A Burrowing Transcendence: A Conversation with David Leo Rice

David Leo Rice

David Leo Rice has been keeping busy. Since we last spoke (about A Room in Dodge City, Volume 2), he’s published a collection of short stories, edited a book of essays on David Cronenberg, and written another novel, The New House, which provided me an excuse to sit down with him again to discuss his new novel and talk more about Jewishness in American literature, heresies, and capital-A Art (among other things). The New House is available now from Whisk(e)y Tit. 

A lot of your fiction is interconnected — either in an explicit series or in the same general universe — but The New House seems to live more in its own orbit. How were you thinking about the writing of this book in the context of your other work?

The earlier one that it’s most connected to is Angel House, although Angel House is part of the “Squimbop” universe, so The New House is indeed the most standalone of the standalones. Its structure is more hermetic–it overlaps less with other parts of my fictional world, and it also overlaps less with the “real world” insofar as, unlike the Dodge City stories, which were posted online along the way, and Drifter and the new Squimbop book, whose stories came out separately, The New House has nothing in it that’s ever been published before (although it does make copious reference to real artists and real history, whereas one rule for Angel House was that it couldn’t refer to anything that didn’t originate within the book itself).

So it feels different both in terms of its concept and its prior existence, or lack thereof, in the outside world. The writing process is different when you’re working on something hermetically like this, where it’s underwater and then it floats up to the surface at the last minute, as opposed to something that sends up little flares along the way. A closed process versus an open process.

That reminds me of the private versus public art idea that we talked about in our last conversation, although in terms of this book it’s arguably both a stronger distinction and more nuanced. In The New House you have something like “small public” art, connected to the small-town museum in the novel, which has such a limited audience that it’s almost “private,” but then there’s the capital-A, capital-W “Art World,” whose audience is the capital-P “Public.”

The psychic complex that motivates the characters in this book, as well as my own cloistered process of working on it, is the idea of wanting to transcend the Art World by burrowing beneath it. It’s almost like a heresy against the Art World. There’s the idea of the extremely local, which at its true extreme becomes the totally private – the romantic and discomfiting icon of someone alone in their basement, using toys and puppets to bargain with God. But then on the opposite extreme, there’s the fantasy of the utterly universal, either on a transcendental level, like on the religious scale of reinventing the cosmos, or in the way of the delusions of grandeur that occur to Jakob, the protagonist here, of pilgrims traveling to this town to see his art, making him into a Salinger figure  — of becoming even more famous than the city that his audience must leave in order to behold his genius.

The city, which contains the Art World, is the great in-between. If you’re a big deal in the Art World and you’re in all the big museums and galleries, you exist on a very tangible plane. You’re above most artists in the brutal hierarchy of contemporary assessment, but there’s also something immanent and thus banal about you. A Jeff Koons piece is worth a lot, for example, but there’s an exact number that corresponds to how much it’s worth; it’s not worth an infinite amount, whereas the work of some genius in his basement in Kansas might be worth nothing in dollars, but it might also be worth more than dollars can represent. In this sense, the zero triggers the infinite, and both cancel out the middle where the Art World operates.

Which makes me think of the piece about Joseph Cornell you wrote in The Believer.

Cornell was the original research starting point. I’ve always been interested in him, but around 2015, as part of a failed grant application, I started doing more research and reading more about his life and work. It turns out there’s a whole world of Cornell-inspired fiction, which I think comes from the narrative tension in his work: it’s so non-narrative, or at least non-linguistic – even though he uses text, it functions only as an image – and yet every shadow box is pregnant with narrative possibility. Every box tells a hidden story about why those objects relate and what they’re doing there, why other objects aren’t there instead, and so on, which is a great point for fiction to depart from.

To me he also represents a key paradox, that of the “city-town” artist. I’ve always been interested in the idea of the “town’s city,” which is a location in Angel House, and then vice versa, the “city’s town,” the way those archetypes nest within each other while seeming to be antitheses. And Cornell’s a good example. He was someone who lived within a very short radius, but that radius was New York City, not the woods of Maine. For him, the MoMA was the “town museum.”

