Magic and Technology: A Profile of David Duchovny
By Sadie Rebecca StarnesNovember 3, 2022
DAVID DUCHOVNY KEEPS distracting me. “Hey, look at those amazing things.” He’s pointing out toward the horizon where people appear to hover above the ocean on what a later Google search reveals to be electric surfboards. “They’re like fucking magic carpets.”
It’s mid-morning in Malibu, and I’m here to talk to Duchovny about his fifth book in only a handful of years, The Reservoir. Written from his old apartment overlooking Central Park, the pandemic-era story mirrors Thomas Mann’s own feverish novella, Death in Venice. Yet sitting down with Duchovny on the porch of Soho House, the Pacific fussing just a few feet away, all I can think about is California. Having flown in from New York City the night before, I’m still rather awestruck by our surroundings — the dramatic canyons and violent surf, shameless beaches called Billionaire’s and Dume — but Duchovny is perfectly at ease. He’s looking fit, tan, and, at 61, finally showing some gray, which suits him.
While millions of television viewers met him as Fox Mulder on The X-Files, I only recently became familiar with Duchovny’s career. I was too young to watch the show when it first aired — I did binge it during the lockdown — but lately he’s frequented some of my favorite podcasts. I often write about artists who work across disparate media, and here was an aspiring academic turned Hollywood actor discussing Paul de Man and quoting Harold Bloom, a sci-fi icon writing novels about Mormon radicals and American identity. Nevertheless, it seemed like all anyone wanted to ask him about was aliens. So I booked a flight out here.
After exchanging the sole complaint to be made of L.A. weather — really, it’s just too sunny — I ask Duchovny if his recent move west has affected his writing. “No, I’m always in my own head anyways, so …” His hand rolls away, finishing the thought in that way New Yorkers often do. Duchovny grew up in the East Village, the son of a Scottish immigrant and an American Jewish writer. Even-keeled and quick to laugh, it’s not surprising to learn he’s a middle child, a family’s natural mediator. His father left when he was still a boy — “to write,” Duchovny says — and his mother, Margaret, raised her three children as a teacher and school administrator. “We weren’t good kids, we didn’t help at all,” he laughs. “We had a dog and three cats in a small apartment … she cooked, she cleaned. Mom was a strong person.”
Duchovny’s late mother grew up in a small fishing village in Northern Scotland. The first in her family to earn a college degree, Margaret passed on to her children the highest regard for education and hard work. At least in this respect, Duchovny, despite his recollection, was a good kid: he earned a scholarship to the elite prep school Collegiate, where he was captain of the baseball and basketball teams before graduating as valedictorian. He went on to study literature at Princeton and Yale — a calling that aligned him with his other parent. Duchovny’s father, Amram, worked in public relations but was always writing, be it political satire, an off-Broadway play, or his first novel, Coney, published only a few years before his death. “Bless him, you know,” Duchovny says. “He always said he was a novelist, and then, out the door, he just dumps this book on the world.”
Set between Mermaid and Neptune Avenues, Coney was inspired by Amram’s prewar childhood and his own father, Moshe, a Yiddish-language journalist, novelist, and playwright. As Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement, forced to leave behind what is now Ukraine, the Duchovnys survived caravan attacks and ran a tavern in Egypt before arriving in New York. Names were Anglicized, pasts were pocketed, so Duchovny only recently learned much of this. “If [Dad] knew, he didn’t tell me,” he says, “or I was too young to register.”
As in so many immigrant families, adaptability proved an inherited trait. Duchovny has moved fluidly between social circles, careers, and media. He was well into graduate school, preparing the fancifully titled (but never written) PhD dissertation, “Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry,” when he took an interest in playwriting. This, in turn, brought him to an acting class and, before long, landed him a few well-paying gigs, then major roles and an agent. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, leaving Yale as an ABD.
“I was always looking for ways out,” Duchovny says. “I just didn’t feel like that was my place.” Academia drained his favorite authors of their verve, he found, while acting engaged him not only intellectually and physically, but also emotionally. “All of a sudden, I was in this space where they were saying, scream and yell and cry, get angry, instead of trying to repress everything,” he says. “It was cathartic.” And truthfully, it’s hard to imagine Duchovny keeping office hours. Although he’s built a reputation on his winsome, easygoing demeanor, that barely glosses an innate restlessness — some furtive energy. “I think I just liked [acting’s] sense of play more than anything else … I like to play.”
