Augustus Rose’s first novel, The Readymade Thief, is a fervent mix of art, deceit, puzzles, subterfuge, coincidence, and meaning, all hung on the fast-paced structure of a thriller. Set in an underground world of deserted aquariums, abandoned buildings, and vacant homes, Lee must decode literal and figurative maps to stay one step ahead of a group of fanatical men who are convinced she’s the key to it all.
Augustus Rose lives in Chicago with his wife, the novelist Nami Mun, and their son. He teaches fiction writing at the University of Chicago.
Erin Flanagan: You draw from so many areas of expertise in this novel—Duchamp’s art, secret societies, drug culture, underground worlds, even how to survive off the grid. I love the fullness of the story. I’m curious to know how these different topics came together, or how you worked at blending them together.
Augustus Rose: I’ve always been interested in fringy areas and subcultures. I worked as a bookseller for many years and when books on these kinds of subjects would come in I’d lose myself in some far away corner of the store for a few hours. Eventually I started cultivating a section, which I called “Marginalia,” that brought together all these weirdo books that didn’t really have a proper section elsewhere. I took a lot of them home with me as well. I love research, because it’s an excuse to delve into any area I’m curious about or fixated on—it all becomes fodder for a fictional world. I guess the tricky part comes in bringing it all together in a cohesive way that doesn’t come off as indulgent or contrived. When it’s working I think there’s a kind of magic that happens where I start to find connections between things that I hadn’t realized were there (between quantum physics and some of Duchamp’s works, for instance). Then a kind of momentum of connections begins to build, to the point that a secret society that manufacturers hallucinogenic drugs out of a derelict missile silo and throws underground raves based around cosplaying turn-of-the-century avant-garde art movements seems not only a natural occurrence but inevitable.
EF: I admit to knowing nothing about Duchamp entering into this novel, and I spent a lot of time a) thinking how different the experience might have been had I known his work (different, but I don’t think better or worse), and b) trying to decipher what was fiction and what was not, regarding, for instance, the obsessiveness surrounding his work and the search for meaning within it. I’m guessing Duchamp himself might have gotten quite a kick out of this story. Are you as big a fan as the novel suggests?
AR: I’ve been fixated on Duchamp since I was about eighteen. I stumbled on one of his monographs as a bookseller, and there was something about his work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even that mesmerized me. And the more I read about his life and work the more mesmerized I became. I’d been looking for way to write a book around him for years, with a few false starts, such as using Duchamp as an actual character, or reimagining a version of him in a modern setting. These failed. But as I was researching him I began to see connections that pointed to a potential puzzle connecting many of his works, and even his life, where there wasn’t any one right answer but instead a multitude of possible answers, depending on who was looking. And this seemed like an interesting concept to explore in a novel. Duchamp once said: “The artist performs only one part of the creative process. The onlooker completes it, and it is the onlooker who has the last word.” Meaning you and I could be looking at the same work of art, and because we are bringing two different perspectives to it it is like we are looking at two different works. I wanted to write a mystery in which there wasn’t one right solution, but many, depending on who was reading.
EF: Like I said, I love the fullness and complication of this novel. In the vastness and depth, it doesn’t really feel like a first novel. How long did it take you to research, write, and revise?
AR: It’s actually my forth novel, the first three were just never published (they range from horrible to inspired-but-flawed). The Readymade Thief took me about a year to research and conceive, a year and a half to write a first (very bloated and messy) draft, and two more years of revision before it was sold. Then I spent another six months or so revising it with my editor at Viking.
EF: Another thing that really struck me with The Readymade Thief, is how the book satisfies the jones for a literary work and a thriller all in one. I’m curious about your own reading list and what you love to read.
AR: I read in a lot of different genres and love anything that surprises me or moves me or makes me interested in something I didn’t know I was interested in. While I tend to read more literary fiction now I grew up reading 1970s thriller writers like Ira Levin and Frederick Forsyth and Trevanian. But at some point I lost interest because I lacked the appreciation it takes to recognize good plotting, especially when it comes at the cost of lazy writing or characterization. So these days I appreciate writers who, to my eye, do it all well. I love David Mitchell, Donna Tartt, Richard Price, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is a kind of perennial influence, as are the works of Philip K. Dick and JG Ballard and Denis Johnson.
EF: Lee is the one who figures that the men are reading Duchamp as some type of map, while Tomi is trying to find the meaning. She tells Tomi, “Everything you’re telling me is an abstraction. But these men must be looking for something concrete.” At another point, The Station Master says to Lee about meaning that there is destiny in coincidence, and she thinks, “For them, there were no coincidences. Everything had meaning. It seemed dangerous to her in a way she couldn’t put her finger on.” The oppositions of coincidence versus meaning, and abstract ideas versus concrete things, seem central to me in fiction writing, and I’d say they are at the heart of this book. I’m curious whether these are central concepts in a lot of your work, or if you think about that balance when you’re writing and/or editing.
AR: That’s a great question. I don’t know that it’s something I consciously thought about as I wrote this book but it is definitely a driving force when I write. I don’t like to outline before I write, preferring to discover the story along with my characters. So finding coincidences, or unanticipated connections, is important because for one thing, these moments of discovery are a kind of juice that keeps me going as a writer, and for another, coincidences and connections are the paths that keep the story moving. But they can’t be without meaning, because everything in a novel should have meaning, should serve the greater book in some way. So there’s a constant tension between coincidence and meaning that I think is interesting. I think that there’s a similar tension between concreteness and abstraction: the trick to bringing a reader into the fictional world is to write as concretely as possible, but that is always in the service of a greater abstraction, be that meaning, theme, emotional resonance or what have you.
EF: What are you working on now? No pressure, but this is a crazy-good book to follow up.
AR: I try not to talk about a work in progress too much, but I think it will be a very different kind of book. Though hopefully “crazy-good” in its own way. (Thank you for that!)
Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.