David Mills on Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
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Books discussed in this episode:
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. – Samuel Johnson
Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis
Hello Darlin’! Tall (And Absolutely True) Tales About My Life by Larry Hagman
Focus People! Podcast with David Mills
DAVID MILLS ON “FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE” BY TASH AW
Julie Strauss: Hi David!
David Mills: Hi, Julie. How are you?
JS: I’m doing excellent. How are you doing?
DM: Yeah, I’m okay. I’m hanging on.
JS: Things are going well over in lovely London?
DM: Things are, well, I don’t know if going well is the way I would describe it. It’s a complete clusterfuck, but, you know, we’re all, you know, sort of being resilient and trying to carry on the best we can without much leadership from our incompetent government. So it’s probably quite similar to what’s going on in, in the U S.
JS: I was thinking this morning about that quote and I don’t know who said it, but there is a famous quote that when a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life. Have you ever heard that?
DM: Yes. I want to say it was Phillip Larkin.
JS: I was wondering if it’s still like that now in the ‘Rona times, when everyone’s locked in your house. I bet it’s a lot easier to get tired.
DM: Well, it’s easy to be tired of everything. Yeah. I think, I think that’s right. I mean, I’ve been in London for twenty years. It’ll be twenty years in June and it’s the longest place I’ve ever lived anywhere in my entire life. I’ve moved around a lot and I always, there was something about that moving every five, seven, ten years, that I found fulfilling, you know? A fresh start, a new challenge. And it, you know, I would grow in each of those moves. And even though I moved around London quite a bit in those twenty years, I’ve stayed here. And only in the past, maybe five years have I felt like, gosh, I miss that experience of being somewhere brand new, you know, where I have few contacts and I have to kind of restart the machine and rely on my wits a little bit. Also London, like so many places, it’s changing, you know? Like San Francisco, like LA, like New York. Any of the big, major metropolitan areas are getting super expensive and the artists and creatives are finding it harder and harder. And the independent shops are finding it harder and harder. The sort of homogenization sets in and a kind of corporate gentrification comes through. And, and I wonder, you know, am I too old now to go to those places that are more rough around the edges? Or am I living in a fantasy to think that I could find somewhere like that and, and find my way in that kind of place? I don’t know. So I, you know, I’m not bored of London. I always feel like every city I’ve lived in has been like a partner. And now we’re in a stage in our partnership where we know each other pretty well and we know what we love about each other. But maybe I have a little bit of a wandering eye, but I still love her.
JS: What has your reading life been like in the ‘Rona times?
DM: Well, I think like so many of us, I’ve been obsessed with the news. I was already someone who reads a lot of online content. A lot of topical stuff, not just politics, but topical. A lot about trends, a lot about culture, a lot about ideas. I love elections in any country around the world. Whenever that shows up, I’m into that. I like to find out what’s going on. You know, it could be an election in Paraguay, and I’d like to follow that story. So I’ve been devouring all of that stuff. I’ve found it hard to pull away from that and get into other worlds. I also like biographies. So I’ve been going back to some biographies that I’ve led left half read. Or rereading. That’s one place I’ve found myself. So, I don’t know. I just think I’m still settling into the new Corona world and reading, like everything else, has been disrupted.
JS: Did you come from a family of readers? Because we met in college, and what I have always remembered about you, even though college was a thousand years ago, you were a voracious reader in those days. We were so young and you were one of the most widely read people I had ever met.
DM: I think when we met, we did that summer program together. I think I was reading Michael Chabon’s “Mysteries of Pittsburgh.”
DM: I’m not as voracious as I was, to be quite honest. I go through moments where I read, I think like so many of us, we get so busy and our lives are so hectic. My brain has been colonized by my phone and social media and all that kind of reading, so that picking up a book has become less of a part of my life. My mother and my father both have always been great readers. My mom read voraciously and my dad continues to read. So definitely it was something in my family and it’s been with me part of my life, but to different degrees. I’m glad now that there is a little bit of time. I’m feeling Zoom overload, and kind of online overload. So I am turning back to reading and I had such a nice experience getting back into the novel that we both read together
JS: So how was this book introduced to you? Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw.
