All The Beautiful People We Once Knew by Edward Carlson is a dark, but interesting novel. Written in a poetic style and filled with rapt metaphors, it follows Stephen Harker, a disillusioned corporate lawyer, as he defends a private military contractor against the claims of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. A pessimistic take on America’s current cultural divides, and the costs of military privatization, All The Beautiful People We Once Knew is not an easy ready, but it’s gripping and engaging.
We’re delighted to talk to Edward Carlson about his debut novel.
Kelly Sarabyn: I felt like this book was incredibly bleak. Why were you drawn to such dark subject matter? Was the bleak mood a comment on the legal system and unchecked private military contractors, or was it a reflection of even larger themes? Is this book a critique of capitalism?
Edward Carlson: Respectfully, I don’t find the book to be that bleak. I think there are bleak moments, and bleak chapters, but there are also elements of redemption and absurdity. Whether or not a book is bleak, or comes across as bleak, is subjective to the reader. But mentally flipping through the chapters (as I sit and write this response), I can see why the book comes across as bleak. Lots of long walks at night, wanderings, need, loneliness, angst, disappointment. But I don’t think this is uncommon to being a working professional in New York City, where the expectations of what you are pursuing don’t align with the realities once you attain your goals.
I don’t think I was drawn to dark subject matter as much as writing what I knew and what I was experiencing at the time. I was struggling to put in long hours at the firm litigating cases against individuals returning home from our permanent wars, my personal life was in ruins, many nights of the week I was out late in a bar, and I was looking for salvation, for something to put my energy into, which was this book. We all have dark chapters in our lives; the question is how we manage them. I managed them with writing the book and Guinness.
As to whether the book was a comment regarding the legal system, unchecked private military contractors, or even larger themes, or a critique of capitalism, I think it is ultimately a critique of the adversarial system in which personal injury disputes are resolved. The adversarial system rewards the aggressive and the duplicitous. It rewards the aggressive defense lawyer who views almost any claim with skepticism. And it rewards the plaintiff’s lawyer with no scruples about trumping up their client’s injuries to obtain a bigger payout. That tension creates an energy that ripples outward throughout the legal profession, from the way lawyers obtain and retain clients to their 401Ks. And within this system there is little incentive to treat and heal — mentally or physically — those who ultimately look to the legal system to be made whole after a suffering an injury in a war zone as a private military contractor.
KS: The book unfolds from Stephen’s perspective, a corporate lawyer representing the insurer of a private military contractor. Stephen is both deeply passive and unhappy, spending the vast majority of his time at a job he seems to dislike, if not loathe. Is Stephen sympathetic, in your view? Did you like any of the characters? I ask because while I found the story and the characters’ points of view interesting, I didn’t find any of the characters likable; the most positive emotion I had was sympathy for Thomas. Were you worried constructing characters with so many flaws would turn off readers?
EC: I love all the characters. I want to sit around a dinner table with them and watch them interact. I wasn’t interested in making any of them likable. And I wasn’t interested in making any of them nice. I was interested in making them authentic and for them to authentically function in their environments. It’s interesting that you have sympathy for Thomas. I don’t have sympathy for Thomas, other than the fact he is a dad. This is the only aspect about him I respect. I have empathy — or I try to have empathy — for all of these characters. Who they are, what they do, what drives them — including Thomas. And while writing this book I don’t think I ever had any concern as to whether the characters would turn off readers. I was more focused on making them authentic. The characters, like people, are under pressures, external and internal. They are a mix of needs and wants, unfulfilled desires, expectations, fears, anxieties, habits. That is what I wanted to capture and explore. I don’t find them flawed. I find them to be people.
KS: I read an interview where you said Thomas, the ex-soldier, lacked free agency, but that didn’t come through in the book for me. We only see Thomas from Stephen’s perspective, a corporate lawyer who is tasked with ensuring Thomas’s claim for compensation is denied, and is therefore not only biased but limited by the amount and type of information he can collect. Stephen thinks Thomas is faking his injuries, but there is no way to confirm this, and even if it were partially true, it certainly doesn’t mean Thomas didn’t get PTSD or other injuries from his time with the military contractor. In other words, the full picture on what happened to Thomas, and why he acted the way he did is not available to the reader. Was it your intention for the reader to understand that you were depicting Thomas as a man with little free agency? If so, how was the reader supposed to know this when our sole exposure to Thomas, until the end, was through Stephen’s biased and limited eyes?
