Vi Asplund, a Secret Service agent, returns to her childhood home to protect the vice president as he campaigns in the New Hampshire primary. Jens, her brother, still lives in Portsmouth, writing code for a wildly successful computer game. If Mark Costello's second novel makes such exotic vocations seem oddly familiar, it's because his characters deal with conflicts common to us all—conflicts about options and probabilities, risk and security.
A 2002 National Book Award finalist, Big If is especially timely in these days of heightened security and suspicion. But readers expecting a traditional thriller—a reasonable enough assumption, given the spotlight on federal agents and the fact that Costello's first book, Bag Men, was a police procedural—won't find the standard hooks and shoot-outs here. Instead, Big If stakes its roots in recognizable, workaday concerns.
The author explains, "A lot of people in the book are struggling with this issue of Is what I'm doing worthwhile? Have I sold out? Am I just drifting down the stream of life or am I doing something that matters? This is the basic question we ask about our work."
Adrienne Miller noted in her Esquire review, "The pacing here is superb, and the novel unfolds with kind of jittery anticipation, even if nothing much, well, happens."
Nothing is supposed to happen, not if these Secret Service agents are doing their job. Big If is often funny, satirizing the heady days of technology IPOs or America's electoral process, and as Miller aptly notes, the story rushes forward from the start. Nothing much happens, yet always the threat lingers that something—something bad, perhaps even tragic—will happen, so bit by bit, the book accrues a ceaseless, mounting tension: At any moment, a good day's work can go straight to hell.
Dave: Big If begins in New Hampshire, in the household of the Asplund family when Vi and Jens are children. It starts in a fairly traditional manner, but it doesn't follow a path readers might expect.
Mark Costello: The idea of the book was to create something that would be, itself, like a crowd. In a crowd, if you people-watch, you're immersed in one person for a moment, then that person disappears and someone else captures your attention. I wanted readers to get that oceanic feeling.
It was a hard thing to think about because the traditional novel, we're told, has a main character and an arc: a first, second, and third act. All this. Which isn't wrong or bad, but I think if the book were done this way it would be reassuring in a way that I didn't want Big If to be. I wanted it to have a more wide-open feeling.
It's up for grabs who's the main character, just as it's up for grabs who's going to be a bad guy, if anyone is. Ideally, I like to walk the line of intense immersion in character. You care about Vi, you spend time with her, and you care about some of the other people in the book, but no one ever quite takes over. Sort of like a crowd. You have to look at it as a group thing.
Dave: No one character takes over, it's true, but we spend a lot of time within the "Dome" of the Secret Service team, with Vi and Gretchen and Tashmo and the others. If the novel has a center, it seems to be located there.
Costello: Physically, in terms of pages, I think it's pretty close to being even between the two sides, the Secret Service agents and the civilians. There's a rope line down the middle, figuratively, in the novel. I've never actually counted the chapters, but I think it's pretty close to half and half.
I do think, particularly the way the book has been read, that the Secret Service stuff ends up feeling dominant. That's one thing that surprised me when the book was published and I started talking to readers because that's not how I saw it. But what those agents do is so stark that it generates an immense amount of tension, just having a Secret Service agent on the page. And yet I wanted to steer clear of any idea of them as heroic, or classically heroic characters, because with the material there is that risk. If you had a little too much of them? They don't scale walls or do any kind of derring-do stuff. They're just yuppies, basically. I wanted to be careful not to overdo it.
Dave: Maybe part of the reason why that side of the novel stands out is that as readers we're unaccustomed to seeing their world in such mundane detail. The book has received lots of praise, and I think a big part of the reason is that the Secret Service world feels real. The lifestyle is foreign to us, but the conflicts it imposes are familiar.
You were a prosecutor for five years, but you were never a Secret Service agent, right?
Costello: No, I didn't carry a gun.
Dave: How did you get inside that world?
Costello: As a prosecutor, you work with the agents. I became friends with a couple of them, and I would talk to them about What's it like when you're out there doing this protection? That was years before I ever thought about it as a potential piece of fiction. I was just interested, as anyone else would be.
