I read Liska Jacob’s The Pink Hotel (336 pages; MCD) at the end of this summer. August is an unwholesome month, especially in Berlin. The city becomes a swamp, and every bakery display case is filled with wasps feeding on poppyseed cake and apple strudel.
But reading the gleefully anarchic The Pink Hotel is the most unwholesome thing I did this August. I mean that as the highest compliment. This book lulls you with the low incessant murmur of opulence. You begin with healthy skepticism toward the trappings of obscene wealth, but diamond watches start to sound pretty. Daily spa treatments sound relaxing.
Once you reach the state of acknowledging, “Okay, sure, it’s disgusting, but I guess I am entranced by the idea of champagne and Hermes scarves,” you realize that Jacobs is already working to expose how rotten your complacency is. But you’re in it now. There’s no way out, even if the champagne is vinegar and the Hermes scarf is wrapped around your neck. Things get more debauched, things get more hilarious, things get infinitely darker.
“You’re a brilliant maniac,” I wrote to Liska. Later I wrote, “Okay, hear me out: live dual interview over tacos.” This interview is a result of Liska and I, two taco-starved Californians living in Berlin, drinking tequila and eating some of the best carnitas I’ve ever had, at Tortilleria Mexa on Boxhaganer Street.
My first literary event since arriving in Berlin last January was the Berlin launch of The Seaplane on Final Approach, where a luminous lady with wild hair captivated the mostly European audience with tales of sleaze in Alaska, of all places. In fact, Rebecca Rukeyser insists that Alaska is the sleaziest state (even over Florida).
We swapped novels and almost as soon as I cracked open her debut, I realized that her riotous humor was the proverbial spoonful of sugar. It was cotton candy with a hangover.
Very rarely is an understanding of the human pathos so delightfully rendered. I wanted to run away to Alaska and also never go there. You could call The Seaplane on Final Approach a coming-of-age story, you could call it a modern American Western; both are right and both are wrong. It exists much like the “feral American landscape” (a phrase I’ve stolen from her book and which I might make into a bumper sticker), in the in-between, where fantasy meets truth and the human experience is the consequence.
Mira, the novel’s protagonist, is the kind of out-of-control character that I love. The capable kind. A simmering fountain of curiosity and spunk and insatiable horniness. More novels need unapologetic female masturbation.
LISKA JACOBS: I’m telling you, the first time I came here I got weepy. Tacos! In Berlin! God, I miss the West Coast. I think about it all the time, but the longer I’m away the more I realize how much growing up there has warped my perspective on everything. I mean, L.A.’s whole schtick is that it will be whatever you want it to be. It makes it a hard place to be from.
Do you think people show up to California or Alaska with a set idea of what it’s going to be? What are they expecting?
REBECCA RUKEYSER: I think they’re expecting some sort of odd hybrid. They want, more than anything, their own reinvention. A new start. But that new start is based in something that’s been already established—something classically West Coast.
I think with Alaska, people want the dream of the Wild West.
LJ: What was your connection to Alaska? Why did you go there?
RR: I went there to work. I was in commercial fishing, and I was in a cannery. And the reason I went there, at least the first time, was money. I was seventeen, I hadn’t had a job, and you can’t get a job without having had a job. I was trying and failing to get, say, barista or waitstaff jobs in my hometown, because I had no working experience—but there was no barrier to entry in Alaska.
And then I kept going back.
Part of that had to do with a feeling of aimless loneliness. Going back to Alaska and participating in this Wild West mythology was a way to own my loneliness; to romanticize it.
LJ: I feel like mythology in the West is the idea that you’re going out there to find yourself. And at seventeen your identity is still very much a frontier.
Always get the last word.
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This feeling of danger permeates your whole book. I felt anything could happen. And— I love this—it’s not just because Mira is young and there are men. What I took away from it was that female relationships can sometimes be more dangerous.
RR: This gets to one of the things that continues to upset me so much about America. The further I’ve moved away from living in the U.S., and the more I know about other ways of framing female sexuality, it is how virginity-obsessed, how terminally youth-obsessed Americans are. We fetishize a lack of experience, and there’s this correlation between the fanatical preoccupation Americans have with innocence and the idea of untouched lands. This is incredibly dangerous.
But, like with so many things, the danger with this innocence-obsession doesn’t manifest in the way we expect it to. It permeates peoples’ understanding. One of the insidious things about this is the way that older women can view younger women as constant threats.
Men being horrible to young women in the name of claiming the virginal is one thing, but having women be horrible to younger women as a result of that perpetuation is a lesser-feared danger, the more insidious thing. And I think we’re both interested in the more insidious thing.
LJ: Right, the core trauma in your novel is inflicted by a woman.
