Some writers predict the future. Those working in fantastical, dystopian, and science fiction have been doing it for years. Jules Verne foresaw the development of advanced submarine technology. H.G. Wells saw much, including atomic weaponry, tanks, motion-sensor doors, voicemail. Arthur C. Clarke wrote about the rise of electronic media, virtual reality video games, the reliance upon communication satellites, and space tourism. George Orwell, the proliferation of NSA spying on its citizenry. William Gibson, the creation of cyberspace and Internet hackers. Ambrose Bierce concocted a chess-playing robot in 1910, a futurism completed by the prediction of an IBM computer beating the best human chess player by Raymond Kurzweil in 1990 ("Big Blue" defeated Garry Kasparov seven years later in 1997). Numerous writers, including E.M. Forster, Gene Roddenberry, and the Grand Seer Verne posited that video conferencing would be a boring reality many decades before these Skype and Facetime years of the early 21st century.
Either by careful study of technological innovations, or just a keen imagination, possibly informed by something creeping backward in time from the ether, these writers saw our present as their future, and were proven right, often when they had no reason to believe the things they saw unfurling forth from the corners of their minds. But somehow, they did. They listened. They saw.
Sébastien "Seb" Doubinsky doesn't make such grand claims of precognition, as - by this own admission - what he has sketched out in White City (Bizarro Pulp Press, 2015) is not a near-future, but a current-now. Maybe we are living our future, and many of us just don't have the right set of eyes to see it.
In White City, Doubinsky sets his novel in a Europe that has been re-segregation along class, wealth, nationalistic, and racial lines. In short, character-specific chapters (reminiscent of Faulker's As I Lay Dying), we meet a trio of citizens: VCTV 2 journalist Leila Bogossian, her boyfriend Lee Jones Jr., a writer trying to live down his father's considerable literary shadow, and Detective-Inspector Sigrid Wulff, newly arrived to her post at Kong Kristian district after bouts of insubordination at her last job. All are resident of Viborg City, both mockingly and proudly nicknamed "White City," which is a bleached-out, ivory tower Scandinavian hack of Beverly Hills sure to be an Alt Righter's dream zip code. This contrasts with New Babylon, where Leila and Lee first met, a gritty, lively cultural melting pot looked down upon by anyone privileged enough to take up residence in White City.
The plot centers on the strange murder of Niels Kepler (aka "White Power Niels"), younger brother to Marta Kepler, the obscenely wealthy heir to the Phoebus Cosmetics empire, which - we later learn - was founded by her father Hans Kepler, the personal perfumer to Adolph Hitler. Leila fights for the story, and uncovers far more than she expected, while Sigrid deals with bureaucracy and unstable balance of the entitled and the marginalized during her often thwarted investigation. Lee Jr. conducts research into this next novel that unknowingly ties everything together, loosely binding the three protagonists with a threadbare tether while they make their way through the thin societal air that remains tainted by the rot of the past. They each learn that in order to achieve their goals, to get what they want, risks and rationalizations must be made in a world that has no conscience, leaving them forever altered.
To me, the well-crafted, interwoven storylines are secondary in interest to the foundational underbelly of the overall work, and what is happening around the edges of Doubinsky's quasi-fictional Europe that is certainly grounded in a history all too real. Indeed, what I enjoyed most about White City was what the book takes on in the process of telling a solid crime tale, as it tackles topics of terrorist fear mongering, immigrant bans, racialist laws and credit obstruction, caste systems, police corruption, the price of beauty and the invoice of power, maintaining relationships across barriers of ethnicity and geography, black magic, and the sinewy reach of a slow-pumping vein of Nazi secret society that courses just under the skin of the Continent (and it's satellite land across the Atlantic - but that's for another novel). This is the tale of an outsider viewing a new, slightly hostile land from the inside and living to tell about it. In a macro sense, this is a story of what is happening RIGHT NOW in the United States, in Europe, and in other areas of our planet. As an American, I see this as a Post-Trumpian narrative conceived and written during the the Obama Administration, several years before anyone could or would have possibly conceived of a Presidential run by the clownish huckster, failed businessman, reality show hack, and running punchline since the Robin Leach 1980s named Donald J. Trump.