That was my starting point. And the thing that struck me about the agents that I knew was that they were just plain, real people. Flawed. People living in a bureaucracy like anyone else. They had the same family problems anyone else had. And yet they had all committed to this idea that they would give their lives for a protectee.
This was back in the Clinton days, and the agents that I knew were by and large Republicans who hated the Clintons. Hated them. And not for any good reason. One friend was guarding Hillary Clinton for a while; he didn't like her because she was a strong woman, basically. There was nothing credible about it. And yet, this is someone who's committed to die for her.
Fiction writers are interested in what makes people tick, how people live with contradictions in their personality, how they make it work. That to me was a big contradiction: How could you be a regular person and yet have committed to this idea that you're going to die, if necessary, for someone you don't even like?
Also, in so much of what we do, in terms of the general wariness and the practical paranoia and the sense of insecurity that everyone feels more and more, we aren't so different from these agents. Obviously, there's a difference in the stakes, but emotionally, in terms of the vibe, it's not that different.
Dave: When Richard Ford was here, he talked about the role of vocation in character development. In almost all his stories and novels, you know what the characters do for a living. Their jobs define them. That's definitely the case in Big If. We see these people through their work life.
Costello: One of the things I love about Richard Ford as a fiction writer over the last twenty-five years is that his characters aren't all astronomers and florists and classical violinists. If you go to Powell's and check out a lot of the novels, so many of the characters have explicitly beautiful or theoretical occupations. It's almost as if work is what sex used to be: the thing that fiction doesn't go to. Ford just puts a stick right in that. There aren't a lot of other writers who do that, but work is what consumes people's lives, and fiction has to go there. There has to be some sort of an epic—I hate to use that word—fiction in how a realtor balances her schedule and picks her kid up at a soccer game, or something like that, because that's what people are doing now. They're not astronomers and orchestra conductors.
Dave: In Big If and certainly in Bag Men, many of the characters cannot or, in some cases, choose not to bring their jobs home. Their work life is an almost separate existence.
In Big If, many of the Secret Service agents don't seem to have much of a home life; they just don't have time for it. This creates a closed world around the characters.
Costello: I think it's true of all the characters, not just the Secret Service agents but the computer programmers and realtors, too. I think that's true of ninety-nine percent of the people out there. And I think it has a lot of implications for us in terms of alienation and how you don't feel connected to your work because you save yourself for your home life. But it's a dominant fact.
It's hard to write fiction about disconnection. Fiction is naturally about connection, how this reflects that and so forth. It was hard to find a way to write about the disconnect between work life and home life.
Dave: Jens can't come to terms with his occupation. His father put a seed of doubt into his mind about whether it's a worthwhile endeavor, and now Jens is really starting to struggle with it. Meanwhile, he has no outlet to talk about his issues. He's bottled up, and I think he's completely normal in that way.
Costello: Jens is a computer programmer who writes code for games. It's not a typical occupation, perhaps, but his problem is a very common one: he's not sure how to know whether he values what he does and whether he's wasting his life. He's very smart and skilled at what he does. The code he writes, as code, is beautiful, but the end product, what the viewer sees on the screen, is hucksterism; violent stuff. The problem with Jens, as you say, is that he doesn't have any way to work that through because he's proud. And he sort of has this macho attitude, which says, I'm going to deal with it. He has a wife, Peta, who is a good woman and a sensible woman, not a perfect person but certainly a good wife, but he doesn't want to talk to her about it because he's going to deal with it himself. In a way, to me, Jens is one of the real tragic characters in the book.
A lot of people in the book are struggling with this issue of Is what I'm doing worthwhile? Have I sold out? Am I just drifting down the stream of life or am I doing something that matters? This is the basic question we ask about our work. People have different ways of dealing with that question.
