As Micah Schnabel began to consider his second novel, around 2018 or ’19, the first thing to arrive was the title, The Clown Watches the Clock, followed shortly thereafter by an awareness of the realities that helped spark the phrase.
“What happens when you dedicate your entire life to this thing that you love? When you sacrifice literally everything?” said Schnabel, a musician and writer who for decades has recorded and toured both as a solo artist and with Shane Sweeney in Two Cow Garage, in addition to playing alongside his partner, the artist and poet Vanessa Jean Speckman, in Call Me Rita. “I’m 41 years old, and I have his tiny little apartment in Columbus, Ohio, because it’s affordable and allows me to dedicate my entire life to this. And I’ve failed. And nobody ever talks about that. If anybody talks about failure, it’s always tied up in that cute little self-help speak, like, ‘Keep on truckin’!’ And it’s like, no. In this very hard, realistic world we live in, you need money to exist, and when you pour your whole self and everything into this one thing you love, and it fails, what does that look like?”
Now, to be fair, in the course of our conversation Schnabel eventually made it clear he was talking primarily about the commercial aspect of his career in music, allowing there is an artistic side to his ventures he would deem a success. “But I live in the world, in the United States of America, where we are put into a hierarchy by how much money we have,” he said. “And I do not have any, or at least I have very, very little from this thing I do, which, in the capitalist sense, is failing.”
The character at the center of The Clown Watches the Clock also finds himself perpetually on the edge of financial ruin, beset by a similar sense of disillusionment. Set in a grim, futuristic landscape that bears more than a passing resemblance to our own – citizens increasingly isolated by technology and a commercial landscape dotted with dollar stores and generic chain restaurants – the action in Schnabel's novel unfolds around a tired-but-dedicated party clown as he attempts to eke out some kind of existence amid these mounting forces.
Schnabel said most of the writing took place in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, with the book's events shaped and colored by real-time events, including the “Open Ohio” protests he watched pop up across Columbus and its suburbs.
“I want to say that the people I saw protesting to open up Applebee’s impacted my life in a deep way,’ Schnabel said, and laughed. “We’re living during a historic time, and this is how people react? It’s this time of total uncertainty, where this new disease is killing hundreds or thousands of people a day, but there are people who are still going to protest that we need to open up the Applebee’s, and it's because they don’t give a shit. … It was the hardest and scariest of times, and it was still like, ‘Shut up and go to work.’ The ruling class has always tried to keep those lines a little blurred, but in that time, you couldn’t not see those lines. And I would say that very specific moment informed my work. And it’s still informing my work.”
Despite the bleak atmosphere, which bled direct from news headlines into the pages of the book, Schnabel’s clown never folds, holding to a sliver of humanity rather than giving himself over wholesale to cynicism. This speaks to the way the musician has long approached his own craft, with even his most acerbic songs holding space for the potential present in every human heart.
“When did being a decent human being become political? And how have we become so dark-hearted and cynical?” Schnabel sings amid dark, mounting clouds on ”Remain Silent,“ from 2019. He then pivots in the final verse, the weather breaking as the musician delivers a series of lines in which he celebrates the growth that can come from pain, acknowledges the importance of shedding our grudges, and reflects on the idea that we as a species have more that binds us than separates, even if we rarely show it.
The similarities between author and central character don't end there, either, with Schnabel allowing that precious little space exists between the two.
“If he’s drinking tequila in the kitchen [in the book], it was because I was drinking tequila in the kitchen,” he said. “I’m not that good of a writer where I can pull this three-dimensional character out of my brain. I’m pretty much just projecting myself onto this little character I made up. … And this is something I’m figuring out in real time. You have moments where you’re in it and you’re writing and then you stumble on one line or something where you’re like, ‘Oh, shit. I’m in trouble,’ because you’ve accidentally shown yourself.”
Throughout the book, Schnabel’s clown is subjected to any number of indignities and humiliations, but he continues to press onward, finding pockets of satisfaction within his day even as his work fails to pad his bank account – yet another idea with which the author said he could readily identify.
“It’s tough financially a lot of times, but I accept that because I love waking up for work every day,” Schnabel said. “No matter how low I get in the night, I’ll wake up the next day, like, ‘Alright, but maybe if I do this…’ And I think we all play these tricks in our heads to keep ourselves going or to justify our existence. But the reality is we just keep going. I think it’s all I know how to do. It’s what I love to do. It’s what I’m going to do.”