“Something Only A Consummate Outsider Could Concoct”: A Conversation with David Leo Rice

David Leo Rice

My first real conversation with David Leo Rice took place at the Schlafly Pasta House inside the Lambert St. Louis International Airport. We were both waiting for connecting flights after a rather zombified cusp-of-COVID writer’s conference, and we talked about Boston (where David had gone to undergrad and where I was finishing grad school), about being Jewish, about the Kabbalah, and about all kinds of books. It was a lovely conversation despite the increasingly bleak news that kept leaking out over the noise of the terminal. I soon after that read the first volume of A Room in Dodge City, which was easily one of the most fun and bizarre books I have read in a long time, and after reading an advanced readers copy of A Room in Dodge City, Volume 2: The Blut Branson Era, forthcoming this January from Alternating Current, I was excited to (virtually) sit down with David, talk about the second volume of the trilogy, and continue our conversation about literature, Jewishness, and (perhaps) an end to a certain kind of world.

A Room in Dodge City: Volume 2 is a sequel, of course, but it strikes out into different aesthetic territory than in Volume 1. In the first book, we had our unnamed narrator, “the drifter,” existing in the absurdist world of Doge City where things just sort of happen to him. In Volume 2, the middle piece of the trilogy, we not only learn about what might (or might not) have been the drifter’s past, but he also has much more of a definitive “quest.”

Absolutely. The fundamental problem of Volume 1 is, “what do you do when you’ve come to town as a drifter and you haven’t left yet?” You’re beginning to doubt whether you can leave and also whether you really came there at all, whether you really are a drifter with the option of drifting onward, or if you’ve just told yourself this. By the beginning of Volume 2, it’s much more about the problem of sustainability: how do you make a life for yourself in the place where you’ve ended up?

Right, and that transition was super interesting. In Volume 1, I was more interested in the kind of agency the drifter has, if he has any at all, and if so, how conscious he is of it, because it seemed like he wanted to forego any agency he might have had. In Volume 2, he is actively trying to enter into the myths of the town, especially the myths surrounding the hometown hero-director, Blut Branson.

For better and worse, his will to keep his distance has been broken. In Volume 1, he doesn’t want to commit to Dodge City because he’s like, “I’m a drifter and my power is that I can just leave.” He feels a sense of pity toward the people who are truly from Dodge City, like, “You guys are stuck here and you have to deal with this crazy place and try to figure it out, whereas I can just leave the mysteries as they are.” But there is also envy in that he wishes he were part of the town, and that Dodge City seemed normal to him in the way that it seems normal to the locals.

I’m pleased that you used the word “normal” to describe Dodge City, which is anything but. How might you describe Dodge City to someone who’s jumping in with Volume 2?

I see Dodge City as a kind of fractal pattern, something that—and I think it says this in Volume 2 somewhere—both contains America and is contained by America. So it’s both the middle of nowhere and the all-encompassing American settlement, the apotheosis of all American history and culture compressed into a single town.

I feel like that comes across especially in the way that (in some sense) Dodge City is a real place in Kansas, but, in Volume 2, the Hollywood Hills seem to be just next door in a very literal, physical manner. The American geography folds together in very a space-time-physics kind of way.

Exactly. I tried to emphasize the overlap between history and cinema that exists in Dodge City, which serves as a nexus between the real West, with its legendary cattle drives and gunslingers like Wyatt Earp, and the birth of the Western, the idea that Dodge City became a movie set version of itself, and is thus a microcosm for the larger ways in which America understands its own landscape through movies. There’s a sense of superimposition wherever you go in this country, such that you can never just see the place you’re in without accessing a preexisting set of cinematic references. In my version of Dodge City, this condition is made literal.

Which makes me think about the metafictional aspects of these books. How are you thinking about those elements, which pop up in the narration itself as well as in the cultural allusions threaded throughout? To me they feel undeniably metafictional, but not in a classic postmodern “I, the Artist am winking at you” way, but more in a “this is what it is” kind of way. Like, “here you go.”

I think what comes after postmodernism might be an important concern at the moment, maybe in a generational way. In the seventies, there was the “I’m going to reveal that it was all just a book” or the “I’m going to make the author a character” trick, which felt like it was doing something that needed to be done, calling the literary form itself into question and poking fun at the “serious” novel, rather than just telling a story that the reader was meant to take as real. But doing that now feels a little hacky. There’s something interesting about the idea that, heading into the 2020s, postmodernism itself has grown old.

With that mindset, I’m more interested in treating the metafictional apparatus like a real apparatus, one that has power and structure within the town, even though it’s also a concept about the book. When I’m writing, I try to “literalize the subtext” by making ideas into actual things, whether they be rituals, buildings, effigies, characters, or entire towns. It’s connected to the “Word Made Flesh” ideas in the Bible, where language seamlessly becomes whatever it describes, and it’s also connected to David Cronenberg, who’s the patron saint of Dodge City and a major character in Volume 2—in his films, there’s often a process whereby images or other forms of media become bodily infections or growths.