Jens never quite has the clarity to engage with it. A lot of his mental energy is put into very artfully finding ways to shout under the table. It's often comic with Jens—for instance, when he goes into the voting booth and he can't make up his mind; he's in there for twenty minutes. It's funny, but there's also something very sad about someone with all this verbal dexterity and a powerful imagination, using it to block out the truth that he doesn't want to face.
Dave: That intersection of tragedy and comedy is evident elsewhere. It's the same kind of thing with Lloyd Felker's theories about sporting goods and public safety. On the one hand, any insight you can provide to reduce the risk of public violence is worthwhile, but that doesn't mean it's not funny when Felker is orating about those scenarios.
Costello: It's comic and it's sad, but it's one of the things that interests me: looking at different ways that people find and create meaning.
Dave: Jay McInerney, writing about Big If in the New York Times Book Review, used White Noise as a point of comparison—and it's true, Felker's speech reminded me of the DeLillo character who goes on at length about the sociological messages inherent in supermarket produce displays. Experts get talking, and it becomes a kind of comedy. A comedy of exhaustion.
Costello: That character in White Noise is amazingly funny, and there's even a sliver of genius and legitimacy to what he says, but when the paragraph is over you step back and say, "Boy, that guy is both nuts and irrelevant."
This guy can go into a supermarket and you'd think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson in the Massachusetts woods or something. And it's plausible, for so long as the paragraph lasts, because the guy isn't a dummy. If he were, it wouldn't be so sad. If he were an idiot, it wouldn't be sad. What's sad is that in this country you have immense amount of mental energy being put into this great wasted effort and a lot of people who are not connecting with real issues: How do I live? Am I living in a way that makes sense? Am I living in a way that connects back with me? Or am I being driven by the culture forward?
Dave: The plot of Big If is centered around a political campaign, but we don't hear about any of the issues. Half the novel's characters are protecting a vice president you never name. That part of the story occurs entirely off-screen; none of it is the subject of the book.
Costello: Right. I thought the politics would be a great backdrop, but I definitely wasn't interested in making the politics important because, again, it's about the disconnection. You have all these Democratic messages that say, "You're empowered. You're important. You run things." Meantime, the people—the computer programmer, the dads, the soccer moms, the suburban housewives—they're just trying to get along and hang onto their jobs. This big cultural message is just washing over us.
Costello: With Bag Men, my first novel, I wanted to come up with a very strong structure, a structure that would carry people forward with a lot of narrative drive. It's essentially a complex police procedural. It was a natural enough thing for me to write because I was a working prosecutor at the time. It's set in Boston in 1965, with the start of the Sixties and Vatican II, a lot of that liberalization. I wanted to get a little bit into what it would be like to be in a very conservative place, a police department, the Suffolk County DA's office, while the whole world was changing around you. Again, to look at a character who wasn't a dumb person, but who didn't understand what was happening. And in structure, it was, as you say, a procedural.
When Bag Men was published, I had a contract for a second book with Norton. I had embarked on writing another book that was also pretty conventional in structure. I was a good bit of the way through it, and I felt like, in a way, I was a little bit like Jens: I was servicing the structure. It wasn't serving me; I was serving it.
I had a minor character, sort of a walk-on, this young, burned out Secret Service agent named Vi Asplund. I became interested in her and the idea of this fallen angel. Very quickly she was more interesting to me than the other characters. I had worked the New Hampshire primary a bunch of times, starting in 1980, and I wanted to write something about New England—that's where I'm from— and the money coming in at that point, changes in my own family, and the break-up of a lot of traditional stuff that's gone now. And I thought, Well, why not have this agent come back to New Hampshire for the primary?
Basically, that was two hours of thinking. Three Cokes and ten cigarettes later I had abandoned the old novel that was three-quarters of the way done. I basically embarked on a new book, for better or for worse.
Dave: You decided not to service the structure. So you looked to your character for direction?
Costello: I had a character. I knew she was going to be a young, somewhat burned out character. I knew she was from a town in New England not unlike Winchester, Massachusetts, where I come from. I knew she was going to go back to see her brother, who would be her last family member left. That's more or less where I started. As I imagined her world—What would her childhood be like? What kind of childhood would you have to have to be attracted to this kind of work? - I started imagining people around her. From there, I got deeply into her dad and her boss, but it started with Vi.
