The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

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JUL-AUG 2021 Issue
Books In Conversation

David Leo Rice with Gabriel Frye-Behar

David Leo Rice
Drifter: Stories
(11:11 Press, 2021)

David Leo Rice’s debut collection of short fiction, Drifter: Stories, compiles roughly 10 years of writing (from about 2010 through 2020) into a single volume that screams—figuratively and, at times, literally—to be read as both a brilliant and disturbing reflection on a singularly strange decade, and as a grippingly accessible introduction to the work of an artist and storyteller with a voice and vision entirely his own.

David is a friend, and I can vouch that he is a very nice person. His mind is also a very scary place, because the imagination needed to invent and inhabit a place like “The Hate Room,” (the title of one of the stories), where the unspeakable bile built up inside a seemingly never-ending stream of visitors, all men, is released, must come from someone we wouldn’t want to meet in the proverbial dark alley.

Each of the stories collected here weaves a different strand of the Drifter tapestry, itself more an idea, theme, or ethos, rather than a particular character moving through the landscape. This is not to say that the characters—the individual and varied embodiments of all manner of drifters—don’t come to life in shockingly vivid detail, because they do. They are scarred, bewildered, and furious, each of them all the more horrifying for how recognizable their humanity is, despite how wraithlike, warped, or vengeful they have become by the time we meet them.

The forcefulness and authority of the prose, equal parts galvanizing, arresting, and darkly comic, speaks to how much David Leo Rice has to say in this volume. The urgency with which this collection was brought together animates every page. The world we’re in—the world we’ve created—is a scary place, and to examine it closely enough to see where the cracks are, and who might be waiting on the other side, or what any of us might do, is both a warning and a thrill.

This interview was conducted in our shared neighborhood in Brooklyn, amidst the afternoon bustle and afterschool activity of an NYC park. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Gabriel Frye-Behar (Rail): What's the first big thing about this book you would want people to know?

David Leo Rice: I think a good starting point is to consider geography in this book as both physical and psychological, just as the “United States” refers here both to actual territory and to states of my mind. The Drifter of the title is therefore an emergent property that I hope grows out of reading all the stories together.

Altogether, I hope the stories raise some fundamental questions about what drifting means, and how you might become a drifter, or stop being a drifter. I hope the stories speak to one another, beyond just serving as an archive, and ask what it means to drift on, and who can leave, if anyone? That’s the question that’s most interesting to me, as a way to get into this book’s overall idea.

Rail: How much of you is in the book?

Rice: A pretty good amount. But I think it’s on both sides—I’m always torn between wanting to leave and wanting to stay, between stasis and freedom. None of the characters or situations are literally “me,” but certainly exploring that state of being torn between yearning to leave everything behind versus yearning to embrace the security of being where you belong, this is a central part of my dilemma and it informs all the stories here.

Rail: Looking through the stories again, one of the things that was interesting to me, and that I’m curious about, is your logic of how you put it together. One form a book of short stories can take is as an archive. Another would be, let’s say, a collection that is sequenced based on when you wrote them, or something like that. At least from the surface level, it didn’t seem like either was the case here. What was the thinking of how you organized the stories?

Rice: Yeah, it’s definitely not chronological, which I think is good. The way we decided to sequence the book—and I worked a lot with the great people at 11:11 Press to develop the final product—is to conceive of it as a journey, so that the characters really becomes the title drifter of the book, in the sense of it being who the book is about, not just what the book is about, even though this drifter is not any single character in any single story. I was trying to think of, if you—as the reader, who could be another manifestation of the drifter—are going on this trip, what stops would you make along the way, and where would you end up? And hopefully these stories are in a sequence where you end up not back where you started, but in a version of where you started, in a spiral sense, so it’s like you’re here and then you go away, and you come back, but you’re on the next level. You’re changed in some profound way, or the place is changed, so you’re back but not back.

You can see where you were, but you can’t be in that original place, which is itself ambiguous, because on the one hand, you can feel glad that you’ve made progress, but at the same time, you also feel sad that you can’t quite return to the place you were trying to return to, even though you can see it. This is how journeys always feel to me, and how I tend to think of the three-part beginning, middle, and end structure of most stories, as well as the three-part division of this book: Part One is beginning at home, Part Two is journeying out into the world, and Part Three is returning home, but it’s not quite home anymore, or you’re not quite yourself anymore.

