“The story is a means of passage into that other (or under)world”: An Interview with Garin Cycholl — William Allegrezza

Chicago author Garin Cycholl has been publishing fiction and screenwriting for many years though is perhaps best known for his poetry. In 2005, his collection Blue Mound to 161, published with Pavement Saw Press, won the Transcontinental Poetry Award. His work, as seen in Hostile Witness and Rafetown Georgics, tends to focus on the Midwest and explores ideas of place, displacement, and the state of America, all issues which his debut novel, Rx, tackles in longer form.

Released earlier this year by Atmosphere Press, in it, the eponymous protagonist, assumes his recently deceased father’s identity, as well as his job of doctor. He sets up shop in small town America, doling out prescriptions and offering advice while the country undergoes a period of civil upheaval. Part road trip, part investigation of a divided America, and part study of a unique character, Rx explores the fractures at the nation’s core through the story of a man trying to cope with the loss of his father and understand his identity in a place of shifting narratives.

I interviewed Cycholl over email about his motives for writing the novel, his process, and where he sees his writing heading in the future. 

In Rx, the U.S. is in turmoil: homemade bombs are going off and conspiracy-minded characters rant about the sad state of the county. Meanwhile the main character is adrift, attempting to use his recently deceased father’s identity to start something new. What does his ordeal say about the current state of the country?

As I imagine it in the novel, Rx’s world is an unwinding of familial and personal displacement. His response to the wider conflicts around him is to hide out in some other version of himself, some dream of what it is to be his father’s son. To attain that, he has to do some violence to his father’s memory and world, a spoof on the endless Freudian take.

Of course, that new version of himself is marked by unfulfilling movement. He is economically displaced; he has no real skills to speak of. He also is placeless, on the move from whatever identity place could have offered at some point in his memory. The novel tries to reflect the wider country there. The Cold War world is uninhabitable, marked by its ecological and human devastations. But where do you go? He believes that by going to the “country,” he’ll find some solace or pastoral space. He’ll become a healer. Of course, that world also has changed from whatever memory he might have had of it. As Gabe Gudding notes, the farm has just become another “factory floor.” The other characters in the novel are coming to terms with that reality, all while watching the nation shred itself around them.

As you say, your character is coming to terms with contemporary devastations and/or trying to find his place within them. Does his con, his fake identity as a doctor, mirror the devastation that he sees?  

Rx goes in as a disillusioned king of his own destiny. He really believes that he has the capacity to (re)invent himself, though in full awareness of the inherent con at the heart of American culture. “What time do we open? What time can you get here?” those are the questions that get to the heart of a distinct America. He tries the game. He studies the Soviet Union, then tries to refit his knowledge to a redefined “enemy Russia.” He takes on the persona of a healer but recognizes that he has become more a writer of scrips, an agent of big pharma. Rx comes out less disillusioned than confirmed in the displacements of the national business. “The true beginnings of nothing but the supermarket,” is how Charles Olson put it. By the end, Rx’s compass is still spinning.

You use the names of the states for your chapter titles, but the connection to the states themselves seems tenuous at times. Why use them? How do they relate to the actions in the chapters? How do they relate to the main character’s search for meaning?

The original impulse was a new kind of “war between the states” that explored the regional rivalries and developing tensions that eventually came to a head in the 2020 election and attempted “recount.” As a plot point, Skaggs’ knowledge of the sequence disturbs Rx to the point that he comes to believe that Skaggs has some deeper knowledge of the attacks and their initiators or purpose. The plot has a touch point with the conspiracies that undergird particular American viewpoints that look for some grander connection. The scattered nature of the attacks was meant to highlight the impulses that have initiated the violence in American life, the reality that those levels of violence have been more prevalent in American society throughout the nation’s history. I had planned to narrate each individual attack in a page or two in each chapter, but that began to get top-heavy in terms of pages. I opted to narrate some directly and some as they’re viewed or discovered by Rx. The violence become a part of his perspective and his awareness that he could be “made” at any moment. He comes apart at the same pace that the country is dissolving, state by state.