Dave: You went to college with David Foster Wallace, right? What were you guys up to back then?
Costello: We wrote a lot of comedy, National Lampoon-type humor. It was Amherst College in Massachusetts, and we had a humor newspaper that we ran. Rather than sit around discussing Flaubert or anything like that, we were joke writers. We had a blast. We were also pretty geeky guys, as well, but in terms of writing, what I remember is writing a lot of jokes and trying to make each other laugh at four o'clock in the morning.
Dave: These days, are you still in touch? Would you say that you're part of a community of writers?
Costello: Dave's an old friend. We're still in touch. I have some friends who are writers, and there are times when you really need to have a conversation with another writer, someone you trust. But then you have to make your own decisions.
There's a lot of pressure on writers to succeed, and there's a lot of competitiveness. Law enforcement is supposed to be a dirty, tough world, and it is, but I found it easier to trust people in that world. That might reflect my dark, Irish Catholic personality, but there's a lot of competition between writers. So I won't say that I have some type of Bloomsbury association. I have a few writer friends, but my friends tend to be cops and people like that.
Dave: The escalating McSweeney's phenomenon has been interesting to watch. A real cult following has built up around it. It's like the stamp of cool. Name recognition and brand association. Which is nice if only in that it's not being driven by the marketing budgets of national chains and publishing conglomerates.
Costello: The McSweeney's school tends to be—I wouldn't say it's the absolute avant garde of American fiction because there's fiction out there being written without verbs—but it's not mainstream fiction. It's very funny, it's outrageous, it's transgressive. Not real big on narrative, necessarily. They often couldn't give a damn about the arc of character, but in general there's a great verbal energy to it. It's a lot of great writing.
There's a huge amount of great fiction being written right now. I think it's human nature that people need some sort of brand name to make some sense of it all, even on the fringe. Otherwise, you go into a bookstore, and everyone has great blurbs. How do you separate one from the next?
I really like that kind of writing, but I don't think I would ever be counted in that school. The thing about it that it makes me wonder is whether you can ultimately write great fiction without having a fundamental un-ironic commitment to the character on the page. I wonder if great fiction can exist in that atmosphere. Again, the energy and the sarcasm and the complexity of perspective, that's all great—and it's a result to having culture shoved down our throats —but you go back and read Turgenev, and you won't find any tricks. He's never trying to attract attention to himself. It's just a very simple story about a son screwing up his father's business in the Russian countryside in the 1870s, and it's incredibly powerful.
Dave: Who does that for you nowadays, among contemporary writers?
Costello: I love Dave Wallace's writing. I love many of those writers. Susan Daitch... A lot of them. But if you want to talk about the old school, the simple writers that are working now, I think large parts of The Corrections—John Franzen, I'll disclose, is another friend of mine—but I think large parts of The Corrections are verbally dexterous and very elusive and very smart and funny; there are tonal shifts within one sentence. It's all very complex and artful, but what makes it go is a pretty simple commitment to a character and what happens to this character. It does what fiction is better at than any other art form, which is convincing you to accept the terms of this person's life as real and meaningful for you.
I love Alice Munro. When I lose faith in fiction and I'm having a bad day—Why would anyone read a fake story to try to find meaning? What the hell is that about?—I go back and reread her stories. I find her to be deceptively simple. Her storytelling tone? those stories are lit up from inside.
For some reason, since finishing Big If, I've read mostly short fiction. I'm not entirely sure why that is. Ever hear of a guy name Steve Almond?
Dave: Sure. My Life in Heavy Metal.
Costello: Right. There are some really strong stories in there, including the first one, which is a wonderful story. He's another Boston guy.
Dave: He has some big fans here at Powell's. And I agree about Alice Munro: you read a paragraph or a story, and it changes the way you think about what fiction can do. Reading Munro can be overwhelming for me sometimes. How can one person write so many great stories? How can she do it so consistently? They're all completely convincing.