I love to picture him as a trash man wandering the city gathering stuff at dime stores, old things people had thrown away as the world grew more modern in the 50s, and then repurposing them — this is the way the book puts it — as a “demiurge,” where he’s never creating his materials, but always finding new life within them. I like the idea that he’s not a sculptor, as he doesn’t make any of his objects, but he puts them into a constellation that on the one hand feels heretical — like everything is in a sick juxtaposition it doesn’t belong in — but on the other hand, the beauty of his work is that it feels like it does belong in those juxtapositions. It feels like he accessed a deeper order of physical reality.

That feels like an unspoken fourth possibility against what I’ll call the “trivium of Jews” that the parents in the book drill into the young Jakob as a part of his “schooling” — the didactic Jew, the city Jew, and the visionary Jew.

Deep in the conception of the book were questions around why am I so drawn to someone like Cornell. Do I feel like him? Do I wish I were more like him? Do I wish I were less like him? Then I also had the idea, almost like a Mel Brooks routine, of what if there was a Jewish Joseph Cornell? Cornell was such a gentile figure — even the name “Cornell” is like the most Anglo name you could possibly have. So that inversion was compelling to play with.

And then there’s the trivium you mentioned merging into one at the cusp of Judaism turning into Christianity, of Christ being the “ultimate” Jew, but “ultimate” also in the sense of being the “last” Jew before the Christian Era. So the idea of the three — the Trinity, whether it’s Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or, here, Father, Mother, and Son — becoming One was key to Jakob’s relation to his parents, and thus to Jewish tradition. The tension was whether he’d come to see himself as a Messiah or a heretic, or both.

As I worked on the book, I grew interested in the idea of heresies becoming dogma, and how it’s not so simple to put those orientations in opposition to each other. On the one hand, the parents are telling Jakob all this dubious stuff that he wants to rebel against, as perhaps he should, but the way that he rebels is also part of what he’s learning, thereby proving that the education (or indoctrination) he’s been given is effective. This is a very American idea, since we have such a rich history of protests, schisms, counter-narratives, and what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” – by questioning or even renouncing core American orthodoxies, do we reject the American project or actually define and enrich it all the more?

This is also a quintessentially Jewish idea: that the efforts you make to escape your Jewishness are the purest manifestation of it. It’s crucial to both tragedy and irony too, since in both cases all the steps you take to avoid your fate are exactly how you meet it.

Right, and this is indeed a very Jewish book, and almost a painfully Jewish book in some ways. And the idea that any attempts at escape only serve to reaffirm your embeddedness feels very related to the town itself, and also to the relationship Jakob has with his parents and the power dynamics between the two of them.

His rebellion against his parents is proof of how much he’s like them. It’s exactly what they would have done. This may be true of every rebellion, but I think that’s why it’s always a compelling story. And there’s a bad version of it, if your parents are terrible, which these parents are in a lot of ways, but there’s also a good version of it, wherein your parents have taught you something valuable about the world if they’ve taught you how to rebel. If they’ve engendered your rebellion against them in such a way that it makes you more able to find your place in the world, without being stunted by a line you’re afraid to cross, then they’ve helped you grow up — and you’ve helped them live on.

I considered the dynamic between the two parents as well, because I wanted it to be fraught in a lot of ways, but I also wanted to make it so that you could see where each one was coming from, even though they were both extreme versions of certain archetypes. I wanted the father to be this Freudian or Kafkaesque punishing shadow of the Jewish father, but what makes that character interesting is that he’s always threatened too. Kafka was exceptionally attuned to the Jewish father as an ultimate patriarch, representing a hyper-masculine form of old world power, but couched within a new world, like the sphere of Nazism, or pre-Nazism, that Kafka saw in the 1920s, where he’s no longer welcome to wield any power in the larger culture. I like that dichotomy, where the father’s scary but also scared. You see that in Roth’s Plot Against America as well.

