Novelist Mat Johnson Creates a Dystopian Future in ‘Invisible Things’: NPR


Mat Johnson is the Philip H. Knight Professor of Humanities at the University of Oregon. His previous books include Pym and Love day.

Courtesy of the University of Oregon


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Novelist Mat Johnson Creates a Dystopian Future in 'Invisible Things': NPR

Mat Johnson is the Philip H. Knight Professor of Humanities at the University of Oregon. His previous books include Pym and Love day.

Courtesy of the University of Oregon

Novelist Mat Johnson thinks America has its own unique “flavor” of the apocalypse. “It’s hard not to see the possible end of things in different ways,” he says.

Johnson’s new satirical novel, Invisible things, serves up one of those apocalyptic flavors. Set in the future, the novel takes place on one of Jupiter’s many moons, where humans have created an artificial ecosystem designed to replicate life on Earth. But they also copied some of the worst aspects of the class system and American politics. Partisanship reigns, and the privileged—namely, those who arrived first in the domed settlement—are favoured.

Johnson says the book’s satire was inspired, in part, by the intense emotions he felt throughout the Trump presidency. But, he adds, the political roller coaster of recent years – and the normalization of extreme positions – has complicated his vision of a dystopian future.

“We basically live in a satire,” he says. “It was very difficult to twist things further, to find something that gives you enough distance to say, ‘Hey, that’s crazy. “

Interview Highlights

Novelist Mat Johnson Creates a Dystopian Future in 'Invisible Things': NPR

invisible things, by Matt Johnson

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Novelist Mat Johnson Creates a Dystopian Future in 'Invisible Things': NPR

invisible things, by Matt Johnson

Random penguin house

On Mass Denial in America

We have a nation that was formed in part on genocide, land grabbing and forced generational slavery. We have no choice but to recognize it. It was crazy to see people react to the Project 1619 because… the real criticism you hear behind these very small disagreements about historical events is that we cannot accept this reality as the source of our nation, that we cannot have an America that does not not based on our ideals, but based on how we formed it in the first place.

I can’t face the world I find myself in without acknowledging that many of our existing biases. Our whole identity rests, in part, on how we formed ourselves, even on the issue of mass denial. I sometimes worry that part of the reason Americans are so good at pretending that what’s happening isn’t happening is a combination of a history of doing this – of being a nation forming… [out] of the idea of ​​freedom while [having] tens of thousands of people being enslaved and wealthy enough to get away with it for a very long time. And that’s kind of what I’m afraid we’re hitting the wall on.

On feeling pressured to overcome his own frustrations because of what his ancestors went through

There are so many times when things get really dark, whether on a personal or societal level, the impulse is just to give up. And I think about it when I want to give up in different ways. Like, what I’m enduring is nothing compared to what my African ancestors endured, just in sailing from West Africa to the United States, just that part alone, plus the 100 years of violent oppression and sexual assault.

And then from my white side and from the Irish side, they came here from a place where they’re starving. And they managed to come out of incredibly dark circumstances and cross the sea and live in poverty for a few generations. And thank goodness for the GI Bill. …

I think putting it in that context is sometimes the only thing I can do that forces me to put my own frustrations and my own feelings of nihilism into perspective, because there’s an incredible force there, that people who have endured the worst possible things we can imagine…may have had enough hope. Because it is what it is – I hope tomorrow will be better. We are talking about people whose children were enslaved right out of the womb. But they still had enough faith and hope that things might get better. And if they can do it, it seems insulting and disrespectful to their heritage if I don’t try to.

Growing up knowing his great-grandfather escaped lynching

I remember one of my most vivid recurring nightmares [as a kid] was that I was in the living room with a family that was mine, even though I didn’t recognize them. And everyone was silent and stared at each other in complete fear as the doorknob was turned and the door was locked, but we could hear it click if anyone tried to open it. And I guess the person I imagined to be my ancestor was sitting in an Archie Bunker style chair with a shotgun in his lap and staring at the door. I don’t know if it ever happened literally, but it definitely happened 100% figuratively. [My mother’s] grandfather fled from a lynching. [There was] a fight for a mule and guns. And the next thing you know, his whole life was changed. Having that kind of trauma there, some people think it’s genetic and others say it’s just something you learn from your parents. But it was present and the feeling that everything could change from one minute to another.

On the long decline of his late mother with multiple sclerosis and cancer

It’s so hard to watch someone you love deteriorate over a long period of time. … I’ve been very lucky to have a really fun career, both as a writer and as a teacher. But while all of that was going on, I had that other part of my life, which was trying to keep my mom up as new things kept crumbling beneath her. So it’s really weird for me not to have that at this point. It’s been two months [since she died] and I really don’t know how to go about it. Because I’ve spent so much energy caring for her, I haven’t accepted it yet.

On the specific relief he felt after his passing

I knew I was supposed to feel guilty about the relief and honestly, I wasn’t. It wasn’t a relief because I was just tired. Towards the end, because my mother had dementia, she called about eight times a day. …She didn’t want to do it that way, but it was very nerve-wracking. … The relief was not only, Oh, I don’t have to do the work anymore. The relief is, I will not fail to handle the amount of work presented to me. Relief was also fear. It wasn’t just the fatigue. It was, I can barely, barely handle this, what happens when it gets worse? Will I be able to take care of it? Can I take care of it financially? Can I manage time or do I have the answers at all?

Remembering who his mother was before his illness after his death

Once I left, like the next day, I felt like I was the version of her in my head, of this woman whose body had betrayed her, who [had] completely broken down, whose spirit had betrayed her, and [who was] stuck in a chair for the rest of her life and unable to think or remember things… and then all of a sudden it was a flashback to this woman I grew up with, this woman first and foremost that. I hadn’t really spoken, in my head, to this woman for so long. And then, bam! She reappeared. … I missed the person who existed, but I really missed the person who [she] that was when she was all she was.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.


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