Rail: Where does that come from in your mind, the cyclical nature of the characters’ journeys, which is the thematic core of the book itself, it seems like?

Rice: Definitely. I’m drawn to the simultaneous relief and horror of realizing that we’re stuck in place, that there’s a system we’re trapped inside of, whether it’s our bodies, our cultures, the Earth itself, or some approximated notion of reality. We can see the outside of this—we can accept that what we call reality might be an illusion, or a failure of deeper perception—but we can never actually reach that outside. And this is both reassuring, in that we’re somewhat safe within the confines that orient our existences, and also maddening, in that we know certain deeper realities exist, but they remain elusive.

There’s therefore a cruelty in the journeys that many of the characters in these stories go on, because they gain perspective but not agency. They come to see how trapped they are, but this doesn’t allow them to do anything about it. If this book has an underlying philosophy, perhaps it’s that true knowledge only reveals how little we actually know, and thus doesn’t translate into usable power.

On the other hand, there’s also the opposite fear: that nothing is stable, that there really is no true home, so the reason why these characters can’t escape is because there’s nothing for them to escape from. That’s why they’re in the purgatorial state of being drifters, always away, even at home. The tension of these two possibilities playing against each other really excites me.

Playing with this tension, I think there can be compelling drama when a story comes not only from conflict within the made-up narrative, but also real conflict within the writer—a true sense of not knowing how reality is structured, and needing to pry at the discomfort that this not-knowing calls up. I try to generate energy in the stories by probing this fault line in my own psyche. Maybe that’s the main purpose of the stories, though I hope they also serve as engrossing and entertaining narrative adventures.

Along these lines, I don’t know if my characters are passive, but they’re often unsure how to respond to what’s happening to them, and unsure if the moves they make are coming from within their own agency, if there even is such a thing. They may suspect that they’re caught up in a divine or supernatural drama, since they’re at once trying to act in the world and also serving as vessels for the world to act through. This is what I find so bizarre and enticing about even the most ordinary experiences—there’s some external environment that we’re standing in, but there’s also such a complex internal environment that we ourselves are host to, which means that we’re always simultaneously in the world and serving as worlds unto ourselves. It’s like a math problem with so many variables that it melts into a dream or a nightmare, even though the possibility of a solution lingers as a ghostly presence, like the cloudy background in a silent film.

Rail: Speaking of which, we both have a film background. I’m curious how this influences the way you write, because I wouldn’t say that these stories are easily adaptable to the screen. I feel like there’s something to be said for that, as a writer: to try to tailor the work that you make for the medium you’re using. But I’m curious if this is something that you think about consciously, that this is going to be a written story, and exist only as a written story, or if you’re asking somewhere in the back of your mind, what would a filmed version of this look like, if it existed?

Rice: The way I conceive of it is that the story should be the film version of itself. It should be unadaptable, because it’s already attempted to reach its own cinematic fruition. Given that I think about film so much, I want my process of writing fiction to be closer to directing a film, as opposed to writing a screenplay. I’ve done some screenwriting, and when you do that, you’re very conscious that someone else is going to direct it. Or maybe you’re going to direct it, but that’s still a separate step, so a screenplay has to be for someone or something else. It has to be a blueprint for an unmade film.

The cliché of novelists writing screenplays is that they overwrite them; they put in too much description, which makes sense. Whereas when I’m writing prose, there’s partly a frustrated filmmaker’s desire of no longer believing in the filmmaking process as an open possibility. That could be a negative thing—and I do wish I could make films in a way that I despair of ever getting the chance to try—but the positive aspect is feeling like something cinematic can actually be expressed in prose, in a way that makes the prose better, too. In that sense, the story is the full movie, not just a step toward it.

In general, if you’re trying to use a medium against itself, or if you’re using a medium that you don’t really want to be using, like if you’re writing short stories but you’d rather be making films, that approach can be self-handicapping. You’re taking some of the wind out of your own sails. But, if you’re using a narrative form like fiction, while being informed by another discipline and set of influences, like film, that, I think, can be a really positive zone to work in.

I’ve gone through periods of despairing about fiction and feeling like film is the only real outlet, or the only real industry. But then I have other moments of coming through the far side of this and saying, no, even if there are certain ways in which film is obviously more lucrative and potentially rewarding in a mainstream social sense, there’s an autonomy that you have as an individual while writing fiction, a rare chance to truly embrace your innermost ideas and impulses without constantly bending them against what’s logistically and financially possible.