DM: My partner is Taiwanese and I was going to Taiwan for the first time. He was living here and then he went back to Taiwan and I went to visit him in Taiwan. And I thought I’d go to this great bookstore that has a massive fiction section, but then has a country section. Country by country. And each of those countries, you know, it’ll have, like, historical books or books about politics, but it will also have authors from that country and sometimes in that language as well. And so I went to Asia. And it wasn’t, I think there was China and then there was rest of Asia, you know, I mean that maybe there was Japan as well, but there wasn’t a Taiwan section, but somehow I found this novel and it’s not about Taiwan at all, in fact, but it is an Asian author and he’s, I think he’s British. But he’s was born in Asia and comes from Malaysia. And I wanted something to read on the plane to kind of get me in a kind of just get my head into Asia before going to Asia and sort of be kind of wanting something set in Asia about Asia. I just want it to want it to kind of taste it, get, you know, ground myself a little bit in that world.
JS: And have you re-read it, or is this a book that you reread frequently?
DM: This isn’t a book I reread frequently. It’s a book I recommend frequently. I’ve had numerous people that I’ve given it to and I’ve recommended it to have read it. And it’s always a great one to have a chat about. It really made an impact when I read it the first time. And it’s been so interesting rereading it, you know what it’s like when you reread any novel, you know, you see something else in it and it feels very different.
JS: Can you give a brief summary of what this is about for our listeners?
DM: I think it would be the perfect Netflix series.
JS: I was thinking the same thing.
DM: Yeah, it’s really a four, five, interwoven stories in Shanghai. And the thing that really excited me about it was this idea that, you know, we have in the US. We have New York. If you’re going to make it anywhere, you’re going to make it in New York. People from around the world go to New York. That’s where you go. And London feels that way as well. You know, people from around the world, they come to London. If you can make it in London, you know, it’s a nice place to really calm yourself. And in the early 2000s, right up through this past decade, Shanghai has been that for all of Asia and for much of the world, but definitely for Asia and for people who speak Mandarin it’s, it’s the magnet where people go to become themselves to find fame and fortune. It’s something that I’m so familiar with, that idea of moving somewhere to find fame and fortune, or to pursue your dreams. And I love the idea of recognizing that story, but placing it in a different city, in a different culture entirely. So there was something I knew really well. That drive and that ambition, but in a completely foreign setting. That’s what I loved about it. And I could really relate to all these people, because it’s a story of these four or five different people going to Shanghai and none of them are from there, and pursuing their dreams.
JS: What I thought was so interesting was that he could have structured the book and the pacing to mimic the lives of the characters. And it could have been a very exhausting book, you know, sort of rushed and striving and big city. And I don’t know, I was sort of expecting a coke-fueled, I dunno, like, Bret Easton Ellis book or something that kind of pacing. And I was so interested at the sort of simmering pace of it. The thoughtfulness of it made you sense that while these characters are striving so much, that the way he chose to present it, the ripple effect of presenting, it really made you feel the loneliness of such a busy city. And that was the word that I was thinking the whole time I was reading it as they were just those loneliest people I have almost ever read about. All of them.
DM: Yes, absolutely. They had this incredible ambition and dream each one of them to become something. And just behind that dream, was this incredibly profound despair. It was with them throughout and they were all so familiar with that despair. It was so a part of who they were. And yet, they were also so much about their ambition.
JS: They were all kind of the same person in a way, you know? They were different flavors of the same person. I felt very tender toward them because despite this despair that you talk about, they all held onto that. It’s such a human thing to think when I get to this point, whatever that next goal was, they all had it. It’s all going to be solved when I get this job, or when I get this man, when I build this building. And at first, I was, you know, it’s easy to read it judgmentally. No, it’s not. You need to get your head in order. But then the other half of me was thinking, bless your heart. Go for it. Go get it.
