The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue
Books In Conversation

James Reich with D. Harlan Wilson

James Reich
The Moth for the Star
(7.13 Books, 2023)

The vicissitudes of memory belie reality even as they try to reclaim it, but it’s the only reality we know. We are creatures of language, made human by our lexicons. Without memory, we wouldn’t be able to remember the words that define the contours of our identities. As I grow older, I try not to take my memory for granted, and while I can’t remember when James Reich and I first communicated with one another, I do recall why.

Since 2013, I have been the editor-in-chief for Anti-Oedipus Press (AOP). James’s first novel, I, Judas, left an indelible impression on me. After reading it in 2014, maybe 2015, I must have reached out to him with a compliment and an invitation to submit a book to AOP. We got along at once, and he sent me his novel Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness. I love Conrad, and I loved what James did with Heart of Darkness, (re)viewing it through the sieve of his own unique voice, purview, and Word Horde.

AOP released Mistah Kurtz! in 2016. In 2017, I met James in person at the AWP Convention in Washington, DC, where I was promoting AOP titles alongside my own books. Same with James, the editor-in-chief of Stalking Horse Press—he had come to AWP to promote Mistah Kurtz! alongside SHP titles. As writers, editors, publishers, book designers, and ardent supporters of the literary apparatus, we’re almost clones, James and I. We enjoy one another’s company, too, and he's a downright pleasure to work with in my capacity as editor.

I went on to publish two more of James’s books via AOP, Soft Invasions and The Song My Enemies Sing, both cerebral science-fiction novels that descend into the interzones of recent history. Michael Moorcock called Soft Invasions “lyrical, elegiac, even mystical,” with an attention to “profound questions about time and identity.” This could be applied to all of James’s writing and evolving oeuvre, which operates on a higher plateau than most contemporary bodies of literature, demanding intellectual and imaginative engagement from readers who have largely forgotten how to read. Like me, James perceives literature as a means to preserve and curate the memory of literature (qua Nabokov: “Speak, memory!”). At the same time, we’re both modernists at heart, I think, invested in developing and innovating the literary tradition.

James’s latest novel, The Moth for the Star, might be his best yet. I’m very happy to have this opportunity to talk to him about it.

D. Harlan Wilson (Rail): Let’s start with a cliché—the idea that reality is stranger than fiction. Do you agree or disagree?

James Reich: I think J. G. Ballard got this right: that they’re now part of the same continuum of falsification, and that the Freudian distinction between the latent and manifest content of fantasy has reversed. The surface is all pathology: a perverse entertainment complex in the psychoanalytic sense as well as in terms of social architecture. Reality—by which I would mean a unity of nature and existentialism’s Dasein—has been repressed. Under these conditions, attempts to “grasp reality” result in neon fistfuls of neurosis, and AI is here to make everything worse. “Reality,” if that means freedom from falsification, is something like an underground subculture at this point. We have made falsification our reality.

Rail: Your writing has always exhibited a strong sense of language, style, and rhythm. These elements really shine through in The Moth for the Star. What led you to write it?

Reich: I wrote the first paragraph purely from my mood, an ambient stream of consciousness. Perhaps it was the same day, or the next morning, I came across this line from Jung: “Every attentive person knows their Hell, but not all know their devil.” I don’t know if you remember, but the finished screenplay of Alien has a quote from Auden about science fiction, and the great line from Conrad: “We live as we dream—alone.” That’s what the Jung quote did for me. It gave the novel its thesis. And it necessitated identifying something of my devil(s) if I was to write it.

I’m not conscious of it, but I use a kind of “sprung rhythm”—to steal a term from poetry—when I write prose. I can’t help it, I just do. I don’t work for it. It’s the natural sound and rhythm that occurs to me, but it undoubtedly comes from my reading, where I gravitate towards style, image, ambience, and “words in their right arrangement.” For better or worse, there are no multiple drafts in my writing, only minor corrections and clarifications, things editors see and that I’ll work with. That’s a Kerouac influence, or Romantic spontaneity.

Rail: Let’s talk about some of the choices you made as an author for a moment. Moth contains twenty-five chapters broken into four parts, each of which foregrounds a quote from, respectively, Carl Jung (Liber Novus), Percy Bysshe Shelley (“To—”), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), and Gerard Manley Hopkins (“The Lover’s Stars”). And the quote from Shelley is where you derive your title. What is the significance of that title and these intertexts?

Reich: These all relate to the relationship between the novel’s lovers, Charles Varnas and Campbell. Their relationship is haunted by a murder in which they have conspired. Charles has repressed his memories of it, but as the novel opens, they are threatening to break through. And yet, The Moth for the Star is as much—for me—a tragic yet perverse romance, as it is a psychological horror novel.

Poe lifted Shelley’s “desire of the moth for the star” for his essay “The Poetic Principle.” Honestly, I’m not sure from whom I read it first. Poe was referring to the instinct toward the greatest beauty in the abstract, whereas Shelley had an extramarital desire in mind. But either way, it’s a sublime image yearning. There’s tragedy in the moth’s delusion, and a cruelty in that image also: the impossible scale, distance, and futility gathered there. In the context of my novel, it’s another image of (mis)identification, like the aphorism from Jung. The moth’s delusion is also our failure to identify our devil, even as we are lured into what we surely recognize as Hell.

