The car’s on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel.” Every time I’d listen to that song, I’d hear Alex’s voice. Then came the snowy afternoon when I logged onto Zoom for my interview with Alex about their debut novel, The Atmospherians. Before we started, I put on that Godspeed record and then settled in for our talk (me in Denver, them in NYC). In the background, an unidentified man narrated the end times: “We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.” And I realized how much of Alex’s novel depicts many of the same moods and fears and darknesses.

The Atmospherians follows Sasha Marcus, an Instagram beauty influencer who’s been canceled for one online comment she made to a troll, Lucas Devry, who then committed suicide. Desperate to escape the men protesting outside her apartment 24/7, Sasha accepts a proposition from her childhood friend Dyson: together, they will start and run a center where toxic men could find rehabilitation. (And in turn she and Dyson will make a profit.) They’ll call the rehab center: The Atmosphere. Soon, twelve desperate and dangerous men show up to The Atmosphere’s woodland grounds, where Sasha and Dyson lead them through weeks of off-the-cuff training modules. Meanwhile, man hordes (which are exactly what they sound like) are popping up all over the country—groups of men joining together to cause chaos. Sasha is forced to confront the growing dangers of The Atmosphere, the greater culture that excuses male toxicity, and her own desperation to find a way back into the attention economy at whatever mortal cost.

This wild, dark, and witty satire of our contemporary culture is expertly crafted. It’s one of those books that reveals how much its author has worked to write with both care and dazzle in every section, every image, every last detail. The novel’s finely wrought layers create the sensation that you are being granted entrance into a part of the world that’s filled with grandiose hope as well as imbued with grim secrets. You laugh at the absurdity of this impulsively run cult where men work toward reform through Sasha and Dyson’s orders: purge meals, build sheds to live in, live roleplay past mistakes. You’re watching the car of this cult burn up, with no driver behind its wheel. And then you grasp the point of McElroy’s speculative satire: this isn’t impossible fantasy—it’s a cautionary tale. Toxic masculinity isn’t simply going to go away because we’ve begun to call it out. If given the chance to find a path toward normalization, that toxicity will spread until it’s as ubiquitous as the air in our own atmosphere. And then the car on fire really won’t have a driver behind the wheel.

—Alexander Lumans

THE BELIEVER: The Atmospherians presents an altered version of our contemporary society. It reads to me as speculative satire as well as cautionary tale. How do you think of the novel now that it’s reached its final form? 

ALEX MCELROY: “Cautionary tale” is interesting. That might be the first time I’ve heard it said in that way. My primary move in this book is to really render things absurd. That can especially contribute to the cautionary tale aspect. For example, the mindset that fuels the cult of The Atmosphere: the Bad Apple Theory. It’s especially prominent now in how we think of police murders. This idea that it’s not the structure that’s a problem but rather that it’s one racist cop or one sexist cop. Dyson uses that same logic, which is a very neoliberal logic, in order to support something that is uniformly disparaged. We can pretty much accept as a society that we don’t like cults. So I was interested in what happens to that neoliberal logic and language when it is applied to something we have a difficult time supporting; hopefully, the emptiness of that language is exposed.That’s partly why I chose what to exaggerate. I think “cautionary tale” is exactly right. This novel cautions against what happens when this insidious language is applied, and when it shouldn’t be applied.

BLVR: The concept of The Atmosphere itself is a marvel. It carries all the nuanced layers of a DIY grassroots ideology mixed with high-level emotional reasoning (while still a totally flawed endeavor). It claims to heal its toxic members through “structure and love.” And The Atmosphere’s mission statement describes it as a place “where men become human.” Where did the idea of The Atmosphere come from? How much are we meant to believe in its genuine potential to change toxic men into morally good people?

AM: I’ve heard this book called an “internet novel,” and Dyson’s ideas for The Atmosphere are where the language of the internet shapes the novel. His ideas are very internety, very clickbaity, very Instagram therapist—like, “We just need to change these things and we can fix everything.” The problem is that when these ideas and language are applied to the world, we see how complicated the actual world is. And that’s something Dyson has to confront. 

I was really interested in the idea of Sasha and Dyson starting a cult with a capitalistic mindset. And I’d been watching and reading a lot about cults. So many cults are products of their own time. Jonestown was an escape and a desire to create a racial and sexual utopia. As absolutely flawed and problematic and harmful as its leader was, that was its premise in a time of extreme racial and gender strife in America–though of course this strife lives on today. In The Atmospherians, I was thinking about what a cult would actually look like in 2016. One that would offer some sort of DIY back-to-the-land thing. It’d also offer this escape from toxicity, something the men wouldn’t think they’d be able to get elsewhere.