There’s something almost religiously positive about this. It’s a kind of monastic commitment to doing this thing, either for purely internal reasons—in the sense of feeling a private self that yearns to write beyond all other desires—or eerily external reasons, in the sense of believing in a spirit or presence that compels the writing to continue, even if it leads me into bankruptcy and maddening solitude. This relates back to what we were saying earlier, about the characters in these stories being unable to tell if their will comes from inside or outside their bodies.

The only excluded possibility is that one writes fiction for practical reasons—it doesn’t make sense to do this work in any of the ways we usually conceive of work, although compared to the ups and downs of the film industry, you could make a case for saying that you take a lot better care of your heart by being a fiction writer.

Rail: The other aspect connected to this that I was curious to ask about is that a lot of the stories deal with other media in various forms. People watching it, experiencing it, and then how it seeps into their state of mind, and the kind of back and forth that you get from interacting with—it’s hard to say art—but whatever gets put out into the world. How did this influence the storytelling? Is it something where you have an idea that you want to “tell people” about alternate media through the stories? Or is that not the direction you were thinking about?

Rice: It’s partly a reflection on how reading is itself a mediated experience. If you the reader are experiencing everything through the medium of the story, having the characters also interacting with media—seeing each other through screens, for example—puts you in the same position as these characters, rather than looking at them as actors in a fully first-order world. You’re looking through the story at the characters who are also looking at a mediated world, and neither you nor they can become totally real. I’m interested in raising questions like, does this alienate you from the character, because you don’t believe that they’re truly inhabiting their own world, or does it make a connection between you and the character, because you have something true in common, which can be deeper than the illusion of realistic fiction? In this way, the reader is trying to get something out of the story, and they end up mimicking the characters, who are trying to get something out of, let’s say, a movie or a reenacted version of their town, or I have other stories that involve video games and VR fantasy-worlds, stuff like that.

I’m very aware though that I don’t have characters whose main experience is reading. I’d rather use other art forms within this macro art form of fiction, to consider and work through my interests in film, or video games, or … the next novel that’s coming out is about outsider sculpture and collage, and the one I’m working on now is about animation. I’m interested in all these other art forms, and then in seeing fiction as the overarching system that can incorporate and unify them, and consider them as media, as potentially spooky lenses that both reveal and distort the world that the characters are trying to make contact with, and that I’m trying to make contact with through them. I’ve always loved how the word “channel” refers to media, in the sense of a TV or a radio channel, but also to mediums in the ghostly sense, as in channeling a spirit—this connection certainly isn’t incidental, and gives me license to access a ghostly part of my psyche while writing.

Fiction is older than most other forms of media, but it may also be more durable and versatile, because it can synthesize them all. This relates to the “show, don’t tell” idea in that the “show” aspect is related to film and visual art, and I can see why it’s valuable, but the “tell” aspect is also valuable in terms of how fiction relates to visual media. Fiction is uniquely able to tell, in the sense of thinking out loud about certain topics in a way that I don’t think an art form like sculpture can—it’s hard for a sculpture to be explicitly thoughtful in the same way. Obviously thought goes into a sculpture, but it’s not representing that thought in such an explicit manner, the way that a work of fiction can. So this approach of mixing and matching media within a story really energizes me. And it’s connected to my personality, in that I love reading and writing—it does seem like I’ve put all my eggs in that basket by this point—but I’m always highly compelled by other art forms, and want to feel that I’m not just passively absorbing them, but that there’s something meaningful about my ongoing thoughts about painting or other fields of visual art.

Rail: The other realm that appears in a lot of your stories, and I’m in a position where I’ve read other works of yours as well, is an undercurrent of politics. I guess it’s mostly local politics, but my sense is that it’s working as a kind of parable of politics on a larger scale. Is that something that was tied into where you were when you wrote these stories? Is it something you would change now, or do you agree or disagree with it, as a way of bringing in another theme?

