These days it’s all too easy to forget the splendor (and strangeness) of nature. We live a comfortable albeit removed existence. The world burns, we swipe left. If there ever was an antidote to American ennui it’s reading Noah Cicero.
His latest work Give It to the Grand Canyon (Philosophical Idiot, 2019) will make you want to snap your phone in half, chuck the remains into a ravine, hike ten miles to the bottom of said ravine, share a vision quest with a pink rattlesnake, and calmly dissolve into the desert wind. Combine the Zen meditations of Gary Snyder with the biting humor of Edward Abbey and you’re only halfway there.
Cicero’s concerns are timeless—love, loss, identity—but he has crafted something wholly contemporary. The book is at turns funny, frustrating, euphoric, and heartbreaking, a philosophical diatribe penned by a college-educated cowboy who moonlights scooping ice cream for spoiled tourists. Has Noah Cicero written the great American novel? We think so.
I was fortunate to discuss Grand Canyon with Cicero via email. Before you read our exchange below, pick up a copy of the book from the good people at Philosophical Idiot.
“There are never books written by people who have worked concessions.”
First, an obvious one: What inspired (or compelled) you to write this particular book?
I go to National Parks a lot, there are always books being sold on at the visitor centers and tourist shops. There are never books written by people who have worked concessions. The books are all by National Park Rangers, scientists, and historians. I wanted a book to exist about the cashiers and hotel workers who work at the canyon, so I made it exist.
The Canyon is itself a major character in the book, often “speaking” or “calling” to people. The narrator Billy seeks higher truth, respite from psychic pain, and sometimes annihilation from the Canyon, but it means something different to everyone who encounters it. Travelers come from all over the world to project their desires and fears onto the Canyon, even though nature remains indifferent to our feelings. Why do you think the Canyon holds such symbolic power?
It doesn’t make any sense, a beautiful colorful crack on the earth. You can’t help but feel when looking at it, being in it, “Why does this thing exist?” It is like your brain can’t process it, especially if you are from a region full of grass and flatness. This is hard to describe in words, but if you went there, you would know. I think it is ineffable.
As always, your writing is often hilarious when it’s not emotionally gut wrenching. Comedy certainly feeds off tragedy. Is humor something you consciously strive for in your work or does it come instinctively?
I like being funny, I like making people laugh. I actually feel sad when I make a joke and no one laughs. When I am writing I am often laughing and giggling to myself. I have received a lot of inspiration from comedians, how to make comediac sentences. I have, yes, watched comedians and picked apart their sentences, to figure out how best to get a laugh.
I was pleasantly surprised the book takes several surreal turns, such as the encounter with Solon, the sheep who shares the story of Marcus Tullius Cicero (no doubt a distant relative of yours) and Dazu Huike. Billy describes the world as being filled with “X-Files,” the unknowable and unexplainable, like the reality bending Sipapu. Billy wonders if we’re too distracted by the banalities of everyday life so that we miss all the wondrous (and frightening) magic in the world. How can we better tune ourselves into the X-Files around us?
The most common phrase in the bible is, “Do not be afraid.” Maybe buy a book on the most haunted places in your city, go to those places and see if anything cool happens. Let people tell their ghost and glitch in the matrix stories and not be dismissive. Google a local place that is considered holy by Native Americans, go there, take a walk, pick up the garbage, be friendly. There is a place called Spirit Mountain/Grapevine Trail near Las Vegas, according to 10 tribes it is considered the birthplace of creation, I have gone there many times, it is a weird place.
Go to a place like that, hike until you are too tired to think, and right after that you might be able to hear something besides your own anxiety.
“We are like 99% the same, if we weren’t, nothing would work, we are like pine needles, leaves of grass, drops of water in the ocean, corn in a field. ”
The book incorporates numerous fables and legends—Native American, Western, Zen, Korean. At one point, the character Kaja remarks, “Everyone is same.” Billy counters that we all have unique cultural differences. Do the various mythologies point towards our collective commonalities or prove our distinctions (or both)?