The Wilde quote is from his incredible preface to Dorian Gray. It begins: “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” I use it to refer to the traditionally Freudian latent content, to the unconscious, to analysis of the symbol, and to the dangers of the “spectator” finding himself or herself in the novel in any way. The warning is, of course, an invitation. I took up that invitation long ago. The quotation from the Hopkins poem cuts off at the star-desiring or star-spent lover finding “acceptance round his mistress’ mouth.” Charles Varnas must go beneath the surface to discover his crime, and Campbell is his ambivalent Beatrice, or perhaps his devil.

Rail: Alfred Bester used English telephone directories and locations for certain character names in The Stars My Destination (e.g., Robin Wednesbury, Olivia Presteign, Saul Dagenham, Regis Sheffield). I detect a similar eccentricity in your character names (e.g., Charles Varnas, Osman Raffi, Dr. Wolfowitz, Jerzy Kennedy). Is your usage deliberate? If so, do you choose names to evoke a particular effect?

Reich: Absolutely. And I’m really fond of The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. Well, you know. So, I chose the name Varnas after the Lithuanian surname that means “raven.” It has a religious meaning in the novel related to Genesis 8:6-7. I’ll let people look that up if they want to. Campbell refers with some irony to Joseph Campbell and the myth structure of the novel—although this is absolutely not a hero’s journey or bildungsroman—and I needed a sexy name for an androgynous Daisy Buchanan type. I used to describe the novel as “The Satanic Gatsby.” Wolfowitz is a nod to Gatsby also. Osman Raffi, the Egyptian detective, shares part of his name with Campbell’s father, Rafferty Oran Campbell, who may or may not be the Devil, or merely someone’s devil. Rafferty Oran Campbell’s initials relate to a certain mythic bird of prey, birds and mortality being themes of the novel. That kind of thing, yes.

Rail: Certain other themes stand out in Moth—urbanity, alcoholism, good vs. evil, time, religion, etc. Do you consciously deploy themes, or do they emerge organically during the writing process?

Reich: If we’re talking about Hells and devils, those are mine. Or some of them. As strange as my novels might seem, they’re always about my preoccupations, and laid out as you have them there, they’re not particularly weird. They’re conventional Romantic and Existentialist preoccupations that you and I have taken up. It’s what one does with them that matters, though. In emotional tone, The Moth for the Star might even be read as a companion to Soft Invasions with its dilemmas of identification and the double, a certain glamor, repression, and cruelty (Dorian Gray, again). I employ themes consciously, but my unconscious suggests them. I am taken with the “big” themes, I suppose. Who wants to read trivia?

Rail: I read the last sentence of your first chapter as the novel’s thesis: “Time murmured obscenities.” What do you mean by this?

Reich: Remorse. Guilt. Time, memory, or, if you like, the superego is always murmuring obscenities, reminding us of our worst moments. Charles carries that indistinct sense of remorse that many of us walk around with, when shame or guilt has become something that you live with but is hard to pin down, an understanding we’re avoiding. Varnas begins this way but will discover his problem in the full clarity of consciousness.

Rail: Halfway through the novel, the narrator explains that your protagonists Varnas and Campbell “had sought out the spiteful, violent gestures of the Dadaists and the strange, somnambulist psychology of the Surrealists—both being vital to Charles’s sense of himself.” In general, Moth exhibits a classical surrealism that’s more subtle than flagrant, and it seems to me that culture at large has been purging this kind of subtlety from itself for at least half a century in favor of spectacle, be it surrealistic or realistic. Doubtless this had something to do with the explosion of electronic media technologies in the 1960s. Does Surrealism still have a place in the twenty-first century or is it purely an historical artifact at this point? Regarding Varnas—why is Surrealism (and Dadaism) so important to his identity and self-perception?

Reich: Campbell comes from wealth. Varnas, less so; he’s more like me. He’s fascinated by the way her money permits her to sleepwalk through life. They’re later than the period when the novel is set, but if readers see Max Ernst in The Moth for the Star, particularly “Europe After the Rain II,” and if they see, say, “The Robing of the Bride,” then that’s no mistake. Ernst used a lot of birds in his work. The heron that is a symbolic and literal presence in the novel is a decaying surreal creature. The plague imagery that follows the stock market crash suggests that money is dreamed and dreaming. I’m writing about the crash as surrealism. The violence in the novel is both Dadaist and Surrealist—bombs, suicides, razors, cosmic nightmares, etc. Varnas relates to the Dadaists in terms of disappearance and annihilation.

