Josh Tillman–Mostly Hypothetical Mountains
Mostly Hypothetical Mountains, the novella that comes with physical copies of Father John Misty’s debut album Fear Fun, is in a way another ironic joke of Josh Tillman’s. If you’re not all that familiar with Tillman, he’s given himself a moniker that, in his own words, is “like ‘Alexa Chung’ but sounds more like a Christian puppet show,” he’s released Father John Misty’s sophomore album I Love You, Honeybear on a lo-fi streaming service he invented, and he’s mocked Ryan Adams for covering Taylor Swift’s 1989 in its entirety by covering Ryan Adams’ covers of “Blank Space” and “Welcome to New York” in the style of the Velvet Underground (and then removed the songs from SoundCloud, claiming he dreamt Lou Reed, standing “on a catwalk handcuffed to supermodels who had adopted babies handcuffed to them,” told him to take ‘em down). Maybe you know “Now I’m Learning to Love the War,” one of the FJM tracks that are too country-sounding to be cool? The song gets into how the production of art necessitates the consumption of natural resources. Tillman laments “the truly staggering amount / of oil / that it takes to make a record.” So the ironic joke is that Sub Pop distributed, and continues to distribute, a record that has “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” with enough paper to fit not just the lyrics but also a novella.
During his show at the Egyptian Room last September, Tillman told the crowd his favorite author was from Indianapolis. He didn’t name the author, but, come on, he was talking about Kurt Vonnegut. MHM and Vonnegut’s seventh novel Breakfast of Champions have a few things in common. For starters, they’re both satirical. BoC addresses many issues–racism, sexism, the human-caused destruction of the environment–but one of the all-time best satirizations of capitalism is delivered in the form of a summary of a story by Kilgore Trout, the science-fiction author who wrote the book that psychologically messed with BoC’s other major character, Dwayne Hoover. The story’s set in the Hawaiian Islands. A total of forty people own all of the land, and they do NOT want folks to tresspass on their property, no siree. Rather than make the forty people grow up and share a little, the governemnt issues every landless Hawaiian a balloon. “With the help of the balloons, Hawaiians could go on inhabiting the islands without always sticking to things other people owned.”
Some characters in MHM’s video game also like to prevent other people from owning stuff. Much of MHM is the “synopsis” (it’s far from brief) of a video game thought of by a guy whose name and age are never revealed. He began writing the synopsis in a computer class at his Messianic-Jewish Pentecostal high school. There’s a scene that’s a hilarious intersection of two things going on in the game’s world: (1) an obsession with patenting, and (2) a conflation of the mental and the physical. That is, some characters believe that whatever they imagine in their heads is happening in reality. Just after Steve imagines doing dirty things to Kristen, he apologizes for doing unrequested dirty things he didn’t physically do. Later Steve pictures Kristen sleeping with other dudes and thus believes she’s actually cheating on him. (In one of a bajillion examples of Tillman’s voice slipping into what’s supposed to be the voice of the video game’s creator, the guy who wrote the synopsis narrates: “[Steve] couldn’t help but think of [Kristen] capitalizing on, what he subjectively perceived to be, her gender’s market scarcity.”) So Steve patents Kristen. This is a multifold idea, satirically. You’ve got the extreme greed and the exaggeration of insecurity, and you’ve also got the fact that Steve writes “vows” for Kristen to read at the patenting “ceremony.” The diction recalls weddings, and so the reader begins to suspect that here the verb “patents” is a dysphemism for “marries.” The patenting ceremony can be interpreted as a modern take on the feminist criticism of marraiges that claims any marriage is essentially an exchange of goods and therefore an objectification of the bride.
Part of what’s funny about both Breakfast of Champions and Mostly Hypothetical Mountains is the writing itself. Take for example this excerpt from the first chapter of BoC: “Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold on to it. Some Americans were very good at grabbing and holding, were fabulously well-to-do. Others couldn’t get their hands on doodley-squat.” Doodley-squat. Now take the opening line of a letter penned by the game’s creator and sent to a company that produces video games: “My, has it been so long since my buoyant words bobbled and wove ‘cross your rapidly dimming eyes?”
BoC and MHM are both metafictional. Vonnegut appears in BoC and acknowledges that he’s the narrator: “I had come to the Arts Festival incognito. I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created.” Tillman shows up in MHM and talks to an energy healer about his novella. He describes MHM thusly: “It’s a nonlinear, multi-format, adventure satire attempting to dismantle the infrastructure of ownership, as told by several quasi-fictional unreliable narrators.”
In one metafictional moment, either the synopsis of the game or the novella itself is referred to as a “memoir masquerading as a nonlinear satirical narrative.” Let’s go with the novella. MHM is in fact autobiographical. The game’s synopsis includes an excerpt from The Prolonged Embrace of My Sexually Alarming Emergence, the memoir of a character in the game. This character writes that he has the “kind of parents who don’t bat an eye when you come home from your first day of school with tales of spiritual initiation rites into a fanatical Messianic-Jewish Pentecostal fringe cult with historically-revisionist Zionist political leanings, but who potentially could have been roused out of inaction if I had been expelled for refusing to engage in said metaphysically dubious exercises…” Josh Tillman was raised in a rather religious household. His parents spoke in tongues, and he wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music unless he could convince his folks there were spiritual undertones.
Another character Tillman may identify with: the Devil. Satan, while getting demoted from running Hell’s blood business (which involves selling the blood of newly arrived residents of Hell) to just managing Hell’s Hell-themed restaurant (inspired by Rainforest Café, a franchise for which Josh Tillman used to work), the Devil “tremble[s] sarcastically to mask his sincere trembling” and “mockingly [weeps] to mask his literal sorrow.” At Father John Misty concerts, Josh Tillman makes a show of embodying the flamboyant rock star. He sashays around the stage. The affectation, like most affectations, can come across as a defense mechanism. I Love You, Honeybear is a blatantly autobiographical album about Tillman falling in love with his wife Emma and subsequently–the album can be interpreted as arguing not just subsequently but consequently–confronting his inner asshole. Live, though, it’s easier to sing, “I’ve said awful things, such awful things” (“The Ideal Husband”) if you distance yourself from the words, if rather than own the admission, you mask your self-criticism with the rock-star archetype.
In the penultimate verse of “Now I’m Learning to Love the War,” Tillman criticizes contemporary culture for wasting resources on things as silly as “15-year-olds / made from dinosaur bones / singing “Oh, yeah!” So there’s a subtext to the song: if art’s of merit, consuming resources on it is at least not as bad as consuming resources on vapid art. Mostly Hypothetical Mountains is hardly useless. Odds are you’ll laugh out loud at it at least once. And the Vonnegut influence is notable in part because Kurt Vonnegut’s among the greats. People don’t compare George Saunders and Paul Beatty to Vonnegut just for funzies; the comparison is usually a recommendation. If you buy Fear Fun from your local record store, you will be perpetuating the practice of killing trees, but, hey, Mostly Hypothetical Mountains was printed on paper that could’ve been spent on something much, much worse.