This playfulness has defined Duchovny’s acting career, tinging even his most saturnine roles with an irreverent wit. It’s just as present in his writing: dark moments are often punctuated with a comical lilt; musings on “Kashmir” might follow a line from Dickinson, while a tightly bound plot can easily collapse into stream-of-consciousness reverie about baseball, poetry, or desert flora. Reared on classical literature (“and classic rock,” he quips), impassioned by Beckett and Pynchon, his novels experiment with the meta-magical within everyday life, grafting Irish mythology onto Manhattan (Miss Subways), anthropomorphizing farm animals (Holy Cow), even orchestrating a Red Sox winning streak (Bucky F*cking Dent). It’s only in Duchovny’s most recent books, Truly Like Lightning (2021) and The Reservoir, that this penchant for absurdist humor and hamartia find a certain harmony, a distinct voice.
Duchovny’s characters are often writers themselves, or actors or artists, aspiring or humbly resigned. They frequently turn to Ashbery, Yeats, or Whitman as guides and confidants, quoting them from memory, just as Duchovny is wont to do. Such erudition betrays his top-tier education, but specifically his studies under the late literary critic Harold Bloom, whose overwhelming influence was recently satirized in The Chair — 2021’s comedic drama about a fictitious Ivy League English department. Duchovny plays a pretentious, if amiable, version of himself in the show, but he really was a student of Bloom’s in graduate school, and gained from his lectures an ardent respect for the Western canon, the centrality of Shakespeare, the authority of aesthetic over ideology.
Decades later, Bloom remains fundamental to Duchovny’s work. Not so much in his style, which strives for the ambitious range of Roth or DeLillo, the chortling attention to human detail paid by Tom Wolfe or Beckett, but in his scholarly approach, this constant engagement with past authors. “It’s really belatedness,” he emphasizes. The key feature in Bloom’s seminal The Anxiety of Influence (1973), belatedness is the writer’s dilemma that everything’s already been said: put simply, that there’s nothing new under the sun. “It’s an intellectual concept that I feel very emotional about.”
When I ask Duchovny if he feels a part of any literary tradition, he takes a moment to respond. “I don’t know. I feel like my books are very different. You know, like Bloom, we’re talking about the anxiety of influence. And if I was to tell you who I think my influences are, those are exactly the people that are not … Bloom would say that my true influence is so daunting and the presence so overwhelming that I don’t even know, that I’ve hidden it from myself.”
Bloom passed away just as Duchovny began writing Truly Like Lightning, a sprawling drama about a Mormon convert in 21st-century California. As laid out in the novel’s acknowledgments, the critic was deeply fascinated by the Latter-day Saints, especially the mythmaking imagination of their founder, Joseph Smith. In 1992’s American Religion, Bloom twice hopes that a novelist will someday tell the story of Mormonism “as the epic it was,” so I ask Duchovny if Truly was written in direct response to this prompt. He seems genuinely surprised. “Oh, does he? Damn it. I was too late.”
Truly’s protagonist, Bronson Powers, is a retired stuntman and Mormon convert who leaves Los Angeles to raise a family in an isolated stretch of Joshua Tree desert. Duchovny’s best writing is often from the perspective of Bronson’s three sister-wives (I find this sensitivity to women’s points of view common to the sons of single mothers), and of Maya — the rapacious young land developer who sets the story in motion. After she forces a wager upon Bronson, three of his 10 children are enrolled in San Bernardino schools, where the family’s 19th-century worldview is used to approach a plethora of contemporary sociopolitical issues, from race, class, and cultural warfare to climate change and #MeToo.
Juggling over a dozen family members, a few scandalous love affairs, and many of America’s most pressing concerns, the plot would run away from us if not for the dogmatic Bronson, whose monomania anchors the novel. He thinks little of contemporary society, much less of his former life. A stuntman is “just a shadow of an actor, and an actor is just a shadow of a real person making shadows on a silver screen in the dark,” Bronson tells his young son, Hyrum. “It’s a bullshit existence.”
