Q+A with Tariq Shah about his debut Whiteout Conditions
On March 17 we are publishing Tariq Shah's debut novel, Whiteout Conditions. Whiteout Conditions follows Ant as he returns to a snowy Chicago after 5 years away from home. Ant is going with his childhood friend, Vince, to Vince's teenage cousin Ray's funeral. After losing most of his family members, Ant has developed a strange attraction to the traditions of funerals.
Ray's death is different. Ray was the younger third-wheel that Ant and Vince were stuck babysitting while in high school, and the three share many formative memories: getting bomb pops the muggy summer the power was off, sneaking Ray his first taste of booze, or the time Ray found his father’s handgun while they were watching wrestling on TV.
In the depths of a brutal Midwest winter, Ant rides with Vince through the falling snow to Ray’s funeral, an event that has been accruing a sense of consequence. Shah navigates the murky responsibilities of adulthood, grief, toxic masculinity, and the tragedy of revenge in this haunting Midwestern noir.
We are thrilled to publish Shah's first novel, Whiteout Conditions. Following is a Q+A with Tariq Shah about his book.
Tariq Shah: Setting was vital, but in a sort of oblique, or counterintuitive, way. I suppose I conceived of setting and weather as separate entities. It was important to me to convey not just how it physically looks and feels, but how it encumbers one’s emotional state, as the weeks drag on, and spring never seems to arrive. One looks forward to March, only to find, upon its arrival, that it is just as miserable as February, haha. It is a demoralizing time of year,.and it is an ugly time of year, with little to look forward to once the holidays are over, and this is exacerbated by the amount of time one must spend in their car, driving throughout the area’s circuit of highways. And so, the weather is a sort of antagonist.
Coming up with an honest way to approach setting was a unique challenge. Climatic events wield their awesome powers and belittle the setting. The area in which the story takes place isn’t particularly beautiful, or unique--it’s spacious, yet segregated from nature, in many ways. Any place of beauty always seems to have a retaining wall between you and it, a highway that needs crossing to reach it.
I didn’t want to romanticize the characters’ surroundings, and I didn’t want to trash the place, either. I live in New York now, a very walkable town. The last time I went back to Illinois for the holidays, I was struck by how much empty space there was, how uninviting, and how marooning that felt. Not having a vehicle, even if I wanted to walk to the nearest gas station, that involved slogging along the side of four lanes of traffic. Many places don’t even bother with sidewalks. There I was, alone in a nondescript subdivision, surrounded by infrastructure, and even the midday light was another slab of concrete. There’s just the wind. I wanted that sense of the forlorn to exist on the page and be present in the lives of the characters, because living there, it is ever-present.
Q: Ant returns to Chicago for the funeral of his best childhood friend, Vince’s, younger cousin, Ray. It’s a haunting homecoming, one where you realize from the start that all the long-buried emotions will be unearthed. You, too, are from Chicago — does this book feel like something of a homecoming for you as well?
TS: For all its shortcomings, I have a special place in my heart for the Chicagoland area . And I also think that life in that region is quite a bit different from life in the city proper, per se, and also from life in central/southern illinois. This book was written just after my mother retired, sold our house, and moved out west, so I no longer had any physical connection to the place, no compelling reason to return. My last visit there was short, unceremonious. So, writing this book, reimagining the experience of winter there, I was trying to save something, to preserve something from being erased, or forgotten. It may be dreary, dingy, cold, and dull, but it’s mine. I felt an obligation to do it justice.
That process brought me a greater appreciation for that kind of life there. I think new chapters in life often provide new insights into the past, and with them come reconsiderations of who we were, who we are now, what that means.
Q: Vince, Ant, and Ray had what seems like a loving foundation from their parents, but were also exposed to teenage violence and believed in a more redemptive idea of justice. How did that toxic masculinity propel the story?
TS: I think it is the impetus for the entire thing, starting with Vince. I see him as embodying a certain outdated archetype of the American male who is slowly frustrated and poisoned by his own impotence. He doesn’t know how--or doesn’t want to learn-- how to function in a phase of life whose expectations have stripped him of pretty much everything he knows how to do, or likes doing. And so this manifests itself in weird, little, secretive ways in his life--drinking, causing mischief, being a slob, etc. And it spreads to the other men around him. Let’s be kids again! Break stuff! It’s an appalling sort of privilege they’re exercising, one their community is happy to overlook.
The world doesn’t really have a need for him, or that mode of thought and behavior, and he can’t handle that, doesn’t want to accept it, and lashes out, in terrible ways, when Ray dies. This is his grand opportunity to do what he feels he was born to do and come hell or high water, he’s going to get it done. Of course, this is just another lie he tells himself.His self-righteousness is a mask concealing a bloodlust, an itch for power, for dominance. He just wants what the violent all want. He is a guard dog bored out of his mind, or perhaps some incompetent reimagining of the punisher. Were he not so sad/pathetic, I’d call him a super predator.
Q: You get the sense that Vince and Ant are friends, closer probably even than brothers, but also that they’re really plain not good for one another. In the course of writing Whiteout Conditions, how did this relationship develop?
TS: Ant and Vince, their interactions, are an amalgamated mutation of every fight, argument, adventure, close call, commiseration, and car ride I’ve had with my own brothers and close friends. The cocktail of their personal histories, urges, regrets, and weaknesses make them volatile to themselves and each other. The development of their dynamic came rather organically. Men of their stripe befriend one another and sometimes they fit so well together they’re nearly complements, or so they believe, or wish to believe. There is a safety in strong friendships I think many young men take refuge in, and fetishize, even when the actual friendship is no longer healthy. They tend to neglect the increasing amount of daylight between their purviews, and conformity usurps conscience. In other words, maintaining bonds out of fear, and often resigning oneself to being bonded to that which requires a life of moral compromise. And so, it was just a matter of pushing this initial, healthy friendship in ways that felt true to me, and then continuing to push, introducing chaos, exploring the line delineating the point of collapse.
Q: Ant is drawn to funerals as sort of an emotional baseline after his closest loved ones have passed away. He’s attracted to their pageantry, emotion, and how they force average people to react to grief in a raw, honest way. How did this character trait evolve, and how does Ray’s death affect Ant differently?
TS: I think the series of losses that Ant experiences overwhelms him to a degree that he gives up on caring for people, ultimately. He goes to funerals for the pageantry/emotion/etc yes, but also because his new ability to appreciate these aspects is a function of not emotionally investing in the people around him. He’s callous. Stripped of all emotional context, funerals are really interesting cultural events! But Ant’s sense of his own powerlessness, deep down, is something he is unwilling to confront, and engaging in this funeral-visiting behavior is a way to make him feel powerful, in a way. He appreciates the honesty, the raw emotion, and perhaps the wisdom and moments of unvarnished warmth he can encounter, but there’s a big caveat there. He doesn’t really apply that wisdom to himself, the human warmth that makes him feel good doesn’t make him any less cold. In this way, he is something of a fraud, and a death worshipper. And it’s a strategy of self preservation that works well for him, until Ray’s death, the circumstances of which end up stripping him of this armor he has constructed to keep invulnerable. He has no choice but to look hard at himself. What’s more, the inertia of the events that unfold entangle him, and drag him across lines, into strange territories that, even for Ant, are too far--to the logical end of his own jejune apathy.
Whiteout Conditions comes out March 17, 2020.
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