RR: Yeah. I wasn’t interested in women’s victimhood as much as their complicated, festering feelings and their bad behavior that result from being in on the game, being participatory.
I want to move the dread and the violence inside, out of the wild and into the domestic sphere. The protagonist of my novel is a baker, making pies, doing this heavily feminine-coded thing, and she’s in the very place—the kitchen—that is supposed to be safe.
LJ: Safe, like how female relationships are supposed to be.
RR: Bingo. And without giving away too much, the main violence that does occur in my novel occurs in the kitchen, inside the seemingly safe domestic space.
LJ: There are very few roles that women can play in the American imagination. Homemaker.
LJ: Yeah. Is there a third? Cheerleader?
RR: Some sort of sanctioned nubile role? On-your-way-to-becoming-a- homemaker?
LJ: Competition is such a big part of the American psyche. There’s the overt competition—the rat race, which is acknowledged, and then the covert. The subtle part of our culture that keeps women suspicious of other women. We’re highly attuned to how to present ourselves, always aware that we are being judged.
I mean, I came out to see you and eat tacos and talk about our complicity in society’s downfall, but I still was like, shall I do my makeup? What should I wear? I must present myself appropriately. I’m an active participant in these unspoken social norms that make us miserable. I don’t know if anyone can break that. It’s so ingrained in us.
RR: For the record, we are both wearing bulky sweaters because it’s fucking cold.
LJ: I did put on mascara.
RR: As did I.
REBECCA RUKEYSER: But yes—this complicity. One of the things that I think is done so beautifully is this sinister shift that occurs throughout The Pink Hotel. You make the audience complicit.
One of the ways this works, I think, is that in your novel obscene wealth starts out looking really good. There’s so much sensory detail, not just to the natural world (although I want to get to that!), but how a high-pressure shower feels on your skin or heated marble floors. And there are myriad references to luxury brands, these lists of emblems of extreme wealth.
LISKA JACOBS: I had so much fun writing this book. I wanted it opulent, so lush it was borderline claustrophobic. I wanted the American dream for “more” to be toeing the line of rot, when it’s so ripe and heady you’re just giddy. And I found doing this was easy. With the natural world—the types of plants in the garden at the Beverly Hills Hotel, just their names carried this weight. If I say “bougainvillea,” even if you don’t know the plant, the word feels exquisite, on the pages it looks exotic. There’s a similar thing that happens with luxury brands: Gucci, Hermes—it doesn’t matter if you aren’t familiar with the brands, the way the words ricochet in the mouth, like diamonds fracturing light.
We’re conditioned to identify with opulence and to believe we can have it, too. Part of the book I was skewering my own complicity. We all want wealth, no one wants to be weighed down with student loans, worrying about whether they’ll be homeless in their sixties—and I’m betting we’re willing to sacrifice and compromise and contort ourselves in ways that would surprise us to attain wealth, given the chance. The ultimate trick, though, is in thinking we live in a dynamic society where some of us are on an upward trajectory—I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but ultimately a middle-class income (if there is still such a thing) is closer to homelessness than to a Kardashian. The rich are a country unto themselves. And whether it’s via social media, the purchases we make, or what we stream or see in the theaters, we’re all financing it. That’s the truth.
RR: There’s potent social commentary in your novel— you linger on the repulsive excesses of the super-wealthy, but you shift perspective. You also show the crushing reality of hospitality workers whose lives become, over the course of the book, something close to indentured servitude. One big reason the readers’ complicity is dashed has to do with the character of Coco.
When you meet the character of Coco, one of the first things you recognize is her deep feelings of disdain toward the guests she’s serving.
LJ: And I think part of that disdain also comes from a sort of self-disdain, right? I mean, I’ve worked in hospitality before, it’s a literal paying complicity gig. Your job is to serve others. Whatever they want, keep them happy. And you don’t really feel gross about it until you come home and you’re like, I made a lot of tips, but I have no dignity left. Coco’s character came from a place that I’m familiar with, but I had to be careful. I don’t think there are heroes and villains. The great tragedy is that we all have this great gaping hole in the center of us that’s unfulfilled.
And it doesn’t matter how much money you have it can’t be filled. The only difference between Elon Musk and me is that the extent in which I can try to fill that hole is a martini dinner at Musso and Frank’s. His is literally outer space. That kind of reach, I imagine, skews a person’s perspective.
I like to think the ultimate want is love, companionship. Human beings have a shit ton of faith in love. It’s remarkable how resilient it is—I mean, if we didn’t, we’d all walk into the sea. I’m interested in that place where desire and faith meet our inner void.
In The Seaplane on Final Approach, Mira’s telling us her story from the future. It’s almost like she’s discovering these things about her own story as she’s telling it, right?
