Andrew Farkas is the author of a novel, The Big Red Herring, and two fiction collections, Sunsphere and Self-Titled Debut. He is an Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Washburn University and the fiction editor for The Rupture. He lives in Lawrence, KS.
David Leo Rice is a writer and animator from Northampton, MA, currently based in NYC. His first novel, A Room in Dodge City, came out in 2017, and his second, Angel House, came out in 2019. His debut story collection, Drifter, is forthcoming in 2021, and he’s online at: raviddice.com.
Recently, David Leo Rice and Andrew Farkas got together, really close together, really, really close together, though they also remained at a safe distance, around 1,250 miles apart, in order to discuss their most recent novels: A Room in Dodge City, Volume 2: The Blut Branson Era (Alternating Current Press, 2021) and The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press, 2019), respectively. They talked about conspiracy theories, messiahs, sense & nonsense, humor, what comes after postmodernism, and the body horror of the 80s and today. When they think back on the discussion now, they see themselves in a dimly lit, smoky room, which is interesting because neither of them smokes, because they did not meet in any kind of room (again, 1,250 miles apart), and because the lighting may have been shockingly bright or nonexistent or possibly normal (?) wherever they were. No recording devices were used, so the words they spoke, murmured, hollered, and intoned as they paced around, sat down, stood back up, and ran at full speed at each other, only to stop in the nick of time, narrowly averting a slapstick collision, had to be transcribed later, meaning it all may have gone (who knows?) a little something like this, or altogether unlike this, so that what follows may be no more than a daring cover-up of the truer sentiments they intended to express:
David Leo Rice: We’ve talked before, and you’ve talked elsewhere, about how important the legacy of conspiracy theories is to The Big Red Herring, a legacy that seems to have entered a strange new phase in America over the past few years. When you construct a narrative out of all these mutually incompatible versions of history and reality, do you conceive of some “really real” truth at the bottom of it all, even if that truth can never be accessed, or do you believe that there is no definite truth, only whatever the characters and the narrator cook up?
And as a follow-up to this question, how does your answer relate to your conception of the nature and purpose of fiction in general?
Andrew Farkas: Conspiracy theories to me show just how addicted people are to narratives that “make sense” in the Freytag’s Triangle way, or in the Hollywood way. To use a common example: sporting events must be fixed, why else would the Buffalo Bills have lost all those Super Bowls? Later, The X-Files gave us the hilarious conspiracist answer: The Cigarette Smoking Man didn’t want them to win. But in our world (not Mulder and Scully’s), whenever a narrative is unsatisfying, we flounder around looking for answers. If no answer presents itself, we feel lost. Instead of accepting the fact that part of life is not getting answers, or not getting the answers that make everything feel comfortable again, we tell a story: here’s what really happened. These here’s what really happened explanations compound over time and, collected, make absolutely no sense together. But each one makes people feel better because the story is cozier than the one reality has given us.
Because reality isn’t especially easy to know, even if we aren’t likely to believe conspiracy theories. So, do I think there’s a real reality at the bottom of it all? Yes, but it’s extremely, even insanely difficult to access. Here, I think of the fact that gravity is only a theory. If reality were easy to access, we’d have legions of scientific laws that explain everything. Instead, we must work so hard to eke out the scientific laws we do have. That doesn’t mean we know nothing, it just means that getting to know anything at all is a herculean labor.
If one of the things that fiction is supposed to do is hold up a mirror to nature, then the reason I reject common narratives is because they trick us into thinking that reality is supposed to make us comfortable. Don’t we need comfort? Well, sure. But we have so much of that in fiction and art in general, I feel like there need to be authors who show the complex nature of reality (meaning, I discourage people from buying any explanation that makes things seem all so simple), and to show that reality is so imbued with fiction (by way of conspiracy theories and other delusions), that understanding fiction actually turns out to be very important to understanding reality.
In A Room in Dodge City, Volume 2: The Blut Branson Era, you also deal with conspiracy theories and reality, since the eponymous character may or may not have ever existed (though, no matter, he’s still the most famous Dodge City filmmaker ever). There’s even an entire industry of Blut Branson’s Boyhood Homes, where each one is different. Whereas Red Herring is about how we come to understand our reality through history, Blut Branson is more about how we come to know reality through “great” artists. So why turn this focal character into a type of black hole (where everything becomes a Blut Branson movie)?
DLR: Great question. I think it’s related to what you say above, about the comfort of believing in grand unifying theories, whether they’re political cover-ups, alternate histories, or the mystique of the Great—perhaps even divinely inspired—Artist. If we can believe that a human being is capable of producing transcendently great art, then we can believe in the possibility of accomplishing the herculean labor of truly knowing reality, as you put it above.