EC: My goal with Thomas was to create a character driven by his primal instinct to survive after being traumatized by this country’s decision to engage in endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He leaves for the wars one way — whole, with a family, intending to make money — and he comes back another way. And remember, he’s not a soldier. He chose to go work in a war zone. And upon returning home he is driven by his fears, needs, wants and anxieties, and in that sense he lacks free will. He is not making fully conscious decisions. He is hopped-up on scores of medications and trying to pay the mortgage and buy his daughter clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch. In my mind, if he had free agency, he would step back and ask himself: how did I get here, what happened, what went wrong, how do I fix it, how do I move forward? Instead he’s poaching deer hopped up on Budweiser and Percocet.
Stephen is tasked with ensuring Thomas’ multiple spurious claims for compensation are denied, but that’s because Stephen is subject to his boss Fleeger, which means he is subject to keeping his job. And because the story is told from Stephen’s perspective, all we know about Thomas is what Stephen Harker knows and learns about Thomas as the story evolves. And what he knows about Thomas he gathers from within the confines of adversarial litigation.
And within this adversarial system, which stems from insurance, and managing risk and exposure, and exploring and testing the veracity of compensation claims, PTSD is, from a logical/socioeconomic/legal perspective, for lack of a better word, problematic. There are no x-rays which a radiologist can objectively examine for PTSD. There are no MRIs. There is only behavior and testimony. Man is one way, man goes to war, man comes back very different. Before he loved to fly fish and tweak his ’67 Mustang and take long walks with his kids in nature and go to church and he had a job and volunteered with the Boy Scouts. He spends two years fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and now he needs a 12-pack of beer at night to sleep. He listens to Alex Jones. He starts taking pills. He’s lost his love for life and the things that made him who he is. He comes back from the war someone different than who he was and when he can’t explain it, when he can’t get a job that pays what he made per hour in Afghanistan, he submits a workers’ compensation claim for some minor, nagging injury and the insurance company denies it. And then he hears through the grapevine about this lawyer who got the buddy of a buddy a lot of money from the insurance company and he goes and sees said lawyer and the lawyer says: “sounds like you have PTSD. I’ll get you a portion of your average weekly wage for life.” But for a fee of course. And then the next thing you know Stephen Harker, who is sitting on the 25th floor of an office building wondering what he’s doing with his life, receives an email containing a new assignment from the insurance company instructing him to protect their financial interests in a spurious PTSD claim filed by the lawyer who spoke with the man who went to Afghanistan one way and came back another. That’s the system we’re in and it’s inherently adversarial. It’s also inherently absurd. But it also keeps the lights on, pays the rent, affords the lawyers’ kids a private school education, and for the young and unmarried brunches in Manhattan and Paul Smith shirts and designer socks. For all its problems it has its trappings. And those pleasurable trappings are what compromise the New York characters’ free agency.
KS: In the same interview, you mention that for every legitimate injury claim by an ex-military contractor, there are four “milking the compensation system for Percocet and deer hunting equipment.” How did you arrive at this number? Do you have any citations or studies to that effect? If an ex-military contractor gets PTSD from his private military service, it seems that a complication of that condition, especially if untreated, could be addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs. That, in turn, could lead to an inability to answer questions about how and when exactly their injuries occurred. Indeed, even in the best of circumstances, memory of such details is not great, let alone if you’ve been a war zone for a year and are now addicted to drugs. So how can you distinguish between legal cases that are poorly constructed in part precisely because of a psychological injury sustained through private military service, and poorly constructed legal cases that are just fraudulent?
EC: I arrived at the number based on my own experience handling the claims I handled and how the individuals who claimed PTSD on paper acted and behaved in real life. Yes there were individuals who clearly suffered mental trauma from working as private military contractors in Iraq. But there were also claimants’ lawyers who dangled PTSD over the defense lawyers’ heads if the insurance company wouldn’t pay out enough on their client’s dubious back or neck claim, i.e., if you don’t pay out for the alleged back injury at L4-L5, I’m going to add PTSD in the mix. PTSD claims are a way for many — not all — plaintiff lawyers to inflict pain on and gain leverage over insurance companies within the scope of litigation. Which inherently deprives their clients of sympathy. Especially when the investigator you hire to surveil the claimant films him sauntering into the woods with brand new hunting equipment while allegedly home and incapacitated on the couch with injuries allegedly suffered in Afghanistan.