In that spirit, Doubinsky, a self-professed anarchist, is writing prophetic Protest Lit in the classic tradition of Orwell or Huxley. White City is a Contempo-Future Noir tale meted out through spare deconstruction down to the formatting, with elements of free-form expressionism, poetry, cultural longing and a quest for unique place in a world that will not abide it, all riding on a sea of social and political commentary. It's Burroughs without the bile. Well, without some of the bile. This isn't sci-fi (or socio-fi?), this is the present-day, with a veneer of manners peeled back by the scalpels of surgical social justice, exposing a raw wound that is growing while left untreated. Most of all, this novel is prescient and ultimately interesting, providing a darkly knowing take on current issues, which is important in these weird times. We need to see what's coming, those of us who don't have the Sight.
When did you first realize you were destined to write, and what triggered this realization? What sort of books and other media fueled these early, formative years?
I come from a very literary and political background. My grandfather on my father’s side was a Russian anarchist and on my mother’s side, an art historian. I was raised with books and ideas. I also lived as a kid in the USA in the early 60s, so a part of my native culture is American also. The desire to be a writer came relatively late, I would say when I was about 17 or 18, after reading a book by French surrealist poet and resistant René Char called Feuillets d’Hypnos (Pages from Hypnos), which are based in his active fight against the Nazis. I remember thinking that I wanted to write a book as important as that later. Then, a few years later, a family tragedy coupled with a love for punk rock turned this desire into a reality, and I wrote my two first “serious” novellas, VIX and DAYS OF LIGHT. This was in the early 80s. And both were in English. I began writing in French in parallel, but later. Some of the most influential writers for me definitely are William Burroughs, for the setting and the tight deconstruction of language, Kerouac for the sad craziness and the profound twisted humanity of his prose, and Richard Brautigan for the short chapters and novels that nonetheless carried a lot of weight and emotions. Later, I discovered Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius opuses and, of course, Philip K. Dick.
White City presents a grim outlook on humanity, and our near-future as a species, particularly in Europe, which has been divided more than ever along class, wealth, and racial lines. Does this reflect your worldview?
Yes, absolutely. I consider myself a political writer in a Pynchonian sense, that is to say as a slanted commentator of what is going on around us. Literature and culture in all its forms are the invisible architectures of our societies, and vibrate as history unfolds. Our responsibility is to both to feel and interpret these vibrations, and share them with the public. The grim outlook you are mentioning is precisely based on the vibes I have been picking for a while m actually since the first Iraq war, which inspired THE BABYLONIAN TRILOGY. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, we all hoped for peace and a better world. But we had forgotten one thing: capitalism is a bastard. Communism out of the way, it could now be sole ruler – or, at least, try to. Culture became thus completely unimportant if it wasn’t a vector for its ideology. What struck me was we, the intellectuals, had mistaken pure, calculated propaganda for creative freedom. And since the 1990s we have experienced the backlash: bestsellers and top 40 music are basically the only culture allowed in the Big Media. The rest – which must represent 99% - is scornfully categorized as “genres” or “subcultures”, which is the ultra-capitalist form of censorship. You don’t forbid the works, you just cut their access to a larger audience. Very efficient too.
I can't help be see White City as a foreshadowing of our current political and social climate in the Western world. In a post-Trump, post-Brexit reality, with the rise of the Right in so many nations across our globe, is White City a bit of clairvoyant fiction? Did you see what was waiting for us a few years down the line back in 2014?
I think my studies in History and my own political choices as an anarchist have made me very wary of official narrations, whether in national myths or in Big Media news. I think WHITE CITY is more of a statement than a premonition, unfortunately. What I am showing in this novel is not what is awaiting us – it is where we have been for a long time.
What are you trying to express with White City, if anything other than to write an entertaining book?
WHITE CITY is a book aimed at making people feel uncomfortable politically. Its main purpose is to make the reader question his own social and historical narration, with all of its implications.
You start the novel with legitimately cheery quotes from none other than Heinrich Himmler and Leni Riefenstahl, and the book contains ghosts of Nazism. Why is this such a pronounced undercurrent in White City?
