My wife and I still talk often about the term “art monster”—first coined in Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, and introduced to us via Claire Dederer’s 2017 Paris Review article “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” (we don’t exactly have our fingers on the pulse, my wife and I). I get the sense that the concept has more or less entered the zeitgeist in the subsequent eight years, but for those who might not know, it refers to the willful, and arguably necessary selfishness inherent in making great art; the capacity to prioritize one’s creative needs ahead of friends and family, wives and children, even one’s own health and well-being—to put one’s work above all else. Author David Leo Rice’s new novel The New House is about many things (and most of them all at once)—a surrealist, Matryoshka multiverse both unto itself, and within the larger context of his overall body of work—but if there is a cynosure to be found, it might best be described as the genesis of the art monster. Through Jakob, the book’s young protagonist, Rice traces the artist’s journey alongside parallel, competing, criss-crossing, Gordian-knotting, and ultimately Möbius-looping lines, drawing on philosophy, art history, and the quixotic questing of the Jewish-American experience all in the name of putting the stuff of visions to paper and rendering as text the ineffable life of the mind.
While the idea of “spoiling” The New House feels akin to impossibility—like spoiling 3 Women or Un Chien Andalou, there’s only so much you can actually give away about the meaning behind someone else’s dreams—I will try here, as always, to avoid betraying such secrets as the book works to reveal in its own time. Rice is, first and foremost, a master of semiotic world-building, and much like with his marvelous 2019 tome ANGEL HOUSE, the town at the center of The New House unfolds like the inbuilt origami of a pop-up book, effectively recreating the sensation of the world opening up before a child’s eyes as he experiences it all for the first time. Jakob—on the cusp of puberty at the book’s outset—has existed almost exclusively in a reality of his parents’ design—homeschooled by his overprotective mother, shuffled around the country semi-regularly by his overbearing father, in search of some mystical safe space they both refer to as The New Jerusalem. But after a fateful trip to Trader Joe’s (simultaneously one of the book’s most profound, and funniest passages) wherein a bit of forbidden truth at last slips through all his parents’ precarious defenses, Jakob’s world begins to shift off its axis. Suddenly, every new person he meets, every new locale he visits, every new object he finds, is grown pregnant with significance—as though a secondary world has sprouted fresh from the whole cloth of his heretofore dampened imagination, just waiting for him to give it a name and put it to use—a tiny Adam building his personal taxonomy from the ground up.
Naturally, as Jakob grows older, learns more about himself and his surroundings, and begins to take himself and his talent for found sculpture in miniature more seriously, he persistently tests the limits of his ever-expanding known world. Along the way he meets Greta, the kindly proprietress of his town’s small museum who encourages him to stretch and grow as an artist; The Couple From Another Town, an ominous pair of socialite drifters who tempt him toward a life of fame and fortune in The Art World (a place symbolic of corruption which his parents have always warned him against, but to which he finds himself increasingly drawn all the same); and Wilhelm Wieland, the reclusive art monster at the heart of the town’s dark history, who takes Jakob on as an apprentice of sorts, and serves as both role model and cautionary tale with regards to his fledgling artistic ambitions. There’s also a snake that talks to him from inside the walls of his home, a pack of illiterate bullies that menace him from the town dump, and a stillborn sister he occasionally summons for advice out of his own bloodstream, among many other fanciful flourishes, but to try and unpack it all would be a fool’s errand (and, I think, entirely beside the point). The magic behind Rice’s writing is its vibrant interactivity; the way it morphs around whatever experience we bring to it, rather than demanding any one conformity of understanding. As such, the myriad connections, allusions, doublings, and superimpositions available within the pages of The New House are as limitless as any of our facilities for spotting them, and yours will almost certainly differ from mine.