I think the backlash against Freud, the debasement of Surrealism, was made possible by acceptance and proof of their precepts in advertising, and yes, in electronic media and in the consumers of each. I’ll distort Wilde and say that it was the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass, and then the same rage at not seeing his neurosis as spectacle. That’s Charles Manson. That’s the internet. And everyone wants to talk about who is a narcissist. And I’m quite serious when I say that I believe that the virtual and AI in particular will be the death of our species. Any so-called Silicon Valley “Futurist” who didn’t recognize it as an existential threat a long time ago is a fucking idiot. There’s nothing else to say: they’re the mass murderers of the next decade.

Rail: Moth is a cornucopia of intertextuality by which you demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the literary apparatus, as I like to call it. For a variety of reasons, I employ a lot of intertextuality in my writing, more than anything to align my characters and their worlds with traditions in literature, philosophy, psychology, etc. For me, these alignments are a method of character development and world-building. How does intertextuality serve you?

Reich: Recognition of the plexus or the matrices is the definition of good writing. It is the point of being a writer, not only in the novel before you, but in the extended world. Discovery of the plexus is plot, characterization, setting, rhythm, allusion, subtext, and the essence of a coherent style. It is everything.

Rail: There is an introspective, meditative quality to your writing that I became intimately familiar with when I edited Mistah Kurtz!, Soft Invasions, and The Song My Enemies Sing. This quality spills into Moth with renewed poignancy and aplomb. What attracts you to this kind of storytelling?

Reich: The primordial adversary, the original antagonist is within the structure of the self. It doesn’t matter whether one understands this as the id, a libidinal instinct, the shadow, syzygy, ambiguity, doubt, self-reproach, but conflict in literature begins there. If it doesn’t, I’m less interested.

I’m an introspective person. I’d rather read a writer who has a sense of internal crisis than plotting of action in the service of building another Freytag’s pyramid structure. How tedious. The writing with the most force for me has introspection, ambience, unpredictable actions, and prose that expresses something of the personality and experience of the author.

Rail: This is one of my personal mantras: “Belief is the end of reason and the beginning of evil.” With a few exceptions (e.g., family), ideology tends to invite pain and suffering, if not destruction. Consider the history of religion—the further we go back in time, the bloodier and deadlier it becomes. Varnas is negatively impacted by religion in ways that are both common and unique to lived and literary experience. What is the ultimate role of religion in Moth? More broadly, do you think that ideology is always an obstacle to be negotiated, or is there something agential or beneficial about it beyond idle identity-construction?

Reich: There is a religious counterfactual at the heart of The Moth for the Star. Religion is pernicious, at best. They mutilate physically and intellectually and perpetuate dangerous dualisms of flesh and spirit. And Plato and Descartes have done untold damage here, also. No, I have no sympathy for beliefs regarding the arbitrary disposability of “the body,” as a vessel for a “soul” that persists in discontinuity, or arguments for versions of “ensoulment” … It’s all so dreary and awful, this negation of reality.

That’s the real connection between Jesus and Marx: both were profound failures in their understanding of human beings. And the cost in each case has been genocide. Ideologies —religious, political, economic—tend toward totalitarianism, dehumanization, censorship, and violence. They’re seductive because they offer a collectivist shortcut to identity formation, but one that is simplified and devoid of the awkward contradictions of an authentic individual identity. In literature, I think those individual contradictions or struggles make writers and their work interesting.

Rail: No spoilers here, but in Moth’s final pages, it seems that you invoke the arctic landscape of Frankenstein while conflating the surreal with the science-fictional in terms of imagery and word usage. Is this implosion of seemingly diametric motifs intentional or an inevitable consequence of mapping a sort of intertextual narrative matrix?

Reich: That’s a great question. It’s an acquisition that is both traditional and individual, and I’m working with the nervous breakdown of mythology, including an apocalypse. The discovery of the plexus—the pattern recognition—is the pleasure in the text, or it’s the intent to seek pleasure in the composition of disparate elements once they come to one’s attention—this might be the Dadaist influence on me. But these things can only come to an attention that is attuned. That’s the work; that’s the inheritance of tradition. What one decides to do with it, what one says about being and about our contradictions, that’s what makes a writer an individual, and how one avoids or subverts dogma.

Rail: In the twenty-first century, erudite novels like Moth have been increasingly displaced by different modes of popular fiction, which seems to grow more popular as it becomes more bastardized. People have been talking about the death of literature for over a century, though. Is it really fair for me to say that literary fiction is moribund, or is something actually going on? What do you think about the contemporary writing landscape?

Reich: Will Self has often made the point that the literary novel has “quit center stage of our culture.” I don’t argue with that, nor with the ascent of digital media and “kidult” cultures, as causal factors. In the United States right now, only about thirty percent of students read “proficiently” at their grade level through the twelfth grade. Some studies have shown that about half of the adult population reads at a sixth-grade level. That’s an improvement on the nineteenth century but a catastrophe for the twenty-first. But again, the greatest threat to literature—and the arts—is AI. It makes all prior concerns about literature look sentimental, and some were. AI is the product of men who don’t care about culture; it is the ultimate product of nihilism.


D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson is an American novelist, short-story writer, critic, screenwriter, playwright, editor, and university professor whose body of work bridges the aesthetics of literary theory with various genres of speculative fiction.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues