Geoffrey Mak | The Self is a Transparent Vase

The author talks Mean Boys, TradCaths, and emotional masturbators

Written by

Annie Bush

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Photographed by Acudus Aranyian.

Geoffrey Mak’s debut book, Mean Boys, is out today via Bloomsbury. Mean Boys is a collection of personal essays in which Mak, writer, high art critic, and Berghain club rat, talks about his schizophrenia, his drug addiction, his exodus from and later reconciliation with his Evangelical household headed by his minister father, his fraught relationship with sex after an assault, and his experience of being Asian as he moves up and down the figurative ladder, within and tangential to a myriad of social, sexual, political, and artistic circles. He writes about a psychotic episode in Berlin, he talks through the pandemic in his mother’s garden, and he describes in crystalline detail, the moment in a gay porno in which the pain in the bottom's face becomes so evident that it gets Mak off.

Mean Boys is as much a meditation on Mak’s own experience as it is a digestion of the state of culture and how it's stood in the past fifteen or so years, at first slowly and then exponentially becoming saturated by the marshy darkness of the internet. Mak’s consciousness of self slides into a consciousness pockmarked by events within the media circuit–Mak’s self is one composed of edgelords and empathy, mass shootings and manifestos, a particular Balenciaga hat worn by Anne Imhof at the Venice Biennale Golden Lion award ceremony. If the writer’s canonical duty is to facilitate a connection between the reader and the world around them–to catalyze empathy between two unrelated parties–Mak’s duty is to get the reader to realize that there is little difference between the outer world and the inner world, and that their empathy is really just masturbatory. 

“We empathize because it’s one of the greatest pleasures we know,” Geoffrey Mak tells me via Zoom. If the reader aims to empathize with Mak’s pain, he wants that reader to be aware that they’re pleasuring themself at his expense, while he watches. “This blurring between the self and the other is a really exciting thing,” he says of the final eponymous essay of the collection, in which, among a myriad of other topics, Mak talks about his empathy for Elliot Roger, notorious “incel shooter” responsible for the deaths of six in the 2014 Isla Vista shootings. “After writing that essay, I changed as a person. When you write something like that, your sensitivities change. I felt like I was testing myself–if I could push myself to empathize with an extremely despicable person, I was stretching the capacity of my empathy. In general, there’s a lot of op-eds that claim that literature is good for society, that literature makes you a better person. In a way, I think that’s true, but I wanted to highlight that empathy is not a real relationship. It’s not real knowledge. It’s something as masturbatory and selfish as watching porn.” 

Mean Boys, as it explores masturbatory empathy, proves to be a distinctly sadomasochistic endeavor of self-pleasure–the genesis of Mean Boys comes from a collection of (for lack of a better phrase) really heavy Facebook posts, the kind that invite you to click the “See More” button and then immediately regret it: “I liked to do this thing where you would just be on Facebook and then suddenly I would declare my soul and it would ruin your day and you would have to lie down,” Mak says. “I got quite a reputation for bombing people on the feed.” Nowadays, over eight years and multiple estimated release dates later, Mean Boys contains traces of that tacit glee that Mak had while “bombing” the feed. 

However, Mak wants others to adopt the same sort of attitude towards him as he does toward his subjects: “Some of my earliest writing professionally was party reporting. One of the cardinal rules of party reporting is you can't dunk on other people if you don't dunk on yourself. It's not good writing. It doesn't let the reader in. No one really wants to read that kind of writing. Whenever I did a friendly but gossipy kind of party report, I would always include some sort of embarrassing moment. I think I took that really basic lesson and really kind of applied it at large.” 

In Mean Boys, Mak remarks that the “self is a transparent vase; though its edges are hard, you can see through them.” Mak seems to delight in both the seeing of the self and its inaccessibility, flattening his palm against the unyielding body of that metaphorical vase and slapping it to test its strength. Read me and weep. Weep with me while I laugh at you. Laugh at me while I weep with you.

I was really interested in the “Edgelords” essay, and curious about the way that you think the edgelord character is going to change or possibly evolve in the post Trump/Biden era. Do you think the edgelord character will dissolve in the future?

The thing about the edgelord is it’s position is entirely dependent on what they're reacting against. The edgelord doesn’t have an idea. It's not an ideology. It's simply a position. It's a level of distance–a spatial definition. An edgelord is simply X amount of distance away from Y, and then it becomes a moving target. So as Y changes, X changes. The thing with edgelords is that they're never leading a conversation–they're trailing one. The character of the edgelord will change. It is a moving target, and the tricks are the same.

I think it's an open question of whether or not the influence is the same.  I mean, the Edgelord is kind of an evil twin to the Influencer. 

I see a lot of parallels between, I guess the position of a writer or an artist and the edgelord. A lot of artists fancy themselves on the outside looking in from society–maintaining some sort of aesthetic distance to elucidate the things they’re seeing in a more clear sense.

