Heaven and Hell in the Living Room: An Interview with Helen Schulman
The New School creative writing professor talks about her latest novel, Come with Me
Near the end of Helen Schulman’s new novel, Come with Me (HarperCollins, 2018), one character turns to the past to escape her beleaguered present — or, not so much the past, as the alternative present it might have led to. “What happens in my other lives?” Amy Reed demands. Set in Palo Alto, California, in May 2016, Come with Me takes place over a few crucial days in the lives of the Reed-Messenger household, whose members tag-team the narration of the novel with the banter and discord of a family arguing for story-telling rights over dinner. At the center of the story is Amy — partner of Dan, parent of the teenage Jack and twins Miles and Theo, and, most recently, employee of Donny, her college roommate’s nineteen-year-old geek-savant son. Donny has hired Amy as PR rep and guinea pig for his new project, Furrier.com, a technology he claims will reveal a “multiverse” of alternative realities to its user: the outcomes of all those roads not taken. Amy initially rolls her eyes at Donny’s dream of designing Silicon Valley’s next “unicorn,” but as the events of the novel unfold, she finds the siren call of the multiverse increasingly compelling.
Schulman spoke with Public Seminar editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham about choices, attachment, and bending the universe a little.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham [ERG]: You mentioned to me that you wrote Come with Me over a number of years, which meant that you were frequently updating the technology used by its Silicon Valley characters. What were some of the earlier iterations of the novel you were forced to outmode, for the sake of its protagonists’ up-to-date digital lives?
Helen Schulman [HS]: One of the benefits of my job at The New School (Fiction Chair in the MFA Program) is that every year some brilliant young writer ends up working as my research assistant. Inevitably we become quite close as I send them down the rabbit hole chasing whatever obsessions are plaguing me at the time. With this book for several years it was, “Please just bring me anything new you can find about the tech industry and the ongoing disaster in Fukushima.” I must have received biweekly round-ups for five or more years. But you asked about tech… A simple bit of updating I had to do was to have Donny track Amy by “Find My Friends” rather than surreptitiously stalk her with “Find My iPhone,” as he did for years one and two of writing the book. In truth, as time went on I was changing things daily — Peet’s Coffee became Philz Coffee, for example, as Philz became the premier caffeine establishment of the geekier set. Amy’s online advertising campaign gave way to the wisdom of old fashioned roadside placards, when I passed one on the drive from my late mother-in-law’s house on the Peninsula to San Francisco. It was a billboard promoting a recruitment agency that read “Find the hottest talent” and showed a pasty techie with a dad bod posing only in his underwear. So, some things changed from just having my ear to the ground. A friend of mine from the gym told me that at their Passover Seder the year their son was living in Hong Kong, they had a robot with a computer screen face and their son Skyped himself into it. He controlled the robot’s movement around the table from across the world, so he could talk to his fiancée one-on-one, visit with both of her parents, tease his brother. When it was his turn to recite from the Haggadah, which his mother had snail-mailed him, he could drink his glass of wine along with his loved ones in New York City, the whole mishpocha saying the blessing together in real time. That tidbit influenced my dinner scene in Palo Alto when oldest son Jack’s girlfriend, Lily, joins the Reed-Messengers for family dinner by Skype. I mean, I was constantly updating — another example was when Google Glass flopped. The sad chapter I wrote using it as Donny’s device of choice for Furrier.com never got replaced, but a reference to “neural lace” (a thin mesh of computer electrodes that can be placed directly in the human brain) gave me and Donny hope for a new vehicle for his product’s future. My daughter’s ex once bored me shitless talking about his summer job coding until he dropped the term “code smells.” Now Donny uses it to pooh-pooh the agony Amy faces during her first multiverse trip — he terms the problem she faces not a disaster, but a “code smell” — something small that is not right. As in the algorithm has a slight stink to it. But more interesting was watching the culture change; it seemed to me that as computers grew increasingly powerful, the people behind them, frequently men, developed more hubris. When guys like Peter Thiel announced that they were going to cure death via the synchronicity, that made it into my manuscript.
ERG: In a review of Come with Me at NPR, Maureen Corrigan praised your deft portrayal of “the fallout on the domestic realm from that hard-to-pinpoint historic moment when the Internet first drifted through the walls of the American home.” The integration of devices and interfaces into the Reed-Messenger family’s life is seamless, but in Furrier.com, we have an example of an instrument still in prototype. What interested you introducing a new, faulty digital experience into Amy Reed’s “American home”?