Messiahs serve the same function, so it’s no accident that capital-A Art has taken on many of the roles of religion in our supposedly secular society, and that cinemas and art museums are often treated like holy shrines. Nowadays, even before COVID, we’ve been in a de-consecration panic over the decline of the theatrical experience and the rise of streaming and TV—the degradation of “Art” into “content”—which is one theme of Dodge City 2.
In the book, I wanted to question these myths, and, by questioning them, to consider how they come about. As you mention, it’s uncertain whether Blut Branson ever really existed, so what’s important to the people of Dodge City is that they believe he existed—perhaps even more so if he never really did, again like a Messiah—and these people are both extremely proud and sort of terrified to have supposedly produced such an epochal figure from their otherwise humble community.
I first thought about this idea when I went to the town of Gori, in the country of Georgia. Stalin was born there, and when I went to the museum about his life, I was struck by the ambivalent tone of the guide—on the one hand, she was obviously aware that Stalin had caused the deaths of millions of people and is thus seen as one of the most brutal dictators in world history, and yet, on the other hand, she couldn’t help but be proud that a local guy from this tiny country, which had long suffered under the heel of Russia, had somehow risen to command the entire Soviet Union, thereby becoming one of the most significant people on Earth.
The weird mix of pride and fear that a small town can feel when it’s produced a person of global significance has always intrigued me, though, in Dodge City 2, the question of whether Blut Branson has any real significance is much more ambiguous. I think this feeling is expressed through the narrator, a drifter who’s ended up in Dodge City, and who finds himself both envious and dubious of Branson’s legacy—he both wants to be like Branson (or even to be Branson), and to free himself from this desire so he can live his own life. This was my way of working through my own feelings about my artistic idols, the combined desire to worship and to (symbolically) kill them.
In terms of your point that conspiracies provide specific clarity but general confusion—since any given theory can appear to describe a mystifying situation, while multiple theories never make sense when taken together—how do you balance sense and nonsense, and the micro vs. the macro, when you think about narrative in the novel form? In what ways is The Big Red Herring meant to refuse the kind of sense that we get from more conventional fiction, and what other form of sense or satisfaction does it offer instead?
AF: One way I balance sense and nonsense, the micro and the macro is by delivering scenes that can be understood, even if their place in the narrative doesn’t fit in a conventional way. Here’s what I mean: early in the novel, the protagonist, Wallace Heath Orcuson, wakes up and there’s a corpse on his floor, obviously murdered. This immediately shows the book will be a mystery of a sort. And whereas the book isn’t a conventional mystery at all, the various plot points of a mystery still appear (if often in ways that are unfamiliar—example: the fact that an entire legion of detectives arrives to investigate the crime, so many detectives that special scaffolding must be erected to hold them all). So even when The Big Red Herring gets surreal, the reader can still say, “This is a murder mystery. I know because the scenes sure seem like murder mystery scenes.”
Along with a general sense that this is a bizarre version of a comfortable genre, I also give the reader character types they know: spies (a CIA agent and a KGB agent), a femme fatale, a murder suspect who claims to have no knowledge of the crime, and the Gestapo (the cartoon-villain version we know from B-movies). Once again, these common types are transformed in The Big Red Herring, but readers will still recognize them, even in a book that doesn’t operate how mainstream stories operate.
Now, by mutating the genre and the characters, what other form of sense or satisfaction does the novel deliver? I would say it offers the same sort of satisfaction that Monty Python does, or that Mel Brooks would have if he would have followed the darker parts of his humor more. So whereas you get the feeling from the beginning that The Big Red Herring is not going to operate exactly like a murder mystery, though it is very similar to one, the novel is, if I may say so, much funnier, in an absurdist way.
An aside: I find it strange that now, many writers who are actually quite funny, seem to downplay their humor, sometimes even saying things like, “Well, I didn’t mean to be funny.” The reason I’m confused by this is because I think irony is extremely important to art, and part of irony is humor. Being funny in an intelligent way is extremely difficult. So, to me, one of the greatest compliments you can give an artist is that their work is funny (especially when considering the unfortunate flood of Lowest Common Denominator comedy). A book like Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, for instance, has no plot whatsoever. It’s so funny, though, that you read to see what the narrator will ask next, not what will happen next or how the story will be resolved. I like to think that some readers will approach Red Herring in a similar fashion.
Speaking of humor, I think Dodge City 2 is your funniest book to date (since ANGEL HOUSE isn’t so much interested in humor, and Dodge City 1 and The PornME Trinity use humor a bit more sparingly). So, why did you decide to use “Barthelme-style slapstick” (as it says in Matthew Specktor’s blurb) in The Blut Branson Era, and how do you see humor working in this novel?