This is a bigger question of the book: what happens to concepts of goodness and morality when those ideas are shaped by the attention economy? Dyson is someone who sensibly wants to do good; as he tells Sasha, he wants to change the world. But he also wants to do it in a way that will garner him the most attention and might even regain him an acting career in the same way that Sasha wants to regain her influencer career.

When you look at how cult documentaries are made and the normal arc of them, especially if it’s a six-part series—I’m thinking of something like Wild Wild Country—the first two episodes you’re learning why someone would ever go along with this. I think that’s really important for creating the most annoying word in all of fiction: believability. Cults gain members because they offer people something. Their ideas seem true. And that is the real seductive nature of so much faith and the nature of belief that we’re dealing with all the time. How seductive it is to be told what is true.

BLVR: What challenges and freedoms did this particular character of Sasha present as a point of view?

AM: Every first-person narrator is challenging because of their limited scope and subjectivity. That was a challenge on the most basic craft level. And it was fairly clear to me from the beginning that I’d be writing this through Sasha’s perspective. The work then became determining what exactly would lead Sasha to agree to join up with Dyson. As for the limits of being in her particular first-person voice, she is someone who has a lot of righteous resentment for how she’s been treated. That’s fun to write about because you can have someone with an acerbic wit while at the same time they understand their own flawed humanity. Sasha is able to be resentful and to speak back to the ways people have hurt her.

She also strives pretty hard. That aspirational quality was extremely interesting. Maybe that’s the aspirational quality of any young writer, right? The writer says, “I’m going to write about a painter,” and we’re like “No, you’re writing about a writer.” Maybe I was trying to take it two steps away and make it an influencer instead of a painter or filmmaker. The notion of striving and wanting to have a creative career seemed an opportunity to think about the ways in which a creative career can really drain someone, especially in our current situation, where creatives are expected to constantly hustle while also maintaining an image.

BLVR: Before the novel even begins, Sasha has been “canceled” because of an online comment she made to Lucas Devry. Devry had been trolling her, and her comment, many believe, led Lucas to then commit suicide. Was “cancel culture” part of your intended satirical subject matter in The Atmospherians?

AM: I was interested in the exaggeration of “cancel culture” as something that could be a good idea. I remember Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to a campus to speak where he was planning to out trans students; then his invitation was revoked. That seems like an appropriate way to treat someone who is going to cause harm to others. The university in Texas, where I was studying at the time of writing this book, started inserting riders into contracts with visiting speakers—they had to agree to never say anything bad about Israel, or something similar. I was curious about how something like a morality clause could eventually be adopted with the mindset of power—how power will use the fig leaf of morality in order to maintain its own power, especially in the face of any dissent. That’s why the cancellation of Sasha is so extreme. 

I’ve read some reactions to The Atmospherians saying that Sasha’s online comment seems fairly small compared to the reaction against her. But that’s how power works against dissent. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the way police forces are treating protesters is a parallel to the ways in which the right-wing men’s rights activists in the book are treating Sasha. It’s an overreaction and punishment to something fairly small, even though society-at-large accepts the punishment as an appropriate response.

BLVR: Now: man hordes. They’re one of my favorite elements in The Atmospherians. They bring such a level of threat and danger. And they’re not present at every moment either; there’s just this pervasive background radiation of their existence. At one point, Sasha says that nobody makes man hordes: “They’re a natural phenomenon.” And Dyson says they’re a “sign of something deeply wrong in the souls of men today.” Were the hordes an early creation in your process? How did you decide how much of a role they’d play in the book?

AM: The man hordes were inspired by a book I really love: Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. There are passages in her book about a phenomenon called Disappearing Dad Disorder; there was a certain point when I was looking at my own draft and realized “Oh, this is the exact same thing as the Disappearing Dads, I need to change this a little bit.” But the hordes, yes, provided a threat. Craft-wise, they were really important because the novel takes place at one location over a long period of time. The characters are striving for routine. They’re trying to make each day the same as the last but with an incremental change in their hearts and minds. That sort of routine is the enemy of narrative. I needed to find a way to seed in some type of unpredictability. The notion that the man hordes might appear adds a baseline level of tension. To go back to the idea of extremes, I see the man hordes as the idea of something like “boys will be boys” taken to its extreme. It’s an expression of men behaving badly, which is condoned and explained away by the public.

BLVR: For Sasha to even say that they’re a “natural phenomenon” is particularly interesting because that takes the responsibility away from society, as if they’re just an inevitable product of instinct and the body. As a result, society can artificially uplift its own morality and say “No, we didn’t create these hordes. They came about on their own.” In one part of The Atmospherians, you give a short list of some hordes’ activities, which I totally loved. The list shows they have a malevolent side, yes, but also a benevolent one. They rescue a girl’s cat. They carry an elderly woman to her doctor’s appointment. They topple a statue of Thomas Edison. Theyalso mow twenty-six lawns in Illinois and they kick a German Shepherd to death in Texas. Why did you make the hordes morally ambiguous? Do you see them as having, say, a percentage of goodness? Or are they simply doing what they determine needs doing?

