“Indeterminacy is what keeps us alive and makes us real”: An Interview with David Leo Rice — Samuel M. Moss

David Leo Rice is the author of five previous books: Angel House (Kernpunkt, 2019), A Room in Dodge City and A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 2 (Alternating Current, 2017 and 2021), The PornME Trinity (The Opiate Books, 2020), and Drifter: Stories (11:11 Press, 2021). His latest novel, The New House, is out this summer from Whiskey Tit Press.

A writer of horrific and surreal literature, Rice holds a mirror up to our world so that we may see its horror and beauty more clearly. I spoke with him in the spring of 2022.

Samuel M. Moss: The two main protagonists of The New House have a mentor/mentee relationship that is fraught with tension. Tell us about your thoughts on the mentor mentee relationship in literature.

David Leo Rice: I’m fascinated by the delicate dance of trying to learn to become yourself from someone you admire, which involves – as Harold Bloom put it – the struggle against the anxiety of influence, often in the form of the ambivalent struggle to kill the father. My own mentor/mentee relationships have been much more positive than those in The New House, but it seems to be my nature to extrapolate much bleaker scenarios from my own very fortunate life experience.

In terms of the Jewish aspects of The New House, the Jewish father is fascinating because he’s so contradictory. On the one hand, he’s an historical victim, endlessly abused, murdered, and forced to flee (or to humiliate himself in order to be spared, like the archetype of the Jew who collaborates with the Nazis for special favors); but, on the other hand, the Jewish father can also be a kind of ultra-patriarch, an Abrahamic alpha male of an extreme and unreconstructed variety.

This is why Jewish men in general can be seen both as cerebral, urban nebishes – the whole Woody Allen archetype – and also as the brutal forces of the Israeli army, some of the most merciless people on Earth. This contradiction has always interested me, especially from the perspective of the son’s struggle to come into his own. In this book, I wanted to explore the ways in which the son both fears and admires his father, however abusive the relationship may be. A story like Kafka’s “The Judgment” does a great job of combining both aspects of this relationship, making the father at once pathetic and terrifying.

SM: Jakob repeatedly finds himself in the bizarre situation of being mistaken for a mannequin or dummy. There is a lot here: questions of identity, agency (or lack thereof), realness … Help us unpack this.

DLR: A central aspect of the book is the question of who’s really alive, and why, and for how long. It relates to the idea of a Demiurge, which in some accounts is an evil spirit, but in Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles is more of a restless, perverse creative compulsion that can never stop tinkering with matter–a creator God who has no grand design for the world, and no desire except to keep working and reworking the clay of existence.

Building on this idea, I wanted to present a world where that restless creative spirit is at work all the time, leading to an unholy situation where the human characters can also participate in the endless reforming of matter. As you point out, there are moments where they make effigies of themselves, or of one another, and begin to lose their certainty that they can tell which one is really alive.

I also wanted to contrast this idea of endlessly recreated matter with the Wagnerian, “blood and soil” obsession of Nazism, which appears here as the force that insists the world is perfect as it is (or would be, if it were only purged of Jews). For this reason, the “Visionary Jewish” tradition that Jakob grows up in insists that only endless tinkering and wandering are holy, and that trying to put down roots anywhere is automatically a form of Nazism. Within this paradigm, the creative process is itself the only home that exists on Earth.

SM: It is hard at times to tell whether Jakob and his family are happy, suffering, merely going through the motions of life or whether they are aware of all the tinkering of the Demiurge.

DLR: They believe that the Demiurge has to be embodied and enacted through art, rather than worshiped as a god. This cosmic orientation puts them equally at odds with gentiles and with more doctrinaire Jews, which is why they’re true outsiders, unwilling to accept the extant Testament of any religion. Only the process of making art is holy for them; it’s a form not just of prayer but of actually channeling the Demiurge and allowing it to go on existing. Unlike the idea of Christ as a figure who embodied God in a definite way, here, the family believes that they have to be their own divine embodiments.

For them, any finished form is satanic – therefore the figure of Christ is evil. From their point of view, Christianity leads inevitably to Nazism, because both insist on absolute, tangible forms, and thus maintain the right to control absolute, tangible tracts of land, where Jews are never welcome. The Art World is also an evil place for them, because it relies on finished pieces being bought and sold as commodities, rather than the endless enactment of the process of creation (something that’s fundamentally at odds with capitalism, which relies on definite units of exchange).

At the same time, a life of endless wandering and endless tinkering frightens Jakob, which is why he increasingly flirts with assimilation into the Art World and even with Nazism. I wanted to create a character who was torn between worlds in a troubling way, and to make the pressure from both sides as intense as I could.

SM: Tell us more about the idea of the ‘Visionary Jew’: where this idea comes from, what its characteristics are and where it exists now.

