Oshawa, Ontario-born, Vancouver-based Jay Hosking’s Toronto-set first novel, Three Years With the Rat (Hamish Hamilton), combines time travel to sci-fi noir to tell the story of a man who goes looking for his recently disappeared, mentally-ill sister. Hosking has come to his material boasting some flamboyant bona fides: a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard doing research on cognitive decision-making and the human brain, he has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UBC as well as a creative writing M.F.A.
Brad de Roo: How would you describe your novel to a previous version of yourself, a version who existed before the book was written?
Jay Hosking: I would tell my former self that it’s the detective story you (I?) always wanted to read. It’s about what happens when the known brushes up against the unknown, and how to live with dignity when reality is so vast and mostly incomprehensible.
BdR: That last line could almost pass for a description of writing, or making art in general…
JH: Funny. I just had a very similar conversation with friends. I would argue that what I just wrote is a decent description of some post-post-modern writing (ugh, we are linguistically doomed), but that writing/art itself can perform quite a few functions. Over beers, my new friend went the route of “art tells you truths you already knew but had never been able to put into words,” a completely valid argument and very different from mine. My other dear friend added that it could also help you understand new ideas, make sense of seemingly disparate things that are in fact interconnected, and that art functioned best when it made you think and feel. All valid, I’d say.
BdR: Your book readily questions the nature of both time and self. What sort of research did you do to better philosophically grasp these linked topics?
JH: I kept three books on my desk throughout my time writing the Rat book: Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott, which deals in both social and physical constraints on our thinking; A Very Short Introduction to Nothing by Frank Close, which demonstrates how our human measures and techniques limit our understanding of abstract concepts in our world; and The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, which is a good reminder of how each of us deals with making meaningfulness in a pointless universe. Beyond these books, I leaned pretty heavily on Epictetus, as well as Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
BdR: There also seemed to be some interaction with the concerns of Cartesianism – particularly his Evil Demon argument and his idea of the Cogito?
JH: I’ll confess that I wasn’t particularly familiar with his Evil Demon, but upon looking it up, I can see that I was influenced by art that clearly was inspired by this idea. Who isn’t inspired by ideas of the nemesis, or the fetch/doppelganger, etc.?
BdR: Your academic background in neuroscience has presumably informed your philosophical concerns?
JH: The philosophy of science, and my academic background in general, probably informed me more than neuroscience per se. Of course questions of time perception, memory, and agency are informed by studying their neurobiological bases, but I was as much fascinated by why scientists chase these questions, what their motivations are, and whether there are better and worse ways to explore our worlds. The notion of science is so particularly embedded in popular culture – we essentially have two scientist archetypes, the All-Grown-Up-But-Still-Impotent Nerd and the Mad Scientist – and they really conflicted with what I’ve observed in my own research career. Additionally, we all act like scientists, in that we navigate reality and test for its unyielding principles, and I wanted to show how that desire to know was embedded in all of us, for varying reasons.
BdR: Other motifs from this world also seep into your story – labs, rats, and scientific methodologies and epistemologies. Did autobiographical elements come into play here?
JH: Hah. Not so much. I mean, I suspect every book has stolen details from the writer’s memories – a turn of phrase, the sound of the wooden floors at work, a kiss that turns into a laugh – but I can’t say that any narrative element is borrowed from my own life. The closest analogue would be in the relationships on display, their dynamics, and how good people can come into conflict with one another. That one is painfully familiar, both in my own life and those of my loved ones.
BdR: Did you look at many other fictional models that incorporate science and story?
JH: I’m not sure I was so clever in my preparations! As a kid I read a lot of science fiction and, like I said, there are well-entrenched scientist narratives out there (the nerd, the mad scientist) that I wanted to avoid. But I would say the models for the Rat book came from weird fiction, like Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or Auster’s New York Trilogy, or Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I love stories where relatively normal people who live in an otherwise normal world come in contact with the inexplicable or uncanny, and I think readers will recognize that in the Rat book.
BdR: Do you find stories that totally depend on realism to be boring or limited by contrast?
JH: Definitely not. Stepping outside of reality is an easy way to get to psychologically interesting ideas, but it’s certainly not the only way. There is nothing boring or limited about Kris Bertin’s debut collection (Bad Things Happen), or Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, or many other strictly realist books I’ve loved. And even when I think a genre or format is tired or formulaic, there’s always someone who comes along and contradicts that assumption. Just look at Jen Neale’s story “The Elk-Headed Man,” which won the Bronwen Wallace award a few years ago; it’s a “dudes go to a cabin while hunting” story, which is usually a cringeworthy setup, and she made it brilliant, funny, sad, and meaningful.
BdR: The conflicts and inconsistencies of relationships are mirrored in the novel’s constantly shifting time frames. What about how we view ourselves in space and time affects how we relate to others? Do we have a tendency to get stuck on how others were, or how we remember them, rather than how they are now?
