David Leo Rice writes singularly weird fiction about the experiences of artists and drifters wandering hallucinatory landscapes. His latest novel, The New House, is a kunstlerroman focused on a child named Jakob, who trains to be an artist in a town of sentient dolls, blood clots who are sisters and lovers and advisors, and men who are not born but dreamed into existence. Art in this novel not only stirs hearts; it transforms the nature of reality.
Rice is also the author of the short-story collection, Drifters, as well as the novels ANGEL HOUSE and A Room in Dodge City, Vols. 1 and 2.
In this interview, we discuss, among other things, The New House, as well as the power of constant destabilization. I am grateful to him for his time and generosity.
Marcus Pactor: The New House is partly based on the life and work of Joseph Cornell. What drew you to him? How did you balance biographical and historical detail with the novel’s surreality?
David Leo Rice: I’ve drawn from surrealism in pretty much all of my work, so Cornell has always appealed to me, but there was a period around 2015 when I got more specifically into him, and began to do some research at the NYPL, where a lot of his papers and ephemera are housed. There are a few ideas that stand out from this phase, in terms of feeling a novelistic response beginning to take shape. The first was a kind of wary envy, in that he was at once someone who seemed to have had his cake and eaten it too by remaining totally singular and free of external pressure to produce a certain kind of art (I say seems because the full story is never so simple), while achieving an extremely high degree of fame and cementing a lasting legacy. I think this combination represents the best of American culture, in that we have a way of producing singular, lonely souls who, due to the isolation of being in such a vast and often macho, anti-intellectual environment, create their own versions of reality, like an “America within America,” that are singularly radiant, strange, and imbued with a confidence and literalness you don’t see as much in other cultures. I wanted to take the complicated feelings that I had about Cornell’s legacy as one such soul and apply it to my own landscapes and mental places.
Much of my fiction is concerned with the interpenetration of towns and cities, such as the “Town’s City” in ANGEL HOUSE and the urban/rural fault lines in my Dodge City books. Cornell is the opposite kind of figure, someone who lived a very private small-town life within NYC, and who treated the MoMA almost like the “Town Museum” in The New House. This had a perverse appeal to me, especially as my own years in NYC began to stretch on, and it started to seem like I might be here for the long haul, even though I come from a small town in MA and had also begun to spend time in the town of Lindsborg, KS, near where my wife is from. I often describe this town as the “Marfa of Kansas” in that it has an extraordinary amount of highly accomplished artists, all living together in this very remote place and displaying their work in a couple of local museums, each founded by another local artist. That atmosphere has been very heady for me, much more so than any NYC art scene has been, and I wanted to honor it from a Jewish, outsider point of view.
MP: The family’s conception of Visionary Judaism struck me as a cross between Blakean ecstatic Christianity and American individualism. But the actual practice of their Judaism—the creation of art which transforms the world—seems much in line with traditional (what the family would call “Dogmatic”) Judaism’s teaching that the practice of commandments slowly but surely transforms the mundane world into a holy one. Does the similarity I’ve just described make any kind of sense to you? How different or similar do you find the practices of art and religion?
DLR: This is a key aspect of the book’s theology. There’s a tension at the heart of the family’s modus operandi, in that they want to be singular and cut off from what they view as the neurotic, conservative, and/or militaristic practices of Jewishness in all of its contemporary forms, while also keeping some connection to this tradition alive, and not assimilating into the mainstream. The question of whether the family succeeds, or actually just enacts a conventional form of Jewish ambivalence—we are, after all, the people who gave rise to Groucho Marx’s famous “I’d never want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member” quip—is a question that the parents can’t or won’t address, so the son, Jakob, very much has to.
In terms of art creating the world, this is the key paradox at the heart of (secular) Jewish intellectual life: we are the “people of the book” and thus very good at both reading and writing, but is this all we’re good at? Is our one tangible intervention in the world—outside of the military intervention of Israel, which the parents in this book (like the parents I grew up with) harshly disavow—the ability to create worlds within worlds? And, if so, is this a form of strength or a form of weakness? Are we slowly changing the fabric of reality by offering prose alternatives and augmentations to the apparent order of things, or are we just hiding from a reality we can’t change? Kafka is the supreme modern manifestation of this question, in that his works had a huge impact on twentieth century thought and culture, but always by depicting characters being crushed and thwarted by intractable systems.
When it comes to art and religion, I’ve always sought the points where they overlap and intermingle in subterranean and possibly heretical ways. I gravitate to people who have a religious attitude toward art and an artistic attitude toward religion, and I gravitate away from people who deny these points of overlap or claim that either category has definite edges. I don’t believe that the world is disenchanted, nor do I believe that the nature of its enchantment can be known in any official way.
