Meg Phillips

Luke O’Neil on Capitalism, Despair, and the End of the World

A Creature Wanting Form
, Luke O’Neil, OR Books, pp. 240, £18.


In your writing, how much of the stream of consciousness came from your own inner monologue? Was your method splurging thoughts on a page or replicating such?

The stream of consciousness and no-punctuation run on sentences carried over from the style of writing I do on my mostly political newsletter Welcome to Hell World. I started doing it sort of accidentally at first a couple of years ago because I was so mad about something or other in the news I forgot what grammar was. For some reason it really resonated with people. Now the idea is to transpose our collective contemporary internal monologue to the page. To sort of replicate the way we consume and process information through our phones. The infinite scroll. The kind of cascade of overlapping and disparate nightmares shuffled in with trivial stories – a school shooting, a wild fire or flood, a basketball highlight, a friend’s vacation pictures, another school shooting. It can feel like being knocked around in a boxing ring.

I think that way of taking in the news on our phones has really fucked up a lot of our brains, and certainly mine, and has imprinted on how I look at the world with my phone off as well. It’s not a commentary on “too much phone” to be clear, although that’s in there somewhere I suppose.

Oftentimes the writing process for the stories in the book began with one-take fugue-state sort of writing, and some of them came out near fully formed. But then came dozens and dozens of revisions of that raw material. It sounds silly, but it takes a lot of work to write something that feels so casually tossed off. It may at first seem slapdash but it’s not, it’s very calculated. The rhythm is extremely important to me.

I apologize, I find it difficult to write about my own writing without coming off like some kind of pretentious book pervert. I promise I’m just some guy. Barely functioning Massachusetts townie. Sure, I studied a lot of literature, but that was a long time ago and I hardly remember most of it. There’s a lot of Virginia Woolf and Donald Barthelme in this book, but that’s more of a faint memory of someone I used to know kind of deal going on there. How I could tell maybe one or two stories about my grandfathers after them being gone so long but they nonetheless formed me. I can barely watch a video on my computer without picking up my phone to look at something else thirty seconds into it these days, never mind sit down and focus on reading an entire novel.

You discuss issues such as gun violence, racism, climate change, capitalism, issues that relate particularly to America and the West- I noticed there’s a sense of loneliness as your stories are buried in thought and wondered if you’re trying to connect with your reader on these issues and find some solace? Or if you’re talking into a void unsure if anyone will answer? The epigraph resonated with this: ‘Something is wrong with me but I think it’s probably the same thing that’s wrong with everyone so maybe it doesn’t matter.’

One of the things the readers of my books and my newsletter always tell me is that, yes, the material is very dark, but there’s a hopefulness to it that they find buoying. Depending on what kind of mood I’m in on any given day vis a vis the old Despair Meter I think that is either exactly correct or completely missing the point. Sometimes it’s like, no, you are supposed to feel like shit! I am trying to break your heart.

Everything is horrifying, we’re immiserating people under capitalism, we’re destroying our one planet, we’re hurting each other, and then when we’re hurt we can’t get a doctor to take care of us without going bankrupt. Faced with all that, part of the point of my writing is me maybe convincing myself that it’s worth going on? And convincing someone else in the process as well as a little bonus. To make someone feel like I feel when I listen to songs: Ohia, for example.

“The real truth about it is no one gets it right. The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try,” as Jason Molina sang.

My politics tell me that a better world is possible and that in order to get there we must must must find solace and love and joy within one another and act collectively and then we can work to improve things. My disposition and my drinking behavior is often at odds with that however. More of a fuck it, it doesn’t matter anyway, like in the epigraph. We’re all gonna die.

As I write in the book:

“We’re all born waiting to be hung and we can either despair over that fact or consider the interim a gift. Every day a last-minute reprieve from the governor.”

I’m sort of arguing with myself here. Never mind.

Despair is an underlying theme throughout, I was wondering why you thought, as humans, we tend to face despair alone? Despite our social instinct we feel alone in despair we don’t share it.

Despair is often regarded as a shameful thing to experience. Sometimes for good reason. No one wants to be told, well, the earth is heating, and we’re fucked any way, there’s nothing to be done. Political despair in that regard is extraordinarily harmful. The antidote to despair though is in its antonym. Despair is the condition of hopeless isolation to me. If there is a Hell, that is what it means to me, infinite solitude. (A little bit of solitude here and there is delightful however!)

But community and collective action are the surest way to forestall despair. So while there is plenty to despair about – sorry I keep saying the word despair so many times – like the rise of fascism in this country in particular, there’s plenty to point to as reason for hope, like the rise of unions and worker solidarity, which is what it will take to solve any of these problems. We are nothing without each other. We can do nothing without each other.

As far as personal despair goes, that comes with its own kind of stigma. We talk a lot about recognizing mental health issues now, and we love to tell people that help is available, but what kind of help and in what form exactly and from whom? And how much will it cost?

When we are feeling despair no one really wants to hear about it.

How’s your day going man?

Oh, well, I’m constantly aware every second of the day that I’m going to die.

No one wants to hear that kind of shit. I feel sophomoric being depressed sometimes I think. Like I never matured past teenage existential dread. (Man, they fucked me up good growing up Catholic I swear to god.) I’ve bored therapists to death with this shtick.