DM: Yeah, absolutely. That said, what was so exciting to me about reading it the first time was that kind of romance of, you know, Shanghai as this center, where that would draw people, imagine all the creatives, all the ambition, all that, all those people striving. That excites me and invigorates me the idea to being around that and being in a place like that.
And then when I read it this time, I sense that actually the author was satirizing that world much more than I saw the first time I read it. He was really tweaking those people and that world and that way of life much more than sensed the first time I read it. Especially now, you know, with Covid, and the toppling of our great edifice of consumption and ambition and acquisition and all these things that have driven us to this moment. And our president in the U S being the ultimate example of someone who’s driven by ambition and greed and nothing else. You know, we’re seeing through that so much more. And I think I read this and also with all the suspicion of China and the brokenness of that system and the kind of backwardness of that, the lack of transparency and all of that. I much more saw a critique of that world embedded in this story and the writing than I did the first time I read it, it felt more like a celebration the first time.
JS: I wish I had read it five years ago in times of excess. It’s fascinating to read it now and I, I will be so curious to read it again when things have changed again, and we are wherever we are next, which who knows what that’s going to be.
DM: Yeah. It, it definitely feels like a snapshot of a moment and a moment that’s just passed as well, you know? That makes it a particularly interesting read, I think at the moment now, you know, because it feels very relevant.
JS: Did you think that anybody, any characters in this book were actually intimate? That was the thing that I kept thinking about. As you know, I’m reading stranded in my house and every contact except for my husband and kids is, as we’re doing now, over a computer screen. But what was missing was an actual intimate connection between anybody. The closest one to that was the lady who worked at the spa and the rock star.
DM: Phoebe and Gary.
JS: They came the closest. And yet it was the most artificial, because it was entirely online. Which was again, so interesting to read in these days. When he finally revealed himself to her, and she said, that’s not who you are. It broke my heart.
DM: Yeah, I think it felt very real to me. And I think that feels very contemporary. And I think particularly, it strikes me that there’s something that’s very Chinese about it as well. You know, that intimacy is really distant. There’s a real distance. It’s there, but it’s so layered. There’s so much unspoken and so little ability or interest in direct communication. All the communication happens through signs and signals. I thought of that businesswoman and the man that she was building this business relationship with. And she sort of yearned for an emotional connection with him, and yet was never able to just say it. And then one moment when she kind of had an emotional breakdown in front of him, she was terrified that was going to not bring them closer together, but push them apart. So I was, like you, I definitely sensed that. But I also was kind of on the edge of my seat at every moment, just waiting that sort of terrible ecstasy. Will someone just say how they feel? It almost feels like classic British literature, you know what I mean?
Where they are all so formal and no one can say how they really feel.
JS: Have you read other books by this author?
DM: No, I haven’t. And he’s had a few other books. I think this was nominated for the Orange Prize. And I think he’s had others since then that have been on the long list as well.
JS: As I was reading the book, I was not surprised that this was something you would pick. Because I was thinking a lot about your comedy and how it is sort of that storytelling comedy, that sort of builds to a bite. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that you’re known for a very biting satire. Is that true?
DM: Yeah, I think that’s something that I’m known for.
JS: You’re not out there with, you know, watermelons to smash. You’re coming out to tell a story. I’ve always noticed the sort of subtlety of the barbs of it. And so I was not surprised that you like this book so much, because this is one of those books that you close and put away and think back and think, Oh, that one hit a little bit that, that last paragraph bit me a little bit. And you sort of dwell on it, even though it felt on the surface, because there were some funny moments in it, it felt on the surface like that was kind of a cute little moment. And then you can’t stop dwelling on that moment meant a lot. And I thought I just saw real parallels to how your act has the acts that I’ve seen of yours. How they work. And I was so fascinated by that similarity. Am I off base?
