Matt Sumell's love stories are bitter and angry and often involve the narrator hitting people. When I say "love story," I don't just mean romance—I mean familial love, too. In his new book, Making Nice, Sumell writes, "I must have been five or six when my father and I were walking outside Mario's Barber Shop and I looked up and wanted to hold his hand but could only fit mine around his thumb, so I kicked him." His stories are also tender, funny, heartbreaking, grief-stricken, poetic, and beautiful. And in some ways, reading Making Nice reminds me of a charming kid I once met at the beach, who soon after winning strangers' attention directed it to the scars on his leg from where he was mauled by a Rottweiler. Alby, Sumell's protagonist, is not at home in the world. He strives for connection, and Sumell's stories are alive with that feeling.
VICE spoke with Sumell about fruit flies, childhood, and violence.
VICE: One of the first things that struck me about your writing (along with it being so funny and nuanced) is that there's a palpable aggression in your stories. Not just toward a particular character—though Alby does get into a number of fights—but in general. Why all this aggression?
Matt Sumell: Well, Ann Beattie's take on this is that "When you write fiction, you're raising questions, and a lot of people think you're playing a little game with them and that actually you know the answers to the questions." Often you don't. So while the question of how aggression does and doesn't serve us is something I try to explore throughout the book—because I'm absolutely fascinated by aggressive characters, by impulsive and reckless choices—I'm not exactly sure of the 'why.' I have some ideas, maybe, a little experience. I mean, the title of the book is based on something my mother used to say to me when I was kid. (Keep in mind this is a woman who knew me before I did, who bore witness to the colicky baby, the terrible tantrums, the irritability, my habit of terrorizing pigeons.)
Every time I approached the family dog she'd say, "GENTLE." She was there for the first punch I ever threw and it got to a point where she could see them coming. I'm not sure what it was she recognized: a look in my eyes, how I set my jaw, the sudden quiet in the middle of an argument—my voice dropping off a cliff. I don't know how, but she knew, and my siblings were spared many blows because of it. Because a split second before I'd let fly she'd say: "Matt. No. Make nice."
Do you think being very aggressive is genetic?
I think a significant part of this is primitive wiring, and there's more than a few studies I can point to that demonstrate the heritability of aggression. But if you'd rather not read a New York Times article about gladiator fruit flies—although you really, really should—just look to nature for example and inspiration. Cats murder things they don't eat all the time. So do killer whales. I recently read about "knockout mice" that lack certain serotonin receptors in their mouse-brains and run around acting like grade-A dickheads. Barracudas seek-and-destroy shiny shit, robins attack red feathers in their territory, and Alby wants to punch dudes wearing white jeans and jewelry. I'm half-kidding, of course, but maybe it really is his genes that're making him hate those jeans.
It's not hard to imagine how aggression—or the ability to become aggressive in certain situations—provided us some kind of survival advantage way back when; a don't fuck-with-me-ness that was selected for the gene pool. Thing is, it just doesn't serve us any longer. For the most part it's an evolutionary remnant; a vestigial non-structure, like goose bumps. Alby gets cold, Alby gets chicken skin. Alby sees a dude wearing sunglasses indoors, Alby gets mad. They're both useless reactions to stimuli, but the latter's harmful.
Who fucking cares if he's likable? More important to consider is whether or not he's compelling.
Is it really that simple though?
Of course not. People way smarter than me best guess that genetics account for only half. How they come up with that percentage I have no idea, but the other big chunk of this thing is environment. Abuse, family stress, fear... obviously all that comes into play. But just consider the culture. I don't know about you but I grew up on old-school Looney Tunes, which is straight-up gun violence. Tom and Jerry? Non-stop attempted murder. There was G.I. Joe, He-Man, Ninja Turtles, Thunder Cats, and Transformers. Not enough problem-solving-via-violence for you? How about the Transformers' retard-cousin, Voltron? How about Knight Rider, or Dukes of Hazard, or Magnum P.I.? Consider the helicopter from Magnum P.I., then stop considering the helicopter from Magnum P.I. because it had exactly jack shit on Airwolf—which blew everything up with missiles, had a lair in an extinct volcano, and a theme song that had me assaulting my mom's furniture.
I'm talking Rowdy Roddy Piper and Jimmy Superfly Snuka here. I'm talking Crocket and Tubbs, B.A. Baracus and plans coming together. And when I was growing up those plans often-involved full contact street hockey, no-pads tackle football, or going to the movies to see shit like Bloodsport, Conan the Barbarian, and Action Jackson. My biggest childhood hero was Lenny "Nails" Dykstra, a tobacco chewing, steroid taking, hard-nosed ballplayer for the New York Mets who—of course—ended up doing jail time for grand theft auto, identity theft, some lewd Craigslist stuff and, like, making his housekeeper take part in oral-sex-Saturdays. There's just so much to explore.
Hormonal imbalances also factors into aggression. Hunger. Horniness. Proximity to fuckheads. The majority of the book takes place on Long Island and LA—two places with more per capita assholes than anywhere in the world outside of Florida. Of course Alby would be hotheaded. And what does he do to cool off? Has a couple or ten drinks. Only problem is alcohol consumption increases aggression too. It fucks up our amygdalas and blah blah science blah, but all I really know is that booze increases emotionality while decreasing the ability to govern it. We lose executive function after a few too many. So Alby becomes wildly reactive and, occasionally, explosive.
You've told me that some people write off what you're exploring as just "machismo."
I think it's so much more complicated than that. Beneath Alby's hard surface, there's a slippery, elusive sensitivity. There's a vulnerability at work. There's a lot of pain in it. There's grief. There's a guy who misses his mother. There's humor and there's beauty. There's a lot of self-aggression at work, too. Alby's heartbroken, and he's angry that he's heartbroken, and then he's frustrated that he's angry that he's heartbroken. One feeling attacks another, one thought another, so the whole grief-suffering-aggression thing gets complicated fast. One thing's for sure though: he's as hard on himself as he is everybody else.
Do you think Alby is likable?
I certainly don't think Alby is "unlikable"—I mean, reading Alby as "just an asshole" seems an act so devoid of empathy and understanding and nuance that it stuns me. He's funny and vulnerable and surprising. But also, who fucking cares if he's likable? More important to consider is whether or not he's compelling.
In my experience I've noticed a fair amount of people tend to write about "assholes." Why is that? What's the value in writing from the perspective of an "asshole"?
Well, if the implication here is that I write from the perspective of an "asshole," then I suppose the first thing is to define what exactly an "asshole" is. Back at Irvine we had exactly this conversation during a workshop of mine—go figure—and after a lot of back-and-forthing about it Geoffrey Wolff said he would define an asshole as someone he wouldn't want to spend time with, including time on the page. If that's the working definition, then I'd say I don't write from the perspective of one.
But let's go with "part-time asshole." For starters, I love the comedic effect. Unchecked aggression is, for whatever reason, hilarious to me. See Looney Tunes, MacGruber, Curb Your Enthusiasm. More than that, though, I love the license it gives me. I feel freer to buck the social niceties I might otherwise feel beholden to if, say, I were writing a memoir. There's no pressure to present the best or even the better version of myself because there is no myself. Ain't me. So I get to have the fun of indulging the bad choices, of exploring the baser, uglier impulses. And really: nice people making ethical choices all the time? Doesn't even sound fun.