DLR: I think of the Visionary Jew as the psychic and ethnic state of those I admire most from within the tradition – Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Bob Dylan, Clarice Lispector, Harold Pinter, Rothko, Marc Chagall, Leonard Cohen, David Cronenberg … Jews who, regardless of what other religious affiliations they might or might not have, access a realm of prophecy within themselves. This realm – which I aspire to access in myself – strikes me as the only viable means of transcending exile, without either trying to assimilate fully into other cultures, or violently insisting on the Jewish supremacy of the literal land of Israel, which has only led to bloodshed and misery. This realm of sublimely personal vision, though I know it can’t scale out to the level of an entire population, feels like an “inner Israel,” an actual promised land that can’t exist on Earth and yet is also generated by life on Earth and enriches it in turn. This paradox cannot be solved, but contemplating it provides a highly valuable form of creative energy.

SM: Jakob’s parents see art, or at least the art world, as a terrifying and powerful entity that Jakob must stay away from. In spite of their warnings, he’s pulled toward it, as if by fate.

DLR: The Art World is a potent entity in this book, either a heaven or a hell depending on which character is speaking. Jakob’s parents even tell him that Bosch’s paintings were literal renditions of this place. Jakob, as a kind of schizophrenic entity who often splits in two, as you mentioned above, feels some combination of these sentiments – he fears the Art World as a pit of vipers that will swallow his human spirit, and yet also yearns for its acceptance, and equally fears the opposite – that he’ll end up a lonely outsider artist in a small town, with no following or renown. This is probably my own split personality speaking here, touching on the ways in which I desire both the freedom of obscurity and the thrill of fame, even while knowing that, at a certain point, these are antithetical desires.

From the perspective of Jewish artists “in exile,” this is also a key dilemma – earning artistic and intellectual renown has of course been one of the main ways that Jews have made their place in the secular world, since they’ve often been barred from owning property, and yet there’s also the urge to keep your head down and not attract too much attention. It’s why so many Jewish artists in America changed their names to sound more gentile (Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction was born Peretz Bernstein; Rodney Dangerfield was born Jacob Cohen; Man Ray was born Emmanuel Radnitzky, etc …), which in turn feeds the “secret infiltration” theories that helped the Nazis come to power – after all, the Nazis were less worried about the obviously othered ultra-religious Jews in Europe, who wanted no part of gentile society to begin with, and much more worried about those who had intermarried and attained high positions in art, finance, academia, and other centers of power.

In this way, the vicious cycle perpetuates itself. Part of the complexity of antisemitism worldwide is the idea that Jews are seen as an absolute race, impervious to Christian conversion, but are also often considered an invisible race, white but not white in a unique way. At the extremes of such paranoia, which Hitler (himself allegedly part-Jewish) descended into, anyone might be secretly Jewish. It’s somehow both an immutable and an imaginary characteristic, an idea that I find beautifully unnerving to contemplate. Maybe this is why Jewish thought is so drawn to irony and paradox – it’s a means of reflecting on the world that is also a means of self-reflection.

SM: The character of Tobin is – figuratively and literally – immense. A part-man, part-animal entity that lives alone in the woods and seems to depict a stereotyped image of the non-Jew. I would love to hear your take on this creature.

DLR: He is absolutely that – the figure of the non-Jew who is so far from exile, so rooted in the land, that he almost is the land. He’s the living embodiment of a place, a fairy tale being through whom the forest speaks. In college, I wrote my thesis on the forest in German literature and mythology, and I came across many tropes in which the Germans were represented as immovable oak trees, while the Jews were mushrooms, eating away at their roots. That schema always fascinated me in a horrifying way, and I wanted to play with it by setting this novel deep in the forest – the titular “New House” is like the witch’s cabin in Hansel and Gretel – so Tobin emerged from there.

SM: One of the central questions of The New House is the commoditization of art. This force is personified in “The Couple from Another Town,” who wine and dine Wieland/Jakob but whose goals and ends are obscure.

DLR: The yearning here goes both ways – to finally reach the end of exile and “come home” by “making it” in the Art World. I remember moving to NYC when I was 26, and just dreaming endlessly of some secret room, behind a velvet rope or whatever, where the true art people, as embodied in the novel by that mysterious couple, would be, who’d finally usher me in and tell me I’d never have to worry about anything ever again, while also fearing that this would be no home at all – that, by ushering me in, they’d also remake me into something that I’d no longer recognize.

The higher spiritual path, I think, is to find a home within yourself by engaging with permanence as a process – here we’re back to the pleasures of paradox – and by deepening your engagement with stories and dreams and ideas over time, rather than seeking an ultimate place, whether that’s Israel or a shack in the woods or the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. To worship your potential to do, rather than your potential to be – to fantasize about yourself at work, rather than yourself having finished all your work – is the spiritual calling that seems holiest to me.