DLR: Thanks! I definitely take it as a compliment when someone finds my work funny, though, as you mention, I perhaps didn’t always see it this way. For me, I think it’s a factor of beginning to have some earlier work under your belt, no longer being so new as an artist, and thus no longer so afraid of not being taken seriously. “Irony” is famously hard to define, so I’m not sure if this quite qualifies, but it’s at least irony-adjacent that the effect of overcoming the fear of not being taken seriously turns out to be that you become much more willing to be funny. You start to see that people finding your work funny is not at all the same as them dismissing it, or finding it frivolous.
On a personal level, I’ve always taken pleasure in seeing the darker absurdities of life, and trying to make people laugh. And almost all of the writers I most admire, from Beckett to Barthelme to Brian Evenson—to say nothing of epics like Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and Gravity’s Rainbow, which are all ribald and hilarious, as full of fart jokes as they are of profound wisdom (or perhaps the two aren’t as distant as we imagine)—have a deep and robust sense of humor, however dry it may be. I don’t think you can honestly reflect on the human condition without laughing a little.
Still, I agree that Dodge City 2 expresses my own sense of humor more thoroughly than my earlier books did. This has to do with the theme of the book, as well, in the sense that the narrator is this outsider in Dodge City, trying to find his way into the secretive, even occult Dodge City Film Industry—basically, he’s a nobody trying to make a place for himself in the world. I felt, while writing the book, both a lot of empathy for this conundrum, and also a bit of schadenfreude, given that he’s still trying to make his very first film, whereas I was no longer trying to write my very first book. In other words, I tried to look at this condition of desperately trying to establish yourself as an artist with both sincerity and humor in equal measure—and a sense that perhaps the only reward for beginning to establish yourself is the freedom to take yourself less seriously and see the grand absurdity of all aspiration. If you can see it this way and still remain passionate about your work, then I think you can have a long and fruitful career.
Also, Dodge City 2 is my most explicitly Jewish book to date, centered, as it is, on the legacy of the Jewish filmmaker David Cronenberg. All of my books have drawn on my Jewish heritage and my love for fantastical artists like Bruno Schulz and Marc Chagall, but this one leans more into the legacy of Kafka, as well as overt humorists like, as you mentioned, Mel Brooks, and Billy Wilder. Humor is central to the resiliency of Jewish culture through the centuries—the ability for an endlessly persecuted group to carry on and continually come back from the brink of extinction. One aspect of this legacy of “humor in the darkness” that really sank in for me when I was young is the belief that finding humor, even as it regards the most terrible aspects of human nature, needn’t be dismissive: telling jokes can also be a way of accepting that which cannot be changed. Of course, sometimes joking about serious topics is indeed a means of refusing to take them seriously, but other times it’s a means of saying, “nothing could be more serious, and yet all we can do is laugh.”
While we’re on the topic of the darkness of history, I was interested in what you said about the legacy of stock material that we’ve inherited from the 20th century: the femme fatale, the gestapo agent, the CIA psyops, the murder suspect playing dumb, etc … now that we look ahead into the twenty-first century, whose central symbols and narrative types might not be clear yet, where do you think we stand in our relation to this legacy of 20th century figures, as well as the literary forms that made use of them? If we’ve entered an era where postmodernism is already an historical phenomenon, are we now in a time of “post-postmodernism”? How do we both use our 20th century inheritance, as storytellers and participants in culture, while also pushing away from it and toward whatever’s up ahead?
AF: Postmodernism, as a major artistic movement (meaning, a good number of people were trying to do it), ended in the 1980s with the return of realism. That doesn’t mean there weren’t postmodernists working in the ‘80s, nor does it mean there were no realists from 1945-1979. But postmodernism was no longer popular.
I say that, and then I think of Jean-François Lyotard’s take on modernism and postmodernism – they’re constantly orbiting each other. Whatever is established and known for Lyotard is modernist, while whatever is new is postmodernist.
But “new” is a relative term. When I found postmodernism in 1997 or 1998, by stumbling on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five, it seemed new, though the book was over a quarter century old. Many of the artistic techniques, however, are even older than that, since we can find them in Don Quixote (1605 & 1615), Tom Jones (1749), and Tristram Shandy (1759-1767). To go one step further, Steven Moore, in The Novel: An Alternate History (2011 & 2013), argues that what we call “experimental” or “innovative” literature is actually older than mimetic realism. And yet, whereas these techniques have been around forever, at different times they disappear and then reappear.