In trying to make sense of the rift in the country and his father’s passing, Rx constructs stories and tests out their veracity (or believability). Is that how you view the role of the novelist in contemporary America?  Is the novelist a conman at work? What responsibilities does the novelist have now?

Of course, he’s wrestling ghosts in both cases. A novelist in the contemporary the United States is trying to get back to the blood in or just beneath the land. The story is a means of passage into that other (or under)world. Sometimes that story is one that is forged, an identity spun out of so much bullshit and bluster. Like that cousin who concocts these fabulous stories in an effort at denial of what s/he really saw “that night” along the street or in combat.  Other times, that story brings you face to face with that blood (i.e. Morrison’s Beloved, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or Bolaño’s 2666). Rx works towards that meeting with Skaggs, the Confederate infantryman’s cap tipped down over his brow. They meet in a shipping container that holds a dead horse in the middle of a yard of animal carcasses. Then, Rx is back onto another mythic American space, the road. How long can he stay out there as the boundaries get redrawn and the country reloads for a new round of violence?

You mentioned rivalries and tensions “coming to a head” with the 2020 election recount, how much did current events, like January 6th, the opioid crisis, or narratives around contemporary protests movements, influence your portrayal of violence in the novel? 

The events of the past few years are reflected in the novel’s world, although the novel’s roots are much more in 9/11’s chaos and the kinds of lashing out that occurred in those years.  The “seemingly random acts of violence” were meant to be more reflective of those of the late twentieth century – Theodore Kazcynski, Eric Rudolph, Timothy McVeigh, other radical groups like the Weather Underground – as well as the kinds of violence that attended the electoral process earlier in the century.

Of course, we can’t ignore those other acts of violent intent turned outward (i.e. ecological exploitation) and inward (i.e. addiction) represent nationally experienced traumas. Rx attempts to bring all these into the focus of place.

My friend, Steve Davenport, does nice job of exploring those in his essay, “Gasoline Lake.” All these acts of violence were just folded into the national narrative and more or less forgotten, much like that cousin nobody talks about. If anything, these more recent acts of violence and revolt feel more like continuations (and perhaps “ends”) of earlier acts, the irresolution of tensions around power, race, and economic class that have never been worked out in the national psyche. I’m not sure how we can view a Confederate flag floating through the Capitol and not feel that strong link with the past.

How central is the idea of “the road” to your understanding of North American narratives?

I’ve always enjoyed “windshield time” – both in the sense of discovery and contemplation. I’ve driven back highways, logging roads, gravel roads, and middle-of-the-night expressways. In some ways it’s left me as a chameleon – able to understand a range of places, but actually at “home” in none of them. Of course, the “road out” is also always the “road in” – much like in Gabe Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook. An improvisational exploration of one’s own interior, the nation that rattles around inside the traveller. That’s a significant part of the road in Rx.  It promises freedom to Rx – an opportunity for re-invention. But it also swallows him as it becomes a disintegrating factor in that self-definition. Rx never really “lands.” He perceives that he is “on the run” throughout that journey, particularly at the end where he is running like a bandit in an old western, seeking to locate a crossable border.

Which writers influenced you in shaping Rx?

Barry Hannah’s and Larry Brown’s characters’ penchant for self-invention is a part of Rx. We all seem to know someone like Hannah’s Ray, a doctor who just seems to be making things up as he goes along. There is no moral axis to those characters–at least not an axis that’s going to clearly distinguish some forking road that’s replete with consequences. I prefer the “unexplainable” character, the one who is dropped down and improvises a means of survival, personal and perhaps, in the end, communal. In that regard, I’ve been very much influenced by writers for whom the “story” always seems to be moving just beneath the language on the page. Gayl Jones and Welty are great examples there. Characters in their work are always trying to find a way to navigate a world that hasn’t been fully “explained” to them, yet discovering some means of understanding what’s left unsaid in that world is crucial to their journeys. Rx never seems to see what’s advancing in his rear-view mirror.