Duchovny plans to play his protagonist in the coming adaptation of the novel, which is in development. And indeed, Bronson draws on the writer’s own grappling with fame and identity, the nexus of which produced not only a crucial plot device in Truly, but another of his ongoing preoccupations: fraud. Duchovny is captivated by Mark Hofmann, a Mormon forger and murderer who sold off fake documents in Joseph Smith’s hand. Hofmann’s work was not only good but also engrossing for the forger — so much so that he came to believe he was actually Smith. “He thought and wrote like an actor who has completely lost himself in the character,” Duchovny writes. “He became his role.” In 2000, Duchovny even turned the story into an episode of X-Files, “Hollywood A.D.,” changing Hofmann into a Christian forger who believed himself to be Christ. In Truly, these lines between man and god, Hollywood and the holy, become exquisitely blurred.
“I’m interested in fraud, because we all are,” Duchovny says, indicating our surroundings. It’s a beautifully clear day, and everyone’s brunching. “Los Angeles?” I ask. He adjusts his sunglasses. “I mean, the world.” Our conversation turns to humiliation, which is rather like the lining of fraud — its self-realization. “I guess humiliation is akin in some way to shame, and shame is deadly. But it’s also necessary … It goes back to Holden Caulfield. I’m still obsessed with phoniness, hypocrisy, arrogance, shamelessness. Those would be my four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Are they not also every actor’s greatest fears? He laughs. “Actors like to say they’re authentic, but [they’re only] good at faking authenticity.”
Existing between centuries and ideologies, Truly’s Bronson personifies the anxious gap between the old and new worlds. It’s in this breach, Bloom argued, that Americans search for an original self, a fretful pursuit producing as much terror as beauty. “I am myself waiting my time to be a God,” Walt Whitman originally sang, but Joseph Smith was less patient, inviting us all to be self-made deities today; and so “why couldn’t Bronson Powers […] hear the voice of an angel on Hollywood and Vine”? By the end of Truly, Bronson embodies this uneasy chimera quite literally. Dusting off his stuntman’s toolbox of pyrotechnics and blanks, he fakes miracles and divinity in the desert. Bronson postures and hesitates between manifestations until one of his sister-wives, Mary, steps into the role of her namesake, and finally brings him down to earth.
The Reservoir shares this vision of an isolated man encroaching upon madness against the unknown; once again, it’s a woman who ultimately unveils his delusion. Set during the early days of lockdown, the novella follows the internal drama of a middle-aged Wall Street veteran, Ridley, as he reckons with his past and privilege, art and love, from an apartment overlooking Central Park Reservoir. “[T]wenty floors above the asphalt,” Duchovny writes, “[Ridley] could be Thoreau or Emerson brooding on escape and self-reliance in his cabin in the sky. Living that peculiar American fantasy of forsaking the world while influencing it.”
Divorced, lonesome, and not “essential,” Ridley toys with the idea of becoming an artist. Every evening, sunset to sunrise, he captures time-lapsed photos of the Reservoir with his iPhone. He calls the series Res:365, daydreaming that “when people would watch his […] films, they would learn of his depth.” Around the 250th, however, he notices a pattern of light flickering from an apartment across the park. A beautiful woman in need is reaching out to him, he deduces, and he becomes obsessed with finding her. “Ridley sighed at the possibility of a future. He wasn’t too old to dream of being needed […] He was […] a hero in search of a moment.”
Ridley’s quest echoes Melville in the mountains, Gustav in the canals, but also the mad Lear in Dover, estranged from his beloved Cordelia. Ridley is missing his own daughter — named Coral, no less — who has avoided visiting her father during the lockdown, not “want[ing] to kill him.” Yet her concerned text messages increasingly interrupt his wanderings in Central Park, a psychic geography that shifts between the past and present, truth and conspiracy, and, eventually, dream and reality itself. At the center remains the Reservoir, “always neutral while we never are.”
