Meet Seth Greenland, and read an excerpt from "The Hazards of Good Fortune"
Interviewed by Marlena Trafas
“Progress is not linear; it comes in increments.”
“The hazards of good fortune”
Jay had not been to his club since the accident. He absently picked at his poached salmon as he withstood the gale force of Bobby Tackman's storm: "What did you think would happen when you stepped out on that court in front of all those people after you ran over their hero with your car? Why did you hire me if you're going to go off half-baked and do whatever you want? I nearly called you that night and resigned. The clients I'm able to benefit are the ones who listen."
Tackman had not touched his tuna melt.
After the meeting at the league office, Jay's insides were in an uproar. He had said hello to the club manager upon his arrival, and Jean-Pierre looked at him strangely, as if he wanted to say something but could not quite bring himself to do it. None of the other diners had called out to him as he made his way to the table – Jay believed they wanted to give him privacy. Now, this onslaught from the garrulous consultant was intensifying his already foul mood. Wasn't it his job to be the dispassionate one? As Tackman continued to enumerate the ways the misadventure at the arena had made his job infinitely more challenging, Jay fought the urge to sack him on the spot. But he had dug a China-sized hole, the man's services were required for him to climb out of it, so instead he listened and stewed.
Tackman had concluded that Anderson Cooper offered the best platform from which to embark on what he referred to as “your apology tour.” He was friendly with the popular television host and thought Cooper’s ability to apprehend events in a nuanced manner would render him at least somewhat sensitive to Jay’s plight.
“What if he asks me about the accident?”
“I spoke with your lawyer about this. It’s his opinion that you insist what happened was entirely unintentional, and that on the advice of counsel you cannot say anything else. But you want the interviewer to ask the question. You can emphasize that it was an accident, one which you deeply regret, and will haunt you until – choose your time frame.”
“Forever works. And once you’ve got that out of the way, what you want to do is apologize to everyone, to Dag and Dag’s family, the basketball community, the black community, and this is the most important apology of all: To everyone I have hurt.”
“To everyone I have hurt?”
“Do you have a problem with that? It’s essential.”
For someone whose guiding principle was simply to be a moral actor, the idea of apologizing to "everyone I have hurt" was unspeakable. In a religious studies class, Jay had learned about the Jains, a group in India whose members swept the path in front of them with a broom as they walked so as not to harm any form of life with their feet. While Jay knew he was no Jain, the idea that he had hurt people on a scale this apology would imply was an assault on his core identity. Yet there it was. His version of accepting responsibility had resulted in a barrage of projectiles aimed in his direction. He had no choice but to trust Tackman who, taking a break from his peroration, was finally forking a bite of the tuna melt into his mouth.
"You have to understand, Jay, we're living in a different time." Tackman took a sip of his tomato juice and grew thoughtful. "No one cares about the tragedies of kings. Those days are gone. Now, it's all about who’s the most aggrieved, who can whine the loudest. Heaven forbid someone like you has a complaint. It's not allowed. No one is interested in your story anymore. It's the Time of the Victim, and you are in no shape or form a victim. You know what else you're not? A protagonist. You, old chum, are the villain in this tale. Our job is to make you the protagonist."
Jay knew this, but to hear it spoken aloud was unnerving.
Seth Greenland is an American novelist, whose work includes The Bones (2005), Shining City (2008), The Angry Buddhist (2011), I Regret Everything (2015), and most recently, The Hazards of Good Fortune (2018), excerpted above. Greenland is also a playwright and screenwriter, whose play, Jungle Rot, won the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund for New American Plays Award and the American Theater Critics Association Award and was anthologized in Best American Plays.
Hazards tells the story of Jay Gladstone, a man born to privilege, whose civic leadership and philanthropy can’t save him from the forces of a new, woke world. Gladstone’s journey is interwoven with the novel’s other main characters: opportunistic District Attorney, Christine Lupo, NBA star forward, Dag Maxwell, and Gladstone’s radical daughter, Aviva. As a commentary on contemporary American culture, Hazards, asks important questions about agency, power, and self.