That's what the best fiction does: it affects you deeply despite everything you know. It makes you care about—and invest a great deal of time in— lies.
Costello: It's the trick of fiction. When a fiction writer wants to make you feel the pain of character x, there can be, if it's not artfully done, a certain amount of self congratulation involved: Look at me, I'm superior. I see this person who's being treated badly by their boss; I am morally superior to the bad characters in my story. That's cheap. That's weepy, bad, and a waste of time. But I defy you to find a single mawkish line in Alice Munro's fiction. It's incredible. So when we're talking about inviting you in and getting the reader to accept the terms of a fake life as real for the purposes of the reading, the key is to make sure it's never mawkish, it's never for the sake of glorifying the writer's superior moral sense. It's all about accepting things on their terms. Like any great art, that requires inborn talent but also an incredible amount of craft.
Alice Munro must be an incredibly careful writer with an incredible ear. And that's what really blows me away. Chekhov is another one. You're three sentences into a Chekov story and you feel like you know the soul of rural Russia. Then you go back and look at the sentences and he's just talking about how the doctor kept his horses. One horse was kept in the great stall and one was kept in a smaller stall. He always rode the bad horse because he didn't want to hurt the good horse. That's the paragraph, and somehow you feel like you inhabit this other time and place. Only fiction does that.
Dave: As compared to movies, say.
Costello: Someone once said that movies ate fiction, that movies came along and became the dominant middle class narrative medium. There's no doubt that's true, but a lot of the best movies are just doing stuff that was invented by novelists in the nineteenth century.
I'm forty years old—that's mostly bad, being forty—but one thing that's not is going back to read books that I first read in my twenties. I feel like I catch so much that I didn't the first time.
Dave: Are you working on something now?
Costello: I'm working on a bunch of things, a bunch of short stories. It's time to start another novel. I'm feeling a little resistance to that, but that's just typical post-novel feelings. Certainly I won't take on anything big until Little League season ends.
Dave: Coaching, I hope?
Costello: The Tribeca Indians. That's my son's team.
Dave: Has it started?
Costello: We're 1-0, with two rainouts. These are seven-year-olds, by the way.
Dave: What else? You mentioned earlier that you were surprised how much readers connected with the Secret Service agents, that part of the plot. Now, as you're out promoting the paperback, do you still hear questions that surprise you?
Costello: Well, sure. It depends who's asking. People at readings tend to ask different kinds of questions than I might get in an interview, but I'm always surprised by the persistent myth, or the assumption, that one's fiction is full of thinly veiled references to one's own life. At readings and in interviews, I almost always get the question, "Were your friends in the Secret Service mad? There's a womanizing agent, a burned out agent? Do they get mad at being depicted in this way?" Or, "Which character are you most like in the book?" Questions of that nature.
It's always dumbfounding to me. It was so hard to will these characters into being. To think it might have been as simple as, Oh, I think I'm going to make this one like my uncle Fred. What would Uncle Fred do? He always had that pipe and he wore that ascot and he duck-walked? If only it worked that way, I'd be writing a book every twelve months.
And yet it's like they circle around to be true, in a way. My daughter is five years old and sometimes I'll turn around and call her Vi. So in a way they circle around, when they're done, to have a real life to them. But people seem to need to believe that if I get them to care about Vi it's because there's a line that can be drawn between Vi and some person in the real world. It's such a disconnect from the way writers see it, or from the way it works for me.
Mark Costello stopped in at Powell's on May 1, 2003, the day after I returned from a trip to meet six childhood friends in Las Vegas. We talked a bit about gambling—Vegas versus Foxwoods, craps versus blackjack—as we climbed the stairs past the patch of wall that visiting authors sign. (As a rule, they sign at the end of the visit, so on the way up we bypassed the wall quickly and without comment.) Costello hails from Winchester, Massachusetts. I grew up in Framingham. Which should help explain his "another Boston guy" reference to Steve Almond.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State