I agree that memory is fuzzy and fuzzy memory is problematic in the course of litigation. But when something traumatic happens to you, you usually get the facts straight. I remember every detail of the man who mugged me when I was 15. I know where I was, what he was wearing, how I felt. Those types of experiences are baked into our memories. And when a claimant reports one thing immediately after a traumatic incident, and something else — usually grander and more dramatic — three months later, and something even more dramatic a year later, and still something else two years later in a deposition, these inconsistencies cast doubt over the veracity of the recounting of the underlying events. These cases are about proving causation and injury, but they are also about credibility. And lawyers impeach credibility by ferreting out inconsistent statements. It’s just the nature of the practice.
KS: Did Stephen have free agency? Perhaps this turns on the definition of free agency, a complicated philosophical question, but Stephen seemed incredibly passive — reluctantly taking orders from his boss, attending events he didn’t really want to attend, and doing things like conducting illegal investigations without much apparent forethought, driven by opaque forces and emotions. Even his self-depiction of his failed marriage is incredibly passive: “we never made it past the honeymoon. Instead, something foul and slothful moved into the apartment before the first anniversary. Some spirit animal that subsisted on unfulfilled expectations took residence on the couch.” This is a great metaphor, but at its heart it still portrays Stephen as a passive bystander in his marriage failing, which is consistent with how life seems to unfold around him. Do you see Stephen differently? Does Stephen somehow have more agency than Thomas?
EC: When you’ve put yourself through law school, which is a tremendous investment of time and energy and money, and sat for the bar exam, and set your sights on working as a lawyer and practicing law with a firm, your expectations of who you are, and what you are supposed to be doing, and your ability to train your will to attain your goals, deprives you of a fair amount of free agency. Stephen is enslaved to his expectations of who he is and who he is supposed to be – professionally and even during his marriage romantically. This is who I am, this is what I am doing, this is what I will do, because this is how it shall be. And during the course of that process Stephen puts on blinders. He has to put on blinders. He becomes passive with respect to the things he sees around him — such as Fleeger and his colleagues’ racist behavior — because his operating system can’t process it because the reality doesn’t comport with the narrative of success he created for himself. Study, graduate from law school. Study, pass the bar. Get a job. Bill hours. Bill a lot of hours. Make partner. Free agency is for the millennial who decides to get a neck tattoo, not the Generation X lawyer trying to build the foundation for a family life and above-average income with a house in the suburbs (because he can’t afford to buy an apartment in the city). As he doggedly chases what for the Baby Boomers was a birthright. Only after Stephen’s expectations begin to hollow-out does he gain enough free agency to act. But it takes him a long time to get there.
I don’t know if Stephen has more or less free agency than Thomas. Like most people they’re cauldrons of fears and anxieties that prevent them from reaching their full potential and that hamstring them from complete fulfillment let alone being at peace with themselves.
KS: The corporate lawyers in the book came across as thoroughly dysfunctional — hard partying, demanding, crass, egotistical, misogynistic, even tolerant of racism. The only bright spot seemed to be the loyalty between Stephen and his boss, and even that was limited in nature. Do you think this is indicative of a systemic problem in the way corporate law works, or were you shining a light on its worst byproducts?
EC: Almost ten years of living and working in New York — which is at its core a profit generating engine with minimal oxygen for empathy and compassion — provided me a trove of encounters, scenes, vignettes, moments that were woven together to create this book. I’m not trying to comment on systematic problems and their byproducts. I wanted to tell a story that captured the beats and the rhythms of a particular moment in a particular time. Something about this time and those experiences within this time so impacted me that I spent the last seven years writing a novel about what it felt like to be there and then. People treat each other poorly. People treat each other with compassion. But it’s not an either/or. The same person who treats you like shit one day can treat you with utmost compassion the next. The city swirls with this give and take, as does working as a lawyer. That is what I wanted to capture.