Yeah. I think you're exactly right. That the edgelord often feels like they're outside of something, like there's some kind of outsider. I think most edgelords would say that they’re reacting against the mainstream media that they feel alienated from. 

But, as a writer, you’re not supposed to feel like an insider. With objectivity and all that–I don't feel like an insider, but I probably am. I mean, anyone who has a book coming out is probably an insider. 

You’ve interacted with a lot of the upper echelons of art and writing and criticism in New York City. That sect of people kind of instigated this whole sort of zeitgeisty TradCath movement. What do you think of this renewed interest in piety? For yourself and for others?

Okay, I'll acknowledge that the TradCath movement is intensely annoying. But I kind of have a lot of affection for it. I came back to Christianity after the pandemic. That was right when the TradCath movement was happening, and I think the New York Times had this big article that was like “NYC’s Hottest Club is the Catholic Church!” 

And I was just like: Oh, it's cool now. I can just talk about it. Like, I don't have to be weird.  And I actually think–who is the PR campaign behind God? They did a really good job at the end of the 2010s. Like, it's not that weird when I tell people I'm a Christian and actually some people think it's kind of cool. 

How has your re-adoption of religion shaped your writing?

The idea of faith was really important in recovering from schizophrenia. The paranoid schizophrenic who's spiraling needs to know the answers. But the Christian who lives by faith does not need to know the answers and can accept that there's a God that one does not know, one does not see, one maybe doesn't even hear. But this kind of orientation toward mystery and the very long and good tradition of writing around that brought me out of my paranoid spirals. 

It profoundly changed who I was, and it also helped me recover from mental illness. People think Christianity is about believing in magic, but it's really more about forgiving people. A very annoying, habitual, thankless task of just forgiving. Forgiving friends, forgiving enemies, forgiving neighbors. Just being like, Okay, yeah, I'll forgive that. Again and again and again.

Speaking of your writing influences, you worked for ad agencies before becoming a critic. How did your work in branded content/advertising shape Mean Boys?

Oh my God. I loved [working for Highsnobiety]. I loved every second of it. Ad work was way more challenging than just simply writing for the magazine. The ad stuff is like: How do I predict the future? How do I look out at the world and see pattern recognition? How do I come up with certain phenomena and make narratives out of them? I was always going to these long meetings about the future of X, the future of alcohol, the future of video games, and reading all this research about Gen Z and millennials and how their purchasing patterns are different.

I was obsessed with this stuff. I felt like it was the culture speaking back to me. In a way, they kind of became an imagined audience. When you write a book, your audience is everyone. You're going to be in Target, you're going to be whatever. When you write for a magazine, it's a very specific audience that has been following the publication for many years. I think the more specific your audience is, the better the writing tends to be. 

You’ve written about the stretch of time around 3 AM in which the partiers go home and the real ravers arrive. “The Rules to Live By” in Mean Boys details Klubnacht’s final simmering stretch at Berghain when everyone leaves to go fuck in the bathroom or do drugs before the last ecstatic hour. You seem to write about lulls a lot–in music and in writing. What is it about lulls that fascinate you?

My writing is really, really, really intensely influenced by DJs. Pretty early on, I wasn't really thinking about writing in terms of telling a story. I was thinking about a sequence of moods and colors, the way a painter will do. A long wash of blue and then sudden staccato bursts of red. I would do that with prose. I learned that from spending so many hours listening to techno. The rhythm really got in my bones and kind of into my writing

It's really intimate to ask a stranger to spend time with you.  And there are really only two places that I think that happens. I think it happens in music and then it happens in writing–so much time on behalf of the writer that has been poured into this work, but as a kind of exchange like you're kind of demanding a specific set of time from the reader–like with DJs it's interesting to kind of see how you try and control how much time the reader is spending on a certain section, or how much of their life they're dedicating to you. 

You have this performance series, Writing on Raving, where you’re reading but you’re also dancing. Can you talk about your relationship with dance?

I compare dancing to being a conductor. So, you know, when you're watching an orchestra, the conductor is extremely performative and moving around a lot, but that's not the performance. The conductor is doing that as a service to visualize the music. And I think at a rave, I'm dancing as a service. In the dance performances that I've done for Writing on Raving, technically I am on stage, but it's kind of drawn from this vernacular, untrained, nightlife dance practice, which has been going on for several years.

This dance performance that I [did in LA] is specifically about alienation. I'm a solo dancer and the text that [was] read is just about the times when you're separated from the crowd. The times when you're out of sync. I wanted to write a piece that subverted the kind of rave as utopia narrative.

Writing is physically exhausting sometimes. So is dancing. They're intricately connected in ways that feel special.

Photographed by Acudus Aranyian.

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Flaunt Magazine, Annie Bush, Geoffrey Mak, Mean Boys, People,