When postmodernism reappears, then, it’ll always be new because you’ll not only have the old techniques, you’ll also have the influence of the world that’s unfolded since the movement went underground.
In the case of The Big Red Herring, I question the generally held belief that World War II was a kind of crusade that pitted actual Heroes and actual Villains against each other, just like we see in the movies. No ambiguity. Just good guys vs. bad guys. Vonnegut, who served in WWII, argued against this misconception too, so if that’s all I had to say, I’d just be aping him. But I take the current world into account and show that our culture longs for the good old days of that armed conflict, and even longs for the good old days of the Cold War. And so the Alternate History Channel reveals that, because the Nazis used the horrors of World War II as a red herring to cover up their colonization of Antarctica and the moon, the Cold War has never ended (only it’s between the American-Soviet Alliance and the Third Reich) and that the real World War II is just about to begin.
Along the way, I use postmodern techniques to show that the reason our culture longs for World War II is because we think we understand its narrative (compared to, say, World War I), and we love love love coherent, easy-to-follow narratives because they make it seem like our lives could be easy. (I’m guilty of this at times too.) The postmodern techniques I use in Red Herring, like metafiction, like plot fragmentation, like time distortion and disorientation, show this simplistic view of reality is a complete delusion. I then use humor to make fun of our narratives (by making fun of conspiracy theories and also by making fun of Freytag’s Triangle-based stories) and so hopefully we can laugh at ourselves for believing in them. Just like you said: the laughter makes it easier to accept difficult things, like the fact that our lives will always be complex, will never be easy because the Golden Age never existed ever (nor do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, but if this last one did exist, she’d be wearing a necklace of your teeth, and are you sure you’d want that flying into your room while you sleep, even if she gives you a dollar?).
Speaking of horrifying repurposings, the, well “patron saint” would definitely be the wrong phrase, so maybe dark spirit of Dodge City 2 is none other than the king of body horror, David Cronenberg. So, how do you feel Cronenberg has influenced you, and how do you think you’ve updated body horror beyond what he was doing into the 1990s (since, as The Blut Branson Era points out, old Dave Deprave has committed career suicide)? A follow up question: why do you think body horror continues to get under our skin more than other types of horror?
DLR: I really like your idea of postmodernism being an eternal set of techniques that can always be deployed when the zeitgeist calls for them, like an intervention to shake things up whenever our view of history, or reality, gets too simplistic. It’s interesting that extreme oversimplification—like the Good vs. Evil narrative of WWII—and extreme over-complexity—like the tangled lines of secret influence that conspiracy theories promote—both have the same apparent goal: to give us a sense that some order lurks behind what seems to be the chaotic flux of events. Perhaps then, paradoxical as it sounds, the only “honest simplicity” we can hope for is finding a means of accepting chaos and uncertainty as unsolvable—and postmodernism is one such means.
David Cronenberg is a key postmodern figure, I think, emerging from the 70s counterculture in indie film, and reaching his heights of prominence in the 80s and early 90s, when films like Scanners, The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, and Dead Ringers partook of the gory, self-referential horror boom that was going on in those decades, while offering a more intellectual and artistically mature take on the all-consuming media environment that was also growing then, and which has reached what we can only hope is a terminal point (though how could it be?) in 2020. It’s no coincidence that Marshall McLuhan and Cronenberg are both from Toronto, and were even at the University of Toronto at the same time. Unlike NYC, which has been a business capital for centuries, Toronto went through incredibly rapid corporatization in the second half of the 20th century, going from a regional outpost to a major world financial center in a short period of time—making it, along with LA (though for very different reasons), one of North America’s definitive “postmodern cities.”
In terms of body horror, one revelation that I had in my 20s was that the ceding of humanity to some bionic post-human power won’t occur through a “rise of the (humanoid) robots,” as envisaged in 50s sci-fi films, and even in 80s films like The Terminator and Blade Runner. In many ways, this image of a human vs. robot war is naïve, a kind of wishful thinking. In reality, as we’re seeing so clearly now, the shift is that artificial “consciousnesses” are taking over and penetrating human consciousness, without any need for robot bodies: the weird but world-defining interrelation of bots and humans on Twitter, or the way in which YouTube algorithms increasingly define the worldviews of human beings, is showing that we are far more hackable than we’d like to imagine. We are now all running scripts that have at least partly been installed without our knowledge or consent.
This is further proof of the fact that human beings are not sealed against incursion from the outside world, whether that incursion is technological or biological—we’re seeing both aspects combine with COVID, as people are both physically infected with the virus, and mentally infected with ever-proliferating forms of misinformation. This is surely one reason why body horror has remained so relevant: you can go through life without being chased by an alien or a chainsaw-wielding maniac, but you can’t go through life without getting physically sick and mentally hacked. I think this fact is even more prominent now than it was in the 80s and 90s, so I hope that Dodge City 2 reflects this, and updates the tropes accordingly.
