Suck on the Monolith

By Blake Butler

Ken Baumann, after getting his ass kicked at The Cottage.

It’s usually kind of confusing when an actor or athlete or musician writes a book. Unless they’ve paid a ghostwriter to make something that seems like the actor/athlete/musician could write, usually it’s a good idea to duck your head between your legs and pretend it never happened. It’s like you can’t be successful at everything, right?

Enter Ken Baumann. Baumann is best known for his role as Ben on ABC Family’s teen-drama show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but offscreen he’s of a wholly other mode. Besides spending his TV dollars as publisher of Sator Press, an independent publishing house that traffics in ambitious genre-defying prose, he’s just dropped his own brain-bending first novel, Solip, from Tyrant Books.

The book is unlike anything you’d expect from an actor, or any other kind of person for that matter. Over the course of 149 pages, it cobbles together a mesmerizing string of tones, following a Beckett-ian narrator who by turns sounds drugged up, prophetic, furious, wistful, demanding, and pissed. It’s full of plagues and horses and strange winds—the kind of book you read in a sitting, then read again to find out what you just put in your body, and then read again to try to find the map of where you are now. Quicker said: it’s fucked.

Ken and I exchanged some emails to talk about the novel, acting, and being a person.

VICE: When and where did you write Solip and where are you now?
Ken Baumann:
Most of the book was written between October 2009 and February 2010, in Los Angeles. I live in North Hollywood. I would work on it for about an hour per day, sometimes longer. I often stopped writing after having typed out 455 words. This happened many times, which felt weird, but confirmed that there was a rhythm to the work, and that I shouldn't feel bad about walking away from its concentrated, sickly voice after only an hour or so. The largest edit happened after Michael Kimball sent me a fat package of its manuscript all marked up. He's a brilliant writer and an acute editor. I took most of his advice. I only am now feeling like I can be rid of the book's grammar. I've been answering these questions with my phone and on my computer in my house and at an amphitheater where my wife and a group of friends were about to perform Shakespeare. I feel lighter now, but I feel just as dumb, if not dumber.

You’ve said that you didn't feel like you wrote Solip, but found a voice and were discovering what you were supposed to say as you went along. Do you think writing and acting bleed into each other, like you are playing a role of someone typing under a specific set of conditions or constraints?
That's a good way of framing it, yeah. I often feel like consciousness and my pulsing, icky, charged idea of self is a performance, too—that I only write or act to get out of my head and instead try to borrow someone else's for a while. Writing is definitely more lonely, but it also feels more pure, in that the voice can really be anything and I can let myself be beholden to it. If I were to just open up and say whatever on most sets, I wouldn't have work. Ever. Unless I was also a "goof" and a "really funny guy," and then I'd work in every recent comedy movie, probably. And there's a similarity to both actions when the going's good—when I completely forget my body and head and just fall into some imaginary problem for a while. Everyone's an actor. Look at the high-finance assholes of the past 30 years. I just try to get paid to lie in a benign field, which is what art is.

You mentioned the frame here, and there's a line in the novel that says, "Ain't a performance without a frame." I laughed seeing the word "ain't" in there just now, because it reminds me how often the book changes how it speaks and who it seems to be speaking to, which I think is most often itself. What is the frame of Solip?
I'm wary of naming that frame, but I also don't think I feel one that's solid or even interesting. The people who so willingly lay out exactly what a thing is, or preload its audience with guidepost phrases or ideas or genres, whatever—those people confuse me. But I know that once I had finished the book, it still creeped me out and it felt unfamiliar enough—far away from some blatant X meets Y—that I decided it was worth publishing. Maybe its frame is the weird child that I still feel like I am, marooned in a library in a land of greasy worship, hoping to find a portal to places that feel strange but more true than the desert around.

Do you see this novel as "set" anywhere? Obviously there is a room the narrator seems to be contained in at certain points, but the center shifts so often, and yet there's a very feverish sense of atmosphere to the tone of the book. I wonder, even if there's no clear setting, if you had or have some idea of the layout of the landscape, at least as you approached it during the writing? Perhaps the epigraph from Mahler is important here, "The call of love sounds very hollow among these immobile rocks.”
I’m typing this response in an oncoming 102-degree heat, which feels appropriate. That quote feels like a perfect human exclamation to me, especially in the face of the pornographic want of the "human spirit" that so many new books and movies show off. You've talked about this a lot. I think the thin layers of aching mass that sustain our species could not give less of a fuck about our success or our ability to spiritually move one another, and kinks in the biosphere's disease factory sort of point to a system that's trying to kill us. So that epigraph seemed perfectly suited to both Solip and the cheap transcendence being tossed around by our silly, rapacious little species. It's hysterical, romantic, and doomed. The setting of the book got clear as I wrote it. I did a lot of research about white torture and sensory deprivation, and I think there's a part of me that fantasizes about committing myself to such a chamber, if only for the exotic and total silence. I'd last a day. But I kept thinking about what a voice might sound like after an impossibly long duration of total physical deprivation. How the mind would sing, still. I watched the movie Cube when I was a kid, and I still think about it, especially the idea that this massive and geometric structure is somehow encased in an endless sea of other cubes, being shuffled like a puzzle under some cruel stochastic process, and why. Maybe this book is just a C-movie knockoff of Cube, but without any lights on. I don't know. I'm still scared enough of looking back into the book that I want other people to find out for me.

It seems like film could be pointed out as a big influence on the space of the book overall, like suddenly I'm imagining being stranded on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey and hearing HAL 9000 read this book to me before he kills me in my sleep. Besides the acting, how does your love of film/specific directors influence the way you choose to tell a story?
Well, 2001 is my favorite film, and I have tried to cool my idolization of Kubrick to little success. I love the way Kubrick's movies are loaded with meaning and precision—I curse myself almost every day for not working hard enough to become a new iteration of Kubrick—and his films also feel severely nonhuman that way, which is great. He parallels human stuff like mythos and action and emotion, with the opaque meshwork of chaos and stasis and arbitrary dreams. That aim seems as holy as one could shoot for with art. I hope Solip does something similar. I want to read writing that attempts the camerawork in Irreversible, or the abject pace and light of Antichrist, or the grotesque geometries of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Sometimes I can't help but think cinematically just walking around, which plays right into the purchasing fields of a lot of industries—sometimes I feel so saturated and targeted with common narratives that I want to burn the brunt of my hair off and only speak in garbled psalms. My wife told me once about this kid in high school who went to work on an organic farm in Italy for a summer, and that he came back to New Mexico barefoot, wearing the same outfit for the rest of the semester, only speaking newly learned Italian quietly and to himself, unable to socially function. I know that the real madnesses aren't voluntary, and are actually terrifying and hurtful and hard to cope with, but I think that being so soaked by certain formulaic lights and sweaty glints and winky push ins is just as nuts, and less fun because it makes a lot of people broke.

What are you most afraid of?

Previously by Blake Butler: Anton Chekhov Versus Jeffrey Dahmer