I wonder if you could speak a bit to the Blut Branson character then, because he is not only this arch-director character who authors the fictional epigraph for the book, but he also serves as the conceptual counterpoint to so many different elements. He’s the “Dodge City David Cronenberg.”

I wanted, in a pleasurably masochistic way, to inhabit both the feeling of total outsiderness of the drifter, who’s now trapped in the town without any friends, family, background, or any real prospects, as well as the feeling of Blut Branson, who by his own self-mythology is the ultimate insider, so much so that he claims all of Dodge City as his own brainchild. The push and pull between the drifter’s outsiderness and Branson’s insiderness is the dramatic heart of the book, with control of The Dodge City Film Industry as the prize they’re fighting over.

The drifter is in many ways trying to “become” Blut Branson.

And perhaps thereby to incarnate him for the first time, since it’s possible that Blut never really existed and it was all a fantasy made up by the drifter to envision his ideal relation to the town that he’s now stuck in. It’s a true outsider’s fantasy of total belonging, something only a consummate outsider could concoct.

The “reality” of what happens in Dodge City never seems important. Dodge City doesn’t care about reality, the narrator doesn’t care, and we as readers tend not to care, either. But this “areality” becomes a vehicle for various sorts of identity exploration. A notion of something like “Genesis” is very important in the first book, and in Volume 2, you open with the idea of these mothers who don’t want to have their babies, but then the babies come to be anyway.

You could say that the whole book is about the struggle to be born, and the fear that you could somehow be alive but feel as though you still haven’t really been born yet. Insofar as it’s a künstlerroman, about the drifter’s attempt to come into his own as an artist, it traces a kind of double bind, because if you have the aspiration to be an artist, then you have to believe that you already are one, in some essential sense. But if you haven’t done your defining work yet, as is the case with the drifter and all aspiring artists, then you’re in the struggle to do it but you aren’t yet the person who’s done it. In this way, you feel both born and unborn.

This gets back to the meta aspects you mentioned, since my own effort to write these books involved confronting and processing this dilemma. The drifter works through it in an ambiguous way, questioning if his idolization of Blut Branson is something that’s going to actually allow him to become born, or if it’s just his attempt to stay in the fetal tank longer, impotently dreaming of what it would be like to make great films.

That makes me think of the idea of private art vs. public art, which also seems to be a thread in Volume 2.

Definitely. Ideas of public and private, or insider and outsider art, were key while writing this one. I think there are three main categories: there’s truly private art that no one sees (in your lifetime, or ever), where you’re Henry Darger in your room just doing your thing in silence. Or you could say there’s an even more private category, which is that of pure aspiration, the kind of art that people dream of making but never make. Then, on the far other extreme, is someone like Cronenberg, where you’re an internationally renowned figure, you know, you’re at Cannes and so on. But what interests me most is the in-between category that Branson represents: local art. His filmography is not totally private because the people in Dodge City know it, but it is kind of private, because no one else does. It has no purchase in the wider world, which is why the drifter is torn between mimicking the townspeople’s veneration of Branson, and keeping his own healthy distance.

Narratively, it’s an important juxtaposition that a reader likely will have heard of Cronenberg, but of course won’t have heard of Branson. In that way, the book tries to play with different levels of reality on the same field.

Tell me a little more about the trilogy aspect of A Room in Dodge City.

There’s a sequence in Volume 1 involving a riff on Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable trilogy—another place where I tried to incorporate real-world media into Dodge City’s fantasy world—so that was probably where I started thinking about the project in those terms.

I see it now as a version of the “beginning, middle, and end” structure writ-large. As we were saying before about fractal patterns, wherein Dodge City is a miniature version of America, I like the thought that each book has its own beginning, middle, and end, while also serving as the beginning, middle, or end of something larger.

The basic trajectory takes on the questions of 1) how do you arrive in town, 2) how do you thrive in town, and 3) how do you leave town, once it becomes clear that you won’t be able to stay forever? Are you going to be kicked out? Are you going to be killed? In Volume 3, which I’m working on now, the drifter’s tenure in Dodge City becomes much more fraught. I’m trying to play with metaphysical questions about endings, not only of how the trilogy ends, but of how Dodge City itself ends.

I know enough about your interests in mysticism to know that you can’t not have some grand apocalypse at the end.

That’s definitely the goal. And then to envision a post-apocalypse, too, because I’m most interested in apocalypses that come but don’t fully end things. This relates back to the partial births in Volume 2—here, it’d be partial deaths. In both senses, Dodge City serves as a purgatory, a place without definite beginning or end, though there are vectors in play that tend in both directions.

Fraught or failed apocalypses feel very true to life right now. The mood feels apocalyptic at the start of the 2020s, but probably some form of life is going to keep going on for a long while. I think it has to do with our feeling of post-ness, like we were saying before about what comes after postmodernism—we reached the end of history a long time ago, but we’re all still here, unable to avoid going deeper into the future.