Rice: In terms of local politics, I’ve always been interested in towns. For me, the fundamental unit of meaning in narrative terms is the town. And I think of my own mind as a town, so I’m moving the pieces around within it, from street to street and neighborhood to neighborhood, as I’m writing. But it’s a very porous situation, in that outsiders are always coming into the town—the classic idea that “in every story, someone comes to town or someone leaves.” In my stories, strangers are always coming to town and stirring things up, just as the people in the town are always dreaming of the world beyond it. Sometimes I think that this is the main function of towns, in my work and in the world at large: small, boring outposts from which dreams of the city emanate and turn strange.

Insofar as local politics attempts to stabilize this condition, it’s a microcosm for politics on any level. When I was in high school and dreaming of being a filmmaker, I was always seeking opportunities to do filming. One of my longer-term jobs was working for the cable access channel in my hometown of Northampton, MA. They would send me every week or every two weeks to film the city council meeting, so I spent several years being, somewhat improbably, at these meetings, in a little annex building behind the city hall. Local politics wasn’t something that I felt I had any direct stake in, and I certainly wouldn’t have been there for any other reason, but I happened to see it all through this cinematic lens, which I think was important. I understood local politics as something that I was both there and not there for. I was in the room, but I was looking at it through a screen.

I found it admirable, in the sense that you had all these people who were basically volunteering, or doing thankless jobs to try to keep the town afloat, but it was also an endless carnival of the absurd, with a total impossibility of ever reaching any consensus. The public comment sessions were the same way, in that there was something poignant and charming about how all these people really wanted to have a hand in the town, and wanted to have their voices heard, wanted to be present, but there was also a slapstick sense of desperation and futility, like some old man would show up in a suit every time for three years, begging to have a stop sign rotated two degrees … you know, all these obsessions that would make people come out of the woodwork.

In general, the idea of “woodworks,” which is a term I use in the book, interests me. The question of who’s lurking, and who can emerge at different moments. In terms of town politics, it’s fascinating to see what draws people out. What’s their vision for how the town should be? What primal fears are being played upon? So that’s one side of it. Another side of how I use politics in my work is that I’ve always found paranoia to be an exciting narrative drive. I grew up reading Thomas Pynchon, Robert Anton Wilson, Philip K. Dick, and Umberto Eco, so I absorbed the sense that paranoia could be a storytelling mechanism, which it always is, even in stories that present themselves as real, like conspiracy theories. They’re still compelling, insofar as they play upon the same drives that draw people out of the woodwork, whether in person or, nowadays, online.

Building on this, the idea of secret power structures, and the sense that reality is not what we think it is, fascinates me, as a person, and also as a way of building a quickening sense of excitement throughout a story. Like it’s all about to be revealed, or the scales are about to be removed from our eyes. And this connects to my interest in mysticism, because in mysticism it’s always about a convergence point between the real and the supernatural: it’s about finding a borderland where these seemingly disparate planes meet, beyond organized religion, on the one hand, and beyond secular “reason,” on the other.

A paranoid relation to politics has this quality too, because it’s imagining a convergence point between human and supernatural agency, like those old people showing up at the city council meeting with their petitions, uncertain whether they could influence or even reach the shadowy structures that actually make things happen, even in a small town—it’s like, who really has the power to rotate that stop sign, and what makes them either do it or not do it?

This is why so many conspiracy theories bleed into a fantasy about monsters or aliens or demons, even if the events they’re scrutinizing are in reality just incompetent or sinister human actions. This can have a terrifying aspect also, leading to scapegoats and genocides, and how people start dehumanizing each other, which is the flipside or the end point of this same process. The goal that I’m always trying to write toward is this cusp point between the natural and the supernatural, where those two categories aren’t so easily distinguished. This motivates me in a way that overt fantasy doesn’t. As in Kafka and Murakami, I’m most drawn in by stories that start in what seems like the real world, but then insidiously slide toward something more fantastical, until you can’t be sure that any distinction exists, or ever did.

Rail: The other undercurrent I was curious to ask about, and something else we both have a connection to, is teaching. The kind of odd role that this can play, and the dynamic that takes hold between teacher and pupil … I’m curious if that’s something else, either based on personal experience, or another dynamic that you’re interested in exploring, as it comes up in a few places in this collection?

Rice: Absolutely, teaching has always fascinated me. And it relates to what we were saying before, about politics and this idea of who gets to mediate between the small world of the town and the larger world beyond it, either geographically or metaphysically. When it comes to teaching children, they represent the local, insofar as they don’t have experience of the world. Especially in a small town, they’re kind of just there. They’re the fundamental products of that town, whereas the teacher, at least in my novel Angel House, comes from outside and brings a contaminating but also a fertilizing influence with him.