RR: I think her reckoning over time is about Mira grappling with a couple of things: one, what her fantasies were in the past—how she envisioned her future at age seventeen and eighteen, and, simultaneously, two, what her fantasies about the past are now—how her thirty-something self looks back at her youth. The confrontation within her is realizing just how much fantasy is involved in both her past and present.
This novel is kind of a coming-of-age story, or at least a sobering-up-from-the-intoxication-of-youth story, because Mira has to grapple with how much she embroiders reality and uses fantasy as psychic insulation.
It’s a troubling thing, to realize how much fantasizing, how much errant filling in of various blanks you do. This comes from my own late-night concerns about how much time I spend fantasizing, how much we all do. How much we fantasize about the West, how much do we fantasize about our youth, how much we fantasize about our future when we’re young. There’s this constant moving narrative fog around us. And I think it’s probably coming from the gaping empty hole in our hearts that you were talking about.
LJ: Sorry. But it’s the truth.
RR: How lonely that is! And also, how vivifying. It’s like that with want—it’s the worst thing. And the only thing.
LJ: My second book was titled The Worst Kind of Want! I think I’m always going to be working around this theme. Want is this strange thing in that it doesn’t matter how much you have, we always want more. We are insatiable.
RR: One of the strangest things, being a native Californian, is the feeling that you’ve been born into Eden. That you’re living at the endpoint of so many people’s dreams. And what do you do—besides, obviously, write novels—with that feeling?
LJ: California is paradise. I’ve never known this more after experiencing a winter in Berlin.
RR: I feel like there’s so much to be said about the weird (diseased?) California relationship between wealth and the Californian landscape. Please go off.
LJ: Oh yes, please. Let’s talk California Water Wars. The desiccation of Owens Lake so that L.A. could have golf courses and green lawns. Sure, now native landscaping is big, but places like the Beverly Hills Hotel, where its business is being an oasis, the fourteen-acre garden is entirely tropical. The mega water users don’t live in Crenshaw or even Pasadena. They’re in Beverly Hills and Brentwood and Bel Air—where it’s lush and cool and very green.
RR: This novel sees everything spiral into absolute fucking chaos.
I think that this book is in conversation with J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise—not just in terms of dealing with obscene wealth but these key changes where things abruptly get so much worse than you were expecting. The momentum of The Pink Hotel is this graceful downward slide punctuated with dips that feel inevitable in retrospect. I loved it. I want to talk plotting.
LJ: Ballard was an early inspiration for sure. I think I pitched this book to my editor as High-Rise meets Eloise. The ending was very cathartic to write. It’s strange to me that it’s considered satire, though. We live in such absurd times, and nothing I put in that book is something that hasn’t happened. Do people really think I made up exotic cats at a costume ball? The Vanderbilts were throwing masquerades with wild animals since the nineteenth century.
As for plot, for me, it’s character plus setting equals inevitable outcome. Once I know the character, I throw things in their paths and see how they react. It’s a domino effect. Humans survive—just look at us right now. Always on the precipice of some new chaos, we’re constantly pivoting in interesting ways. We’re like cockroaches.
RR: We’re the best cockroaches!
LJ: Ha! Absolutely. What made you decide to write non-linearly?
RR: it was a way of undermining the readers’ fantasy of what would happen in my novel. It’s a book where bad things happen, sure—but the worst fate that befalls the characters in my book isn’t dramatic death. It’s having your ability to fantasize crushed, and surviving in this dented, diminished capacity.
These characters lose belief in the possibility of whatever it is that they wanted most— whether that’s the sanctity of marriage, or the formational power of Alaska, or the idea of finding sleaze and sexual fulfillment, or what have you. Their dreams are crushed.
LJ: That’s how all humans operate. You can’t not believe in a dream.
RR: Yeah, totally. The thing that makes me feel better, after meditating on broken fantasy, is to go off and have a better fantasy.
LJ: I think the worst kind of want is one fulfilled. Take publishing a novel—I don’t know if anyone wants to hear us talking about this—for me, all that came from finally fulfilling that want was the realization that the best part is writing the book.
And writing a book sucks! It hurts! It puts you in a fugue state where you are willing to sacrifice and compromise and contort yourself in very uncomfortable ways.
RR: But! Silver lining! While you’re writing a book you get to spend your whole day fantasizing!
LJ: Exactly. What could possibly go wrong?
Liska Jacobs is the author of the novels Catalina (MCD/FSG Original), The Worst Kind of Want (Picador), and The Pink Hotel (MCD/Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and The Hairpin, among other publications.
Rebecca Rukeyser is the author of The Seaplane on Final Approach (Doubleday),which came out in June. Her fiction has been awarded the inaugural Berlin Senate Endowment for Non-German Literature and anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading.