Interview with Dale Brett
May 7, 2020
MM) You lived in Japan for a time and Japanese culture and aesthetic seems a good point of departure for an interview about Faceless in Nippon, set entirely in Japan and, for someone who’s never been to Japan, as transporting and alien, and culture-shocking, as the lived experience from which it derives. A romantic story in a singular city, among other things. Tell me about how the country, the city, the actual place, inspired you to write the novel, which, in many ways, places the location and all its various exotic trappings as an almost central figure, a character.
DB) It’s no secret that Japanese culture has had a huge influence on me and it really only happened by mistake. In 2011, I basically finished university, quit work and travelled the world. I studied media and communications, I did do a creative writing minor, but never really wrote much fiction until the beginning of 2019. Anyway, with this trip I had a massive backpacking itinerary where I essentially started in South East Asia with one of my dearest friends and we would work our way through the tropics, to China and then onward through the ‘Stans and Russia to Europe. The Russian visa requirements were something we had to arrange in Australia before we left for South East Asia. However, on an overnight train in south west China several months in, I ended up taking too many third world Xanax caps and the bag with all my valuables – passport, money, laptop, phone etc. was stolen (ironically my large rucksack full of clothes and books was not touched.) This put an end to my aspirations of going through the ‘Stans and Russia, as I could no longer get a Russian visa from where I was situated in China.
After a 28-hour train ride wedged between migrant workers and poor families, I arrived in Beijing and was, thankfully, let into the Australian embassy without ID. I was issued a temporary passport and visa to exit China and was happy to do so after the above ordeal. I could have gone back to Australia, I could have gone to Europe, but I decided to go to Japan instead, a country I knew a little about but did not value its culture any higher on my attention register than any of the other Asian countries I had travelled through. Anyway, maybe it was because of the fact I was so over ‘slumming’ it in countries that were noisy, often brash and sensorially pungent or maybe it was just that urban Japan always suited my dreamy, melancholic demeanour regardless and I just didn’t know it yet, but the three weeks I was there had a vastly different effect on my soul and psyche than the other Asian megalopolises I was stationed in. The stillness of my first shinkansen ride, the peculiar ambience of crossing a road at night in a city of millions but all you can hear is silence, the tranquillity of walking to hotel lobby vending machines at 2am – I will never forget these ineffable feelings. I vividly recall listening to Loveless by MBV and staring at a kaleidoscope of skyscrapers in western Shinjuku at night and thinking “yep, this is it.” It was meant to be.
After this trip I went to Europe, then lived in Canada for a while before returning to Japan to reside there. I worked in a Japanese restaurant in Canada and learned more about the food, the culture, the literature. I predominantly lived in Osaka during my stint as a resident of Japan and I think it fed my appetite for the dreaminess of urban Japan but also did not lose sight of my interest in the grungier aspects of art and life that I held dear. For what it’s worth, those with a keen Japanese eye will realise the city in Faceless in Nippon is a mash up of different Japanese cities. I will leave those Easter eggs for others to establish, but the city in the novel, though it does use real world references to places around it is fictional. It mirrors a world close to the one we occupy, but not quite our own.
For me, Japanese culture is as much the sullen izakaya waitress pumping salarymen full of offal and cheap sake as the calm of a late night metro station escalator ride. The dichotomy of these often shunned fringe elements of its urban society and the more refined elements of Japanese culture was something that held great intrigue for me. I think I owe my interests in the peculiar dissimilarities of urban Japan to living in the Kansai region and reading so much Kobo Abe. The city as a character definitely brings to mind one of my favourite books, The Ruined Map, in which Abe portrays a noir-like detective that slips into a deep geographical psychosis, both of the inner and outer variety. I think the Japanese city is most definitely a character in this book, one that threatens to dwarf even the protagonist’s distinct vulnerable voice.
Anyway, the way it played out during my time as a resident in Japan, is that I somehow ended up marrying a girl I met there. She became pregnant. We decided to move to Australia to have the baby. I think a lot of my usual emotive outlets were kind of gone after this moment. I spent most of my adult life getting fucked up on drinks and drugs to let off steam, but the responsibility of a family took that away from me (besides the odd annual bender.) I think I started yearning for my life in Japan when my stress levels were at the highest, a time when things were more carefree and all I had to look forward to was walking around foreign neighbourhoods slamming down cans of chuhai, trying bizarre convenience store products, perusing as much free manga as I could handle.
