“This Novel Drove Me Out of My Mind”: Nicholas Rombes on “The Rachel Condition”

Nicholas Rombes

There’s a lot going on in The Rachel Condition, writer and filmmaker Nicholas Rombes‘s followup to his excellent debut, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing. In its broadest terms, it’s about a man sent to Detroit to infiltrate a countercultural group in search of a literary artifact. And if that was the full breadth of this novel, it would be compelling enough — but Rombes goes further. Slowly, it becomes clear that the version of Detroit (and of the United States as a whole) are not quite the same ones we’re familiar with. And it’s these small moments of dissonance which turn out to have huge implications on the story being told. I spoke with Rombes about the genesis of this book, his fondness for nestled narratives, and his own relationship to Detroit’s musical history.

Both The Rachel Condition and The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing involve fictional creative works at their center. What draws you to these kinds of stories as a writer?

I’ve always just loved stories framed or set in orbit around other stories. That tension can be so exciting. My first experience with something like this as a reader was probably Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which begins with this supposedly real preface by Pym explaining how Poe persuaded him to publish the Narrative “under the guise of fiction.” This blew my mind! I was in grad school at the time taking classes in postmodern metafiction and here was this novel from 1838 toying with the relationship between various fictions within a work of fiction. I ended up specializing in early American literature and none of my postmodern focused friends wanted to accept that most of the narrative inventions they associated with postmodern fiction had been around for a long time, and long before Poe.

Although it tracks along different rails, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is an inspiration. I’d like to mention Virginia Woolf’s Orlando here, too, just because in my mind it plays with a fictional world framed by another fiction that presents itself as nonfiction.

In Citizen Kane there’s that startling film within the film, the newsreel summary at the beginning, against which our entire understanding of Kane, the character, is set against. For us to believe that the newsreel is authored/directed by someone different than the director the film Citizen Kane (which obviously a film, not a documentary newsreel) we have to detect a difference in style, tone, voice. Although Orson Welles directed both the newsreel and the film for it all to work there needs to be a difference between them, as the newsreel really were “directed” by someone else. 

For some sick, sad reason, I’m attracted to trying to pull this off as a writer. Maybe it’s a form of self-harm. In The Rachel Condition there’s the novella, Beyond Blue Tomorrows, at the center of the protagonist’s quest. Actually, a different version of this novella within a novel also appears as The Insurgent in The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, not as a novella per se, but as a film treatment that reads like a novella.

Structurally, one of the things I really admired about The Rachel Condition was the way in which it became clear how this recent history didn’t quite line up with our own. You never quite explain where the two timelines diverge (though I have my theories), which I found effective, but — did you ever consider a more traditional “counterfactual” approach?

Many strange and terrible things happened in the U.S. post-9/11. There’s that attributed quote from a Bush administration official in 2004: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And when you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities.” The hubris. And yet oddly admirable because it’s honest, a rare instance of ideology unmasking itself.

Like you say, there’s a fork in history in The Rachel Condition which results in Detroit emerging as a center of loosely organized resistance cells to the fascist regime that’s taken hold nationally. However, the vibe is not post-apocalyptic with all its familiar trappings. Instead, I wanted to world-build a parallel Detroit that felt authentic to lived experience. So, things are familiar and much the way things are now, but with little differences that are important but I hope not too intrusive or showy. Phones are rotary. Surveillance technology doesn’t seem to have advanced much beyond basic drones. There’s a bit of analog sheen to everything. 

I tried not to push too hard into these anomalies but of course there’s a risk in being too subtle, implying too much and thus placing too much burden on the reader to parse things out. As a writer—and you know this from your own work—the tension between exposition as “as-if-ness” is crucial to sustain. But what’s the right balance? If you explain too much, well, what’s the point then? But if you hold too much back, the reader’s likely to call foul and pitch the book across the room.

There’s a lot of Detroit cultural history at play here, and I especially enjoyed the Destroy All Monsters mention. Did writing this book have any impact — either altering or clarifying — of your own relationship to Detroit and Michigan?

I was born and raised in rural northwest Ohio and stayed mostly close to home until I graduated from Bowling Green State University in 1984. My friends and I lived pretty internally. We lost ourselves in records and in movie rather than in mass experiences like concerts or live sports events. As a teenager I worked a lot of jobs, mostly at restaurants. We didn’t have a lot of extra spending money and what money I earned I used to buy books and albums. 

The closest city was Toledo. In college I made friends who’d come from Cleveland, Youngstown, and Akron. Detroit seemed far away. I didn’t understand it because I didn’t know it and wouldn’t until I was hired at the University of Detroit Mercy in 1995. The university is located in northwest Detroit, on 6 Mile, just south of the 8 Mile of some renown. This rather focused area of Detroit is still a mystery to me.

As I read The Rachel Condition, I found myself revisiting the opening text again and again and seeing how my reaction to and interpretation of it evolved. How did you come up with the structure of this — and what inspired you to write a book that follows a fairly traditional structure right up until the point where it doesn’t? 

