James Reich on the Haunted Landscapes of “The Moth For the Star”

James Reich author photo

It’s hard to find the right words to discuss James Reich‘s new novel The Moth for the Star. Is it a haunting tale of excess and murder in Depression-era New York City? A bizarre story of metaphysical warfare? A psychological study of generational trauma and repression? Arguably, it’s all of the above — along with some astronomy thrown into the mix. I spoke with Reich about his new novel’s genesis and the thematic concerns at its heart.

There’s a lot going on in The Moth for the Star, from a pair of lead characters wrestling with trauma to an evocation of Depression-era New York City to scenes of psychic warfare. Where exactly did you start when you began work on this novel?

It was precisely the image that begins the novel: a well-dressed man on a sand dune, recovering himself, staring at the pyramids, having just killed someone in a struggle, but with a blank or blind spot where the dead body should be. I knew who Charles Varnas was immediately, and I knew the identity of the Adversary, also. I saw Varnas walking back from the necropolis to the city, and meeting with his accomplice. I always begin writing a novel under the same circumstances: intuiting a location and set of psychological contingencies compel me. 

How did you go about finding some of the specific details of 1930s New York? It felt lived-in in a way that a lot of historical writing isn’t.

Thank you, that’s a nice compliment. When I enter the psychic space of a novel, there’s always a deluge of psychogeography and unconscious material. You could say that it’s ‘lived-in’ in the other sense that it has ‘lived in’ me. I know what I want, and it’s all in that black water, but you have to discern it, to recognize it. I think one of the things a writer should learn is not to take dictation from the imagination, or the unconscious, but to dictate to it and analyze it; to face the black water with one’s needs, knowing how to use the automatically surfacing images, the uncanny. Sometimes, that means images of the Sphinx in scaffolding, amaranth growing from sandbanks in Manhattan, or herons stalking Battery Park, and poems about Christ.     

Varnas and Campbell are an interesting pair, and I found my perspective on them shifting over the course of the book. Was it a challenge to write two characters who are constantly withholding information both from one another and from the reader?

Great, that’s what I would want: for the reader to have an evolving and contradictory sense of Varnas and Campbell. Varnas and Campbell are doubles in the sense that, say, Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick were in their era. They’re outsiders, careless, and somewhat estranged from their time by glamor. Writing Varnas and Campbell was a pleasure, technically and emotionally. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde uses Basil Hallward to express some anxiety that he has put too much of himself into the portrait of Dorian, that it is too confessional, too immoral. But Wilde’s or Hallward’s anxieties are false or ironic: putting too much of oneself in the portrait is deliberately and entirely the point. When Wilde writes, “The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography,” that probably applies to artists as much as critics. When you’re writing about repression, you’re aware that you are always hiding something of yourself from yourself, and that you ultimately intend an apocalypse. 

The character of Osman Raffi doesn’t enter the novel until its second half, but he makes a substantial impression; there were moments where I could have easily envisioned a version of this book in which he was the protagonist. What was your process like in terms of developing him — and how did he become a foil for Varnas and Campbell?

Oh, that’s interesting. I think that Osman Raffi is as close as The Moth for the Star comes to noir, perhaps. The Maltese Falcon is one of my formative influences. He’s not quite a Joel Cairo figure, but he is sinister in a Mephistophelean way – and to the extent that he is something of Campbell’s devil, it’s important that he isn’t what she imagines him to be. It’s possible to read the character of Osman Raffi as a manifestation of Campbell’s guilt, as the shadow detective to New York detective, as a would-be usurper of the role of ‘son’ to Campbell’s father, and as a revenant of the murder in Cairo that haunts both Varnas and Campbell. 

Poetry looms large in this novel, from the Shelley verse from which it takes its title to the role that Gerard Manley Hopkins plays in one flashback. Were you aware when you started work on this the extent to which poetry would suffuse the book?

That’s a part of Charles Varnas’s childhood that is my own, albeit with some distortion. Varnas’s relationship to poetry is counterpoint to Campbell’s relationship with the occult. They’re both forms of divination and analysis. The poems relate to the plot and themes of the novel. They are also part of the sense that Varnas has that he is not free, that he is being manipulated. 

You also recently published a book of poetry; did that project have any influence on this one?

My preoccupations tend to bleed into one another. There are some things in The Holly King that are shared with the novel, the symbolism of amaranth, birds, winter, and alienated Englishness. At the same time, there’s a poem about Wilhelm Reich in the collection, because I was also writing my book on Reich at the same time. I wrote a screenplay based on my novel Soft Invasions, and again, different as Soft Invasions is from The Moth for the Star, I’d like to think that they’re morally challenging in a manner that suggests some continuity.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the way that the planet (or quasi-planet?) Pluto factors into the narrative. Was that strand there from the beginning?

Pluto’s presence is uncanny. It surfaces relatively early in the novel, but it’s difficult to say with the conception of the novel because the experience of writing it was that deluge that I mentioned, a simultaneity that required transforming the information from my psychological experience of it to a narrative that might affect others. With some of the novel unfolding in Venice, of course the girl who named Pluto was named Venetia, and that helped press its case, but the confirmation of Pluto in 1930, the novel’s present, is the emergence of the underworld, the proximity of Hell in all its forms. 

Through the novel’s protagonists, Campbell especially, you reckon with ideas of generational legacies — including those of corruption and evil. Where do you stand on some of the moral questions that your characters are wrestling with?

I regard ‘sins of the father’ morality—when this is understood as hereditary sin, or ancestral guilt, or original sin—as an undecorated evil. One must be a sadist to propose it, and a masochist to accept it. Campbell’s father is certainly evil, and Varnas is corrupted by a father figure. In part, they live having assumed that burden, the presumption of a kind of guilt, of corruption. The question for Campbell and Varnas is: what if they are mistaken? How might they have lived differently? Part of their tragedy is that they have permitted themselves to become both masochists and sadists. That is what I see all around me. That would be my warning. 


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