A Hundred Thousand Billion Lonely Guys: A Conversation with Jeff RagsdaleBy Davis Schneiderman
June 25, 2012
If remix culture—predicated on both intensified user interaction and a crowdsourcing ethic—offers any clues to the future of publishing Jeff, One Lonely Guy may just be the Starchild of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Put simply, this is a sui generis exploration of loneliness, alienation, and depression packaged and bound—a book that is neither novel nor memoir, neither familiar nor completely strange.
Jeff is clearly a harbinger, although it remains difficult to surmise the shape of books that may arise in its wake. What’s clear is that the species, in some key fundamentals, may be in for radical transformation. As with William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959), Jeff is not a cohesive text submitting itself to easy genre classification. The problem of labeling a work composed largely of text message and phone call transcriptions is less important than the need to look closely at the implications of such a mixture.
Further, Jeff represents an experiment in compression. Here, the distance between the data-gathering experience of the conceptual work and hard copy publication is collapsed into a matter of months. Additionally, the book seems to suggest, in the raw quality of its content, that it may be working to fill its latter pages as you read. This is an illusion, of course, yet the ability of Amazon Publishing to bring Jeff so quickly to market radically re-envisions questions of authorship which directly assault a Romantic tradition that privileges the “time” we encode into the notion of that tradition’s conceptualization of authorial genius.
The book also brings its own baggage. Picture porters unloading bag after overstuffed bag from a railway berth—some readers will already know the story: In October 2011, a “down-and-out actor and stand-up comedian” posts a flyer around lower Manhattan. The poster, from which the book cover was styled, reads, “If anyone wants/to talk about/anything,/call me/(347) 469-3173./Jeff, one lonely guy.” The flyer quickly goes viral and Jeff ultimately fields tens of thousands of responses. Before long, Ragsdale’s former teacher David Shields, author of 2010’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto—a partially collaged exploration of genre and authorship—assembles the book with Michael Logan.
My interview with Jeff follows, after a brief gloss on some of the key issues.
1. Form: Jeff is comprised of an unpublished Ragsdale essay, which Shields and Logan cut and collaged between transcripts of Jeff’s text messages and phone calls. The essay sections are italicized in the book and the reader quickly perceives Jeff’s voice: at once unforgivingly direct and at times uncomfortably introspective. We learn the most about his troubled relationship with “Kira,” the dissolution of which seems to be the catalyst for the flyer. The relationship, at least from what we are offered, would qualify to many as dysfunctional and abusive. It is from the depths of Jeff’s self-presentation of his story that we, to some extent, juxtapose our impressions of the actual transcripts.
2. Speed: This Internet meme exploded in October 2011. The book was released 5 months later, in March 2012. The writers chose Amazon, in part, because of the company’s ability to quickly release the book. The Print on Demand quality is high because of Amazon’s business model, which not only publishes their own POD books through this imprint, but also provides the same service for other publishers. This model accomplishes in print what Amazon has also done in its company-imprinted Kindle Singles work: the publisher aggregates many of the separate tasks of a traditional publishing house into one streamlined space. In the compression of time from idea genesis to publication—significant here for the notability of Shields—the book becomes, well, markedly different than other books. Further, as the structure of the text diverges from the publishing standard of what a “book” might be, we see a perhaps unanticipated match of formal experimentation with publishing innovation. Were this book simply a run-of-the-mill romance narrative in its content, the import of the time-compressed publication schedule would be significantly muted.
3. Authorship: This is the most significant upending gesture of the text. The content, transcribed and provided by Jeff, puts Ragsdale in the somewhat Victorian secondary position of archivist or stenographer. Yes, Jeff conceived and executed the project, but he did not “produce” “original” text for the bulk of the book, excepting the essay that Shields and Logan have cut throughout the transcripts. Excepting the essay, Jeff would not be the author of the book according to most conventional definitions of authorship. Additionally, Shields and Logan, for their part, might have been located in an earlier publishing moment in the position as editors rather than authors. They have arranged the material, as detailed below, but have not “originated” it, as Ernest Hemingway supposedly wrote about fishing, to reference a much-less interesting example.
Even so—and here sits one of the many interesting aspects of the text—were the book absent of Jeff’s essay, it would still feel like Jeff’s text. The rise of the collaborative and conceptualist turn in literature, in part presaged by Shield’s Reality Hunger, sets the stage for this project to happen off-stage, and then be recuperated into the space of a printed text.