And then the mother in this book, she represents the voice of reason, and — without giving too much away — the wisdom of maintaining a tether to the Art World, and a sense that maybe the father’s wrong to have totally turned on it, or maybe he’s full of shit and hasn’t really turned on it — maybe he’s just waiting to make his comeback. There’s a sense from her that the desire to integrate and assimilate into the larger American culture is not only still present, but is still good. Maybe it’s the only good option, even. I wanted to write a book that wasn’t just saying, “The Art World’s stupid,” or “America has failed.” Those assertions may be true, but they’re not nuanced enough to write a novel about.

And in the novel, the Art World gets cast in many ways as being very compelling and desirable. One of the most interesting things to me about this book is that it’s often very credulous — at least in the moment — of whatever’s going on, who Jakob’s with, the space in which he finds himself, and so on. And then there’s the “snake in the wall,” which of course is very Genesis, but here the temptation doesn’t necessarily feel wrong at every moment, which I thought was very interesting.

And maybe even in Genesis the snake is kind of right, or at least it has a point. Genesis is, on the one hand, from a narrative point of view, about the Fall, the end of the good times, but it’s also the beginning of the Bible. The whole story only happens because they listen to the snake. If you want a story, you have to leave the Garden, just as if you want to be born, you have to leave the womb, even if life will never be that easy again. The Garden is by definition a non-narrative zone, so we have the snake to thank for storytelling itself.

Sticking to the idea of sources, this book engages really explicitly with certain characters and ideas from Jewish literary and intellectual history; at times it almost felt like you were providing a read-along list. How were you thinking about that heritage when you were writing it?

It’s connected to flirting with the idea that some aspects of what the father’s doing are actually right, or at least good for Jakob, even though he’s horribly abusive. Part of what the father has seeded Jakob with is this solipsistic sense that all of these reference points, like Martin Buber for example, are his literal, direct ancestors in an extended Jewish family, which I suppose is true in that Jews do form a much smaller family tree than Christians or Muslims, for example.

I often tell my students they should allow themselves to believe that their deepest influences were written just for them, and thus see themselves as direct descendents of whomever moves them most. As an outwardly sane person, I understand that Buber or Pinter or Isaac Bashevis Singer didn’t write only for me, but I also find it productive to retreat to a psychic basement where I cast that certainty off and enter a state of communion where I can say, In this private space, those people did write directly for me.

And maybe “write” is too benign a word here: it’s more like those people were conjured and existed just for me and just for my work. I think this headspace is valuable, if you can keep it in balance. The messianic energy it generates is where the really powerful stuff comes from. It’s where you confront the full burden of your life and ambition by saying, From my own point of view, all of world history really did conspire just to produce me, so how can I face rather than ignore the awful weight of this fact?

You get into that in the book too, with “the New House” being in some sense all the various zones that Jakob is occupying at all times. I’m thinking specifically of a scene later on in the book where they go to the “other cabin in the wilderness,” and how there was a strong sense of danger in that overly-inhibited zone.

I think a lot about the moment (and here’s an example of something that feels personal, even though it had nothing to do with me), when Jung broke with Freud. I don’t know why I read this when I was 10, probably because my dad’s a psychiatrist, but I read Jung’s memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which is a visionary book. There’s a moment towards the middle where Jung cuts ties with Freud, who’d been his mentor and idol in many ways. And he’s like, You’ve been a great mentor, you know, you’re a genius, you’re a world-historical figure, but you’ve also become a crank. You’re obsessed with your own theories. You’re like a tree that can’t grow any further. You’ve ossified, so I’ve gotta move on.

To me, that moment felt, again, like the Old Testament versus the New. Freud is the bearded Jewish patriarch reaching the edge of the known world, and Jung is the strapping, Wagnerian adventurer going deeper into the Black Forest. He basically said, I learned from Freud, that’s the Old Testament, but I have to move on into the New Testament or else we’re all gonna be talking about Oedipus for the rest of our lives. It’s a meta-Oedipal moment, since here the son has to “kill” the very father who coined the psychological concept of killing the father.

This idea is crucial for me: how do you stick to your guns and not become internally doubtful about what you’re saying and doing, but also not become a fanatic or a zealot of your own prophecy, like the father here becomes? All religions have this problem, since they need to be coherent enough to develop traditions and symbols that serve as access points to their spirituality, but not so rigid that these traditions and symbols eclipse or stifle the spirituality they were designed to help people access.

