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Cults and connections: 'Atmospherians' challenges our world views

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Writer Alex McElroy will talk June 29 about their book, "The Atmospherians," which is the June selection for the Texas Book Festival Club with Austin360.

The problem with cults has always been the bad apples, Dyson explains.

“But the model is perfect,” he insists to his childhood friend Sasha, a wellness influencer. She’s been in hiding ever since she made a casually cruel quip on Instagram that led to a commenter’s death and her own very public vilification.

How the two join forces kick-starts “The Atmospherians” (Atria/Simon & Schuster, $27), Alex McElroy’s wry, thought-provoking exploration of how we define connection, purpose and identity. The book is the June selection for the Texas Book Festival Club with Austin360, and McElroy will discuss it virtually June 29 with Lit Crawl Austin’s Jill Meyers.

“The Atmospherians” is a darkly funny book, but it’s also unsettling. That’s by design, McElroy, who uses the pronoun they, said in a phone interview.

“I want them to rethink the way that they live,” they said of their readers. “I want (the book) to do what any great work does, which is defamiliarize the world and destabilize the world and leave this book seeing the world fresh, and maybe not being OK with the world. The books I love are the ones that make me feel uneasy in the world, and make me see things I hadn't previously.”

'The Atmospherians' by Alex McElroy

The Atmospherians are the men Dyson hand-picks to serve as a test cluster.

He and Sasha will gather the men, part of Dyson’s phone-therapy clientele, in a wooded compound and subject them to a regimen the pair invents. The idea is to purge the toxicity from this all-white, emotionally stunted group. (Emphasis on purge, as part of the regimen involves regular post-meal regurgitation.)

“We’re only two people,” Sasha worries out loud.

“Revolutions have started with fewer,” Dyson reassures. “First, we perfect a model of rehabilitative love and compassion for twelve men; then we broaden the scope and recruit.”

How men define themselves and relate to each other emerged as a theme over the novel’s drafting, McElroy said, in part reflecting their own personal journey.

“I came out as trans/nonbinary last year … I think that was a huge part of what I was trying to think through in this book, whether masculinity could be salvaged,” they said.

That dovetails with the book’s fantastical element of “man hordes,” a phenomenon in which a group of white men suddenly assemble for a shared activity and then disband, with no memory of their time in the horde. Initially, the man hordes perform intrusive but relatively harmless tasks – changing a stranger’s tires, or breaking into a home to fold laundry. As the story continues, the hordes become more dangerous. That unpredictability mirrors human nature, McElroy noted, and it also underscores how explaining away small misbehaviors can fuel bigger problems.

“What starts out as, ‘Oh, they're just guys being nice,’ becomes more and more sinister and as they continue to be excused for the actions committed, the acts get more devious and sinister,” they said. “Those defenses of their condition are enabling them.”

McElroy also delves into the value – both perceived and real – of virtual connection.

“Dyson and Sasha have actual love for each other, but they are driven by and look for attention,” McElroy said. “It's really easy, especially for people who spend a lot of time online, to confuse those two.”

Given that, it might be easy to imagine the novel’s takeaway is that the Internet, with its dopamine-fueling likes, is bad. But that’s a reductive take, McElroy argued, which doesn’t leave room for the genuine bonds forged by some, especially those who might struggle in a less inclusive town or workplace.

“The internet is both things,” they said. “It’s never a substitute for actual love and actual conversation with other people, but it can also be an extremely profound thing for people looking for connection.”

Alex McElroy talk

Alex McElroy will talk about “The Atmospherians” at 7:30 p.m. June 29 as part of the Texas Book Festival Club with Austin360. Free registration at texasbookfestival.org. Join the book club on the fest's website or through the club's Facebook page.