Finally, as Ragsdale was a former student of Shields, it is reasonable to assume the latter’s literary profile helped the project find its shape and home. In this way, authorship still looms large, even when the influence of its mechanism may be productively flipped. It seems entirely reasonable to suppose that this book would have been published without Shields’ involvement, but this is precisely the challenge presented by Reality Huger, taken up in the practice of Jeff, that complicate the divisions between author and editor, conceptualist and stenographer, reader and participant.
Together, this meta-context makes for a compelling package, and the text itself—with its polyphony of voices both desperate and sublime—adds interest to a piece that on some level seems essentially empty. Jeff may be a cry from the lonely to the lonely, but it is also something not yet easy to articulate: a cry that becomes a book that fills a hole that becomes this book.
Below, Jeff enlarges on some of these themes as he engages in a conversation about the project via a series of email exchanges. Given his responsibilities on the phone, as you will soon discover, it’s a wonder he has the time or energy to respond and keep responding.
The story of the “Jeff, One Lonely Guy” flyer is well known, especially as an Internet meme. Can you say a little about the space you were in when you posted the flyer? Did you expect this level of response?
I was extraordinarily depressed when I posted that flyer. 2011 was my worst year to date. I was beginning to lose hope. I was isolated. (I’m terminally shy.) I worked in the most disgusting office in NYC, which says a lot. I went through a terrible breakup towards the end of 2011. For the first time in my life I began having suicidal imagery. At one point I saw myself walk to Riverside Park to meet my ex, put a gun in my mouth, and pull the trigger in front of her. I had similar imagery of putting a gun to my head. I just wanted to talk to anyone when I posted that flyer. I didn’t care who called me. I’ve been lonely my entire life, but this was the lowest. I was exceedingly angry, as well, at times having violent thoughts. (Isolation makes you violent. Even homicidal.) Thinking about my ex with someone else was eating me alive. I wrote her horrible, threatening emails. I was in serious trouble.
I thought I’d be lucky if 20 people called me from the flyers I posted. Immediately, New Yorkers started calling, by the hundreds, offering me advice, support, jokes. Soon New Yorkers uploaded photos of my flyer onto the Internet and my flyer went viral. To date I’ve received nearly 70,000 responses from people all over the world.
If you didn’t expect the response, was there a point where any of this made you feel, well, less lonely? I want to get at a larger question about if the type of attention you received in the course of this project (and perhaps interviews such as this are extensions of that attention) might actually influence your feelings? Will basically random human contact alter the baseline of what I perceive to be a bit of an existentialist funk?
People constantly say, “You’re not lonely anymore.” Not true. I’m less lonely. I’ve become a little happier. Many people have given me invaluable advice along the way re: happiness, forgiveness, self-help handbooky stuff, etc. The interviews don’t influence my feelings. I constantly check in with myself. I tell myself to be honest. I believe life is terribly short, an accident, so I want to be as honest as possible—because existence is really a joke. The only meaning I can find in life is trying to help someone (I hate altruism)—help someone to help them—not so I feel good from helping. I know this attention won’t last. I really don’t know what this even is … again, I thought I’d get at most 20 calls. I’m over five months into this and I’m just going to try to reach back to as many people as possible.
What about authorship? What’s interesting to me is how this book is a collaborative enterprise between you, David Shields, and Michael Logan. How did the text or this idea of a group-produced work evolve?
I was a former writing student of David’s. I felt there was possibly a book here. I described some of these conversations I was having with people. He and his friend Michael were mesmerized. We came up with the idea of taking these conversations and combining them with passages from a 25,000 word personal essay I’d written, which was (originally slated to be published) in The Seattle Review. David and Michael called themselves the re-mixers.
So, to what extent does the remix of the essay—with paragraphs appearing now in juxtaposition with the transcripts of the calls/texts—give us a “picture” of “you” in line with the original intent of the essay? There is a brutal honesty, or the illusion of it, in some of these passages. You don’t come off in the best light, always, and I wonder to what extent your willingness to write about some of these episodes in your relationship with Kira, and then, your willingness to let David and Michael repurpose these, speaks to both the ethos of the project as well as some comment upon how low you felt? Put another way…is this a re-mix that seeks to somehow redeem its subject? What does this book say to you, about you?
I don’t feel this remix seeks to redeem me or anyone. The intention was to encapsulate a piece of existence, reality (and reality is terribly strange, nonlinear, and makes zero sense). Some have said: “Jeff is all of us, but he lets his freak fly.” Perhaps. I am flawed, but I’m honest about it… I do, though, feel the book as a whole offers glimmers of hope, which is the way life is. Tragedy—genocide—cancer lurking around the corner—chaos—sparkles of happiness—adultery—a second marriage—then death.