DM: I’m thrilled you see that? I mean, it feels like a real compliment. This feels like such an accomplished piece, an accomplished novel. It is a hugely ambitious novel and it takes you into a real world, you know? So I feel like he’s a fantastic writer, and it’s so narrative driven, there’s so much narrative in it. It really takes you down various sort of strands and streams. And yet it feels like a critique. He’s making a comment on the world, that specific world. And that’s definitely what I try and do in my work. You know, I don’t tell a story just to tell a story. Or I try not to in my comedy. I’m always commenting on something, some aspect of our world, some aspect of modern life or, modern manners or something.
JS: When you are consuming art, when you are consuming books and the television that you like, is it influential to your work or do you use it as escapism?
DM: I’d say there’s a bit of both. I find that as I get older, I’m incredibly drawn – I mean, it seems so silly, but I’m increasingly drawn to pretty. That was never the case as a young person.
And it was never something that I pursued in my own work – that kind of really pretty imagery and beauty, just real beauty. I can get quite emotional about that. That can draw me in, draw something out in me. Increasingly, when I’m in the presence of beauty, I don’t need a comment.
I don’t need an angle. You know, I love art hat’s making a comment on the world in some way or another. That’s always where I would go to first. But I’m finding myself just really craving simple and powerful beauty in music, in visual art, and in film. I don’t think there’s enough of it in our, our big golden age of TV right now. I don’t think there’s enough of just beautiful imagery and beautiful moments. There’s just not enough of that. And I wish we could find more of that on TV. So I’m absolutely inspired by other people and other work. And I also escape into it at the same time. A lot of what I do is watch big Hollywood films, and then comment on them in my work. Because that whole sort of Marvel trend is something that’s so easy to take down. There’s so much to sort of say about it. So much of the film that comes out of Hollywood in particular, there’s a lot to critique there, so it inspires me directly and also indirectly as well.
JS: It’s funny, you mentioned Marvel, because one of the things that I’ve been doing on this isolation thing – and I don’t know, I have no explanation for you, so don’t ask me why I’m doing this – but I just decided I should watch all the Marvel.
DM: Oh, my God. As if life isn’t hard enough.
JS: I have the four kids who are various levels of obsessed. I must say it is so much fun to watch it, and they get so angry at me because I’m not retaining it the way they retain it. I’m not as invested. The closest I can come is, that’s why I chose it: because I sometimes doze off in the middle of them and I don’t care. I don’t rewind, you know, it’s fine. I just need something that it doesn’t hurt my brain.
DM: Yeah. I know. I know the feeling, that just kind of super escapist. It’s like that thing that people say, that always infuriated me, but increasingly I understand it: when you’re choosing a film, like, Oh, you know what, I really don’t want to think. I just want to have fun. And I always say, well, wait a minute. Isn’t thinking fun? Isn’t that what fun is? And if you’re not thinking, to me, that I could never put those two things together. But I guess what’s just so frustrating is mindless fun is like the predominant output of our culture. I mean, we’re surrounded by mindless fun. It’s constantly pushed at us in film and TV and music and fashion everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, mindless, mindless fun. Sometimes feel like I need to escape that. And I want to go to a film to escape all that kind of mindless garbage being pushed at me throughout my life. So I don’t go to films from mindless fun because I feel like that’s everywhere around me.
JS: Right. And it’s impossible for me to know if in choosing to go through something as mindless as the Marvel movies, is it a function of my age? Or is it a function of the Corona isolation? Or is it just me giving into this massive marketing machine that is telling me that everybody else has watched Marvel movies, you should watch them all. And I don’t know. I hope it’s the second thing and that when the Rona times are over, I’m going to be back to – I need a good Henry James novel turned into a six hour miniseries.
DM: I think it’s no doubt all those things. But don’t underestimate it’s there’s also probably a desire to want to connect with your kids.
JS: Oh, sure.
DM: And that’s, that’s an important part. But I am hopeful that in five years’ time, this Marvel shit has faded from the moment. And not only has it faded, but we’re all sort of thinking, What on earth was that about? And the new crop of kids come up thinking that shit is so super uncool. I’m not interested in Marvel shit. That’s for losers. I almost feel like the fact that parents and kids go to it together makes me feel like it’s over. If only kids were into it, I could kind of respect it. But the fact that old men are going to Comic Con – it makes me think like, this is really not worthy. This there’s nothing to this. If it’s that mass, how good can it be?