In what way, if any, are the characters mindful of their actions? It seems as though Jay is thinking about his changing role in society, but would you characterize him as a mindful actor?
Mindfulness in fictional characters does not lead to conflict and without conflict, a busy reader will stop reading. Conversely, the arc of many novels will be about how a character becomes more “mindful” or self-aware. Unlike when it’s present in a character at the beginning of a novel, mindfulness at the end can be narratively satisfying. When the reader meets Jay Gladstone, the protagonist of The Hazards of Good Fortune, he is not particularly mindful of his actions. Through the course of the story, as he experiences the misfortunes that befall him, he develops a capacity for reflection and, as such, becomes a more mindful actor.
The novel illustrates a dismantling of an old-world order by a new world order (the “non-woke” vs. the “woke.”) In what ways do the main characters’ (Jay, Aviva, Dag, Christine) perception of self shape the general narrative of the novel (and by extension, society)?
Every one of the four main characters in The Hazards of Good Fortune views themselves as the protagonist of their own story. That their stories are occurring within an overarching meta-narrative is lost on them. Only Jay, toward the end of the book, is afforded a glimpse of the larger picture. Like most people, the characters of the book are understandably caught up in their own concerns, unable to see the interconnectivity of which they are a part. In this sense, they reflect our society and their behavior might be seen as an explanation of why American life can seem so dysfunctional.
The excerpt from Hazards discusses how Jay is considered a villain during the “Time of the Victim.” How does your novel deal with the hero-villain dichotomy?
Since the novel deals in the nuance of gray rather than the certainties of black and white, Jay is not a traditional hero in the Joseph Campbell “hero’s journey” sense. One of the themes of the novel is misapprehension, or how a person can be mistakenly identified as one thing when he is in reality something else. Some say Jay is an anti-hero, others that there’s nothing heroic about him. This is how people talk about a complex character caught in a morally fraught situation.
As the story progresses, it’s suggested that the incoming power structure is just as self-interested and manipulative as the previous one because ultimately, all humans behave the same under pressure. How do you think the incoming power structure could avoid the mistakes of the previous one? Or are we all doomed?
The cliché goes like this: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Why is this a cliché? Because it’s true. People are people. The generation that came of age in the 60s, the one that was supposed to save the world, has given us Donald Trump. The woke generation of today will probably do something equally appalling. Progress is not linear; it comes in increments. Things that are acceptable slowly become unacceptable. The spread of mindfulness practice helps tremendously with this. Only twenty years ago, mindfulness was a marginal idea. Today, well, if you’re reading this, you already know the story. Progress takes patience, and there will be setbacks, but I’m cautiously optimistic. We’re not all doomed (I hope).
To what extent do the characters exhibit agency in the novel? Are they the authors of their own future or are they beholden to the social structure?
Everyone is beholden to the social structure in which they find themselves, likewise are the characters in The Hazards of Good Fortune. They might view themselves as independent actors with free will to spare, but they are operating in a deterministic universe where all events are driven by larger conditions. They can make choices (the illusion of free will) but outcomes hew to universal laws. Each of the characters embodies the sum of their individual life circumstances and the decisions they’ve made within the frameworks of those circumstances. So, choices are driven by conditions/circumstances which leads to unavoidable results (Fictional characters, they’re just like us!). Not to get all Buddhist, but it’s the wheel of samsara. Can the characters in this novel break free?
How do think a daily mindfulness or meditation practice would change Jay Gladstone? Dag Maxwell? Aviva? Christine?
There is not a single character in The Hazards of Good Fortune who could not benefit from a daily mindfulness practice. Were they able to step back, calmly assess the challenging situations in which they find themselves, and respond mindfully rather than react reflexively, they would lead more fulfilling and infinitely happier lives. Of course, then there would be no book.
The Hazards of Good Fortune is available from Europa Editions. Click here.