Exhibiting vague signs of COVID-19, Ridley begins to wonder if he’s in fact hallucinating. “Symbol or symptom?” he frequently asks, parroting a 92nd-Street Y lecture he stumbled into years ago. I ask Duchovny about the origins of this riddle. “[I had a legendary] professor named Arthur Szathmary at Princeton … and he did exactly what I said he does: he played a heart beating and asked, ‘Is that a symbol or symptom of a heart attack?’ I had no idea. I still have no idea.”
The dichotomy provides an elegant spiral for Ridley’s descent. Running half-naked around the park, he chases the subject of his desire into the icy waters of the Reservoir, where he’s drawn underwater to probe the seedy depths of New York City history: office papers from the debris of 9/11, the bodies of slaves and COVID victims, seemingly all of the city’s sins and grief surface alongside his own. Ridley believes himself a savior to the undead “uncounted ones” he encounters, “who had been taken in secret by all manner of virus and bias and deceit and chicanery,” but they only pull him down further, where time and space converge “into the circle that is all center and no circumference […] where darkness began giving way to the light […] to the Fiat Lux.”
Duchovny nods to a new John Ashbery collection I was reading when he first sat down. “You know he says, ‘[T]here is only just so much room. And it accommodates everything.’” He continues, “And that’s what happens when Ridley’s seeing the truth of history under the Reservoir. He feels his mind actually blow, and yet accommodate it all.”
I ask Duchovny about his own experience with COVID, and he laughs. “Well, I didn’t see the key to all mythologies. I got no insight from it.” Nonetheless, he has a great deal in common with his protagonist. From summer gigs as lifeguards on Fire Island when they were kids, to a high-rise apartment on the West Side, they often share the same elevated view: capacious yet attentive. Still, it must be infuriating, I openly wonder, that people draw these connections between Duchovny’s work and his personal life.
“It’s not so much that, [it just] takes away the artifice, the meaning of it,” he tells me. It’s the symptom of what John Waters, also a multimedia novelist, called the “curse of fame”: the public’s inability to honestly perceive a celebrity’s transition into a different media. Duchovny begins to fidget. “Even if I look at what the algorithm recommends, it’s books by actors, or music by other actors … but no, I’m sincerely doing these things. It’s like, ‘Fuck you, algorithm — you’re the stupidest fucking algorithm!’” As I’m laughing, his gaze shifts suddenly back to the surfers beyond the beach. They’ve slipped underwater, and Duchovny’s lifeguarding skills emerge. “Oh, now they’re looking for drowning people … It’s deep and cold. It’s not like Hawaii out there.”
Ridley’s final memory is one of swimming at the beach with Coral. She’s still a little girl, and they drift a bit too far out — he’s “showing off” for her, he confesses — when a sudden set gets rough. He worries he’s going to lose his daughter, but they make it back to shore safely, where he collapses “in two inches of water from the adrenaline dump and residual fear […] [S]he dug holes in the sand nearby […] carefree, [while] he looked up at the blank blue sky and wondered what kind of man he was.”
“That’s me, too,” Duchovny admits. “That happened right around here. If I can love anything I do, I do love the end of that sequence.” I can imagine that, for a public person — especially an actor made famous by iconic, decades-long roles — writing may offer some control over his personal narrative. “I don’t see it as [that], because I don’t have any interest in writing a memoir,” he says, “but I see it as a psychic narrative. That’s more than any kind of recounting of history is going to be — it’s the real me.”
I ask if his daughter had read this latest book. “I don’t think [so] … It’s like seeing your dad naked in a way. I don’t necessarily want to read my dad’s stuff. I don’t blame [her].” Amram moved to Boston soon after his divorce, remarried, and later retired in Paris where he died of heart disease in 2003. Duchovny discovered his father’s unpublished second book, A Lifetime Is Once, in a drawer after he passed; as a sequel to Coney, it was more autobiographical of his adult life and included commentary about his children, with whom he suffered some distance. “It was painful at the time,” Duchovny says. “It put me in a position that I suppose I put my children in, which is of walking into that kind of gray area … But when I’m dead, I hope that [my children] can go to the books and say, ‘Oh, that was Dad.’”
