UNC’s Gabriel Bump Creates a Hopeful Dystopia in The New Naturals

UNC Assistant Professor of English and novelist Gabriel Bump. Photo by Diana Newton.


By Diana Newton

How does a writer begin to create the plot and characters, setting and structure of a novel? It can be mysterious, even for the author himself. For UNC Assistant Professor of English and novelist Gabriel Bump, he seems to notice something unremarkable that stirs up a flurry of questions in his mind. His attempt to answer those questions is what kickstarts his imaginative process.

Bump ‘s latest novel, The New Naturals, was just published by Chapel Hill’s Algonquin Books in late November, and is already included in the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2023. In a recent launch event held at Epilogue Books on Franklin Street, his editor, Kathy Pories, probed the author about his process and style in front of an eager group of readers. Bump recalled that the seed of this novel began as he traveled a familiar rural roadway in Massachusetts. “There was this old restaurant on a hill near a bridge that I would drive by all the time. And I was just thinking, ‘What’s going on in there? Maybe there’s a secret society. And then, what are they doing in this secret society? Okay, there’s this utopia. Well, who founded the utopia?’”

Novelist Gabriel Bump  and Algonquin Books editor Kathy Pories launch his latest book in front of a crowd at Epilogue Books in Chapel Hill. Photo by Diana Newton.

Six Characters Go Underground, Literally

The domino effect of these questions pushed him to explore the relationships between three very different pairs of characters who are drawn to this new underground utopia—perhaps better described as a hopeful dystopia—for very different reasons. Bump disclosed that the novel began with just one pair: Bounce, whom he described as “the saddest sack known to man,” and Sojourner, a disillusioned investigative reporter. The more the author wrote about Bounce, the more he recognized that there was no single reason why Bounce is so sad, and acknowledged, simply, that “I wanted him to get better.” Sojourner leaves a dead-end relationship, also wanting something better.

Characters Rio and Gibraltar are husband and wife academics, and Rio is pregnant as the novel opens. But when she loses her newborn child, Rio’s grief propels her and Gibraltar to build a new society that will be safe and nurturing for every child—unlike the world above ground they want to leave behind.

The final pair of characters, Elting and Buchanan, are inseparable buddies living in Chicago at the outset of the story. Having fallen on hard times, they wander around philosophizing and stabilizing each other. Bump shared that “really intense platonic relationships don’t get the space in fiction they deserve. I have this really close friend group. Where’s that representation?” From that void, the theme of tight, nonsexual male relationships recurs in his work and reflects his own experience.

In trying to bring all these characters together in one place, Bump realized that he was not that  interested in how a utopia like this would work, such as the mechanics of digging into the hill, getting food, or raising money.  Instead, “I was just so obsessed with these people! How are they going to get better? That emotional aspect of their lives was like mine.”

Toggling Between Despair and Humor

Bump relies heavily on dialogue to find their answers to that question. He also thinks dialogue is an underutilized aspect of fiction. “I use it as a way to get to understand my characters better and what they are not paying attention to.” With an easy laugh he added, “It is also easier to get jokes through.” In his New York Times review of the book, Omar El Akkad describes it as people speaking through and around one another, the result uproarious, addictive and just removed from how most human beings actually talk. It’s delightful.”

Pories, his editor, thinks Bump’s pervasive use of dialogue makes The New Naturals read almost like a play, adding, “but it’s not a play, It’s just very crystallized action,”  With evident fascination, she commented that Bump’s work reminds her of French avant-garde playwright Eugene Ionesco‘s because “he can go right up to the edge of the absurd and then bring it back.” It is that deft toggling between despair and levity that keeps the novel from getting mired in gloom and doom.

Bump’s debut novel, Everywhere You Don’t Belong, also a social commentary, made a literary splash, appearing on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2020 list and winning the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. It was also published by Algonquin Books, where editor Pories was first stunned by the freshness of Bump’s authorial voice. “No one was writing the way he was writing,” which is a dream discovery for a publisher. Algonquin quickly signed on for his second book, sight unseen, and intends to nurture Bump’s work across his career.

Throughout The New Naturals, Bump explores his characters’ yearning for place, but knows that the answer can’t reside in just a location. Ultimately, perhaps the most provocative question unearthed in the hillside his characters inhabit for a while is, “What if the utopia is in us?”

Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film, The Ties That Bind, is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum.

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