Alexander Yates: Mashing Up the Loud and the Quiet, and the Beauty of ‘Gagamba’

There is an optical phenomenon that occurs when the moon is at its fullest (or nearly so) in which bright circular spots appear atop a lunar halo.  These “moondogs” give off a little color of their own, but their main source of light stems from the moon’s luminescence.  They do not stray far from the edges of the moon’s glow.

Alexander Yates’s new novel, “Moondogs,” is titled after this piece of celestial minutiae, and the naming is apt. The book’s multiple story lines linger around the same, somewhat otherworldly event: the abduction of a wealthy American businessman by a pair of amateur thugs and a malicious rooster.  From there, the plot lines run parallel and then bisect; startling revelations are unveiled; and supernatural powers abound as the tale hurls toward a boiling climax.  A geopolitical romp through crowded, sweltering Manila, “Moondogs” is an electrifying bit of pulp fiction whose beauty lies in the excitement of its more fantastical elements and in the winking self-awareness of its own absurdity. Yates, who earned an MFA from Syracuse University, graduated high school in the Philippines, where he later returned to work in the U.S. Embassy. Via email, he was asked to discuss the process and some finer points behind “Moondogs.”

ZYZZYVA: According to your author’s bio, you grew up in Haiti, Mexico, Bolivia, and the Philippines. How did it come about that you lived in so many different countries, and what was that like?

Alexander Yates: When I was young my family moved around a lot, usually over really long distances. This was because my father worked in the Foreign Service. Every few years our family would relocate to a new country. My brother and I would enroll in new schools and make new friends and try to fit ourselves into our new home. Sometimes the change was enormous. But I’m very thankful for that upbringing, and for the experiences I had growing up. Now, if I’ve lived in the same place for a few years, there is a part of me that gets antsy.

Z: In some ways, the expat community portrayed in “Moondogs” reminded me of high school. There’s a connection among all its members, even between the ones who don’t seem to care much for one another. What was your experience in that community?

Yates: You know, I’d never thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right that the expat community can be very much like high school! It’s a small, hermetic community-within-a-community, where everyone seems to be at least vaguely acquainted.  My own experience (including not growing up in the States) did affect the way I related to some expat Americans. That feeling of belonging and not belonging. But I don’t think this is a unique feeling by any stretch. We are always, to some extent, both insiders and outsiders.

Z: Your writing style has this fiery, cinematic pop.  Is that something you spent time creating?  More broadly, when you write, do you spend much time focusing on the actual craft, or is the style borne more from the natural momentum of the story?

Yates: This was more of a case of content informing form. Once I realized what kind of story I was telling, my language rushed to catch up. It was actually very liberating — giving myself permission to just go for it, to allow some silliness in at the edges (maybe farther than the edges).

I find that when I’m drafting short stories I’m far more aware of language. In that mode I think the language really is the story, to an extent. But when drafting something longer I look at content first. I focus on just getting words out so I can figure out what the hell this thing is. Then it’ll tell me what it wants to sound like.

Z: The crime-fighting Ka-Pow crew, who are out to rescue the kidnapped businessman, have superpowers but also a childlike nature. Set against the backdrop of everyday Manila, they give the book a magical quality. Why did you conceive of them as having superpowers?  Was it to achieve that surreal effect, or was there something else you were after?

Yates: I have to resist that characterization of them, somewhat. But I know what you are getting at — the bruhos of Task Force Ka-Pow are certainly very adolescent. They are power-drunk, golden-boys to whom the rules do not apply. This attitude is both a result and cause of some of the corruption that they engage in; a little feedback loop of bad behavior. But it also results from the fact that the hero narrative that they’re in is, in itself, a little adolescent.

For a long time I found that the Ka-Pow thread was just falling flat — reading like a shitty comic book, a failed stab at gritty realism. At some point my response was to just look at what I’d written and say: “OK. So this reads like a shitty comic book. So make it a good comic book.” That informed not only the magic, but the language and momentum of that part of the novel. And it also spoke to the rest of the project in some very unexpected ways. I hadn’t intended this, but I really like the dissonance that comes from mashing the very loud up against the very quiet.

Z: While Benicio — the estranged son of the kidnapped businessman — holds a grudge and carries much resentment, I ultimately found him to be the most relatable and likable of the novel’s main characters. He seems to be the one protagonist whose outlook stems not from a place of greed or power or jealously, but something that is ultimately warranted and just: the feeling that his father has abandoned him for loose women and massive profits.  Would you agree?

Yates: That’s interesting — generally, when friends and readers point out that some of these characters are difficult to like, they are usually talking about Benicio as a chief offender. I would agree that he has some legitimate grievances, and I absolutely feel sympathy for his sense of cultural homelessness.  But I also think he is far too caught up in his own issues. There are moments where his empathy and generosity are given a chance to shine, and he does not take real advantage of them. It’s strange — I have caught myself imagining second acts for many of these characters. I think Benicio will, eventually, grow bigger.  And I don’t have any more sympathy for him than I do for the other characters. Even those characters ostensibly motivated by greed have their own (sometimes skewed) purer motivations.

Z: Are there any particular works of Filipino literature (or Southeast Asian literature in general) you particularly enjoy?

Yates: Gagamba, by the Filipino master F. Sionil José, is a novel that informed not just a lot of this book, but also had a big effect on my own experience of Manila.  Basically a novel in stories, Gagamba explores the lives of a huge swath of Manileño society, from a Catholic Priest to a brothel owner to an industrious disabled man selling raffle tickets on the sidewalk. The action of the novel centers on an earthquake — the way it affects all these various people. It’s such a beautiful and generous investigation of class and experience, one that has faith in the validity of shared experience while still acknowledging how complicated that is. It’s really a wonderful book, and I recommend it not only to readers interested in Manila, but also to any readers interested in wonderful books.

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