Back in Australia, I also needed an outlet for my reservations about life and society in general with this newfound responsibility and in early 2019 I told myself, I would re-commence writing fiction primarily as a way for me to deal with this escalating situation. What came out on 1 February 2019, the day I ‘officially’ started, were naturally stories set in the Japan I was yearning for. For a few months, I just forced myself to write whatever it was that needed to come out every morning and afternoon – on the train, in random courtyards, by hand, on laptop, in the notes section of my phone – anywhere I could, I would transcribe the sentimental images of Japan behind the lids of my dormant eyes.
I think Faceless in Nippon, or at least a novel set in Japan full of nostalgia and melancholy, had to be my first novel. I needed to encapsulate the Japan that made me who I am today. The one I still yearned for, the one I had to let go. The setting’s exotic trappings, the feelings they evoke in me, are a central figure in my life. I am so glad they are now part of a physical artifact I can hold and reach for whenever I feel the need to. But also thankful that I can now continue to move on.
MM) Tell me about your love of words. The narrator’s voice you cultivated is, symmetrically, singularly given to logophilic tendencies, his tone is melancholy and wide-eyed, and his words are sensual, cadenced with untrammeled interiority and visceral abandon, so that the narrator’s vernacular reflects the blissed out forward discovery of the milieux. Do you feel you wrote this way deliberately to further convey the alienation of living as a foreigner in Japan? Or is Japan so alien that a new voice had to be invented to capture it? Is it “your” voice? How is Faceless in Nippon different from your other work?
DB) I think you and I are both guilty of logophilic tendencies in our work. This is probably pretty natural for people interested in the written word I suppose. I am always interested in trying to find new words to say similar things, but with a certain aesthetic in mind. Sensuality, melancholy and blunted awe were some of the feelings I wanted the words to express when I wrote and re-wrote passages of Faceless in Nippon. I tried to flirt on the precipice of colloquial and oneiric. I tried to make the linguistic sojourn romantic, intimate. I wrote this way because I wanted to express the wonder of banality when responsibility is removed from your existence, not necessarily to further convey the alienation of living as a foreigner in Japan, though I think casting the protagonist in that setting certainly heightens the themes I wanted to explore both in language and narrative. Ultimately, I wanted to make the feeling of being lost tactile.
I feel that the style of writing in Faceless in Nippon came to me almost effortlessly. Given how natural and instinctual it was, I feel that it probably is ‘my’ voice. Or as close to my voice as any of my fiction could be considered. It is not autobiographical as such, though the scenes in it are very personal to me. I unpack some of the key concerns that have been at the core of my being over the last ten years – existence, consumerism, nostalgia. I think the melancholic, almost wistful yearning of the vignettes sets it apart from my other work. Given it is novel length, I could pace out these emotions and take my time to muse introspectively. It is the most brutally honest and sincere my fiction gets. With this novel, I wanted the text to waft over readers, to float through their bodies gently like an undulating fog. I often strive to mimic a sensory effect with my works and Faceless in Nippon, to me, has always been very aqueous. The protagonist could have just as easily been a gemstone submerged in transparent water.
MM) The title and theme of a faceless person feels voyeuristic, like slipping into another’s skin, feeling uncommonly comfortable behind their eyes, and viewing a land ancient, pronouncing its ancient name. Why faceless? Does this have anything to do with mask chic, or is that nonsequitur incidental? How should a reader take away the experience and theme of virtual anonymity, and what tension or lack thereof coexists with the painfully personal?
DB) The faceless description comes from the feeling of trying to find yourself in the vacuity of modern society. Trying to derive meaning from the events that one experiences and forge a unique face to your identity in a world where you are often rendered without one. This is what the protagonist is wrestling with in the novel – to find meaning in meaninglessness, to develop a face that can be accepted and content without sacrificing one’s ideals. This is where mask play comes into it. In order to be accepted as an outsider, as someone who does not conform to the norm, sometimes you need to apply a thinly coated resin, to bring what’s inside in line with the expectation out. This is not an easy task for some.