Either way, it’s the mediating role. It can be benign, in the sense of trying to help these children grow into themselves and come into their own; or it can be malign, in the sense of trying either to stunt their growth or force them to grow into something that you want them to, perhaps in an attempt to relive your own youth. Maybe indoctrination is too strong a word for what happens at school, but there’s always a pull to not let people enact their own inner scripts, rather to program them in a certain way. Some of this may be necessary if you want a society where people have some common ground, but it can be frightening and dangerous too, and I think the effort of becoming an artist, if you have that ambition as a child, is to find a means of somehow both accepting and rejecting what you’ve been taught, so that you can deploy the content of history and culture for your own more private and perverse goals.

In my stories, children are always the heroes, even if they do dark things, because I think art in general has to be an attempt, as an adult, to preserve something of how you saw the world as a child, or perhaps of how, as a child, you thought you were going to see the world when you became an adult. As we know, most adults try to put all that behind them, and see the world as “true adults,” which, ironically, seems like the most childish approach of all.

This may be why art itself is seen as dubious, or seen as just another commodity—many adults are willing to understand art in terms of commerce, but not as a motivating force beyond that realm. If it doesn’t make money, it’s seen as masturbatory, which I think may come from a fear of not having put childhood sufficiently in the past, even though my goal is the exact opposite of that.

Many of the towns in my stories are in the east, whether that’s the East Coast of the US or Europe, and they’re places of children, and thus places that the teachers usually come to, to tell about the outside world. On the other hand, my A Room in Dodge City books take place in the West, which exists for me in a different paradigm. These Western towns never have children in them, and the adults there can never remember their own origins. They are, instead, places of dubious commerce, pseudonyms, grifters, fake visionaries, and political operatives working various creepy schemes.

In short, the Western towns are where the “teachers” depart from, while the Eastern towns are where they end up. In this way, teaching itself mediates the two realms, and describes, or falsifies, the journey between them. My Squimbop characters, who in Drifter appear as two brothers, and in other works appear as a lone individual, always come from the West, trailing a spirit of the frontier, the gold rush, Las Vegas, Hollywood … all the dubious romance and hustle that comes with these associations.

Then they arrive in the East, seeing if they can sell these associations to a more naïve or cloistered population. It’s symbiotic, since on the one hand they’re offering a sense of excitement and potential, but they’re also like oil prospectors, preying on the innocence and naïvete of the uneducated. In Drifter, the Brothers Squimbop are such fallen figures that they have to reconnect with a life force they can only get from children, whom they access through teaching. This is why they’re vampires, or pied pipers, always papering over their own existential uncertainty by claiming for themselves the absolute right to teach.

Rail: I think there’s a not scary-creepy version of this too … one of the things that’s nice about teaching is that it “keeps you young,” because you stay connected to an ever-evolving cohort that remains roughly the same age. So you see how the world is shifting, and you update yourself. There’s something that goes back and forth in that you learn something about the world from teaching, but then obviously if you’re teaching a particular subject, the goal is for you to know enough to then impart it to others. I thought this was a cool undercurrent in the Drifter stories, and something that hasn’t been brought into works that I’ve read in the same way as you’ve done here.

Rice: Thank you! And in terms of the positive aspect of teaching, in my own experience, there’s something hugely positive about presenting the art and literature you’re into to an increasingly younger generation, and seeing which things resonate. This has to do with those things, and also to do with you as a teacher. I see it as a productive challenge to try to make a convincing case for the artworks I love. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail, but either response is telling. You learn about the world, because the people who are 18 in any given year are picking up on the winds of the culture in a very specific and salient way. And in a way that I think is often underestimated, so as a teacher I take seriously the chance to listen to them and learn what they care about, and why.

In general, our culture tends to diminish teenagers, seeing them as stuck in a waiting period, or even worse … as miscreants or liabilities. We see adolescence as a phase you have to grow out of. And it may be true that it’s a dangerous phase, but it’s also true that there’s something you can be extremely dialed into during that phase, especially if you’re the kind of teenager who needs their mind to be blown by art. Whatever is doing this for 18-year-olds in any era is worth being aware of, and, as older people now, we ignore those tastes at our own peril.

