A Simple Machine, Like the Lever is the debut novel from Evan P. Schneider and the second book published by Portland’s Propeller Books. It’s a book you could read in one long sitting, preferably on a Sunday, preferably leaving enough time afterward to take a bike ride alone with your thoughts. After bicycle commuting with Schneider’s appealingly self-conscious protagonist, Nick, you’ll be primed for insights and observations about the mundane things you see and do.
“All the fresh pleasures of taking a bike ride are to be found in A Simple Machine, Like the Lever,” says Mary Rechner, whose Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women was Propeller’s inaugural book. “The novel is by turns innocent, lyrical, wistful, funny and poignant. Necessity has made its observant narrator, Nick, hopelessly thrifty, but what has made him so bafflingly sweet?”
Schneider is the founding editor of Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac. His work has appeared in The Normal School, Matter, False and Propeller Quarterly, as well as on PDX Writer Daily, Sweet Fancy Moses and McSweeney’s. Born in New Mexico and raised in Colorado, Schneider now lives in Portland, where he works at Literary Arts.
Schneider will read at Powell’s City of Books Tuesday November 22 at 7:30 pm. For a complete list of his readings, go here.
He answered some questions for us via email.
In your acknowledgements, you thank Propeller Books’ editor and publisher Dan DeWeese, “whose persistent encouragement brought this project to fruition.” Will you tell us more about how this book came about? A few years ago Dan DeWeese and I were walking around Southeast Portland some Sunday afternoon and, as usual, we were talking about writing and books and publishing and the general undertaking of creative projects (I think he and I have probably discussed these topics for thousands of hours together). At some point on that walk he turned to me and said, “You know, you should write a book about bicycling,” to which I immediately responded, “No way.”
For some reason, I instinctively thought he meant a nonfiction book, of which there are hundreds already published, about almost every variety of bike and every facet of bicycling. I didn’t feel in any way qualified to add to that catalogue, as I don’t know anything specific or unique about cycling or the bicycle that hasn’t already been written. Eventually, however, I realized Dan, a very good novelist himself, was encouraging me to write a work of fiction about bicycling, which gave me considerable pause, because off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of more than about three novels in which the bicycle or bicycling plays a prominent role.
From there, the idea really began to eat away at me, as I thought it might actually be possible for me to write such a thing. What I did then was begin to survey many of the books I deeply enjoy and respect, such as the work of Nicholson Baker, and tried to imagine my favorite literary protagonists riding a bicycle.
You had me at the first two lines: “This morning, when I put on my pants, I went ahead and just rolled them up right away. I rolled them up so that I could save time later when I’m out in the yard, packing my lock, putting on my bag, putting on my helmet, and getting ready to go.” I’m a person who will sometimes realize at the end of my day, that my pantleg is still rolled up, so yeah, after I read your dedication, “For you,” I thought, why, yes. What do you think your novel offers the non-bicycling reader? It’s funny, because even though A Simple Machine grew out of the idea of writing a novel about bicycling, I hardly ever find myself describing the book in those terms, which surprises me since the bicycle significantly figures into almost every single chapter. I guess I’m saying that I would like to think that the novel offers as much to non-cyclists as it does to cyclists. Obviously, however, this might not be true. I don’t really trust that the novelist or artist can definitely tell an audience what his or her work is about (what I might think my book is about may not at all be what you think my book is about).
So, in addition to possibly offering something relevant to bicycle commuters, another strong aspect of the book is the act of having to make decisions under financial duress. Nick’s plight may resonate with anyone who has ever had to sacrifice in order to make ends meet—whether that means riding a bicycle to work for lack of an automobile, or graciously eating someone else’s leftovers—as well as to anyone whose life has ever been dominated to an extent by their own unique sense of ethics and aesthetics.
It’s always appealing to me to read about how a person spends his or her time and what occupies his or her thoughts—not just in general but in the specific moment-to-moment way we get to do with Nick, who is this funny, quirky observer of life. In that sense, I think there’s a broader appeal for readers who like a good character study. I, too, enjoy character studies a great deal. I have a longstanding appreciation of slim books like The Old Man and the Sea in which arguably not a lot of “action” takes place, and yet an entire mental universe unfolds on the page and you get to watch someone think through what’s happening to them. As a reader, I don’t even need a lot of plot to keep me interested in a story, as long as there are some subtle gems of recognition or realization that the character stumbles upon in the course of the narrative.
Bicycle commuters have a reputation for being arrogant, which, you know, is sometimes deserved, sometimes not. (There’s a great discussion about that in the comments here.) I would describe Nick as both arrogant and earnest, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not. Will you talk about your inspiration for him? That’s a fairly humorous and representative discussion you’ve pointed out in the comments section. I’m pretty sure there are quite literally thousands of those same circular arguments about bicycle registration and road rage and legal rights to the road and taxes all over the Internet. In many ways, then, my inspiration for Nick came directly from my own experiences of commuting by bicycle in several different parts of the country over the last eight or nine years.
There are some incredible interactions that occur when you’re on a bicycle (between you and other cyclists, between you and drivers, between you and the natural environment), and during the length of the project I just gave myself over to observing, remembering, recording, and then fictionalizing those interactions, as well as my own behavior in response to what I experienced.
Back to the comment thread you linked to: I think it’s very easy as a bicyclist—especially if you’re riding in a busy metropolitan area—to fall down the rabbit hole of angst, arrogance, and aggression while you
’re riding out there some days. There’s a part in A Simple Machine where Nick earnestly wonders if he’s invisible, mainly because he’s not wholly convinced other people (both drivers and cyclists) see him while he’s out there on the road, because in his view, they certainly don’t seem to act like they see him, and he doesn’t feel seen. Accordingly, Nick obsesses over how other people perceive him.