So I don’t know. I guess it all just makes you want to find a quiet place under the porch to go lay down and die like a wounded dog. Which is what I’m working towards.

Are you the narrator somewhere in all your stories?

Some of them are pretty clearly me writing about things that actually happened to me more or less – and people who’ve read me for a while will probably be able to figure out which those are. But the bulk of the book is fiction. I tried to differentiate the characters and narrators, but the tone and the world view remains pretty consistent throughout, so in that case it was hard not to let a lot of my voice and the overarching thesis of the book creep in and colour everything.

That said I wasn’t particularly interested in character the way we normally think of it. I guess the idea is that a lot of the things I’m writing about are forces that are so massive that it doesn’t really end up mattering what kind of individual you are when confronted with them. I don’t do, like, oh, this character has blonde hair, and this one likes watching football. Who gives a shit? What difference does individual personality make against an encroaching tidal wave?

You write about these issues enveloped in your stream of thought, is it a message about how politics and state of affairs can permeate our being, our existence, our psyche?

I think most of my characters are walking around with a kind of concussion at all times. Or half in and out of a dream. Like they’ve been spun around really fast ten times and now have to compose a poem on the spot about the beauty of nature or whatever.

This goes back to the despair thing I suppose. I don’t know how people walk around in the world just being normal. Don’t get me wrong I am capable of functioning in society and being a funny and charming person, although the fact that I have to stipulate that probably isn’t reassuring, but myself personally, and most of the characters in this book have a giant backpack filled with heavy rocks on their back at all times. They take it to bed.

But the important thing is there have to be moments where they forget they’re wearing it. There has to be cause for wonder and joy at the world. Many of the stories concern the ocean, which certainly may well kill us all, but myself, and most of the characters, are dumbstruck by its awesome beauty. Or a bird taking flight? What a thing! There is a reason poets have never shut the fuck up about birds since the invention of poetry.

I think the bit about landing on another planet and immediately being snatched into the sky by a giant space bird and carried off to your doom illustrates the overall message pretty well:

“In those last terrifying seconds you might see the expanse of the new planet for miles around you toward the horizon blushing in a color you couldn’t name and think my god this is beautiful.”

You play a lot with dark humour? How do you recognise the line between acceptable or not? Does that exist?

It has to always also be funny. No one would put up with my kind bullshit unless it was funny. Although I’m probably not doing a good job conveying that in these dour answers I’m giving.

The fact that I’m writing about such dark subject matter makes a release valve necessary. In the same way that horror movies often utilise humour.

In the way that two of my favourite writers, Jason Molina, and David Berman, who are often singing about very sad shit, are also hilarious. Berman is a big influence here on this book by the way, especially his book of poems Actual Air. Might be surprising to some, but Norm Macdonald’s “memoir” was a big influence as well. In that one he’s writing about confronting his mortality, for good reason as we soon learned, but it is of course made funny.

Kind of like the old thing about how basketball players want to be rappers and vice versa, I think poets often want to be stand up comedians, and stand up comedians want to be poets.

I don’t think I’m doing anything too edgy or provocative in terms of humor in this book. Certainly no punching down I don’t think. More of a gallows humour kind of thing, and we are all in one kind of gallows or another.

The closest to the line I guess is the one about the guy who has to keep lowering the flag over and over closer and closer to the ground because there’s been a new mass shooting every time he turns around. Obviously there’s nothing funny about a mass shooting, but the target of the joke instead is the depraved absurdity of our failure to do anything about the constant orgy of gun violence in this country. The way we all walk around going about our lives every day knowing it could happen anywhere at any time and continue to live like this.

How did your interest in politics develop and why did you decide to incorporate it into your literature, and perhaps does it have anything to do with your message of it permeating your psyche in day to day tasks?

The vast bulk of my work over the years has been as a journalist, writing largely about politics for the last five or ten years. Although I do sprinkle in my original love, and past as a music journalist, into the Welcome to Hell World newsletter from time to time to give readers a break. The most recent one where I had a bunch of people write about their top 5 R.E.M. songs was so much fun.

I don’t know if it’s possible to not be invested in politics at this point. Certainly many people are not, but I don’t understand how they do it. I was always sort of a progressive standard liberal growing up, but my own personal radicalization against capitalism came from working in so many restaurants in my twenties and thirties, and seeing how unfairly workers, and in particular undocumented people, are treated in this country. Despising the police and the carceral system and the imperial U.S. war machine just came naturally to me as it should to anyone. A person doesn’t have to learn how to breathe, you know?

I saw you’re in a band no hope/no harm are we to expect any more music soon? Are the themes that are important in your writing important to your music?

I had played in bands most of my life when I was younger, and music has always been an extremely important part of my life, whether it was being a musician, a music journalist, a DJ, or promoting shows. That particular band came to an end just as Covid was kicking off, which happened to coincide with me moving to the suburbs and finally starting to feel old, so I might be retired from playing I think. In the meantime my partners have gotten back to their other bands (shout out The Sheila Divine and Weakened Friends). It’s funny you ask though, because last night for the first time in forever I thought about writing a song. I tweeted: “Feeling pretty down lately might get the ol’ acousty out (cry for help).”


Luke O’Neil is the author of the popular political and literary newsletter Welcome to Hell World and the book of the same name. He’s a former writer-at-large for Esquire and a longtime contributor to the Boston Globe, The Guardian, and many other newspapers and magazines.

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