In this sense, the father represents Freud and the son represents Jung (I love how that name means “young”), especially after he meets Wilhelm Wieland, a German artist living in the woods who he “becomes,” in a manner of speaking.

Speaking of becoming— and trying not to give too much away — ”assuming mantles” seems to be very important in this book. I wonder how you were thinking about that in terms of an individual mantle or role to assume or become as it related to the assumption of the intellectual heritage(s) discussed in the book.

One of the paradoxes here is that we have this character who begins life as Jakob, and his deepest desire is to become himself, and not be molded into an acolyte or servant of his father’s vision. But he discovers that becoming yourself, if you’re trying to manifest a body of artwork, is always its own role to take on. And this role is like any other, as the famous actress in Bergman’s Persona discovers when she tries to stop acting. There is no unaffected “self” you can default to. You can become Joseph Cornell, or you can renounce that and become Jeff Koons or, on the other extreme, become a hermit in the woods, but they’re all still roles that people fit themselves into with discomfort.

I didn’t want to structure the book around a “gotcha” ending, but I did want there to be the suggestion throughout that it could all have been written by the character who Jakob becomes, like his autobiography or auto-hagiography, spelling out what he would want his life to be seen as, with all the supposed trauma and struggle that made him into a great figure (in his own eyes anyway). I don’t think the book quite says all this, but I feel like you can read it that way, as a book of outsider art, not just one about it.

That suggestion was very present in my reading, though I thought of it as more of a “threat.”

That’s a good term: is this guy telling me only what he wants me to hear, and, if so, am I in danger if I let him continue?

And a thing that I was very interested in throughout my reading was how it’s fairly explicit about the construction of its own identity as a text, which is something we talked about in our discussion of Dodge City.

Definitely. It’s like, we’ve gotten the message of postmodernism. We know all texts are constructed. Now, if we start with that knowledge, rather than working toward it, is there somewhere else we can go?

So where do we go?

I mean, the New House! That’s why I liked the idea of a very simple title, but a multivalent one, because there are numerous new houses throughout the book. It’s hard to know which one it refers to. Could it refer to a singular “new house,” and if not, if it turns out that none of these new houses are really the new house (and maybe none of them are new at all), then what is it? Is it the New Jerusalem, which you’re always only driving towards, but can never arrive at?

Or are books themselves the only new house we have? This is very Jewish too, the idea of being “People of the Book,” and feeling at once a huge power to turn lived reality into books, and to likewise live our lives in and through the books we read, while also fearing that this is as much a weakness as a strength. All writers probably have this dilemma – writing is both courageous and cowardly in its relation to “living.”

Despite the numerous “new houses,” there’s still a strong sense of physical geography in this book. There are so many landmarks — the house, the Tick-Singing Meadow, Ragtown, the Mountain — which is very different from the amorphous, shape-shifting settings you employ in some of your other work.

In Dodge City, the claim is that it’s one place, it’s only and always “Dodge City,” but the experience is that this place is endlessly amorphous and even collaboratively solipsistic: the geography morphs and sprouts up as the characters imagine or hear about it. The name of the place can never change, but the nature of the place can never stay the same.

The New House is the opposite: the claim that the parents make here is that they keep roaming from town to town, but Jakob’s experience of “being in the town” never changes. So I felt like that had to be the reader’s experience, too. The idea of this heresy, of Jakob being told that the town changes even if it never seems to, had to be palpable. It couldn’t just be an idea that was stated; the town had to seem like a real and unforgivingly solid place. I wanted this to be poignant in a way, to engage with the question of what do you do when you’re stuck in a place that won’t change  — do you retreat into imagination as a form of defeat, or, like Cornell, can you gather up the material refuse of that place and make something new with it?

This is another American question: if the material reality of the New World isn’t new anymore, is it a form of defeat if we try to continue our journey by exploring psychic rather than territorial frontiers, or is this actually a kind of wild success?


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