What you call “random accidents” I call “squishy moments.” Arjun Basu with narrator Bruce Pirie

Arjun Basu’s the kind of writer who seems to be hiding a few extra typing fingers, with the accompanying extra brains, to be able to output as much as he does, and have all that work teeming over with smarts.  The audiobook of his debut short story collection, Squishy, can be yours on its own, or as a member of our fourth Literary Fiction collection (a power collection, by my vote).  In addition, he tells stories on Twitter just about always,  and the whole Internet, give or take, has been marked as his territory.   Here he is talking with narrator Bruce Pitre and me about voices in heads and gender stereotypes, among other things…

Bruce Pirie: One of the underlying themes in the collection is the idea that our lives get shaped not so much by our conscious decisions, but rather by random accidents, things that happen at little moments of distraction or carelessness — moments that may have disproportionate consequences, just as a stray pebble sets off an unexpected avalanche. In the final story — “Chicken Scratch” — it seems to be a happy accident that the protagonist can embrace: he accepts that he has found whatever it was he was looking for in India by simply agreeing to go along with his new acquaintances, just trusting the road. But in a way that feels like a surprise ending to the collection, because in a lot of the other stories — like “The Lawn”, “Johnson’s Johnson” or “The White Pants” — chance leads to sad or even disastrous results. Is the deck of your worldview similarly stacked? Does chance more often lead to disaster?

Arjun Basu: Well, I called it Squishy for a reason. What you call “random accidents” I call “squishy moments” – those kind of throw away moments that we don’t think about. My writing seems to be about “how did I get here” and in that sense, it’s not all that uncommon as source material. My world view isn’t necessarily tragic, but I definitely find more drama in tragedy. Again, I haven’t reinvented the wheel. Perhaps my world view can best be revealed by this fact: Chicken Scratch is almost autobiography. The story more or less happened to me. It’s the only story I can say that about. The rest is fiction in its purest form. And we chose to put it last to kind of create uplift for the reader (assuming they read the book in order – in audio, they kind of have to). So, what does that say about me?

Bruce Pirie

Narrator Bruce Pirie

BP: “Finding Something You’re Good At” is about a travel writer who is fed up with the predictable shallowness of travel writing. That’s a pretty interesting subject, considering that you were editor of a travel magazine (enRoute) for several years. Does this story cut particularly close to home for you? (The other travel story, of course, is “Chicken Scratch,” about a journey to India, and perhaps that too has a particularly personal connection?)

AB: Many people have cued into this and my past as an editor of a magazine about travel. I can honestly say there is some cynicism in it that is, yes, learned from years in travel and lifestyle journalism but that it is not, overall, a comment about my job as it is about work and the media in general. But that sauna exists. And it is in Mexico. And I was in it once and I counted the tiles on the ceiling. Other than that, no, this is not a comment on my life or my job or the magazine I edited.

BP: Some of these stories are told by really entertaining voices — first-person narrators lacking in certain kinds of self-knowledge. I’m thinking of “The Defeated” and “Meat Man.” They sound so real, I can’t help wondering where these voices come from. Are they based on real individuals? Or composites of a certain type?

AB: Writers live with voices in their head. Don’t they? Don’t all writers talk to themselves in different voices? They don’t? What do you mean they don’t?

BP: “The Idols” seems to be a pretty bleak portrait of a certain class of young people, drifting their lives away in a contemporary Wasteland of vacuity — the “whatever” generation. Do you consider yourself pessimistic, in general, and especially concerning today’s youth?

Arjun Basu

Author Arjun Basu

AB: I’m not sure I want to ascribe “The Idols” to a generalized view of youth though it does make a comment about a certain kind of youth. But more than that, I think “The Idols” is about ennui and in that sense it’s not so much about young people. I just heard the story in a kind of young voice and it went from there. This is a case of a story coming to me in a scene and then trying to make sense of it. And the scene was the final one, the end of the story and then I tried to figure out how these people got there. But along the way, the story became an essay on boredom.

Miette Elm: When you were listening to the audiobook, you left the following comment on your social media sites: “Just finished listening to the whole thing. I’ll say this: “The Idols” is priceless in the audiobook version. That’s a nasty filthy story.” There was something particularly sordid in Bruce’s delivery of the piece that I missed when reading the story in print. “Johnson’s Johnson” had the same effect. So, what do you think it is, exactly, that makes some of these stories carry different weight when delivered this way?

AB: Well, Bruce had good source material! No really, I think the dichotomy between Bruce’s obvious maturity (note, I didn’t say “old” and I would never even THINK of saying “old”) and the language and tone of “The Idols” made it work more. My reaction to hearing it was kind of giddy. The words, which are “bad” to begin with, and the activity of the characters, just seemed more, well, sordid is a good word for it. Yes. The whole thing felt more sordid. Dirty. I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling. I suppose if someone like, say, Sir John Gielgud had read “The Idols,” the dichotomy would have been greater (and this is why his performance as the butler in “Arthur” works so well) but because “The Idols” (and Johnson’s Johnson) are, essentially tragedies, the dichotomy works and works well (which is why it is tragic but for different reasons, to see Sir John Gielgud in something like “Caligula”). And let’s admit this: audio is a different medium. Each and every story is bound to be felt differently than on the page. It has to be.

ME: There are a couple of odd little moments where gender clichés are perpetuated, but with the genders switched. I’m thinking of “Johnson’s Johnson’s” male equivalent of an unfortunate ‘upskirt’ moment, and Vik in “The King of Wimps,” whose handwringing at a playground with his son is written to perfection. So, was this intentional?

AB: Meaning do I think guys are the new babes? Or something like that? Did I just get in trouble? Because I felt a frisson of something. OK, gender cliches. Fuck em. I’m all for equality and so why can’t guys suffer “upskirt” moments or shit their pants or be sensitive dads? Are men and women exactly the same? Of course not. That’s stupid. But are they equal? Yes. Can women be morons? Yes. Can men? Yes. So what’s the argument?

ME: In the collection’s first story, “Thursday,” a character muses: “Would the world be more civil if we could jump-start conversations without dancing our way to the inevitable questions? Civility is just another way of getting in trouble. It’s when we most say what we don’t mean.” Do you think it’s civility – or even the failure of civility – that sets moments of trouble into motion for Squishy’s various characters?

AB: I think that’s an impossible question to answer. The character in “Thursday” believes that and so says it. My feeling, generally, is that hypocrisy is what gets us all in trouble. Not civility per se. But civility is often a mask for hypocrisy.

ME: Did you have any reservations about letting us turn Squishy into an audiobook, or how Bruce would delivery certain stories? What were they?

AB: None. Zero. And Bruce delivered the stories the way he delivered them and he did a great job. I was curious as to how he would tackle stories like “The Idols,” yes. But I wasn’t worried. Though his pronunciation of “depanneur” leaves much to be desired.

ME: Finally, we take pride in making audio of work that deserves a bigger audience than it would otherwise get. So, who are we missing? Who else is writing cutting and hysterical short fiction that you think would make great audio?

AB: My friend Mike Spry has released a great collection of short fiction called Distillery Songs that I think would work in audio. The stories are punchy and have great, great rhythm and are thoroughly entertaining. My two cents.



Squishy  is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99. The Montreal Review of Books says: Throughout Squishy Basu reflects on timeless human dilemmas, interweaving details that reveal the strangeness inherent in our modern lives. This is where Squishy shines not only as entertainment, but also as an illuminating literary work. In revealing human pretensions and the mechanisms of chance that govern our fates, Basu reminds us to treat each other with more compassion, and to take ourselves a little less seriously.

We say you should listen to it.