Honestly, this novel drove me out of my mind. For a while. I initially wrote that opening text—the basic chronology of key dates and events—for myself, to fend of madness. It was a challenge to hold the whole structure together in my head and at the end of the day I relied on instinct and chance. I just couldn’t bring myself to do the logical, sensible thing which would have been to carefully map out each and every timeline and plot point. Notecards or Post-It notes or whatever and all that. I tried that once and it just sputtered out any genuine feeling I had for what I was creating.

There are a few reasons for rejecting this hyper-administered method. First, that kind of organization just kills my creativity, just zaps it dead. I don’t want to know the exact x,y,z’s of it all. I just lose interest. Second, The Rachel Condition is all about the beautiful imperfections of memory and the little tragedies that lie in the gaps between what really happened and how we remember what happened. So, in the spirit of this I approached the novel’s composition organically, picking up from where I left off without whipping myself bloody over every little continuity detail. 

My hero writers and filmmakers and painters seem not to ever be in full, totalizing control of whatever mechanisms that might lead to perfection their work. The director Harmony Korine once spoke of “mistakism” and that’s been my guiding light. Probably to a fault. My readership is fairly small, and it will likely stay that way.

This is a very left-field question, and if you respond with something like “what the hell are you talking about” I may cut it, but: am I crazy for seeing a little of Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels in this book’s structure and DNA? 

I’ve actually never read You Bright and Risen Angels because my journey into Vollmann has been via reverse-chronology-reading, and I haven’t gotten back to that first book of his yet. However, his voice looms large and for many years I was obsessed with him and I will say I’m the proud owner of a first edition set (McSweeney’s) of his magisterial, seven-volume Rising Up and Rising Down, which I snatched up right upon its release for a bargain price. I’ve always felt like there must be multiple Vollmanns at work, like maybe four of five of him, writing all the time. His output astounds.

The most direct, originating influence is Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go. In particular Kathy’s voice. She narrates the story to an implied audience (“I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Halisham . . .”) and although I will never come close to the magic of Ishiguro’s writing, his novels—and Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun especially—opened up whole new vistas of how to imply an entire world without describing it in detail. But more than that, the risks he takes in terms of sentiment—of feeling that seems free from the armor of irony—is inspirational. 

While we’re on the subject of influences on this book, you mention the Inland Empire nod; the “he’s always been the bartender” moment recalls The Shining. Are there any other cinematic nods in here?

Yes, good catch with the bartender line, on page 63! There are so many films that seep into the DNA of this novel. In no particular order:

Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976) – earnestness of tone

The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) – doomed love; mood

The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) – Paul the bartender

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler, 1982) – partial inspiration for the band Psycho Femmes

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) – all the nonsense with the rotary phones

Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995) – Antony’s feeling of paranoia and isolation

Ring / Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) – the drummer’s long hair in the demonic band Yama

Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973) – Julia’s world view

In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) – the evil greenhouse

Action Jackson (Craig R. Baxley, 1988) – Julia’s fantasies

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) – Detroit “ruins” trope

Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, 2015) – slow pace in the novel’s middle; chemistry between Rachel & Antony

Men with Guns (John Sayles, 1998) – Rachel’s resistance in the face of State terror

Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002) – All the sand in the Beyond Blue Tomorrows novel within the novel

Barfly (Barbet Schroeder, 1987) – the main setting in Fletcher’s Bar, minus the fights

Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987) – Rachel’s (failed) attempt to keep violence at bay

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) – early chemistry between Rachel & Antony

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984) – the pinball machine

Pulse / Kairo (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001) – the feeling of dread during the greenhouse section

There’s a very intriguing offer at the end of this book, after the text itself has (maybe?) ended. When did that come into play?

I wish I could say the novel has a proper ending, but there’s always more of the story to tell. My imperfect solution was to include an offer to readers to continue the world of the story via snail mail. As the novel is about how we remember events as opposed how they really happened, I thought it might be nice to allow readers, if they so choose, to remember the story in ways outside of the book itself. Which is to say, to extend their relationship with characters via a snail-mail form that can be clipped out and sent to me, as the implied author of the novel acting as a mediator with access to the characters and which allows me 1) to snail-mail back to readers an artifact from the world of the novel and 2) to share an audio message from one of the characters via voice memo, etc.

As you’re the author of a book where Michigan punk looms large, I have to ask: do you have any particular favorite artists or albums from this milieu?

You mentioned the band Destroy All Monsters, and they are, for me, number one. The band formed in 1973 in Ann Arbor and gained a sort of fame in 1978 when Ron Asheton, of the Stooges, joined, and then Michael Davis of the MC5. One thing I love about them is the scarcity of their recordings. In fact, apparently the only release from their early years is a cassette tape, from 1975, that was limited to 25 copies! Tracking down one of these cassettes has obsessed me for so long I hardly believe it’s even real any longer. Do any of these cassettes even exist anymore?

Other bands from Detroit and metro Detroit from this era who have wiggled for years in my ears are The Sillies, who formed in 1977 and remind me of the Cleveland proto-punk bands from the same era, especially Mirrors and the electric eels. I’ll also mention Necros, who formed in 1977 in Maumee, Ohio, just a few miles down the road from where I lived. I knew very little, if anything, about these bands at the time, and yet I feel as if we ran on parallel tracks, so close to each other, and yet worlds apart.


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