In this way, the Jewish-American story is a microcosm of the entire American story, which is why Philip Roth, who dedicated himself to this story in all its nuance, remains such an important voice: insofar as there’s anything great about it, the greatness of America comes from an always-unfinished process, a restlessness, an urge to expand across the frontier, however violent and fraught that process may be. In the 21st century though, there’s also the dread of stasis: if there is no more frontier in America, neither geographical nor virtual, then what are we doing here? Are we just trying to recreate Europe in a new land? If so, then the hope of secular, assimilated American Jews – that we’ve already reached the New Jerusalem, beyond the evils our ancestors fled in Europe – is doomed and thus, sadly, the Zionist perspective starts to make sense. If every land we flee to turns into Europe, then there’s no alternative but to insist on the ultimate safe-space of Israel, no matter the human cost.

On the other hand, the hope I still cling to, and that the characters in this book cling to, is that America could still prove to be a transcendentally new place, but this requires always considering our business here unfinished. Our true American home is not anywhere in America geographically; it’s in the mental state of Americanness, which requires refusing to settle down except into deeper and deeper versions of this state, as if the only way to truly arrive here is to never arrive.

SM: In structure, The New House could be seen as an inverted bildungsroman: we see Jakob just prior to his formation as an artist and then again as the established artist ‘Wieland’ with the intervening years (if they exist) unaddressed. Any thoughts on this framing?

DLR: Something’s missing, some core of Jakob’s experience that would explain – to himself, and to us as readers – who (or what) he really is. It relates to the doll ideas above, which I borrowed from Pinocchio – the question of whether he’s a “real boy,” and what the criteria for determining that might be. At the beginning, Jakob’s under the shadow of his Father, and at the end, he’s under the shadow (or in the guise) of Wieland, who may or may not be an old Nazi hiding out in the American woods.

By cutting out the middle, I wanted to get at the sense that something is always missing in the mystery of who we really are and what makes us act the way we do. Sometimes we experience this in a negative sense, as a deficiency or a curse that we’re trying to outrun, and sometimes in a positive sense, as a form of homecoming or fruition that we’re running toward – like we might one day “find ourselves” somewhere else in the world – but either way, we can never pin down what makes us who we are. Maybe this indeterminacy is what keeps us alive and makes us real – only a real boy fears he’s a doll.

The same indeterminacy surrounds the New House concept itself, whereby Jakob is constantly told by his parents that they’ve moved in the night, ever in search of the New Jerusalem, but then rebuilt their old house as an exact replica, so that the “New” house never seems new. Insofar as these moves are always occluded – Jakob is drugged and dreaming while they occur, if they occur – the central narrative of his childhood is also a vacant space that he tries to fill by making up a life story, just as his Father made one up in turn. I feel bittersweet about this process of people missing out on their own experience in order to situate themselves in a larger mythic design, a bittersweetness that is probably essential to writing fiction, where you always want your characters to simultaneously live on their own terms and to embody certain ideas that you can’t manifest in your own life except by writing.

Zooming out farther, this feels like the essence of religion – no one really knows why the world exists and why we’re in it, so we’re forced to grasp at straws, either making up stories that claim to fill this hole, or repudiating those stories in a move that may be equally religious in nature. I love the idea, in Isaac Babel as in many Jewish authors who struggle with the question of assimilation, that renouncing your Jewish heritage is the most Jewish thing you can do – this may be the paradox of all paradoxes, an inverted version of Groucho Marx’s famous quip about not wanting to be a member of a club that would have you as a member.

SM: What work do you have in store for the future?

DLR: First up is Children of the New Flesh, an anthology of essays, fiction, and interviews focusing on the early films of David Cronenberg. I’m co-editing this book with Chris Kelso, and we’ve had a great time writing and commissioning pieces and putting them together over the past year or so. Cronenberg is a perfect “Visionary Jew” in the tradition we’ve been discussing. On the surface, his affect is chilly and atheistic, more of the neurotic, Freudian city-Jew archetype, but I think the energies that animate his films and make them so enduring come from the “burning bush” tradition of Visionary Jewish madness. Like Pinter and Polanski before him, he locates the madness within late 20th century urban normalcy with extreme, even vicious power. Other than that, I have a new story collection bringing together the ongoing saga of my Brothers Squimbop clown/comedian duo coming out in 2023, as well as the third book in my Room in Dodge City trilogy, a work of, I hope, apocalyptic lunacy that will bring that decade-long project to a close and spit me out at the start of a new phase.

David Leo Rice is an NYC-based author. His other books include A Room in Dodge City, A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 2, Angel House, Drifter: Stories and Children of the New Flesh. Twitter: @raviddice

Samuel M. Moss is from Cascadia. Recent work has been published in 3:AM Magazine, New World Writing and New Sinews. He is an associate editor at 11:11 Press and runs ergot.press, a site for innovative horror. Find more at perfidiousscript.com Twitter: @perfidiouscript