Rail: There’s a weird way that younger people can be more objective about what’s cool, which, in some ways, is counterintuitive.

Rice: It’s counterintuitive because there’s a sense of motivated reasoning by adults, the idea that we know better. And it’s understandable that we want to feel like we’ve learned something from all our years. And we have learned something, but there’s also something that we’ve lost, which is that objectivity you just mentioned.

A lot of the stories in Drifter involve a crisis about history, with people wondering if they have any history at all, or if they can locate themselves anywhere on the map. There’s a sense of fear that all of what seems true—all of what the adults are saying—is just propaganda. Maybe that teenage objectivity is the dawning awareness of this, the sense that the adult world is riddled with bullshit, which children can’t see as clearly because they’re too dependent on adults, and then adults lose sight of it because they need to merge with that bullshit in order to survive. So teenagers are uniquely attuned at cutting through the propaganda, which must be part of why adults try to sideline their voices.

Rail: And propaganda is the meeting point of media and politics.

Rice: And spirit. It raises primal questions like: What do you genuinely believe about your nation? Why did your nation really fight a certain war? What does it mean to claim that certain people are heroes and others are villains? Along these lines, I’m always interested in the idea of “living myth,” in the sense that myths aren’t just relegated to storybooks (which we often think of as being relegated to childhood). You’ll hear people say, “I loved these stories as a child, but then I learned they were only myths,” or “I used to believe in fairy tales, but now …” I can understand the value of not literally believing in certain myths anymore. But I think we can over-correct, and close ourselves off to a mythic mode of perceiving the world, and falsely claim that we don’t need that mode in order to be sane. That mode, to me, is what I’m always trying to open, and I’m always afraid of feeling it close. Maybe my deepest goal in writing fiction is to coax myself back into this mode, while attaching the process to a tangible product so as to soothe the fear that I’ll get lost in it.

Rail: Along those lines, to ask a process question, and then a result question, when you write these stories … they’re really wild. Extremely out there, often very graphic, with body-horror, transformation, fluids flying. In the process of writing them, are you personally reacting in any way? Is it the kind of thing where as you’re writing, you’re laughing at a moment that you think, when somebody reads it, they’ll find it horrifying? What is your personal reaction to your writing as it’s happening?

Rice: This goes back to the idea of childhood, because I feel that you have to be both the child and the adult in your own mind, when you’re working on this kind of story. You have to embrace the self that is laughing at getting away with a prank, or skipping school, or telling a dirty joke, or tricking someone in a position of power. You have to harness this very sincere, mischievous energy, the whole Catcher in The Rye mode of being. You need that, but if you want your work to also have a quality of maturity, and not remain juvenile, you also need that adult consciousness of, well, how am I gonna shape this? Or how am I gonna give it a formal elegance, or a style and tone that allows for it to be taken seriously?

If you can get that balance right, it’s a “win-win.” It has elegance and clarity, and its more obscene or absurd aspects are heightened because of this, rather than tamped down. It’s why I admire cool, clean realist writing as a stylistic framework, even as my content is much more lurid and surreal. Maybe this is just the question of how do you develop an adult perspective on the things that interested you as a kid and a teenager?

From my point of view, your life can go wrong in two main ways. You can fail to evolve and remain a permanent teenager, or you can over-evolve and crush the truer and more sensitive and joyful self you once had. I think the supreme artistic goal is to have your cake and eat it too, in the sense of ensconcing that younger self in a framework of fiction so it can survive the harshness of the adult world. Maybe the only purpose of writing these books is to keep alive whoever I innately am, inside a vessel that can live outside of me.

This relates to education because I’m trying to take the most cultivated and civilized aspects of what I’ve learned in school and from my study of art, and apply them to dredging up and reifying whatever feels most uncivilized in my interior.

Rail: Now for the result question: let’s say somebody picks this book up in a year … what do you hope or expect their reaction will be? And then, if you were to push out further and further into an imaginary future, would that be different than somebody opening it 10 years from now? 20, 30, 50, 100? Can you imagine what the trajectory is? Let’s say this book becomes something that people read for a long time. Does it shapeshift in some way? Does it become an artifact of its moment? Or some combination?

Rice: My hope is that it would start to crystallize. It was written over the last decade, 2010–2020, and who knows how that era will be seen in the future? I hope people will read the book as a document of how that decade not only led up to the future, but also of how it embodied some strangeness, or some innate or ineffable quality of the universe, in its own specific way.

