The National Book Award-winning author of Landscape with Invisible Hand talks to EW about his prescient new book
M.T. Anderson’s new book, Landscape with Invisible Hand, touches on an alarming number of prescient topics in its vision of the future: automation, the cost of health care, the power of nostalgia, the ever-increasing wealth inequality gap — even the increasing resentment of a bloc of white Americans toward Latinos and immigrants.
The author just didn’t expect them to be so relevant when the book came out.
Anderson, who won the National Book Award in 2006 for The Pox Party, began work on Landscape four years ago when the Affordable Care Act was settling in and President Obama was kicking off his second term. Of course, much has changed in the time since — and the sci-fi book, which centers on teen artist Adam as he finds himself painting scenes of an America colonized by the vuvv alien race, suddenly speaks directly to all things 2017.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is an alternately sorrowful and biting takedown of free-market economic philosophy, envisioning alien tech replacing jobs and an illness contracted by Adam becoming too expensive for his increasingly desperate family to treat. It’s a brisk but scathing read, each vignette only a few pages long and often punctuated by expressions of blunt, pessimistic wit. It’s a change in structure and pacing for Anderson, whose acclaimed (and relatively lengthy) 2000 novel Feed explored a very different kind of dystopia, while also marking a return to probing social issues.
In a wide-ranging interview, Anderson spoke with EW about the vitality of art, telling stories from places of anger and humanity, and how he quite inadvertently managed to write one of the more politically potent works of fiction for the Trump Era.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The book is a quick but impactful read.
M.T. ANDERSON: It’s funny, because I feel like I’m more and more attracted to brief books, you know what I mean? Somehow, the idea of a novella — just in our sort of time-compressed society — is becoming more and more attractive.
There’s even something powerful, visually, about almost every other page leaving you with this vast blank space. It puts an exclamation mark on things.
What a wonderful thing to say. I totally love that feeling. It was fun to write in that form with those short sections.
Why did you decide to focus so centrally on art, both physically in the chapter structures and as a broader theme?
I was thinking a lot, at first, about how we represent ourselves when we are in some way not in power. Art seemed to be the clearest way to explore that, to say, “How do people who are colonized, or whatever else — how do they represent themselves when someone else wants to see them in a very different way?” In some ways, all of us are in that position now, I think, now that the, for example, economic divide in this country is so great. It’s so weird, sometimes, to realize that. Many of us feel like it’s hard to make, for example, our own government see us. It’s hard to make the wealthy, who are making the decisions for us, to get them to actually understand what’s going on in our lives. It’s hard to get Congress to understand what health care actually means to a lot of Americans.
To what extent do you think this book speaks directly to the current political climate? And is that something you were focused on while writing it?
Frankly, the thing is that I wrote the first version of it like four years ago at this point. Supposedly I had no idea what this political climate was. There is a health care element — like this kid has this weird disease, somehow alien-inspired disease, and his health care won’t cover it. And at the time I actually remember thinking “Oh, with the ACA going into effect, by the time this is published I bet that this will seem kind of backwards.” Like it would seem like a throwback. I thought, you know, I live in Massachusetts where we’ve had Romneycare for years. So it was less of a problem then, you know what I mean? If anything, I was worried that it would actually be irrelevant by the time it was published. And instead, a lot of the elements have just become more relevant and more extreme — much to my chagrin.
A big theme in the book is the promise of progress, and consequences that people don’t anticipate.
I should stop here to say that this is not the kind of thing where I sit there thinking about specific connections and drawing a connect-the-dots or something. Instead, you write about things that you are passionate about, and we’re passionate about stuff like, “How am I going to stay healthy? How am I going to make money? How am I going to keep my head above water?” That’s the stuff that we care about, and so that’s what we write about as writers. I don’t want to give this impression that it’s all a secret code or something.
I think that the tension that was probably there in my mind — that I was expressing — was after the 2008 crash, suddenly a couple of years later, everyone is saying, “Look, the economy’s doing great!” But of course, the “economy” — that did not extend to about 95 percent of the population; 95 percent of the population was still in a horrible state. I didn’t think of this as I did it, but then it was immediately clear later: Even the fact that the wealthy now, literally, there is space between them and the rest of the population in this book because the wealthy are now hovering in aerial condos a mile above the Earth’s surface, with access to all this vuvv tech and all this alien tech and all this alien medicine and everything else, while the rest of us are falling around on Earth still. That is, in a sense, I feel also a great representation of how it feels right now. Kind of like a gap between that upper one percent and the rest of us.
You mentioned there’s no “secret code,” and the book deftly avoids seeming preachy, or too overtly hitting on relevant points. Is that something you think about, that delicate approach to tackling prescient topics?
As I said before, I have to write about what I’m passionate about. Though this book contains a love story — or even a love-story-and-a-half — in the end, I am not passionate about the question of whether imaginary people fall in love with each other. But I am passionate about the question of: What does human nature allow us to do, what crimes does it allow us to enact against each other in the name of our own happiness and in the name of our own self-interest? What is the extent to which humans hang together and what is the extent to which we are all at war with each other? That kind of thing — that’s what actually matters to me. The main thing is — and I guess a lot of times I end up going with the thing that creates anger in me — I go with my anger.
I think that’s how a lot of artists feel right now.
