There’s a riot going on: Talking to Timothy Taylor about The Blue Light Project


From the Montreal Gazette, an interview with Ian McGillis.

Timothy Taylor‘s new The Blue Light Project is that rare beast: a popular novel of ideas. It’s a book whose firm narrative grip goes hand in hand with its thematic depth, a book that addresses topical issues with a rigor that feels timeless, while retaining a playfulness, suspensefulness, and plain readability that many a thriller writer would sell his last plot convention for. Last week, I was able to sit down and talk with Taylor during his brief promotional swing through Montreal. He was feeling a bit rough but rose to the occasion admirably. For maximum enjoyment of what follows, readers are encouraged to first check my Gazette review of the book. Also, the curious are urged to explore Taylor’s above-linked website for information on some of the street artists whose work helped inspire the novel.  IM

The Blue Light Project pulls in and refracts a lot of themes. It’s a very ambitious novel in that sense. I wonder, from among all that you’ve taken on, what the kernel for the book was for you.

The original motive was actually not thematic, it was more structural. I wanted to write something that had a very strong front-to-back pull. Like an artist might wake up one morning and decide they want to work in muted pastel shades, I decided that I really wanted something that had urgency. That just felt right for me now, instead of something slower-paced and contemplative. …

So with that in mind, the idea of a hostage crisis came fairly quickly. It cannot end well for all parties—a hostage crisis is one of those things where somebody will be disappointed at the end of the day. So that was appealing on a strictly narrative level. And then fame very quickly came to be the central concern. It’s a little difficult to tease out the exact sequence of how ideas cluster, but it seems to me that the discussion, the meditation, on fame, very quickly came to occupy the central thematic position.

Fame is certainly something that touches every major character in the novel, for better or worse.

The three points of view that dominate the book—the artist, the athlete and the journalist—each have a distinct relationship with it, either having fallen from fame or having achieved it and experienced its de-stabilizing qualities. To release oneself to fame is to release one’s sense of self into an entirely volatile environment. That’s (athlete) Eve, of course, and she’s well aware of it, hence her appreciation of, but discomfort with, the attention she receives, and her increasing discomfort with (husband) Nick’s apparent dependency on her fame. To discover that in your partner is to discover that your sense of self is a moving target, because it appears to vacillate with your own fortunes. Once someone you love turns into that sort of moving target, you question the inherent permanence of the relationship. Let’s talk about sports: there are sports stars we feel ambivalent about and there are sports stars that we hate, but thinking of this the other day, I thought it’s hard to think of another type of fame where there’s the opportunity to be so pure and untrammeled, you know? There is a chance for a superstar in sports to be that purely esteemed. I think of a Silken Laumann or someone like that: it’s amateur, it’s selfless.

And then there’s Thom Pegg, the fallen journalist. He gets the raw end of the fame deal, doesn’t he?

He’s infamous, he’s disliked, he’s bitter. He’s the author of his own misfortune to a large extent, and then in the ultimate painful irony he ends up being a documenter of the fame of others, which is why he acquires the reputation for occasionally taking someone down.

You touch on the ethical issue that caused Pegg’s fall: his fabrication of sources. The question is posed as to whether it’s okay to use nefarious means if the end–in this case, to expose something evil–is honorable.

He asks himself at one point, ‘Did I make up the black site? No, I didn’t make that up, that was real.’ I would say that that kind of conflict is impossible to resolve. Madness that way lies. At some point you just have to stick by the rules because you know that, while you might accomplish something good in your one breach of the standards, you would bring the entire project into discredit and damage the possibility of anybody going forward to do the same kind of good. You can’t do that without destroying the machine, so that’s why it has to be stopped, and that’s why he’s punished accordingly. He can think it through in his head maybe, but I don’t go with him there.

What about your decision to leave the city where the book is set unnamed?’

I wanted to universalize the phenomenon. I think this is our stuff, you know? These are our issues, not just Pittsburgh’s issues or Vancouver’s issues. Ultimately it had to be an urban everywhere. If I’d placed it somewhere specific it would be too easy for someone to say, ‘Well, that would only happen there.’ Something interesting is that it’s only been here in Montreal where people, two of them, have said, in effect, ‘Well, it’s clearly not here, that couldn’t have happened here.’ It leads me to believe Montreal has a singular sense of itself.

The reader, in my view, is asked to take a bit of a leap in accepting the idea of “The Kill”, a sort of ritualistic culling of a successful and innocent candidate on an Idol-style TV show. How plausible do you think that is?

I think it’s incredibly plausible. Reality television is a machinery for humiliation. Celebrity itself is a quasi-sacrificial system. That machinery does not work unless you cut someone loose every now and again. You have to vent the system, and the reason you have to is that we all think that weshould be famous. It’s the one seemingly common value that we’ve arrived at. We can’t quite agree on anything else anymore, we’ve let go of a lot of what we used to stand for, but it seems like the last man standing is going to be fame, getting status and acclaim in the eyes of our peers. Once that’s the common denominator of all cultural transactions, then we start to resent the people who get it, because we want the same thing. We no longer look at celebrities and say, ‘Well, that’s the celebrity class. Those are the people who get to be famous. I’m clearly not one of them.’ Not at all. We say, ‘That totally could be me.’ But with that in mind, celebrity never comes without this embedded underlying resentment. You just have to look at Charlie Sheen. What’s happening there is that celebration that emerges from resentment. ‘Bring him down! They don’t deserve it any more than I do, and now one of them’s going to fall. Let’s watch.’ That’s the reality of reality television. So, The Kill? Not implausible at all. That’s what we’re already doing anyway.