Virtual anonymity reminds me of the whole online disinhibition effect, where people feel more uninhibited online due to the fact their identity is anonymous. I think this theory and idea fits well with living abroad in general and certainly my text. There are scenes in the novel where the protagonist feels he can act differently or notes the freedom of not having the same responsibilities or expectations behaviourally as he does in the western world. The tension that coexists with this experience is the fact that often behaviour exhibited during the bubble of expat or online anonymity is a more honest and true reflection of the person that cannot be fulfilled due to the expectations and norms of society, of family, of capitalist life. That is where the painfully personal often comes out. Which brings me back around nicely to the topic of masks and faces again, which we often adopt when we can be identified – something we need to “adhere to in order to slip by,” as the protagonist refers to it in the novel. We are constantly concealing our real feelings to fit in, to meet expectations, because we are taught to. It’s nice to escape that, to become a nobody, to have a clean slate. To slip into someone’s else’s skin, as you say.
MM) Texturally, the novel feels like beautiful squalls of white noise in its sense of detachment, unusual imagery with cognitive information/sensory input preceding narrative pacing. I know shoegaze and anime, and one of the typefaces is actually shared by the logo of Lost in Translation, but there are many such Easter eggs and allusions to influencing forces throughout all your work. Talk about the relationship between your aesthetic influences and the loose, episodic or vignetted structure of Faceless in Nippon. Was there a choice on any cognizant or subliminal level to incorporate an aesthetic? What, in your mind, is the relationship between beauty and harshness with respect to ambience/atmosphere?
DB) One of the things I initially set out to do was to try and mimic the sensory experience of floating in water, of hypnagogic states, but still maintain a conventional narrative underpinning the abstract imagery that forwarded this goal. Aesthetics are incredibly important to me as a person and an artist. Besides meeting my needs of an emotional outlet, another reason I re-commenced writing fiction in earnest, is because I felt like I was looking for a type of work that did not exist. I wanted to mash all of the things I loved together in a cohesive way to fill a gap in the literary field and become my own creative entity. I was so tired of googling “nostalgia + shoegaze + novel” and “books like Shinji’s dream scenes in the train in Evangelion” and other such combos that I just decided to start writing my own versions of what I felt these should be.
I really admire artists that have profound visions of aesthetics and develop their own style to a point where anything that vaguely resembles the work automatically triggers an association with this artist. Mika Hrejsa, James Krendel-Clark and Will Bernardara Jr. are contemporaries of ours that I admire who have this down pat. I would like to think that I have developed my own distinct aesthetic style derived from influences in music genres like ambient, shoegaze, vaporwave and other imports that loom large over me such as drugs, dreams, anime, cyberpunk tropes and consumerism.
The vignetted structure of the novel kind of came to me subconsciously maybe halfway through the process. It was not a cognizant choice in aesthetics as such, however, the more surreally written scenes were quite deliberately interspersed to capture the dichotomy of the ethereal and the rugged I love to explore. This juxtaposition is something inherent in all the art I love – the ability to meld the soft with the abrasive, to pummel hearts into a bloody propulsion of iridescent glitter. There is just something so visceral, so life-affirming to me about that contrast. The ambience and atmosphere it creates is not necessarily comfortable for everyone. It challenges pre-conceived beliefs and tropes both in fiction and in life. It is also a useful reminder that life is not one-dimensional, but omni-dimensional. Life is made up of many textural layers. Being able to equally enjoy the layers for what they are, to celebrate the image of a cute cat and the smashing of a human skull is not something that is at all common. It’s generally one or the other. But, I’m here to tell you, there is definitely beauty in both and I want to explore it through writing.
MM) You reside in Australia and are an Australian native. Tell me about the choice to have your first novel essentially be a subversive travelogue of a foreign landscape. Does your background in journalism figure into it? How has Australian culture impacted your writing?
DB) I haven’t really thought about this too much to be honest. Again, I think that my first novel had to be set in Japan. It was 100% necessary for me to get these emotions out in order for me to be able to focus on other creative ideas. My experiences living there had to come out first, they would have just plagued my mind otherwise. My vision would have been constantly clouded by this miasma if I did not let it flow outward when it needed to.