As Jakob wanders amidst this seamless, rippling nexus of time and place, reality and fantasy, art and memory, moving through endless towns full of endless houses into endless basements inside endless dioramas of endless towns and back out and over and around again, ostensibly in search of conceptually unobtainable termini like success, or safety, or freedom, or peace, Rice’s core concerns grow into sharper and sharper relief: the way parents shelter children from the world with lies in an attempt to help them make sense of things that never actually end up making sense; the way the imaginary world of childhood, when properly nurtured, can lead directly into the imaginary world of an artistic adulthood; the way we all must fight for identity, artistic or otherwise, in order to seek out and define those conceptually unobtainable ends for ourselves, whatever they might be; the way it’s all of a piece—we are all of a piece—circling round, reinventing and reimagining ourselves, struggling for authenticity despite the ever-clearer understanding that it’s all been done before; and the way that only giving up, or selling out, or staying put—only stopping growing, stopping searching, stopping trying—is truly failing; truly death.
As if all that weren’t heady enough, there is yet another layer to all this—a meta layer that draws in the reader, the author, and whatever tenuous connections might exist between the two—as The New House takes its place neatly atop Rice’s increasingly hefty bibliography (amusingly, when I looked back at my Heavy Feather review of Rice’s ANGEL HOUSE, I saw that I actually used the same pop-up book metaphor to describe it as I did in the first paragraph of this piece. I’m part of the cycle too. There’s no way out). And indeed, for those already in the know, it will be next to impossible to read The New House without also reflecting upon ANGEL HOUSE, as both are essentially surrealist explorations of the limitations of place, the artist’s journey, and the perpetual reinvention of personal history. But this too is surely by design. Just as each of Jakob’s pieces in The New House represents a spiritual extension of the one that came before, so does Rice’s work begin to suggest highly self-aware variations on a theme. Not shy about crediting his influences, he draws on Derrida, Lacan, Buber, and any number of other critical heavyweights throughout both books, teasing out their ideas from opposite ends (and, not for nothing, making them a good bit more accessible to dabblers like me) only to meet himself squarely in the middle. Where ANGEL HOUSE was a sprawling thesis statement—one in which identity was fractured across a huge cast like the shards of a Magic Theater mirror and the town itself often felt like the central character—The New House focuses much more intently on its protagonist and his struggle to break free of constraints like setting, time, and circumstance; a classic bildungsroman where what we’re building toward was inside us all along.
And so where does that leave us? Or Jakob? Or Rice? The answer is not a fixed point, but rather a beautiful mirage just over the horizon—that mythical somewhere between everywhere and nowhere—the New Jerusalem. For all its Olympic swan dives into the intellectual deep end, The New House is an exceedingly generous and reader-friendly book that manages the neat trick of maintaining its metaphysical bona fides without ever losing track of its sense of humor (Jakob’s hilarious bouts of delusional grandeur and daydreams of being “on the cover of the museum’s brochure” (!) will surely ring embarrassingly true to any self-proclaimed artist in any medium). There is an inherent absurdity to the artist’s life that Rice gets at better than maybe any other author working today—of all that one gives up for it, and all that one does and doesn’t gain for one’s trouble. For what it’s worth, my wife thinks I should be more of an art monster (and I definitely have lazy weeks where she’s probably right), but I tend to subscribe to the idea that, if you’re really prioritizing your work, then whatever else you do, all of life outside the page is just fodder—grist for the mill. A more monstrous mindset than that is hard for me to even imagine, and I think The New House would agree. With its carrion soft sculptures and romanticized self-harm, it feels like a love letter to the art monster in all of us, and a reminder that however monstrous we become in the name of self-expression—in the name of creating something new, or meaningful, or “important”—something celebrated or saleable or indicative of our misunderstood genius—something that will survive us, and our children, and matter for generations to come—that sooner or later, the Earth will crash into the Sun and absolutely everything will end; that until that time, all we have is the search; and that only once we open our hearts and minds wide enough to make room for that reality can we truly get down to the honest business of making art for ourselves.
The New House, by David Leo Rice. Whiskey Tit, June 2022. 394 pages. $18.00, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.