‘Everyone is a publisher now’
Novel explores compulsive need to share
“We’re all open books now. Literally.” Arjun Basu is talking about the brave new world of social media and the role it plays in his new novel, but the subject has a way of spreading in all directions.
Waiting for the Man, is the story of an advertising executive whose creeping dissatisfaction with his life leads him to surrender himself to a mysterious guru/ conscience figure and embark on a quixotic odyssey. The novel also functions as an eloquent inquiry and sharp critique into how the culture of compulsive sharing is affecting everyone.
“Our narratives are out there now. Everyone is on Facebook and Twitter and blogging and this and that, and people we don’t even know are reacting to those narratives. It’s a cliche maybe, but everyone is a publisher now.”
Basu knows of what he speaks. The 46-year-old was born shortly after his parents immigrated from Calcutta to Montreal (“I guess you could call me an Expo baby,” he said). After completing a degree in creative writing and film at Concordia, he worked as an editor at Tundra Books for five years, then for Air Canada’s inflight magazine enRoute as editor-in-chief from 2001 to 2007.
He is now content director at the marketing agency Spafax.
Through all that time, he has written: His first book, the story collection Squishy, was published in 2008, and he is something
Pof a phenomenon in the Twittersphere, where his 140-word Twisters stories have drawn a huge following.
“You don’t write just because you want to,” he said of his literary vocation. “You sort of have to. But I never believed in the starvingartist routine, so working for book publishers and magazines was a nice way to keep me happy careerwise without feeling like I was damaging my soul or something.”
The temptation is to read the new novel’s media-savvy hero, Joe, as a stand-in for Basu. Like Joe, Basu is the first-generation son of South Asian immigrants, but as it turns out, the similarity pretty much ends there. Where Joe’s parents buy fully into the American suburban dream and expect their son to do the same, Basu’s parents weren’t the kind to force anything on their two kids.
“My parents were very easygoing and very supportive,” he said. “They were the types who would indulge your indulgences and your interests. If one year I was interested in one thing, my dad would start buying books about that. I was never pushed. For them, it was about happiness.”
A kind of shadow theme in the novel is privilege: Joe’s existential crisis is something he can act upon at least partly because, as a well-rewarded urban professional, he can afford it. But Basu was thinking more of self-fulfillment.
“A few people have already mentioned (privilege), which is interesting,” Basu said. “The character happens to come from a relatively good place — he’s successful, and everyone around him is relatively successful as well. But I didn’t set out to talk about privilege so much as the pursuit of happiness. There’s a sort of drifter malaise. Joe’s not satisfied with his life. That’s his conflict, that he’s not happy and he knows he should be.”
Waiting for the Man (the title was inspired by Lou Reed’s song on the first Velvet Underground album) is likely to inspire all kinds of interpretations.
“Oh, I’m prepared. Some people might love it, some might hate it. I just hope not everybody hates it,” Basu said.
While he waits for the reviews and responses to roll in, Basu can always distract himself with tweeting. He was an early adopter of the medium.
As for future trends in social media, Basu has a case study: His 14-year-old son. “He’s kind of post-email, and not much into Facebook,” Basu said. “What kids his age are into, I find, is the temporary stuff: Snap Chat, instant messaging, things that go away.”
Montreal writer Arjun Basu, 46, has not only written a new novel, he is something of a phenomenon in the Twittersphere.