In those terms, Rabbit, the underground artist, is kind of the anti-Charlie Sheen.

He’s anti-renown. He’s decided to take as his value the anonymity of the public act for which no authorship is claimed. The new image that we need, the “adequate image” that Herzog refers to, is the one that is a gift, the act that is of pure selflessness. If you can’t make that kind of act, then you’re merely caught up in the kind of resentment I described earlier.

The whole art vs commerce debate, in which Rabbit clearly represents one side, was thought by many to have been obliterated back in the 1960s by Andy Warhol.

Well, he may have obliterated the distinction in large swathes of the art market, which is exactly why we don’t respond to contemporary art with anything in the way of heart or warmth. When I look at a Damien Hirst diamond-encrusted skull, I respond to it exactly the way I do when I read about a collateralized debt obligation. I go, ‘That’s a pretty clever thing. I can tell exactly why you made it, I can see all the motives behind it, I know exactly how that came into the world.’ There’s nothing magical about it. When I see something the source of which I can’t explain, the motive behind which I can’t easily tease out, that’s a glimpse of divinity there, that’s the uncaused cause, and it’s extremely rare. There is a category of human experience that meets that. The blink of first love is like that. Where does that come from, ‘I’m in love’? Which is why I resent anthropological explanations of love in terms of chemistry and hormones, because that’s not how we live it. At its best and most effective, art can be that way. But it isn’t always. Andy Warhol sure as f—k isn’t.

Readers are sure to bring memories of certain real-life public events–the Russian Theatre Crisis, G8 and G20-style mass demonstrations and the crackdowns thereupon–to their experience of the book.

The Russian Theatre Crisis was a direct inspiration, but G20 hadn’t happened yet when I finished the book; I think the manuscript was in the editing stage. I did watch tape of Genoa in 2001, and I read material about riot psychology and police psychology. I’m also a bit of a student of Rene Girard, a French intellectual who’s been quite influential. But this stuff goes way back. Von Clausewitz talked about how violence between hostile parties becomes reciprocal and how that’s what leads to escalation. That is an extremely powerful idea, that combatants copy one another, and that’s very much what I was driving at in the book with the notion of violence being contagious. Eve senses that. It felt like if one person had it, it could spread. That’s very much my belief about violence. As people, we copy each other. As a matter of neurological wiring, we are mimetic creatures; that’s why we have language, that’s why we can read the moods of others by looking at their faces. The parallels between the G20 and the riots I describe in the novel became almost eerie. You recall that in the investigation that briefly opened into the G20 they talked about police taking off their name tags, many more than were originally admitted? Fascinating. The police come face to face with an undifferentiated crowd, the members of which can’t be held individually responsible for their actions because they are anonymous within the group, and what’s their response? They remove their name tags, so that the police themselves can submerge their individuality into a crowd of almost identical construction. That’s a mimetic action. Same thing with the infiltration that happened at the summit in Genoa. It was a like a football game where the offense and defense were in the same huddle. It’s crazy, and it’s been going on for years. This is an allegation, I stress, but a photographer I was just working with in Toronto told me he was walking through the crowd (at the G20)  when he saw a guy wearing the press credentials of a friend of his. And he happened to know that that friend was in police custody at that moment. He went up to the guy and said , ‘I happen to know that you’re not this person,’ and the guy said ‘I’m a really good friend of his,’ and the photographer said, ‘No you’re not, you’re a cop.’ So, talk about mirroring behavior. I become you in order to beat you. So, these are the aspects of crowd dynamics that I’m trying to explore. We copy, and it results in escalation. An important idea and a scary idea.

Did you find it necessary or expedient, for research and veracity purposes, to watch a lot of Idol- and reality-style TV?

You know what I did? And you can do this yourself if you want to go down a wormhole for a couple of hours. A friend turned me on to a whole category of YouTube videos called reaction videos. What people do is set up the camera on the day when the winner is going to be announced and they film their live reactions. Depending on your perspective it’s riveting or chilling or distressing. People are weeping, storming around the room breaking things, responding with intense personal connection to the event. So, if ever you want illustrated how embedded in the self these competitions become, how engaged with the fame of others people get, watch some of those reaction videos.

But isn’t it inevitable that, knowing they’ll be posting, people will start to ham it up for their own cameras?

Excellent question, and the larger the phenomenon became, the more you would suspect the result. But I mean, you do what you do as a job, and I would suspect that if I threw a big fake on you, if I were way out of my zone, you would question me. So just watch one of those videos. When the switch goes and the person reacts, it seemed pretty intensely real to me.

Ian McGillis