To prove our sameness. We are like 99% the same, if we weren’t, nothing would work, we are like pine needles, leaves of grass, drops of water in the ocean, corn in a field. It is the 1% that we blow up in our minds, out of proportion to what is real. It is easy to point out cultural differences, but for me, I think it is best to focus on what we have in common. There isn’t a person that doesn’t want a job that pays enough to have a home for their family, and two teeth cleanings a year. There isn’t a human alive that doesn’t prefer a friendly boss as opposed to a power-tripping boss. There isn’t a human alive that doesn’t want to enter into a hospital and have their pains treated with the same respect given to wealthy people.
I have always enjoyed the stories that humans keep alive, Western people have always kept the story of Julius Caesar alive, even if we learn it through Shakespeare, we still learn it. I was talking with Chinese immigrants and I asked them if they knew who Bodhidharma and Hui Neng was, and they told me yes, they had learned it in school. They smiled when they told about what they learned about them. Seems like, if you want to be remembered for 1000s of years, you need to either be a general or a saint, but a general and a saint have this sameness in common, they are sacrificing their lives for those who will be forgotten.
“If you survive there for years, you have to be a little strange.”
The characters in the book are a colorful bunch. They are separated by ethnicity, language, class, age, yet they’re bound by all being outcasts. They don’t fit in anywhere, they’re runaways. What about the canyon attracts so many misfits?
The Grand Canyon, like most National Parks, has a private company run its concessions, and they have a funny hiring method. They bring in international students from all over the world, as long as they are willing to pay for their plane tickets and work visa. They don’t even really interview, the company sends a person to Thailand or Poland, they show up at a college and just sign some kids up. They get the kids looking for an adventure, people looking for adventures are usually pretty weird.
The hiring policy for Americans, was like, if you apply you are hired. The concessions at the parks pay less than $9 an hour, nobody wants to work at them. You only get people who are really tired of living in civilization, they are done with it and willing to take barely any money to live. Seriously, you do not have health insurance, dental care, there are animals everywhere, no air conditioning, life there is not easy. If you survive there for years, you have to be a little strange.
The Navajos and Hopis there were from the Reservation, or The Rez. They would often go home on their days off and visit their families.
Bipolar Cowboy is one of my favorite poetry collections. I feel the new book is its spiritual successor. The image of the cowboy is so evocative and appealing—totally free, self-reliant, tough but chivalrous, not taking shit from anybody—fitting in with Billy’s perception of manhood as related to his grandfather. But when Billy meets a real cowboy in the Bright Angel Bar his image is shattered. In this way, the cowboy is more a tragic than heroic figure. What does the cowboy represent to you?
I grew up on cowboy movies, I probably overly like the myth of the Eastern person leaving their home in the east and traveling to the West and being weird under a giant blue sky, in a vast desert expanse The cowboy symbolizes escape from atrophy, leaving an agonizing past. I don’t know man, I don’t like the damp East, its cracked streets, its dismissiveness and negativity.
I think of all South Western people as cowboys though, I’m in a Starbucks right now, there are Asians, Hispanics, Africa-Americans, and white people, they are cowboys in my heart.
Memory is a central concern throughout the book—either chasing it or trying to stamp it out. The episodic format lends itself well to these meditations on the past, present, and future without sacrificing coherence. There are frequent flashbacks, free association, changing points of view. I was struck by several shifts from first to second to third person, sometimes in a single chapter. How much are you concerned with structure while you’re writing? Or are you more focused on this area during revision? What’s your process?
I didn’t structure the book like that on purpose, it just feels like life is always a mixture of memory and the present, and worrying about the future. I spontaneously wrote it, I just went with the flow of amusing myself, seeing where I wanted the book to go.
Lastly, a fun one: If Give It to the Grand Canyon had a theme song what would it be?
Still Doing Time by George Jones https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7n20NsFXy8.