I see Australia more as just the place I happened to be born. I mean, I only returned because it was the most suitable option I had to raise a kid. I feel kind of equally American or British or whatever. Just like, the western world in general has influenced me I suppose as opposed to something distinctly Australian. Not sure if that comes down to spending so many years abroad which has rendered this heritage lost.
My background in journalism does not figure into it on a conscious level, however, I will admit that I wouldn’t have been able to write a book that gels so effortlessly as a first novel without some experience in journalistic writing to various degrees over the years. No doubt that a solid foundation in different forms of writing has assisted me in a smooth transition to fiction. If you know a number of different ways to use language you can more easily torque these and adapt them experimentally to achieve newfound effects.
MM) How has the internet informed how you ingest, process, and feed back writing? What circulates?
DB) The internet has been a fundamental canvas for me to explore the things that interest me via hyperlink binges and arbitrary google word combo searches. I will also be forever grateful to the wired for being able to find like-minded individuals that share my esoteric aesthetic values and eccentric content preferences that I probably would have never found irl.
People like yourself, all at surfaces.cx, Elytron Frass – these were the individuals and platforms that gave my work a chance in the embryonic phases and propelled me to continue exploring my tentative processes – refining them, finetuning them, workshopping them etc. Without the irl support of fellow Australian lit outsider Shane Christmass and the online support of the anti-indie lit community (or whatever you want to term it, the crew that doesn’t get bogged down in trying to cancel people over their art), I don’t think I would have put out a book at all.
MM) Let’s talk about science fiction. Mike Kleine mentioned Blade Runner, and the cyberpunk vibe doesn’t seem accidental.
DB) You are correct, the cyberpunk vibe is not accidental. There is no need for me to be surreptitious here – sci fi, particularly cyberpunk, is something that has influenced me greatly. Anyone who has read my shorter work on Surfaces or Tragickal would be aware of my interests in science fiction both as a producer and consumer. I have tried to unearth the reason this genre resounds with me so much, particularly the psychological and philosophical material, and what I put it down to is an escape from the current reality I inhabit that fits the guise of my aesthetics and interests – technological ennui, roaming megacities alone at night, emotional dreamscapes. All these things are apparent in Faceless in Nippon, but in a more playful present sense than a specific sci fi context. I find cyberpunk/sci fi is something I can enjoy purely as entertainment, LARPing my way to contentment or as something I can engage with critically, casting my eye towards deeper societal concerns if I feel so inclined while indulging.
There are a lot of reasons why my first novel is not a sci fi book per se though. I feel the tropes have gotten to a point where they are beyond cliché and the only real thing left for a writer is this meta-sci fi angle used to refer back to it in an almost ironic feedback loop. Like, I think you can dabble in cyberpunk/sci fi syntax, which I often do, but essentially any kind of “world-building” is futile. I owe a lot to Ballard and Gibson for the prose I use to depict a landscape in my fiction, whether the work is considered sci fi or not. The way in which you said earlier that the landscape, the setting as such, is a character. The ability to turn a setting or a landscape into a character is certainly something I have crafted under the influence of those two authors. My love of cyberpunk/sci fi subtly comes through in the text despite not being a focal point. Though there are more than a couple of overt Blade Runner riffs thrown in for good measure.
MM) There’s a sense of yearning omnipresent throughout the book for another life, or kind of life, and I wonder if there’s an element of romantic escapism in it. Do you relish writing about the past, imagined things, more than say, something closer to memoir about the present, personal life? Tell me about nostalgia.
DB) There definitely is an element of romantic escapism to this work, to my interests in pursuing this book and writing in general. As I said above, really the whole thing came about to try and extricate myself from the current reality I was facing as a person. I like to look at the narrative arc of the book as what would have most likely happened to me if I did not choose to get married and have a child. I would probably still be in Japan, doing the things the protagonist in the novel does, interminably. Same apps, same pathetic dates, same late night konbini mentaiko pasta in the microwave.