As Ridley’s lungs fill with water, be it of the Reservoir or his own fluids, he forgets his name. It’s a final irony as his marriage was damned “at some long-ago stupid party” when he forgot his wife’s. “He wished he could inform his ex-wife that there was now a time that he had forgotten both their names. […] He wasn’t a bad guy, a cold guy. […] He was just … emptying out of detail.” It’s an ending that recalls the “perfect nothingness” of Gustav’s sea except that, ultimately, Ridley never forgets his daughter’s name.
And it’s Coral who finally breaks the story’s fever dream. After finding her father’s phone wedged into the windowsill, she discovers that the photo setting had accidentally been set to reverse, capturing not the Reservoir but “an inadvertent self-portrait.”
Duchovny actually created his own Res:365 series during the pandemic, available in a special chapbook of poetry and lyrics released alongside The Reservoir. The art historian in me can’t help but get excited, bringing up Warhol’s Empire or Basinski’s Disintegration Loops as analogous, extended portraits of our city, majestic in the mundane as often as the tragic. Duchovny doesn’t take his films so seriously. After all, he first set out to mock Ridley’s aspirations as an artist: “I condescend to myself as often as I can.”
He’s more interested in poetry, and we fall into a tangent about its relationship to prose. “Fiction is workmanlike, and then poetry is the magic trick — writing around something that can’t be said.” I can feel his love for Ashbery in the collection’s pacing and proclivity for interweaving dialogue, but filtered through the roseate gauze of what I now understand is very much, despite his earlier dismissal, the influence of Los Angeles — not the real Los Angeles, perhaps, but “L.A.,” the image of the city, as film essayist Thom Andersen once argued, crafted through our collective American imagination.
Thumbing through an advance copy of Duchovny’s poetry I had printed out a few weeks earlier, now looking like an overwrought script, I find a favorite passage. “L.A. is a bad place to die,” I read aloud, “with its ironic sunlight …” In company with the novella, some might argue these selections find Duchovny negotiating two minds, two cities, too many careers. I ask if he’d ever consider devoting his time solely to one medium, and he answers, “I think a part of me doesn’t want to be fully committed to one thing, because I might get heartbroken if that didn’t work out. I think some of my searching around in different forms is … self-protection. It’d be curious to see what would happen if you took everything else away and I only worked on one thing. I wish somebody would do that to me.” He laughs. “I think my agents want that, but [to have me only] act.”
The pressure must be immense, I presume, to remain on the screen. “I don’t want to sound like I want to put acting to rest, because I feel like I’m just entering into my own style in many ways …” I’m openly agreeing, when he turns modest. “Although I may not even be that suited to acting, I love doing it.”
Over the course of our conversation, Duchovny has periodically scooted his chair closer, trying to remain in the shade. “I’m not getting fresh,” he says with a grin. The tide is inching nearer as well, and we have to speak up over the tumbling surf. We discuss the 20 new songs he recently wrote, his next films, and I’m wondering at his energy for all of this. I tell him so. “You’re tireless, David.”
“I’m tired,” he replies without hesitation, laughing. “I’m not tired, I’m just, what am I tired of, honestly …” There’s a long pause as he gathers his thoughts. Another wave smacks and falls away. “I’m tired of the fear that I’m going to do the same thing just because I’m afraid — that if I’ve had some success, that I’m going to try to chase that. I’m tired of feeling like I have to prove myself … And you know, I’m 61, and I see it coming …” He holds his hand out into the sunlight, gesturing at the future, and I notice a constellation of age spots. “I want to make sure I say it all, if I can. That’s why we’re all here, to give our interpretation of it.”
I’m about to ask exactly what his interpretation is, but he’s already directed me back to the ocean. “Just look at this, doesn’t that look like magic? It’s like he’s walking on water.” A surfer skims across the Pacific without touching it, and Duchovny is really smiling now. “Everybody’s Jesus in California.”
Sadie Rebecca Starnes has eclectic interests. A Brooklyn-based writer and artist, she covers experimental music, art, and film for places like The New York Times and Artforum; argues visas for foreign artists; and has held numerous solo exhibitions in both New York and her former home of Tokyo.
Author photo by Georgette Maniatis. Courtesy of artist. June 2022.
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