Now that we’re into the 2020s, I’ve been thinking about the 1920s. A lot of my favorite authors, especially of short stories, were working in that decade. You have Kafka, you have Bruno Schulz, you have Lovecraft, you have Faulkner. Even just to take those four, all were clearly marked by the 1920s, but they’re also all eternal. My interest in them today isn’t related to any historical interest in the 1920s, which means they reached an eternal place. But they did this by chronicling something specific about their time, not by avoiding or generalizing about it.

And that’s the beauty, both of fiction and of hindsight. Because you can see, in a way that straightforward history, and certainly “takes” in the moment, never let you see, how the atmosphere that’s bubbling up at a certain moment is coming from the realm of myth. You can read a history of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and how it’s leading to the 1930s, which, in turn, is leading to WWII. All of which is true.

But if you just read Kafka, you get this ambient sense of monstrous terror growing out of the almost too-normal, bourgeois office world of Prague at that time. Or in Lovecraft, you see these ancient monsters emerging out of forgotten New England towns just as the cities of America are exploding in size and influence. To me, these monsters are more resonant than any history book about that time could be. They are the history of that time. So if I were to be as lofty in my aspirations as possible, in response to your question, it would be that Drifter could encapsulate this era in the same way.

Rail: That makes sense. And to put a cinematic lens on it, the success of an artwork is that it can achieve a larger truth than something that’s explained. Rather than saying just, these are the facts, you can get us inside the subjective feeling. And the subjective feeling is closer to what having lived through a moment is like. It’s a kind of history lesson that literal history can’t provide.

Rice: This loops back to teaching, in that there’s a bad form of ignorance, of people saying, I just don’t want to hear it. Or people boxing themselves off, or refusing to learn, covering their eyes and ears. That’s obvious. But on the other hand, there’s also a profound form of ignorance, which is the realm of art and dwelling in the realm of true mystery, saying, I want the mystery not only to remain mysterious, but to become increasingly mysterious the more I think about it. This is my religious sensibility too, to say that there truly is some mystery at the heart of reality, and the purpose of thought is to perceive its true mysteriousness more clearly, never to solve it. If I can ever teach my students that, I’ll be very proud.

In between these two forms of ignorance is the historical record. This is important—events do have to be documented and analyzed for posterity—but to me, there’s something anticlimactic about solving the mystery, and proclaiming with certainty that this is why any given event happened, and what its repercussions were. You know, the Archduke was shot, and then WWI happened. It’s like, okay, fine, I don’t dispute that. But to me, it’s more productive to ask, what were the decadent, ominous vibes in the air in the decades leading up to WWI? Why did a single assassination set off a cataclysm that killed tens of millions? That, to me, is the mystery of reality, and hence also of history.

And I think scientists would say this too, that reality becomes more confounding the more you truly look into it. And it’s true for readers of mystery books, who are always disappointed when the case is solved. They don’t care if the murderer was this person or that person. They care about the charged atmosphere in which anything seems possible. That’s the realm of the truly exciting. It’s unsustainable, because holding suspense is like holding up a heavy object—you can’t suspend it forever. There are forces of gravity and forces of resolution that demand catharsis. This is the most difficult, but also the holiest aspect of art as a mode of thinking: how do you remain in the dark about your own thought processes as long as possible, without totally failing to find closure?

You can fail by finding it too soon, because then the work becomes propaganda, or just some didactic statement of what you already think and believe. On the other hand, if you never find it, then maybe you’ve produced something illegible. It becomes just ravings, like the notes of someone tripping on acid, which can be interesting, but never totally satisfying. To me, an artwork does have to crystallize. But part of the beauty of the artists I love is that they had either the courage or the madness to deny themselves that resolution for as long as possible, and even a little longer than that. But then, finally, they found it.

That’s always what I’m going for. I want the reader to come away with a sense that in the story, the world kept getting increasingly entropic, bizarre, and harrowing, but, ultimately, the wheels didn’t come off. The human element wasn’t forgotten. Maybe, as a record of the past decade, this is what will stand out to people in the future: that environmental, technological, and political forces almost rendered the individual obsolete, and yet something unique and worthy in us persevered.


Gabriel Frye-Behar

Gabriel Frye-Behar is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

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