Nostalgia is an emotion that is very dear to me. Some of the most impactful texts I have read include Benjamin’s Arcades Projects and Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Nostalgia, melancholy, the excavation of memories – these are all things that really inspire me. Some may find these emotional interests a little depressing, but for me, when I feel these things, it is more complex. Like, I think the gentle ebbing of nostalgia and melancholy has made me overall a better person, a far more accomplished writer for having unearthed them, having known them. Exploring these emotions has awoken a more introspective and analytical self. I think the section entitled “Consumer Nostalgia” is a pivotal part of the novel that depicts the multifaceted relationship of the protagonist with his recollections of the lost, the forgotten, the effaced. These thoughts are similar to the ones that arrest me in the shopping aisles irl, yearning for a past never known. Anemoia if you will. I think Faceless in Nippon is me yearning for a present that could have been, or one that would have surely continued had I let it. I have romanticised it in a book, but the reality is it probably wasn’t that enjoyable at the time. It is only through giving it life via nostalgia that it occupies a special internal void.
MM) How does it feel to have your first book be among the first (maybe the first?) book of the Post-Covid world. How has quarantine been? How would you estimate the impact on our collective psyches, and your psyche, and the literary economy at large? Is this the dawn of a new age?
DB) It’s a strange feeling in a way. I was incredibly paranoid that the printing presses would shut if things continued to deteriorate and I would be deprived of this cherished physical object. Thankfully it has not come to that.
Quarantine has been much the same for me as most people, much the muchness. It has not dented my psyche like some, probably because I have revelled in the fact I am no longer guilted by anyone to go out and do stuff I don’t want to do (like take the train to work etc.) That is simply not an option. For me, with like a wife and small children and a mortgage and shit it has helped me level with the art world. Since all of this domesticated responsibility came about a few years ago, I have always felt I was missing out on club gigs or exhibitions irl because I was stuck home with the duty of providing for a house, a family. But now, with everything online, it’s like I can catch up with my former single bachelor self and all of you other fuckers. I can fulfil my responsibilities of being a working husband/father and then launch myself onto the web where I can catch online DJ sets and virtual gallery shows with the rest of the outsider art freaks just like I used to. I can imbibe my recreational pleasures all on the feed from the comfort of my own home, so I feel if anything, the quarantine has actually given me more freedom to be myself again without sacrificing the other shit I need to do for love and survival. Maybe it is the dawn of a new age, or the return to a former one of blunts, amyl & vodka fuelled anime binges.
MM) I want to talk about the book’s druggy themes, numbing agents and psychoactives, and its almost practical approach to the narrator’s emotionality with respect to the few human relationships depicted, transactional, or love, which is only as expressive as it is constantly processing and understanding. Again, sensuality and corporeal fulfillment seems to come first, understanding later. This implicates the reader, couches them in the nuanced experience of discovery. Overall, there is definitely a flirty propensity for indulging altered states of consciousness.
DB) Well, that was a good segue from how I concluded the last question. In addition to music, anime, dreams, technology, consumerism – drugs would be incredibly high on the list of influences I harbour in both art and life. They have been essential and necessary in developing me as a person, critical to me connecting with the world via other beings and fundamental to opening me up to new modes of discovery.
Having said that, not all of my experiences have been positive, and certainly overdoing it has led to barely bearable detachment at times. I have especially suffered from incorporating it into daily life for the sake of it to try and replicate a prior feeling, which invariably ends up in an increased tolerance and level of sadness. I guess with the text, I wanted to convey that during drug use, and the same can be said for relationships, you often get to a point where everything is monotonal. You get to a point with both that you can’t feel anything different and just forge on because you don’t know what else to do. You take drugs, you try to make connections, you travel, you take more drugs, you try to develop tenuous relationships, you sit and stare at a cream wall and try to muster something resembling a sensation. It does become transactional, a process, something you feel you have to adhere to out of compulsion, not because of enjoyment. Then when you strike a moment of ecstatic bliss, you almost surprise yourself, like “oh, shit. I can feel things.” I think readers who have experienced the knuckle dragging continuation of a drug they have become far too tolerant of and the drudgery of relationships that have turned beyond stale will be able to resonate with the protagonist’s reactions to the world around him at the intersection of drug use and relationship building. They will probably resonate even more with the way he just silently moves on.