MP: Jakob, Jakob’s father, and Wieland all believe they can transform reality and, through their art, discover or create a New Jerusalem. And one of the coolest moments of the novel comes when Jakob dreams the figure of Tobin into flesh. Yet these characters’ dreams and visions compete with one another, implying a world full of towns with other artists dreaming their own figures into existence. Do they also imply your view of an artist’s role or potential power in the concrete world? Are you generally interested in communicating your views through your fiction?
DLR: This tension grows out of the question above—the ever-present uncertainty about whether thought and imagination have any impact on the outside world.
The artistic visions of the several generations in this book definitely compete, and the competition is crucial to me as a driving conflict. I was raised in the ultra-liberal 90s in Massachusetts, where there was the ethos that “everyone can live in their own world and no worldview is any more or less valid than any other” (even though this itself was, of course, the completely dominant worldview of the post-Wall, pre-9/11 era). This was a nice thing to say, and certainly provided for an idyllic childhood, but it’s proven less and less functional as a means of describing or tending to the world we live in now. Just as nations and empires compete, often violently, for physical space, it seems clear that ideological factions also compete for their worldviews to achieve dominance over those of their enemies. However sad this state of affairs may be, I think fiction needs to grapple with it by exploring the fault lines between competing worldviews and considering how those power struggles play out, and why, especially in America, the idea that everyone can live in their own reality has proven so unworkable. To put it mildly, not everyone can be Joseph Cornell, and most people don’t want to be.
This also implies moral or metaphysical stakes in fiction itself—if a novel is going to attempt something more than escapism (not that there’s anything wrong that, if it’s what you’re looking for), then it has to start from the premise that ideas have consequences. I’ve always felt that writing is more like exploring a space that already exists, rather than making one up when you could just as easily have made up another. This motivates me to use fiction not so much to communicate my views but to keep discovering what they are, without ever being certain that I know ahead of time. If I can surprise or even shock myself, I know I’m onto something worthwhile.
When Jakob dreams Tobin into flesh, I wanted to raise the possibility that perhaps Jakob is writing the whole book. I wanted the reader to ask, is this all just a veiled autobiography, that of a misunderstood artist telling his “origin story” the way he’d want it to be told, or is there an “objective” narrator telling us the truth? I don’t think the book needs to answer these questions, but I wanted them to lurk in the background, especially in those moments where it seems like Jakob is the master of the whole imaginative realm that the book operates within. I wanted to play with the question of whether he’s in the book or is the book.
There was the question of my own self-consciousness while writing as well—who am I in relation to these characters? Am I a version of Jakob’s father? Am I Jakob himself? Am I a neutral observer? Especially for a book about insider vs. outsider art, where I was trying to work out my own relation to these categories, I found it crucial to keep thinking about who I am in this constellation, and who I was trying to become by writing the book. Was I trying to express a private mythology that no one else could access, or was I trying argue for my place in the external sphere of contemporary literature?
MP: Your sentences often feature a steady accrual of surprising details, constantly destabilizing the reader’s sense of time, space, and identity. They eschew the lyricism of much contemporary American prose. What has led you and your prose in this direction? Who writes the sentences you admire?
DLR: One of my favorite effects in fiction is that of quickening—the destabilization you mention appearing to approach dissolution while actually approaching the possibility of some (perhaps occult) underlying stability that might not be perceptible on the surface, the way that someone ranting and raving might end up making a kind of sense that a cool and composed lecture never could. It’s almost an invocation, like sentences threatening to break free from the story they’re telling but ultimately defining the nature of that story more deeply than the “knowing author” ever could. It’s a push and pull between using language and being used by it, and it often takes many drafts to find the balance.
One author who writes sentences that I admire is Harold Pinter. He’s one of the “visionary Jews” discussed in The New House, and was a huge influence on me in terms of apparent nonsense finding a way—often by tracing a path between horror and hilarity—to reveal a deeper kind of sense. Of course writing for the stage and for the page are different challenges, but I often harken back to how I felt upon first seeing “Old Times” and “The Birthday Party” in college when I want to set my sights on the effect I’m trying to have on my readers, though I think my worldview is more nostalgic and in some ways sweeter than Pinter’s.
I also love mega-sentence authors like Faulkner, Bernhard, Lispector, Saramago, and Krasznahorkai, though I equally well love the super-limpid, bitchy pointedness of someone like Edward St. Aubyn or Michel Houellebecq, and the hot, musky sentences of magical realists like Garcia Marquez and Ben Okri. All of those work for me in different ways, and probably come to mind in different moments when I’m writing, though ideally on a subconscious level. On a first draft, I mostly want to think about the scene and situation I’m describing, not the words I’m using. That consideration comes later in the process.