KS: To me, this book illustrated the restrictions of the law. Legal cases are always only capturing the part of reality that can be documented in a certain way — in some cases, the part it captures is the relevant part, but in other cases, it isn’t capable of capturing what matters. It seems like the legal system’s ability to capture exactly what happened in a foreign country under a private company’s domain, especially when it comes to psychological injuries, is inherently problematic. Does this system work well in real life? What evidentiary, psychological and legal hurdles does an ex-soldier who has PTSD from his time with a private military contract face in getting compensation? Is there a better way to write the contracts, or setup the system?
EC: I think I addressed a fair amount of this above. But the problems I think are two-fold. One, the legal system is inherently adversarial, which is an inadequate environment for healing and therapy. Soldiers and private contractors returning home from war who are injured require compassionate, competent therapy to be made whole. The legal system is a poor substitute for this. The emphasis should be on treatment as opposed to a payout obtained through adversarial litigation. Because if you are suffering PTSD a check for a couple hundred thousand dollars from the insurance company – and the litigation you have to engage in to obtain it — isn’t going to make you whole. That’s one problem. The second problem is that there are a lot of people out there who game the system. Who see an opportunity to get something for nothing and are more than content to spend the day on the couch popping pills and playing video games. The newspapers are filled these days with articles about white people in red state America seeking disability payments. This is the candidate pool for a lot of the private military contractors and when they return home and can’t work and can’t find a job that pays them what they are used to making or what they feel they are entitled to they see workers’ compensation as almost a welfare check to which they are entitled, so long as you clear the administrative hurdles. I don’t know what you do about that. But I think the first step is to flag the problem.
KS: Your book might be considered timely in that it illustrates an American cultural divide that was brought to the fore in the 2016 presidential election. We all became more aware of the different perspectives of wealthy liberals living in big cities, and deer-hunting, financially precarious conservatives living in semi-rural environments. Your book centers on a dispute between an upper-class lawyer living in Manhattan, and a gun-toting, deer-hunting, unemployed veteran living in the middle of nowhere. But you chose to keep the perspective of this book firmly with the wealthy “blue stater” — though he has moments of sympathy for the veteran, they pass by, and we never really know who Thomas is. Did you consider writing this book from both Stephen and Thomas’s perspective, alternating back and forth? Do you have any interest in writing a story from a character like Thomas’s perspective?
EC: I initially tried to write the book from multiple perspectives but almost cracked trying to get the parts to fit together into a cohesive whole. When you sit down to write a novel you become very sensitive to what is working and what is not working, especially with regards to story. It took a longtime but once I caught an edge with Stephen’s character and his voice I ran with it. There was plenty of story to tell from his perspective and as this was a rookie novel I thought best to stick with what appeared at the time to be working. Besides, given the last presidential election, and where this country is heading, I had a hard enough time coming to grips with Stephen as a man. If I wrote from Thomas’ perspective, I would have turned him into a caveman walking around in a loincloth with a club ranting about Mexicans and Muslims while popping painkillers. It wouldn’t have been pretty.
KS: The prose in the book was often poetic in nature, sparse, metaphorical, illuminating. Do you have a background or interest in poetry? Have you started a new novel? How do you find time to write working full-time as a lawyer?
EC: The book went through a hundred thousand drafts partly because I was working on story but also because I was obsessive compulsive about stripping out words that didn’t need to be there. I wanted the book lean and tight. In some instances that afforded me an opportunity to do away with words and grammar. It had a rhythm that I wanted to capture and explore. The book also evolved from a patchwork of thousands of notes, and the compulsion of which to write, and the way in which the notes were formed, possessed an element of poetry. The prose evolved from the process.
I started a new novel and in a couple weeks will sit down to survey the material. I still work full time and when it comes to writing I’m a morning worker. For the book I wrote each morning from around six to around eight and then made my way to work. Larger sections were written on vacation. But I also took about a year and a half off from full-time work to finish the manuscript, during which I would write until about noon and then practice law via my own practice during the afternoons and evenings. But I don’t foresee myself being able to repeat that experience. So the next book will be written in the mornings and during vacations.
KS: Thank you for joining us!
EC: Thanks for having me. And thank you for reading the book and for the thoughtful questions. All the best.
Edward Carlson is a New York shipping lawyer by trade. Prior to studying law, he edited gun magazines in San Diego; covered sports, religion, and music for Philadelphia newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer. You can find Edward here //www.edwardjcarlson.com/and buy his book here.