Why is it that I is the only pronoun we capitalize? "It's because we believe that we are irreplaceable," says Joseph Suglia. "We fetishize ourselves. We turn ourselves into gods." Hence the premise of his latest novel, Watch Out, in which the main character, Jonathan Barrows--a vicious tyrant who's self-obsessed to the point where the only thing he lusts after is himself--methodically and psychotically turns up his nose at the entire world.
Littered with antiquated ten-dollar words--no colloquialisms for Suglia--Watch Out is meant to grate, to challenge your tolerance and notions of how to relate to a character. On one hand, you despise Jonathan Barrows for his oblivious conceitedness; on the other, you wonder if perhaps he truly is the hottest, smartest, most interesting stud in the universe. His obsession with his own "luscious erection" is repulsive yet engrossing--you end up feeling like a creep for getting so involved in his gruesome hallucinations.
Suglia himself is a bit of a character: he has a PhD in comparative literature from Northwestern and a penchant for German philosophy, learned French and German because he refuses to read anything in translation, and obsessively screens all of his phone calls. He says he's less influenced by literary artists than the concept of tableau vivant. "The characters aren't really actors, they're posing in a painting," he says. "You have a situation that's frozen. It occurs in time, but also outside of time because it never changes."
The core narrative of Watch Out spans about a week but feels cryogenically preserved: Jonathan Barrows shows no sign of and makes no reference to his age, the encounters he has bleed into one another without regard for a time line, and it always feels like dusk to him. Apparently this is what happens when visions serve as your only point of reference. You stagnate and ruminate and build yourself up so high you have nowhere to go but down. "All of us have the desire to become God," says Suglia. "And all gods deserve to be slaughtered. Jonathan Barrows annihilates himself."
Watch Out, which Suglia calls "philosophical pulp" fiction, is his third book and the only one he really likes. Two weeks after its October release by FLF Press, a small publishing house that proclaims itself dedicated to providing "ideas and viewpoints that are under-represented in the mass media," it had sold 400 copies. Even before it came out, local filmmaker Peter Lambert made a feature-length movie, Becoming a Man, adapted from a chapter in which Jonathan Barrows loses his virginity. When talking about his first novel, Years of Rage--the inverse of Watch Out, its main character believes he's universally reviled and persecuted--or his self-published book of literary criticism, Holderlin and Blanchot on Self-Sacrifice, Suglia winces, confessing that the first one panders and the second one is boring.
Lately Suglia's been incorporating some of his character's arrogant, self-important-prick schtick into his own public profile. His copious MySpace posts are suffused with egotistical superlatives--"In all modesty, I am the greatest writer in the world, and the world is slowly recognizing that fact," reads one--though he won't outright admit he's doing it purely for promotional purposes. No doubt it will irritate some and draw in others, and perhaps it will even draw in those it irritates. "I want my writing to be read by everyone," says Suglia, "but I don't want it to be understood by everyone."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.