MP: The destabilization of reality mentioned in the previous question is a source of constant thrills. But these destabilizations are numerous, varied, and complex. At some moments the reader feels as though they are riding a roller coaster made of prose, or maybe several prose roller coasters at once. How do you keep all these roller coasters on track? How, that is, do you make order out of chaos?
DLR: This is the role of the Demiurge, understood by Jakob’s family as a restless creative energy that never creates something from nothing, but rather transforms the matter that already exists, never settling on a final form. Cornell is relevant here again, in that he never made anything, but rather devoted his life to sorting out the chaos of pre-existing toys and trinkets into a barely articulable kind of order. That order—the way that the constellation of objects inside a Cornell box just makes sense, even though it’s impossible to explain why—is hugely appealing to me.
In general, I love the feeling of the roller coaster almost going off the rails but then either righting itself or, even better, discovering a whole new rail at the last moment. I picture a tightrope walker here: a great tightrope routine is about the possibility that the walker might fall off and die. If the tightrope is so low that a fall wouldn’t be dangerous, or if the walker is supported by guide-ropes, the routine has no stakes. At the same time, if the walker actually falls off and dies, the performance is no longer a routine—it’s a tragedy. It’s only by walking between these two poles that the performance is both meaningful and rewarding. In any art form, as in any game that combines skill and luck, the highest level you can play at is to risk chaos and then find a way to use that chaos to your advantage.
MP: The New House stands on its own, but the destabilizations which have come to dominate this interview are clearly a theme of all your fiction. And several figures and concepts that briefly appear in your previous novels (like the Boys’ Boys and the Art World) are developed in depth here. Gerald Murnane wrote somewhere that all of a writer’s books are really just one book. Do you share that view? How do you make sure that recurrences in your work are fresh rather than rehashed?
DLR: I definitely share this view. Many of the authors I admire most, with Murnane very much among them, have a life-project that is tied to a specific place. There’s nothing I love more than seeing an author—whether it’s Faulkner in Mississippi, Garcia Marquez in Colombia, Raymond Chandler in LA, Murakami in Tokyo, Pamuk in Istanbul, or Murnane in rural Australia—taking actual geography and turning it into psychogeography. That balance between actual, familiar space (this is why I’ve never been a huge fan of outright fantasy or off-world sci-fi books) and a writer’s inner landscape (the way that Murnane describes events as taking place in the “East or the West of my mind” always gives me chills) is what compels me most. It’s a seam or fault-line from which stories emerge like gas, and it’s a feeling about the world that gives me hope—the sense that our world “already contains another,” which we need only tease out and cultivate in order to live a fulfilling life, rather than needing to imagine an entirely new world. I’ve always wanted my writing to tie me more deeply to the places where I live by giving form to the intimations and daydreams that they keep emitting.
My own life-project, especially now that enough books have come out for me to see it somewhat from the outside in, absolutely has this quality, stitching together numerous characters and locations that recur again and again in my physical and mental life. I’ve come to view the novels, whether it’s ANGEL HOUSE or The New House or the Dodge City books, as stations on this map, while the stories in Drifter and my upcoming Squimbop Brothers collection are strings or roads linking them all up.
In terms of avoiding redundancy, this harkens back to the idea of risking chaos—I love when authors obsess over a concept or situation to a degree that seems absurd. How many times can Bernhard tell us that he hates Vienna and loves Glenn Gould? How many imaginary horse races and Proust reveries can Murnane subject us to? Yet, at the same time, it’s the absurdity and total commitment of this obsession that pushes the work through to a transcendent place. It’s like a mantra, where it loses meaning if you repeat it too much, but then, if you keep repeating it past this point, it takes on a whole new meaning, which was the goal all along. The mantra evolves from the conventional meaning that comes from saying a word or deploying an idea once, through the meaninglessness of unintentional repetition, to the transcendent meaning of deliberate repetition.
MP: What comes first for you, vision or meaning, or is it all a matter of “first”?
DLR: For me, it’s a matter of pregnant images that combine vision and meaning. I know I have something I can work with when I get an image that feels fraught with meaning, the way Faulkner talked about picturing a girl in a tree with muddy underwear as the genesis of The Sound and the Fury. It’s almost like I need to become pregnant with whatever the story’s going to be, which starts with that image, but even at the outset (I wouldn’t start otherwise) I know it’s not just an image. I get this feeling from places a lot, the sense that there’s more going on than meets the eye. When I start writing, I start by trying to tease out what that might be.
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is now available from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.