JS: I see what you’re saying, but what I will say, the men I know who are very into it are the ones who grew up on it. And it does tend to be men who grew up reading the comics, which I never had any experience with that at all. But, I also get what you’re saying. It’s like when all the adults joined Facebook and the kids went okay, well, we’re done with that one. Let’s move on.
DM: Here’s a confession. I was super into comics. I had a comic collection right up into my late teens. Going to comic book conventions, collecting, you know, really into it. I can’t tell you how much money I spent on comic books. Something turned off at some point. It’s almost like my obsession with K-pop, which was, for a few years I was really into. It’s the pretty surfaces; they’re just boring. After two or three years of reading comics, you’ve kind of read everything.
There’s just not that much to them. It’s all pretty flimsy. And you must be feeling this with Marvel, like after watching three, four, five, six, it’s like, what? There’s nothing to any of these.
JS: Yeah, it’s the same. The kids always laugh at me because there is always the scene where the hero is between battles and his shirt’s off. And I always shout, “Beefcake!” and they go, Oh God. Because we always have to see them shirtless. And I can almost predict to the minute when we’re going to see someone’s biceps. But back to your point about losing interest in the comics, do you think the commodification of it, or I guess the democratization of it, turns you off? Because there used to be some cred to being the nerd, right? And now everybody’s a comic book nerd. Everybody’s a superhero nerd. When I was a kid Dungeons and Dragons was that, you know, the really weird kids played that game. And now, everybody seems to play it. Now, everybody talks about who’s chaotic evil, and, and there’s some, there’s something about the massive monetization of the comic book worlds that I think has maybe turned a lot of the diehard fans off.
DM: I think that’s right. It’s not just massive commodification of the comic book world. It’s the massive monetization of everything. Nothing is allowed any more to be a kind of quirky pursuit.
Everything has to be monetized to such a degree that it loses its kind of world that it is. You know, these things like comics and Dungeons and Dragons sort of steeped in this kind of world of weirdos. And in the steeping, in that tiny world, in that niche, it kind of got richer and richer and weirder. You know a word you never hear anymore? ‘Sell out.’ No one ever says that anymore. It’s not a concept. It’s not even a concept that young people even understand. Right? Because everyone’s sold out.
JS: Because we all want to monetize our hobbies.
DM: We’re all completely sold out from the minute we, you know, it’s like not even a thing anymore. I remember when that was a real thing, when people were like, Oh, I don’t want to sell out, but it just doesn’t feel like that’s around anymore. I mean, listen, I also love things that are totally sold out. I don’t want to put myself on some pedestal. But in the fact that they’re, you know, that we can’t enjoy things that are more niche. You know, it’s a big thing in gay culture. Gay culture is completely, completely sold out. There’s nothing left. There’s nothing, nothing. There is nothing left, especially now. I mean, the only thing that was left in gay culture were sexual spaces, right? Spaces where gay men would get together and have sex. It was of course the earliest thing of gay culture. And it was the last thing. And there weren’t many, certainly there were one or two in London and a few in Berlin and a few, you know, in most big cities had one or two spaces sort of underground the kind of spaces where men got together to have sex. But now with Corona, that’s gone. So now, if that goes, then every aspect of gay culture is transparent, open, out. Available. There’s nothing unique or specific about it anymore. It’s for everybody. Which is great on one level, but it’s also a great sadness as well.
JS: I’m thinking of all of the pictures of bachelorette parties that I see that happen at gay bars, which I just fundamentally hate that so much. It’s not a zoo.
DM: It’s not, but then the conversation becomes about inclusivity, right? And inclusivity is this idea that is promoted as valuable in every situation at all costs. And there are costs to inclusivity. There are great benefits, but there are also costs to inclusivity. And I think we rarely think about the costs. I wonder if that’s not worth interrogating sometimes.