HS: During all this ridiculous research, I read an article in my morning New York Times over coffee one day about how software engineers were turning to science fiction to get ideas. The basic problem was that these genius computer scientists had a far-reaching and unyieldingly powerful instrument that they simply didn’t know what to do with… Besides using it for merchandising and social media. So they read science fiction and stole ideas from Neil Gaiman or whoever. I kind of liked that. I’m a big proponent of fiction of any kind and I thought what if these guys were smart enough to ask me what I’d like a computer to do, and I thought, well, there were several times in my life when I made decisions, large and small, that lead to the life I’m leading now. But what if I had headed West instead of staying East when a life altering opportunity had come my way? I would like the computer to tell me now what would have happened to me then. That’s how I came up with the concept behind Furrier.com. As much as I tried to understand the systems behind various technologies like Snapchat, I couldn’t exactly program something myself. I mean I’m a total Luddite. I famously (at least in my family) can’t turn on the TV. I can’t “scan” and send. I can’t even remember my passwords. So, trying to get over on my reader with some made up operating system wasn’t going to cut it. That’s when I decided to just get wiggy. Bend the universe of my story a little. Is Donny a genius or a charlatan? Does he himself know the difference? Or is it the weed Amy smokes before each Furrier sesh that does most of the work for her? I think of her Furrier “trips” a little like the Grateful Dead’s Space Jams — I tried to have fun with it, but leave the outcomes up to interpretation. After all, if we are living our finite lives out in infinite multiverses infinite times, literally anything could happen to anyone.
(Maureen Corrigan was the only reviewer who noted the book’s deeply feminist bent. I’m grateful to her for that.)
ERG: While most of Come with Me takes place in a Palo Alto depicted with astonishingly precise local detail, part of the book is set in Fukushima, site of the 2011 Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. What drew you to parallel these two landscapes?
HS: I’d like to say the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear meltdown — stemming from the audacious use of a mind-bogglingly potent instrument no one knows how to handle — is somehow reflective or predictive of catastrophes we are suffering around the world now because again no one knows how to handle the wild and woolly instrument of the internet (i.e. Facebook contributing to the genocide in Myanmar or the poisoning of American elections). But the truth is, I was already obsessed with both “landscapes,” as you refer to them, and there’s that rabbit hole thing again: I could not stop researching both. Might as well make use of it — time spent and all that.
ERG: Two impulses are threaded throughout Come with Me , driving the behavior its characters: the desire to see, and the desire to be seen. Amy, for instance, engages with the multiverse to find out what might have been. Her husband, unemployed journalist Dan, feels invisible as the world updates around him. How did you arrive at these urges as key themes for the novel?
HS: I too desire to be seen, although I spend most of my life in hiding.
ERG: Despite the barrage of texts, drives to school, and family dinners, each Reed-Messenger family member closes their bedroom door on a secret. Could you tell me more about the choice to portray a family who don’t know all that much about each other’s lives?
HS: Nobody knows anybody else, really. I mean even in the most intimate of settings — marriage, romance, a family — we all have secrets. We are unknowable in our entireties, our histories, our lives at work or school, friendships, fantasies, criminal behavior, fears. To deny that is to deny what it means to be human, which is to be existentially lonely, even as we seek endless comfort through communion.
ERG: While each character in the family of Come with Me makes a break for their own private story line in the outside world, each finds that home calls them back. One of Dan’s most eloquent moments when he defines attachment. “Need, entanglement, intimacy, reliance, what stands between us and the abyss…” You’ve written about the entanglement of family relationships in previous novels, such as A Day at the Beach and This Beautiful Life. How has your approach to writing about attachment developed over the years?
HS: My parents were both American-born children of Jewish refugees who had fled the sweeping tragedies of Europe in the last century. My grandparents had suffered unfathomable losses, which led them to try to rebuild their lives in an alien land, but which also led to their own depression and anxiety. The children who resulted from that desperate and at times joyous experiment led to me. There was a lot of positive and negative attachment in my family growing up. It has been the work of my adult life to try to shed some of that for the sake of my own happy family — but it’s not easy. As I got older and I felt the life-changing love I have for my husband and children, well, it was a happy shock. But I still get tangled up. Attachment, aka love, is the best part about being human. It can also lead to the most grievous pain when it is squandered or misused or severed. My father, an atheist, always said both heaven and hell were right here on earth. I’ll do him one step further: sometimes both exist in your living room.
Helen Schulman writes fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays. She is a professor of writing and Fiction Chair at the MFA program at The New School.