Cronenberg managed to suture (to use a very body-horror term) both forms of incursion together, into an extremely compelling run of movies, which examine both postmodern fears of losing control of our technology and much more ancient fears of infection, possession, amputation, and impregnation from inhuman forces. In college, I was interested in studying the intersection of medieval and (post)modern thought, and the overlap between these ideas is exactly where Cronenberg thrives. His cinema is a testament to the strange but profound lines of connection between the demonology of Bosch and Goya, and the media-drome we’re now trapped in, which does indeed seem to be summoning demonic forces in our politics and culture.
I’m also drawn to imagery of male penetrability and vulnerability—this is something that resonates in Cronenberg, and also in Clive Barker, Francis Bacon, and William S. Burroughs, to name a few other influences. It’s not necessarily from a sexual point of view, but more from a sense of considering what men are at this point in time, and how they can open themselves up more to the world around them, and move on from this outdated macho idea of being totally sealed and self-sufficient—a mentality that, to put it lightly, has been growing ever more problematic (here the word “toxic” can also take on a Cronenbergian ring, as if the very idea of alpha masculinity were a type of infection). As an artist, too, you have to embrace the idea of being penetrable—of inviting dreams, thoughts, and experiences to enter your mind and, in a sense, compel your body to gestate and birth them. This is the essence of the “Word made Flesh” ethos of body horror, and it’s why I balk at the idea of art as a form of pure self-expression: I think the goal has to be to express something that is very much other than the self, or even to question whether there is such a thing as a self at all.
Lastly, the idea of Cronenberg’s “career suicide” that Dodge City 2 explores is partly a joke about how his work does seem to have tapered off in both quantity and quality in the new millennium, but also a reflection on my own growing distance from my primal influences. Part of what this book questions is the role of idol worship in artistic development—the way the narrator feels about Blut Branson, and the way I feel, or felt, about Cronenberg. Cronenberg was at his pinnacle right when I was born, which has some mythic significance for me, as if he were a secret father of mine. Now that I’m in my 30s, the intensity of my worship of certain artistic influences has cooled off. It’s not that I respect them any less, but just that the feeling is more muted, like I’ve absorbed the influence and now it’s just part of me. This too is a body horror image: that of eating your influence and having it forever after be a part of your body, in you but never quite of you.
I was also writing Dodge City 2 around the time of the death of my mentor, Jack Ketchum (to whom the book is dedicated), so I was deep in the headspace of wondering what it means to move on from one’s apprenticeship years and into, hopefully, the prime of one’s creative life.
To begin wrapping up, where do you see your next creative chapter taking you, either in terms of specific projects or larger questions and realms of exploration?
AF: I have just recently finished a collection of essays called The Great Indoorsman, where I explore various indoors spaces (as some explore outdoors spaces). In this collection, I also make the argument that certain fictional narratives influence us just as much, if not more than “reality,” so I structure the essays around those narratives. That said, I am now at work on a collection of short stories where I play with various movie clichés and tropes, either to undermine them, or to give them new life. I actually started this book before I decided I should write a novel (which turned out to be The Big Red Herring), so I have over ninety pages of this collection written (some of the stories have even already been published, like “The Imaginary Girlfriends of Canada” in Hotel Amerika, and “Is This the Ship of Theseus?” in Western Humanities Review). I think the collection will be called Movies Are Fine for a Bright Boy Like You.
What about you? What are you working on now?
DLR: Very cool, looking forward to reading those! I have a couple of projects in the pipeline: my debut story collection, Drifter, is coming out with 11:11 Press in June, so we’re doing design and edits on that, and Dodge City 3 is slated for Fall 2022. In Spring 2022, a standalone novel called The New House, about a reclusive artist loosely based on Joseph Cornell, is coming out with Whiskey Tit. Other than that, I just finished a novel called The Berlin Wall, about a heresy in which people believe that the Berlin Wall was made of living, conscious beings, who were scattered to the edges of Europe when the Wall fell. The story, which is my first set entirely outside of America, takes place in the current day and features several characters who were, or believe they were, part of the Wall. The manuscript is currently looking for a home. In the meantime, I’ve started a new novel about a decrepit art school. It’s called Spine & Arp, and I’m serializing it here, if anyone wants to follow along.
The Big Red Herring is available for purchase at KERNPUNKT Press.
A Room in Dodge City, Volume 2 is available for preorder at Alternating Current Press.