JS: I didn’t expect this to go where it went.
DM: People will think I’m some sort of terrible person. I’m not against inclusivity. Of course, inclusivity is super important, but you know, conceptually, I just think it’s worth thinking about. What we lose and what we gain. If we are losing the, the deep thought and the deep individuality of these, you know, like I said, that Dungeons and Dragons kids were the weirdos.
JS: And I love those quirky kids who had their own bizarre habits, the subcultures that I was not a part of. And that’s a thing that we’re not used to in this day and age is that there are things that you’re not welcome at, necessarily. Particularly being a cis-gender, heterosexual, white woman –
there are a lot of subcultures that I’m not a part of and not allowed in. And that is okay. And that’s a really important thing to be okay with, so that these subcultures can be rich and vibrant and fascinating. And let me see the bits of them that I’m allowed to see.
DM: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. And I think that’s true for me. Obviously, there are tons of cultures that I shouldn’t have access to. But what are we going to do? You know, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe there are lots of young people with subcultures that we don’t see, that are really rich and really vibrant and really happening. And of course we’re not a part of it because we’re, you know how old we are, I’m 52 years old. Of course I’m not going to be part of the subculture, you know? My subculture’s the fucking old age home.
JS: Well, not quite yet. We’ve got a little bit of time. So, David, what are you reading right now? Are you in the middle of any books right now?
DM: Well, you’re going to love this. Someone gave this to me ages ago and I hadn’t read it. So I picked it off. It’s terrible, but I’m enjoying it anyway. It’s Hello Darlin! The Larry Hagman Biography. Written by the man himself.
JS: Yeah. I did not expect this at all. Were you a Larry Hagman fan back in the day?
DM: Huge, huge J.R. Ewing fan. In fact, for years I did a show with these two great performers, these two well-known Drag Queens in London called Johnny Woo and Timberlina. And the three of us did a show called Stark Dallas Naked. I played J.R., Johnny played Sue Ellen, and Timberlina played Pam, and we reenacted Dallas, but just with those three characters and we did it for years, at all different venues over the years. And then one of the three of us decided we should revive it. We had it all scheduled for revival in April, but that didn’t go ahead. So we’re trying to organize a Zoom – some sort of online version of it. We’re waiting on a cowboy hat. Literally, we’re waiting. I ordered it, you know, it’s coming from the U S and that’s taking forever. So as soon as that cowboy hat comes, we’re going to film this all from our separate spaces and that’s going to go out on our various channels. But anyway, I’ve always had this thing about Larry Hagman and J.R., and someone I know knew Larry Hagman and this isn’t just his autobiography. It’s a signed edition. He signed it for her and she gave it to me. And I would recommend for anyone if you’re a fan of Dallas. Or, if you don’t know Dallas, because these days, a lot of people don’t even know what it is, go on YouTube and just look up J.R.’s best moments. And see the magnificence of Larry Hagman. He is such a great actor. I mean, it’s a campy old show, but he’s brilliant and so funny and so smart and so well delivered. So sharp. It’s really great.
JS: Will you tell our listeners how they can find you?
DM: Absolutely. I’m on Twitter and Instagram, and I have a website. You can find some of my videos on there. And usually gigs are listed there, but I don’t have any gigs listed there at the moment because all my gigs have been canceled. And then of course I have a weekly podcast as well, called Focus, People! with David Mills. And you can find that on any of your good podcast channels. Basically, it’s me in conversation with interesting people talking about interesting things.
JS: It is one of my all-time favorite podcasts. I love it so much.
DM: Thank you. Thank you. That’s very sweet of you.
JS: David. This has been a delight. I want to thank you for introducing me to this book, which had never come across my radar before, and I was delighted to find it and to read it and to find this author, I can’t wait to read more of his work and, and I’m always delighted just to see your face and talk to you.
DM: It’s so great to talk to you and so great to see you. I’m so glad you chose me to be a part of your podcast. And, it was what a great opportunity to reacquaint myself with Tash Aw and “Five Star Billionaire.” So thank you.