In Ben Purkert’s debut novel, Seth is spiraling. Previously a star employee at a New York copywriting firm, he took several midday “breaks” with an attractive coworker and penned a popular tagline for an underwear brand. Unsettled by sudden layoffs at his company, he takes a sudden trip to Israel and starts working at a coffee shop, but after a period of stability, he impulsively tracks down Ramya, his fellow barista that suddenly disappeared after days of the two of them sneaking down to the store’s basement to pop unidentified pills.
In Allentown, where Ramya is from, Seth falls into the care of a nearby Chabad House, using his Judaism as an asset, while also trying to escape Moon, a charismatic coworker who eventually steals Seth’s hookup partner right when he got the boot. Seth desperately, and with increasingly dramatic choices, attempts to figure out who he truly is at heart without a steady job and title by his side.
Our Culture sat down with Purkert to discuss delusion, morality in fiction, Judaism, and writing about masculinity.
Congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel for it to be coming so soon?
It’s been a long road. I’ve worked on it for almost a decade, and that first draft came really quickly, and the revision took a long time. It’s sort of surreal that it’s about to be out.
You typically write poetry — did switching to a longer form come naturally or did it take some work?
It’s funny, it’s a mix. My background is in poetry, but that didn’t stop me, and some amount of ignorance is useful when you’re writing a first draft. I think you need to not think so hard and let the words come out. I’m a big believer in in-class writing and prompts to just generate, then, however, the work shifts to revision. I have this first draft and I didn’t really know how to shape or work it, and that was the part that was the steeper learning curve for me, where I felt like my poetry background was in certain ways, holding me back a little bit, and I just had to read as many novels as I possibly could to understand the form.
We meet Seth as a hot-shot copywriter where he’s just penned a brilliant tagline for underwear and secretly convinced his boss is in love with him. You mention later in the acknowledgements that you yourself worked as a copywriter — what parts of the job, good or bad, did you want to emulate in the book?
Well, I wanted to let Seth have his own life. The book is fiction, it’s not my experience of an agency, but I worked at an advertising/branding agency in New York City, right after college, and it was this really electric and bizarre, all-nighter-fueled adrenaline-pumped place. It just felt to me, in the same way that Mad Men evokes that world, but obviously in a different era, I thought it’d be cool to see on the page what it would be like to translate that sort of environment and characters and put my character, Seth, in the middle of it all.
One of the most entertaining parts of the book was Seth’s delusion — whether about the enduring success of a one-time marketing hit, his determination to be re-hired at RazorBeat, or his blind faith in lusting after and following a girl. What was it like to immerse yourself in a character that doesn’t always see reality for what it is?
I don’t know to what extent any of us see reality for what it is. I agree with you, Seth is particularly delusional. As you said at the outset, he has this tagline for an adult men’s diapers ad. It’s not like Coca-Cola or something. For him, it’s the pinnacle of success, and he’s convinced he’s gonna make partner based on this one shot. On the one hand, I think Seth is sort of laughable, but on the other hand, don’t we all have those delusions on some level? I think Seth is more naked about them, but we never know. We’re all in our own heads. The book is written in first-person — we think Seth definitely has an over-inflated sense of his own self-worth, but I think it’s hard to judge to what extent that tagline was a breakout success, or if it only was in his mind. Because it’s in first-person, we’re trapped in his head, and I think that’s the joy of the reading experience and also the frustrations of being situated in a room that you can’t get out of.
You’re right — he says he has this huge tagline, but we’re not even sure if that’s true. He even goes to a store later and picks up that very brand, and they’re not even using his tagline anymore. I personally enjoy reading from the perspective of an unreliable narrator.
I think it’s fun to write that kind of character, where there’s a distance between subjective reality and their own warped sense of things.
There’s a lot of demand to be moral in fiction, for your narrator’s actions to match what is socially acceptable, but it’s a lot more fun to play with someone who isn’t making the best choices or is the most sane.
For sure. My wife and I have two kids — I want my kids to make really good decisions, but I don’t know when I’m reading a novel if I want the character to make really good decisions. I want them to find themselves in predicaments and see how they, under pressure, are going to react. And oftentimes that does mean they’re going to do dodgy things.
Well said. So, Seth meets Ramya while working as a barista at a coffee shop, and together they engage in drugs until one day she suddenly leaves. Seth then goes on a wild goose chase to find her, despite a clear message that she wants to be left alone. Why do you think he’s so adamant about finding her?
I love that question. The book is titled ‘The Men Can’t Be Saved,’ and I think that Seth so badly wants to be a savior himself, he is desperately in need of saving after he loses his job at the agency, there’s this huge void in his life. How is he going to identify himself without his business card? Is he going to rebrand? Is he going to become more observantly Jewish? Is he going to commit himself to relationships? I think in the case of Ramya, her addiction and her going to rehab creates an opportunity for him to play that savior role. It’s easier, I think, to attempt to save someone else rather than yourself. If Seth were to admit he were in desperate need of saving, it’d be an admission that his pride or manhood would never allow. I think he really likes and almost gets off on the idea that he could save her, that he could be the white knight who comes in, and of course, he can’t at all. He always makes things worse. I think that impulse is sort of twisted but also beautiful, because I do think he wants to help.