Do you see this advance through improvisation as a particularly North American trait?

Some recent writing has been very adept within that impulse. In Open City, Teju Cole explores a self-deceptive narrator’s progress through New York and memory. Ling Ma works within a similar impulse in Severance, holding together protagonist Candace Chen’s disintegrating city in plaguetide and “latest capitalism.”

Of course, much earlier, Melville’s conmen are in a state of constant reinvention as their boat moves down the Mississippi in The Confidence-Man, improvised identities as the nation is coming apart.  I’m always curious how much of that personal improvisation is reflective of the ways in which cities are changing around us – how we find a means of living in the collapsing line between public and private spaces, how we inhabit spaces and identities that have been redrawn by surveillance and TikTok. Like Rx, I always feel caught between city and country here – the anonymous experience of desire offered by the city against a nostalgia for more rural isolation.  Is that a root American experience? Improvisation within the novel’s character seems like a space for exploring that impulse in “perilous times.” Or maybe it always feels like late Rome and we’re all writing novels.

The novel shares many themes with your poetry – place, displacement, the road, memory – so why the turn to fiction? Did it allow you to do something you have not been able to do in poetry?

I always feel like a novelist disguised as a poet. Narrative is so central to my exploration of the world, whether it’s history (as in Blue Mound), place/space (as in Hostile Witness) or rethinking “substance” and its changes (as in my current poetry project, prairied). The long Illinois poems have offered a means of allowing me to rethink family narrative in a collapsing sense of place (a crossroads, a stretch of highway, the Cook County Hospital emergency room, and most recently, the water and grasses immediately around me). As that place has become more concentrated, I’ve been trying to find a voice to reenter familial imagination (my great grandfather’s journey into deep southern Illinois during the coal strikes there, my grandfather’s drives between Springfield and Chicago to see “the fights,” and my dad’s work as a medical student and his train ride across Chicago’s West Side during the late 1960s). Those tellings feel more concentrated.  Rx offered an opportunity to be more digressive and playful. Rx can take a sideroad or get caught in a blind alley. Every “blue highway” is open to him. Despite his memory’s capacity to gather the detritus of his family story (down to the Goldwater campaign pin), he’s more free to recall and forget, to reinvent himself as the nation shifts or comes apart around him. The spaces of familial memory seemed more confining to the point that it’s hard for me to think poetically much outside of the story at my feet. Maybe it’s just the “water” that I’ve become.

Rx is published with Atmosphere Press, an active small press. What role do you think small presses have in the American literary scene? 

Small presses are essential to American literary life, particularly to poetry. The sad inevitability though is that small presses face financial challenges that usually mean that it’s difficult for them to publish consistently or for a long time before falling by the wayside. Online sales conglomerates may give authors visibility, but they take such a hefty portion of the book’s slim profit margin, this further exacerbates this problem. Small presses are willing to take chances on new and innovative work. I worked with Atmosphere because they seemed most adaptable and were able to get Rx into print in a reasonable timeframe. They were more adept at the process than many corporate publishers, but also offered a great marketing team for the book.

As the book closes, the main character is back on the road descending into himself and into the nation’s heart. Where does he go from there? 

Yeah. He’s headed deep into Texas – the American South or the Mexican North, choose your map.  It seems like the national journey at present. Into natural gas futures, tall hats, and roadkill. Rx himself might hide out in that world and re-emerge working for some Chicago hedge fund, browsing Amazon stuff on his lunch hour. He might just disappear into that country.

Garin Cycholl lives in Homewood, Illinois . He regularly writes reviews for Rain Taxi, The Typescript, and the Chicago Review of Books. His books include Rx, Blue Mound to 161, The Bonegatherer, Rafetown Georgics, and Hostie Witness. Twitter: @gcycho1

William Allegrezza edits the press Moria Books and the webzine Moss Trill. He has published several poetry collections, anthologies and chapbooks as well as reviews and articles. He founded and curated Series A, a reading series in Chicago, from 2006-2010.