AM: A question of need is really interesting. That didn’t occur to me. The hordes’ unpredictability seems to express the basic reality of people. We are capable of extremely great things as we are also capable of extreme evils.The man hordes are in part an expression of that. You don’t really know what is going to happen when they band together. Rebecca Solnit writes about this in Hope in the Dark. There are a lot of reasons to believe that in the aftermath of crises, people come together and help each other. I think the ways in which we’ve seen so many mutual aid groups form during the pandemic is a really lovely thing. But at the same time, there are also ways in which people, when they mob together, can become dangerous and harmful. The man hordes capture that duality.

When I was twenty-two, I was solo traveling in Germany. One night, I went for a walk. At one point I was walking into this underpass, and there was this crowd of teenagers. I thought, “Oh no. A crowd of teens.” My heart was racing as I neared them. When I got very close, I sneezed. And one of the teens just looked up and said, “Bless you.” Then I kept walking. You don’t know what’s going to happen, right? Was I about to get, you know, beaten up by these teens? I wasn’t. 

BLVR: Beyond the man hordes, you portray a variety of male characters in the novel: Dyson, The Atmosphere’s twelve members, Lucas Devry, among others. Most, if not all, demonstrate reprehensible actions and unsafe personalities to be around. But we also see some of them in genuine moments of empathy, vulnerability. How do you feel about these different men?

AM: I’m reminded of something that Kaitlyn Greenidge said in a New York Times piece about writing her first novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. She said she realized she couldn’t finish her book until she learned how to empathize with an old white racist. She writes: “I would have to love this monster into existence.” It’s hard to write anything out of hatred. Even from a dislike for the characters or an extreme dislike for the things they’ve done. It’s like parenting: you can like look at something a child has done wrong and say you’re extremely disappointed the child did that. But you also still love them. And that’s the only appropriate response to have to characters. I can look at the actions these men have taken, and I can say “Wow, that was a pretty awful thing to do. I don’t agree with that.” But I continue to love them. I’ve had a father and stepfathers who have hurt me in really deep ways, but I continue to love them. What seems on a surface level to be a contradiction is in fact the truth of being alive. We can deeply love people who have committed harms in the world. I don’t want to go down the route of “we need to empathize with the worst people in the world”; that’s an especially problematic mindset when it becomes a profile in The New York Times about, say, a white supremacist. But in a book that’s looking at a broad range of what it means to be alive, it’s vital. A novelist’s job is very different from a journalist’s.

BLVR: Absolutely. And that speaks back to the cautionary tale sheen, since you want your characters to be recognizable as having complex depth.

AM: The idea of practicing empathy with them but not identifying with them is really interesting. I haven’t thought about it in those terms, but there’s such a collapse between empathy and identification. We think that if we empathize with someone we need to identify with them. And that’s absolutely not true.

BLVR: Do you think that toxic men can reach a permanent shift in their self-awareness, actions, and/or problematic belief systems?

AM: I’m an extremely cynical person, but I believe people can change. I see it all the time. The difference is what motivates people to change, which is a question we might not ask enough. We expect people to change. But if nothing is motivating a person, they won’t. A lot of people’s motivations are extremely selfish. And selfish often means racist, sexist, misogynist, classist, right? People not wanting to change further intensifies racism, sexism, classism, all of that. I don’t know what the motivating force has to be to allow people to change. But even toxic men can change. That sort of reform can be celebrated and acknowledged. I don’t want to sound like a Tweet, but you should normalize changing your mind or normalize growing and evolving. That’s so important. That’s also Fiction 101: How does your character change? I know that can be fairly simple and common to clown on, but there’s a reason why those concepts come up. It’s a real driving force behind maintaining some sort of hope for the future. The other option is, what, we just wait for old people to die? What does Gen Z think about how we think? They’re probably just waiting for us to die.

BLVR: What beliefs or opinions did writing The Atmospherians reveal to you about yourself? Did writing parts of the novel lead you to realize “Oh, so that’s how I feel about this?”

AM: The novel taught me a lot about the shifting of identity. Over the course of writing this book, I came out as non-binary. Coming to terms with my own trans identity has been something I don’t think I could’ve done without writing The Atmospherians. It’d be absurd to call it a causal relationship between the two. But I do think that writing a novel requires an immense amount of honesty and self-insight. It was impossible for me to continue to live inauthentically while I was also trying to write a book that aimed to authentically capture the things I wanted to write about.

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