Moon’s character was consistently the most irritating — which means you succeeded at your job as his writer. How did you come up with his personality?
It’s funny that you say ‘irritating,’ because he was the most fun for me to write. Whenever he came on the scene, it just felt like instant charisma, instant tension, instant electricity. He’s more successful than Seth at the agency, and I think in part it’s because of that bravado. He just doesn’t care and he’s so outspoken in who he is. For me, he’s a character where I really felt his volume on the page, and I had to keep up as his antics got more and more ridiculous. But I also wanted to make sure he wasn’t just a clown. Because I feel if he doesn’t have that depth to him, he doesn’t feel as dimensional or real.
Let’s talk about Judaism, which plays a big part in the book. As a fellow Jew whose mother is also pushing him towards going on Birthright for no other reason other than because he can, I wanted to ask about the influence of Judaism on Seth’s choices throughout the novel, especially going on that trip just for a vacation.
Yeah. And he doesn’t want to take a vacation. If it were up to him, he’d live 24/7 at the agency, and would never leave, but he keeps accruing days and he’s gotta go somewhere. Birthright being free of charge is appealing, certainly to his mother, who wants him to have a closer relationship to Judaism than he has. I think when I started writing this novel, I knew I’d want to situate it at the agency, and I didn’t know the extent to which Judaism would operate as a pretty central thread throughout the book. That’s one of the joys of writing, period, but it’s also one of the joys of writing fiction, I think, as it holds up a mirror. I’m Jewish, and I’m actually from an inter-faith household: my father is Catholic, my mom is Jewish, but I was Bar Mitzvah’d, I was raised Jewish.
People identifying as Jewish at different parts of their life has always been so interesting to me. When my Bubby died, my mom’s mom died, she was going to synagogue every day. She became a different person and Jew. After shiva had passed, she went back to her relationship with Judaism as it had been. Not consciously, but looking back on the novel, part of what I wanted is — Seth isn’t really all that Jewish until he needs to be. Once he’s laid off and he loses that job and that business card, he needs to call himself something else. He needs to identify with something else that’s larger than him. And I think Judaism is that — when he goes on Birthright, he doesn’t really need Judaism, but later, when he’s at Chabad, he’s at a much more desperate place.
Speaking of, during his detour in Allentown to find Ramya, he stumbles upon a Chabad House and starts to slightly take advantage of their kindness, even inventing a false girlfriend that Hana, the Rabbi’s wife, ends up preparing a gift basket for. When do you think Seth’s guilt about this kicks in, if it does at all?
Seth is a perpetual liar, and he’s a liar on some level when he’s doing the work in branding, he’s a liar on some level when he ends up in Allentown. But it’s interesting because I don’t know that the Chabad rabbi is not also getting something out of that as well. When you are invited into a Chabad house and eat food, you are participating in a series of rituals. Yes, you are being fed, but there’s also an exchange taking place. And that’s not to cast it in a nefarious way at all — whenever a door’s open to you, there’s two sides to that exchange. So I do think Seth is cold-hearted in the way that he treats this family, because he’s not open or honest with them. But I think when they take him in, they’re also getting something out of that relationship, too.
Let’s go back to the title, ‘The Men Can’t Be Saved.’ What did you want to explore in writing about masculinity and its pitfalls?
I don’t want to write an archetype, do you know what I mean? I wasn’t trying to write toxic masculinity from central casting. I wanted to create a human, a real character, who for sure, has toxic elements, but is not only bad or solely defined by that. Because my background is both in creative writing and in copywriting, I think the title is a way to create an advertisement for your book. I hate how sales-y that sounds, but I was cognizant of the fact that ‘Okay, if I’m really lucky and if this thing gets published some day, I want it to have a title that’s eye-catching.’ The same way a really good ad can grab you. A title like ‘The Men Can’t Be Saved,’ is like, ‘Woah! That’s a big claim. Are you saying there’s no hope for men at all?’ And it’s up to readers to decide, but I don’t the book is so nihilistic or hopeless in that way. But I do think that Seth is a character who really struggles to find his way. And I think that he can’t see himself. Until towards the end of the book where maybe there’s a bit of an arc, maybe he’s able to have a little more self-awareness than he did at the beginning, there’s a possibility of salvation or redemption. But the way he is at the beginning, and the way that, frankly, a lot of men are, maybe men particularly in certain industries — if you don’t see yourself clearly with an objective reality, I don’t know how you work on the self. I don’t know how you improve.
Finally, what’s next? Are you working on any upcoming poetry or maybe another novel?
Yeah, it’s been a busy time, because my wife and I just welcomed our second child. Part of me wants to scream, ‘I’m not getting any writing time at all!’ But I’m working on some new poems and I’m hoping to put a collection there, and I have started a second novel, so I’m excited to dive into both.
The Men Can’t Be Saved is available now.