JH: My personal experience, for both myself and my loved ones, is that a profound change happens across our twenties, as we learn not only how to live autonomously but also how to recognize and fulfill our desires and ambitions for life. And unfortunately, we often peg people into the role that those people played when we first met them, even though they are growing and navigating their lives in the same way as us. On the neuroscience/psychology side of things, we have a tendency to adjust our internal narrative, the story of our lives, to suit our current beliefs and biases; we may undercut our failures, or overemphasize our roles as agents (rather than acknowledging our dumb luck or privilege), or make a thread through our lives where no such thread exists. I think that looking at the same relationships over different years, in quick succession, is a good way of unravelling our self-delusions or confabulations: seemingly supportive friends may in fact be controlling, cruel ex-partners may in fact have been putting up with a lot of your bullshit, and so on.
BdR: Your novel takes place at a time when the internet was starting to boom via social media (2006–2008). Do you think the increasingly digital world we live in at all exacerbates this emotional archiving of people?
JH: Personally speaking, no. As someone who has spent the last seven years in places I knew were “temporary,” I primarily use the internet to connect with people I otherwise would have lost touch with, and thus my digital connections are arguably even more fluid than friends I see regularly in person. I look forward to researchers really unravelling particular developmental or psychological shifts using these digital archives, though; I don’t think I’ve ever gone back to the start of my Twitter timeline, for example, and observed how the meaningful moments in my life manifested in social media. There is such a glut of data online that I think it’s pretty rare for people to look back, or for the threat of emotional archiving to be substantial. But I don’t really know and haven’t considered the subject too carefully.
BdR: Do we run the risk of living increasingly out-of-synch subjectivities because of these technologies?
JH: Again, it may be more indicative of my personal experience, but I think the threat of out-of-synch subjectivities comes mostly from contemporary socioeconomic conditions. In particular, the work that is available to us is now mostly fragmented, volatile, temporary, and poorly paying (especially as compared to our costs of living). Because of this, and unlike my parents’ generation, I’ll probably never have a stable job, never own a home, never feel like I can fully settle into a given city (I go where the work is), and never retire. This has profound effects on how I see the world and how I invest in personal relationships. Every time I leave a city, for example, I leave behind a set of friends and social dynamics. It seems like the few people whose conditions are stable, who are able to maintain the same job or home, fall out of synch with those whose life conditions are much more unstable.
BdR: You certainly highlight this generational and economic out-of-synchness, yet I wouldn’t say Three Years with the Rat is overtly political. Would you consider writing something on these themes in a more political way?
JH: It’s certainly possible, but I think it’s more likely that it’ll keep slipping into other types of stories instead of being the story itself. Sort of like our own lives, right? We have to deal with these generational and economic realities, but usually in the context of falling in love, being good to our friends, finding meaningful ways to spend our days, and so on.
BdR: Was creating enduring subjectivities (i.e., characters) while exploring the nature and limits of subjectivity as complicated as it sounds?
JH: Nah. I had a story, an inciting incident that caused particular characters to unspool in certain ways, and everything flowed from there, just like any other book (maybe?). I would say that it was characterization that got the most attention during the editing process, though.
BdR: Your central rat-character, Buddy, has a personality all his own. What is it about rodents that they reappear so often in fiction?
JH: Well, I’d argue that rats are the real stars of the rodent world. Mice are dumb as dirt, and little jerks to boot. Muskrats? Pretty cool homes. Ditto beavers, plus they get the tail. But by accident, scientists have been turning lab rats into domesticated (i.e., human-bonding) animals over the last century, and they (as a species) are quite amenable to it. The rats I have handled in my lab time are a very different species than those that my academic great-grandparents handled. In and out of the lab, rats are curious, intelligent, playful, loyal, motivated, and extraordinarily resilient. Well, the outbred strains are; the inbred albino ones are pretty dull by comparison. To get away from my rat love and back to your question, though, I’d say that mostly anyone can empathize with rats, with being the little guy forced to survive under impossible circumstances, with not being the prettiest or strongest or boldest but having to survive nonetheless. Rats endure. The whole world is trying to kill them, and still they endure. I can’t think of anything cooler.
BdR: I’d be ignoring a version of myself if I didn’t note the presence of independent rock in your book. As a sort of afterword, you include a list of albums that influenced the writing of it. What song would choose to end this interview?
JH: Don’t deny yourself, man! I would end this interview with the song “You Read My Mind” by Vancouver’s Ladyhawk. It’s on their record No Can Do, which you certainly should buy. The song is clever, pithy, danceable, emotive, and clocks in under three minutes. All things I should have aimed for here but didn’t?
—CNQ Web Exclusive, August 2016