Also in terms of its mysticism, Volume 2 read—to me, at least—as a very Jewish book. We’ve talked elsewhere about your admiration of Jewish writers like Bruno Schulz and Clarice Lispector; I wonder if you could talk a little bit about this book’s relationship to Jewish literature as you understand it.

Schulz and Lispector, and Marc Chagall, to add a visual artist, are examples of the type of Jewish work that I most admire, and try to stay in conversation with. They work in a fantastical mode, sublimating doctrinal, religious thought into a private, imagined world. Broadly speaking, there are two types of Jewish cultural influence that I’m less drawn to: one is the strictly religious, “by-the-books” side, and the other is the totally secular, “urban neurotic” side, like Larry David and Phillip Roth. I like them a lot, but I don’t see them as informing my work directly. In between those two poles is what I would call the visionary Jewish imagination—people like Schulz and Lispector, Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jodorowsky, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and David Cronenberg.

Right, which brings to mind that part of the book where the drifter is in the desert with the “Gentile Cronenberg.” I had to put the book down at that point, I was laughing so hard.

Great to hear! This relates to what we discussed before with the drifter’s anxiety about whether he’s part of the town or not, and whether he ever could be.

Do you view that as a fundamentally “Jewish” position to take towards a place?

I think so. In American and European towns, as opposed to in Israel or in big cities like NYC, Jews are very much in the position of being a psychological and demographic minority, historically viewed with suspicion if not outright contempt. But, from that position, you can do something like what Bruno Schulz did with his tiny town in Poland—develop a vision that encompasses the entire environment you’re in, appropriating the town for your own inner world. In a way, I learned the most from Schulz because he fused the local with the universal, turning his town into a microcosm of the universe. He may have never been an integrated part of that town, where he was eventually killed by the Nazis, but he made it an integrated part of himself.

Then it becomes similar to the post-postmodern thing, where the position is one of being a minority in some sense, but also one that can encompass and appropriate the world in certain ways.

Exactly. And this leads back to the apocalypticism we were talking about before, images of collapse and decline, which ring true to the larger American mood right now. Maybe I just have a specifically Jewish view of this.

I wonder if what might come after postmodernism is a new form of decadence. If I ask myself, why do I love Kafka and Schulz so much? the answer is their individual genius, of course, but it’s also how they represent a specific perception of the fall of an entire way of life. A whole empire, or system of empires, in the 1920s, had just imploded. So there’s a decadence there, and now we have that feeling about the American empire, exactly a century later.

Here is where disreputable genres are able, or even required, to bleed into “serious” ones, because certain walls and curtains have come down, and the rules of propriety are crumbling. Building off of Cronenbergian ideas of infection, this is why I include aspects of Americana and pop cultural signifiers in estranged or disgraced contexts. It’s also something that Schulz talked about in The Street of Crocodiles—he said that when all the established methods of creation fail, there are still some heretical methods that may be resorted to, and a new cosmos can be cobbled together out of yesterday’s moldering newspapers.

And in the book those kinds of questions — about what might be allowable — pop up everywhere, such as in the “heresies” surrounding Blut Branson’s work. But what counts as canon, heresy, or simply “acceptable” seems to shift constantly. In Volume 1, this was a very pleasing kind of disorientation, but the stakes seem much higher in Volume 2.

Right, there are rules in the town, and consequences for breaking them, they’re just never fully clear to the drifter. I wanted to get at the sense that there is a totality—something that’s really real—but it can only be glimpsed through these little windows of the vignettes, which is how the books are written. I love that feeling in any art form, where you sense that it all adds up on some level, but you can never reach that level, you can only intuit that it’s there. Pynchon is a master at this.

This relates to the cabalistic idea that you get these emanations of God, but there is nothing behind them except whatever you imagine they might amount to. There’s no singular figure like Jesus to show you who God is. That’s why paranoia has a cabalistic structure, because you’re trying to take these incongruous signs and clues and believe they amount to something that only you know about.

Blut Branson is always referred to in a kind of past tense, but the town at the same time awaits his return, not unlike how some folks are waiting for America to be “made great again.”

Branson represents the ultimate insider, the ultimate Übermensch. I patterned him partly on Wagner for that reason. And yet he is so well-established that he might not be there at all, just as the “great again” America is such a fantasy in people’s minds that it might never exist again, and may have never existed. There’s a universal sense that America needs to be made great again, which means radically different things to different people. If you divorce this phrase from the ugly way it’s usually deployed, I think most people would agree that it’s true.

In a sense—and this is where my thinking for Volume 3 is at—we’re all waiting for an apocalypse or revelation to deliver us from our current decadent phase, and lead us to some clarified future. Whether that future is radically great or completely ruined is almost beside the point. We just want the waiting to end.


Photo: John Kazanjian

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