And yet he’s sort of oblivious at the same time. He steals an acquaintance’s bicycle light, justifying it to himself because the guy never uses it—it’s in a heap of stuff in a garage. And then when the guy tries to call him on it later, he either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care, and doesn’t consider how appalling this is going to be to his girlfriend, who’s friends with the guy. For Nick, practicality and functionality seem to be the ultimate ethical concerns, which is a unique way to look at the world, for sure, that ends up costing him quite a bit personally. I think that in Nick’s mind, he understands that he’s stealing, but the fact that the stolen item will be put to better practical use exonerates him of any actual wrongdoing. The further I got into telling Nick’s story, the more clear it became to me that Nick had a different ethical standard than those around him, a very rigid Kantian type of ethic that’s sort of obsolete, but that he strongly adheres to regardless.
I don’t know why, but I love it when Nick gets flipped off by the driver of a truck and spends the next few minutes contemplating a response. He decides “…I would probably just pull up and look at him through the passenger side window for a long time and not say anything, just staring at him sitting there.” Maybe because it’s so relatable—the ways we might obsess over someone else’s road rage. At then end of that contemplation, Nick ends up trying to brush it off by basically telling himself that everyone’s got places to be, and that it makes sense that he would get flipped off because that driver was just in a hurry to get where he was going. On the other hand, though, he spends the rest of his ride thinking about it. Personally speaking, maybe I’m just a little too affected by what happens on a daily basis, but every time I’ve ever been flipped off I can’t help but feel like I’ve done something terribly wrong. It stays with me for a long time and I always want to try to find the person who flipped me off so that I can apologize for whatever I did and clear up the misunderstanding, which is a totally preposterous notion, I know. Such an angry display by someone, though, really does weigh on my conscience for a long time afterward. In that vein, I wanted to create a character who was sort of disproportionately affected by mundane and relatively common everyday occurrences.
You’re the editor of ‘Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac,’ a semiannual periodical that you founded with Todd Simmons of Wolverine Farm Publishing in 2007. What are some of the things you’ve learned about bicyclists and bicycling while publishing and promoting it? Boneshaker is a submission-based literary journal that features poetry, artwork, reviews, interviews, charts, maps, and other literary miscellany thematically focused on bicycling. We modeled it after an old WWII soldier’s handbook and decided to call it an almanac so that we weren’t limited in scope to what we could publish in its pages, since when we started we really had no idea what people would end up submitting. But the response to it has been pretty tremendous.
Over the time I’ve edited the almanac, I’ve seen many, many people’s different perspectives and musings on riding a bicycle. We’ve published riders, scholars, writers, and artists from everywhere from British Columbia to Atlanta, from London to Austin, from San Francisco to New York, from Colorado to Ohio. Needless to say, editing Boneshaker has given me a wide understanding and appreciation of how and why people are so attracted to bicycling, and have been for over a hundred years.
Nick makes numerous references to books and, in the end, it’s through a book that he gains an important insight about his life. Reading is a simple pleasure for him, just like bicycling. Will you play bookseller and build us a book display around A Simple Machine, Like the Lever? Goodness, that’s probably a question best left for people who are trying to sell books, which isn’t me; I’m just trying to write them. I’ll be a good sport, though, and say that if you went with putting A Simple Machine beside other literary works that feature bicycling, I guess you could put it behind Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and Tim Krabbé’s The Rider. But if you decided to build a “If You Liked [XXXXX], Then You’ll Like A Simple Machine, Like the Lever” display, I suppose you might set it to the right of Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches and The Mezzanine, Erlend Loe’s Naïve. Super, and maybe even Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, in that those are all relatively short narratives in which a main character thinks through a predicament or situation he’s gotten himself into, in hopes of improving or becoming more mindful.
I’d add Mary Rechner’s Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women and Dan DeWeese’s You Don’t Love This Man both for the ways they’re connected to you and because they’re fantastic books. I completely agree. I look up to both Dan and Mary as extremely talented writers. Their fiction is beautiful and nuanced and I’d be proud to have A Simple Machine next to their work.
Will you name some books, stories, poems or songs you return to again and again for inspiration? For different projects I drum up and use different sorts of inspiration. For the duration of a project I find that I really bed down in and surround myself with work that echoes the style or sentiment of that which I’m trying to create. During the writing of A Simple Machine, for example, I found myself listening to a lot of Bill Callahan records. His lyrics and tone carry this understated pensive quality that I was really striving to imbue Nick with. I also looked quite a bit at how Salinger structures dialogue, which in turn led me to watch and re-watch every Wes Anderson film about ten times, trying to figure out what makes those films so serious and funny at the same time.
Nick would make a great character in a Wes Anderson film. Who would you choose to play him? I loved Jason Schwartzman’s performance in The Darjeeling Limited. The way he delivers some of his lines in that film (especially when his older brothers don’t seem to be paying much attention to him—he’s so downtrodden yet hopeful), as well with some of his physical movements (like smoking out the window of the train) strike me, now that you ask, as good fit for Nick’s character. If Mr. Anderson ever got a hold of the book and ran with it, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Schwartzman got a call. He’s a small guy who’s fantastic at playing earnest and somewhat arrogant characters, like Max Fischer in Rushmore.
Back to inspirations for a moment, though, The New York Times Book Review and Arts & Leisure section are also always very inspirational to me. I read those pages every Sunday morning and think to myself, “I wish I could make something as amazing as these folks.” At some point, though, you have to put all those things away and get to work making what you want to make.