Did you have any editorial say in what David and Michael did? Could you veto any of their cuts?
David, Michael and I worked as a team. We certainly had issues, disagreements. Producer Robert Evans said if you don’t have heated disagreements in creative endeavors, usually the work turns out unremarkable. If David thought something worked better on page 25, or I did, we worked it out.
How did you keep all these notes? Text messages are easily preserved, of course, but what of phone calls? Did you take copious notes on everything or is this a selection of greatest hits from the memorable ones that you did document? Did communicating with these people take up all of your time? It must have been exhausting on some level…
I didn’t take any notes or save any texts the first month. I lost thousands of remarkable conversations. I had no idea where this was going. Then I started saving texts and taking detailed notes on each call. I would write the phone notes up into prose. David, Michael and I would then pick the texts/calls that worked best within each sleeve, pressed against my essay. The book has been completed for…months. I’m getting even stronger material now. The calls don’t stop. And once people understood the merits of the project, from reading articles such as the New York Post piece, they started opening up and being more candid from the start, which allowed me to really get inside their skin. I have most of this material on my Tumblr: jeffonelonelyguy.tumblr.com
Taking calls and texting has consumed most of my time. Some days I’ve been on the phone sixteen hours. It’s helped me through this painful time by allowing me to focus on things other than my breakup. It came out of nowhere. Within a week of posting the flyer I was getting thousands of calls a day. It was going from one extreme to the other. I’m an extremist.
The emotional toll was heavy at times. I’d notice at the end of a day of texting and talking to people, I’d be very emotional, even angry at times. I’m not a trained therapist and I was hearing all these difficult, tragic stories. Taking it all in. I’m by no means complaining, this accidental journey is the best experience of my life. Six months ago I would’ve never dreamed I be “inside” this strange world. It’s a constantly evolving world. Where it’ll end up—I hope—is with open, free phone lines (many people can’t afford therapy and need to just vent). I also hope to see “loneliness groups,” similar to AA groups. Loneliness is as destructive as alcohol or heroin. Loneliness is very similar to disease and addiction. Lonely people need treatment just like alcoholic and addicts. Loneliness groups would save lives.
Do you see yourself continuing to be the person who will listen? Do you ever not respond or not answer (you must), because you’ve already done so much?
I try to answer every call/text. Sometimes it’s impossible. Many times actually. I know I will not be able to do this forever. I get complete burnout now, after six months. (Again, understand I never thought this would work in a million years.) The goal at this point is to have a free “talk line” and hopefully teams will always be answering 347-469-3173 round the clock. So many bedridden people have said how they love this idea and that they would love to work with this number. These bedridden people can’t get out to meet people. They need to talk, be social. This type of phone line would allow them to contact/talk to people. This is such a basic overlooked need in general.
The most painful aspect of leaving this number is that so many young people have reached out to my flyer. I’ve given them the best non-professional advice I’m capable of. For me it’s incredibly sad that teens are calling this number (the ones who are sincere). They have no one else to turn to except this “crazy” flyer on the net. Most of these teens text first: “Hey.” Let that sink in. Think of a teen texting that, how vulnerable he/she is. They’re doing everything to make a friend, someone who will listen to them, respect them, love them. It just kills me that they reach out to this flyer.
Your comments about the authenticity of the reactions raise a number of points. Particularly, I want to explore the reverse question: often, we think people read books to get closer to the author—which I see as a flawed Romantic notion. Your process reverses this: these people poured themselves into you, and while I am sure you shared in return, you seem to have taken on the role of quasi-therapist, as you suggest above. In this way, the remix form seems apt. Would you agree that this book, which can be difficult to read for its content and which also defies the form of a standard book, puts you, Jeff, into the older position of universal reader…and the correspondents in the role of author?
Put another way, are you the receptacle? Does Jeff suggest a future for literature, or is this type of project an anomaly?
As we understand more of the universe—that it’s deity-less, that it’s accidental, that’s it complete chaos (asteroids are coming our way right now )—more people will be prone to urgently putting down their experiences in a raw form. Any raw, honest form. We used to pray. Modern prayer is Facebook. The only trend, until we are extinct, is (candor). You cannot get beyond being honest about yourself. Human art will peak at this point. There is nowhere to go after that. How can you follow someone who just spilled his/her guts? You spill yours.
Jeff, One Lonely Guy
Jeff Ragsdale, David Shields, and Michael Logan
Amazon Publishing, 2012
*Listen to Brad Listi’s conversation with Jeff Ragsdale on the Other People podcast.
“KIRA” is awfully quiet?