Books

Writing Satire When Reality Is Absurd

Mat Johnson talks about not getting caught in the weeds of truth when writing his novel Invisible Things.

The cover of Mat Johnson's book, Invisible Things.
Penguin Random House/Courtesy of the University of Oregon.

Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, David Plotz spoke with author Mat Johnson about the struggle to write a sci-fi satire during absurdist times for his new book, Invisible Things. 

This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: The central metaphor is this idea that there are forces that act on people on this planet that are invisible and no one will talk about it. And it’s a shibboleth. You cannot talk about it and talking about it endangers you, and no one will be around you. There’s so many allegories. This is about race. It is about climate changes. It’s about politics. It’s about inequality, all of which are major themes of this book and all of which you could argue are invisible things of our world, right?

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Mat Johnson: Right. I think one of the frustrating things as a satirist was that we are living in a satire, right? And the essence of satire is you take reality and you ratchet it up to extreme and then we can see the absurdity of it. We live in an absurd reality, so I always thought there should have been a bailout of satirists at some point, because it’s so difficult to function the way we used to function.

So, what I tried to do instead was—instead of getting caught in the weeds on climate or caught in the weeds on race, on misogyny, all these things—I think I’ve become more interested in the overall way that we as individuals and as a society function, the way we store and negotiate information that ends up having us deal with these situations in almost identical ways.

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I think having a bigger target allows so much more to come in, because, again, if I was thinking just with race or with climate, and it’s certainly part of the thinking, but then I wouldn’t have been able to see how this applies to other things and how this way of not acknowledging directly reality—because it’s difficult to deal with, it’s possibly fruitless and pointless and not worth the effort of dealing with it—but also, where we end up going because of that and then the cycles of it.

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I wrote this before the pandemic primarily, and a lot of the things that I wrote about ended up playing out in some ways over the last couple years, and I think that was because I was just looking at the bigger ways we deal with stuff.

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I love the idea of the satire bailout, by the way. There’s shows you can’t watch. Veep is unwatchable now, which was a funny show. Or the movie Idiocracy, which just now seems like a documentary. There is this idea running through it that we will not look at the things that are too difficult. I don’t like to look at the things that are too difficult. Are you somebody who actually goes around and is like, “I really want to face up to the hard realities of the world around me”? Because I sure as fuck don’t.

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The initial impetus of the book was immediately, the first horrific year of the Trump administration. I was online on Twitter and everybody I know was on Twitter, and everyone’s just screaming, like, “Ah. Ah.” Every day the worst thing in the world was happening. I was still in my screaming on Twitter phase, and I’d be on Twitter all day inadvertently, and then I would go to the coffee shop. And I was living in Houston at the time and teaching at the University of Houston, and it was the main coffee shop that a lot of the department would go to.

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And so, I go in and I’d see all these people who had also been screaming online for months and I’d run into them and they’d be like, “Hey, how’s it going?” “I’m fine. How are you doing?” “Good, good.” “Hey, huh. Okay, good.” And then that was it. Because there was nothing to talk about. We both shared the same reality. We both knew what was happening. We were trying to relax. There was no benefit to it, and if we didn’t share the same reality, there was nowhere to go in that conversation, because right now we aren’t arguing over facts. We’re arguing over realities. And we have a large segment of the population that has been unmoored from reality. So, there’s no way you can win an argument with somebody where facts don’t matter.

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Ultimately, what I found was we just weren’t talking about things because there wasn’t much to do, and the ones who were talking about it just sounded crazy. “Mueller’s going to come and he’s going to save us all.” It was these crazy theories, because at the time it felt there was nothing we could do. Now, looking back, if I could go back, there was things I would tell the past version of myself to do. Like we need to worry about the elections next time and we need to worry about these attempts to overthrow democracy, of which there was tons of signs early, but it seemed so overwhelming. And we were so overwhelmed by what we couldn’t do that it was easy to forget or devalue the little things that turn out to be essential.

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