I also just want to flip this back to the positive and say that despite the existential pitfalls outlined above, indulging in altered states of consciousness is a must for any aspiring emotive person facing the banality of the western world – there is nothing quite like making the familiar unfamiliar and turning yourself outside in.
MM) Tell me about solitude.
DB) Like melancholy, solitude is another state often portrayed as a negative that I have experienced with almost unbridled joy. This may stem from living in cities and suburbs virtually all my life or some other weird niche, far from certain. Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with me when I pretend I don’t see beloved friends I have known for years and years on the streets so I can bathe in the ambience of loneliness. Like, I go well out of my way to be alone when I can, which for anyone that knows me irl might come as a shock, because I would generally be considered a very sociable person. This craving of solitude is probably another reason my inner self hit it off with Japan so instantaneously – a land where you can do everything you need without even talking to anyone. The land of the hikikomori, the land of jidohanbaiki and konbini, the land that lets your head echo around the blank space that resides within its own walls. I tried to capture some of the joys of Japanese solitude, and solitude in general, in the book, as they are incredibly important to me. There’s nothing like that feeling of moving into a tiny apartment alone with nothing in it, watching the rays of sun emanate across the wooden floor.
MM) Who are some of your favorite writers and indelible artistic influences that haven’t already been mentioned?
DB) Literary, I have three layers: Pessoa/Benjamin dream musing, Gibsonian/Ballardian inner future dystopia and the nihilistic consumer stylings of Bret Easton Ellis followed by contemporaries of early alt lit like Tao Lin, Sam Pink and Noah Cicero thereafter. I find these three layers mashed together equate to what I am doing. Particularly if they all fucked clones of Kobo Abe.
Having said that, since I started writing fiction again I have barely read a novel. Maybe like 5-10? I find that once you discover your own voice, it’s almost like you spend most of your time crafting your own hits rather than listening to someone else’s.
I primarily get my inspiration from visual or aural media these days. Esoteric bedroom produced music, anime imageboards, club/rave culture, weird post-fashion stuff. Sometimes I just try to write to different colours or different sounds. Some days I just stare at Gerhard Richter abstracts and listen to the holocaust section of MBV’s You Made Me Realise for hours on end and see what comes out.
MM) What are you working on now? I know you have a chapbook coming out and are always juggling various projects.
DB) Yes, I am ridiculously excited about this gorgeous object comprised of shoegaze and crystal imagery that I’ve got coming out on the incredibly aesthetic SELFFUCK. Evan Isoline is probably the only person out there picking up where Solar Luxuriance left off, making small experimental books beautiful again. This chapbook, Ultraviolet Torus, employs a far more unconventional structure and format than the one I explore in Faceless in Nippon. It was something I compiled during a break from writing the novel to essentially forget about the manuscript and let it simmer for a while – solid advice picked up from Expat’s very own best seller James Nulick. I wrote it when in between drafts of Faceless in Nippon when I was feeling a bit giddy and loved up about life and the amazing people I have met on the internet. There is also enough darkness there too though, in keeping with the soft and harsh contradiction that I love to flirt with in my work.
The other thing I am most enamoured with is my ongoing collaboration with Will Bernardara Jr. on a vaporwave inspired long form sci fi project about a mall with three different settings. Garett Strickland will be on board a little later and all three of us are doing takes on the mall – from a post-apocalyptic vaporwave wasteland written in only the way Will can, to my dream-infused convolutes of an AI fuelled neo-future, to Garett’s post-post-digital detritus buried in witch house apocrypha. It will take a long time to complete I think, there will be visual art and hopefully some OST duties from people in the electronic music scene to accompany the words (I am sincerely hoping the modern sage of electronic shoegaze Kagami Smile will score my contribution).
Solo-wise, I am working on something set within the Chinese avant-art / post-club scene. It will probably be my second novel, not sure if format will be similar to Faceless in Nippon yet, but it might be. I want to accompany it with some visual art as well, maybe even put on some Tianzhuo Chen inspired performance stuff with various Sino-future rave crews. Still all to be decided, but I’m thinking grand.
These projects are definitely going to consume me once the current book promotion settles down a bit. But now with all of those living in Japan emotions out in the world, I will be happy to zen out and take my time.