It’s actually interesting. If you had talked to people 10 years ago to say that their book was somehow relevant to specific political events, it seemed really kind of embarrassing. It felt like that was a cop-out somehow. And now I think the thing is that as we reach a point of more extremity — like we are all worried about survival, survival of certain cities that have been threatened by these massive environmental disasters. Will there be a nuclear war as a result of someone’s cranky 4 a.m. tweet? All of these questions, it starts to feel much more urgent that we write about this moment — the political moment, in particular.
It’s interesting that there was a phase where dystopian fiction was in but it did not yet have that feeling of complete urgency, except for stuff like Cormac McCarthy. It was a little bit more fun window-dressing to suggest teen angst than it was about a truly political situation in some ways.
I think of books like 1984 skyrocketing on best-seller lists.
Yeah, right. It is sort of amazing to see people dressed in those handmaid’s outfits in real courtrooms. That’s very powerful. Talk about the power of literature: That is the power of literature. We always make vague references to the power of literature when we’re in English classes or whatever else, but that is literature in action, showing how it can potently shift the culture.
One of the more poignant notes you strike in the book is with Adam’s mother, especially in the chapter “A Foot Cart in Front of a Strip Mall, a Line of Customers.” She brings a naive positivity, speaking of the promise of “entrepreneurship,” and of course the section has a tragic ending. She’s performing strength a little bit there — would you agree?
Yeah. I do think that when we are in a condition of crisis — and I even saw this within my own family. In the late ’90s, my father lost his job during the tech bubble. I remember that thing of like, how we all try to continue as if we are still in control in that situation. We tell ourselves stories that suggest that in fact, it’s really not so bad, we really can keep on doing exactly the same things, everything’s going to be okay. It’s a great thing about the way that humans adapt, but it also in some instances actually blocks us from recognizing what real danger and jeopardy we’re in.
One thing that I think might be a useful summation, in a sense, in relation to my earlier sci-fi novel Feed, which now came out 15 years ago: Feed is about what it’s like to be in a culture where you’re constantly being sold to, and this book is about being in a culture where you constantly have to sell yourself. That, I think, is the crux of what it ended up being. That was not a plan, but even the stuff about online presence and the way that those two teenagers have to craft a love relationship that can be sold through social media. I feel like that’s another aspect of how we all are now.
And the love story that they’re trying to create, more specifically, is one that’s basked in nostalgia and ’50s culture.
One dimension that I joke [about] is that the UFO flap happened in the late ’40s and the ’50s. So if there had been visitors to this planet, that’s when they would have seen us. So just the idea, as I say in the book — the idea that they see what is there in the 1950s, and assume that that is traditional human culture and that everything that follows is some kind of aberration. They really would love us to behave as if it is the 1950s. And though I didn’t think of it — and this is probably overthinking it — but I realized very much after the fact that it ended up being kind of a weird theme of the election. Honestly, that was not necessarily the thing I was thinking of when I wrote it — because I wrote it before the election. During the election I thought, “Oh, f—, yeah, that is sort of like the feeling of that moral majority kind of thing.”
It goes back to what you were saying, about not writing to a specific political moment while still reflecting it.
Consider the fact that — I think — I did not have the chance to alter any of the book since the election. I think it was all done; there may have been copyediting changes after that. But it was very much the mood in the country before that. All of us are now affected by the mood of this country so deeply in a way that I don’t feel was necessarily the case in the 1990s or something. In the ’90s, it seemed like we ignored what the government did. There was stuff we got angry about, but it didn’t affect people’s mood on a day-to-day basis the way that it does now.
What kind of tone did you want to end on? There’s Adam’s line that sums up a lot of the book’s concise, blunt spirit: He’s going to “make a business out of painting wealthy people’s houses.”
I was trying to create an ending that has some elements of hope, or even wonder to it, and yet at the same time that suggests that these people are still living in a way that is really problematic. They’re going to struggle onward, but it’s not going to be easy. I guess because none of us really know right now what direction to move in. We know — it’s become clear — that the political machine has somehow broken down. And yet we don’t know exactly how to respond yet. We haven’t [yet] figured out the mechanism to reinsert us into the process, to give power back to the people.
Right in the title, and through the whole book, are references to complicated economic ideas and specific European art, and it has a level of sophistication. What do you hope younger readers take away from it?
When I picture that audience, I picture the young, artsy kids — not just kids who do visual arts, but I sort of aim for these kids who love music, or have these passions for drama or whatever else.
I honestly think that we underestimate the intelligence of teens a lot, and that they like the feeling of a sophisticated book that is nonetheless written for them — in the same way that we do. As readers, just as we sometimes want books that are going to speak to the full sorrow of our soul and other times want books that are just going to lighten us and offer us escape, teen readers have the same thing. Oftentimes I feel like criticisms of books — for either being heavy or for being too light, which, unfortunately, I have to say that YA writers are usually attacked for both simultaneously — ignore the fact that teens aren’t going to just be reading this one book. They’re going to be reading all sorts of things that are going to contribute to a full worldview. That’s really exciting, and it’s really wonderful that these people are seeing so many different facets of life. I also wanted it to be an emotionally powerful novel, but also one that’s about people. It’s about the events in the book. It’s not just supposed to be some kind of user’s manual showing our political moment.