Nazism is actually the main not-so-hidden central topic of WHITE CITY. In my eyes, its fundamentals have never disappeared and still haunt our daily routines. Did you know, for example, that Nazi Germany was the first nation to try to ban tobacco? The obsession we have today for health and beauty are highly influenced by the eugenics of the 1920s and 1930s. When a political party, a newspaper or a TV show focus on the costs of some categories of citizens to our health system (overweight, smokers, etc.), they are actually following the lines of thinking that lead to the first extermination of mentally challenged patients in 1940. All the Nazi system was based on economical premises, themselves based on race and eugenics. And as for beauty, aesthetics were also central to National-Socialism. The Aryan people were not only the chosen people; they should also be a beautiful people. When Leni Riefenstahl goes to to Africa to take pictures of the Nuba tribe, she is taking pictures of a racially pure people in her eyes, of course). Aesthetics and eugenics go hand in hand. They both segregate and oppress.
White City has a deconstructionist, unorthodox style, with intermittent chapters consisting of "Dog Poems," diary entries, and recurring segments titled "What Beauty Is" and "Theory of Power." What are some influences on this book, in terms of structure, style, and content?
The biggest influence in my writing is actually not from other writers, but from art and music. I always think of some artists or film directors when I write, because I want my books to resemble their atmosphere. Robert Rauschenberg and Godard’s ALPHAVILLE were definitely there when I wrote WHITE CITY. And the soundtrack did contain Bauhaus, Sonic Youth, Ultravox and a few others.
The monstrous wars raging in the Middle East and North Africa, and the refugee crisis which has resulted, have impacted Europe in various ways. What have you seen on the ground living and moving through various countries?
Well, I live in Denmark and the Danish government and the Danish media’s radically xenophobic reactions did play a big part in the writing of the novel. What struck me was that Denmark is a filthy rich country, that could welcome thousands of refugees without it impacting its economy negatively. But most of the political parties and a shameful large number of journalists and commentators have poured out a purely xenophobic logorrhea, while insulting and threatening all opposing voices. Denmark is supposed to be a democracy, but definitely isn’t acting as one; at least in the political and Big Media spheres; Unfortunately, similar traits can be seen all around, from Hungary to Great Britain. What is interesting in this, is that this is an absolutely cynical decision with a very precise goal: to make people forget that the real problems come from the 2009 economical crisis. By waving the immigration red cloth under the noses of under-informed masses, they can lead the opinion away from the real problem of our democracies today, which is the incredibly high (and accepted) level of corruption of our politicians.
How far away are we from White City? Are we there already?
We are definitely living in WHITE CITY, and have been for a long while.
As someone who has penned poems and novels, do you consider yourself a poet, or are you an author? Is there a difference?
The great American female anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, at the end of her life, called herself “simply an anarchist”, refusing thus to categorize her commitment. Like her, I will say that I am “simply a writer”.
Does writing in different languages, including your second (third?) language, influence the writing itself? Are there some things you'd rather write in, say, French, than in English, or vise versa?
It’s a very difficult question. I think it really depends on the speed of the wind and the direction of the clouds. What I mean by that is that the paradigms leading to my choice of language both are as simple and complex as the speed of the wind and the direction of the clouds. I also translate myself (From English to French and vice-versa), but not all of my writings. There is a subconscious choice there that I have not really thought about. And then there is also a bit of laziness.
Channel Carlo from The Forgotten Shelf for a moment, and recommend five books and five authors (don't have to be related) that none of us have probably ever read, or even heard of before.
The order is of no importance:
1) Almost transparent blue, Murakami Ryu
2) Let it come down, Paul Bowles
3) Doctor Sax, Jack Kerouac
4) Tripticks, Ann Quin
5) Do Not Enter My Soul With Your Shoes, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine
Where are you living these days, and what occupies your time away from writing?
Right now, I am in Paris with a group of students from Aarhus University, so I am taking walks with them and visiting museums. At night, I am meeting my old friends in bars and cafés…
What are you currently working on, and what can we expect next from you in print?
I am currently working on a new novel featuring Georg Ratner, the disgruntled cop from THE BABYLONIAN TRILOGY, and I have a novel, MISSING SIGNAL, that will come out in 2018 through Meerkat Press.
Thank you so much for your time, Seb, and for writing this book. It couldn't be more relevant as we push forward into a future that is both chillingly uncertain and predictably primal.
Thank you for having me on board, and about the future, I remember that Jewish joke that my late father used to tell me: What is the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?
A pessimist says: “This is terrible. Things can’t get worse than this!”
An optimist says: “Yes, they can! Yes, they can!”