The Mythmaker Gazes at Himself: A Conversation with David Leo Rice

January 12, 2021   •   By Matthew Specktor

IN THE WORLD I’d like to live in, David Leo Rice’s A Room in Dodge City 2 is a blockbuster. That is, set up by the wild success of its predecessor (2017’s A Room in Dodge City) and paving the way toward DC3: Squimbop Strikes Back, which will cement Rice’s global domination. On second thought — screw that. Not because the eldritch imaginings of Rice’s fiction, which are both fiercely unsettling and often bluntly hilarious, don’t deserve — and wouldn’t reward — a large audience (they do, and they would), but because within the tesseract of the writer’s Dodge City, these conditions are probably met already.


Dodge City. It’s a place that seems at once inescapable and inevitable, where the whole of history, or at least American history, may have already happened. But the psychogeography of Rice’s work can be difficult to pin down — or rather, the whole notion of “pinning it down” is anathema to its pointed, and yet weirdly cheerful, instability.


To describe a book that features — among other things — suicide, child murder, miscellaneous perversions, and psychological disturbances (and, perhaps most scarifying of all, an alternative film industry) as “cheerful” may seem unlikely, and is misleading, insofar as DC2 is the feel-good hit of the summer only in a year as tortured as 2020. And yet … that’s what I’m talking about. The ease, the command, the deadpan assurance of Rice’s language, and the angularity of his imagination can make even the unspeakable somehow charming. The story of an aspirant filmmaker trying to gain purchase in the title city’s movie business, which is governed by a (deceased? missing? undead?) filmmaker named Blut Branson, DC2 is one of the most exhilarating novels I’ve read this year. It’s of course far too whacked to be boiled down to mere plot summary, but it remains, also, infinitely approachable. The same might be said of David himself, whose tremendous insight and erudition present themselves altogether without airs. It was a pleasure to sit down and talk with him — through the usual virtual channels, of course — to discuss some of the book’s origins, its concerns, and its relation to places both real and imagined.


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MATTHEW SPECKTOR: One of the things I’ve always found challenging in writing about the movies is that it’s a world to which people bring an outsize number of preconceptions. There’s a mythology that intervenes, through which both reader and writer need to pass in order to get anywhere at all. It strikes me that Dodge City might be the only nexus in all of American life that may be even more mythological than Hollywood. I had to remind myself it’s a real place, in Kansas. What does it mean to you to engage this particular myth?


DAVID LEO RICE: My wife is from Kansas, and we spend a good deal of time there, but I’ve avoided Dodge City because I wanted it to remain a mythic place — though knowing that it was real, and that it was nearby, helped me imagine it. Maybe once the third book in this series comes out, I’ll finally go there.


Until then, I see Dodge City as both more and less real than Los Angeles in the sense that, as you say, it is indeed a real Western town, where real “Wild West” events took place, and yet, at the same time, it’s been hyper-mythologized — by Hollywood, of course — to the point where all of these preconceptions converge over it. In this sense, it’s a quintessentially American place, conflating the actual and the cinematic in ways that define our national character. That’s why I think of the “United States” as referring equally to territories and to states of mind, however tenuous that union may be.


That’s sort of your beat, though, isn’t it? The territory that’s also a state of mind? The Dodge City in your book is undeniably a place, but there’s also an … ectoplasmic quality.


I love frontiers, along with porous membranes, or boundaries that don’t quite serve to separate what they claim to separate — places where different worlds and levels of reality bleed together. There’s very productive energy in liminal spaces like this.


I’m also drawn to the idea that reaching the West Coast represents success in the American mythic imaginary because it proves that you survived the trek across the entire country, but also disappointment because it proves that the frontier doesn’t go on forever, and so you can’t just keep riding off into the sunset. That’s the melancholic beauty of Sunset Boulevard, both the street and the film: it represents a kind of home stretch, but it’s also the end of the line, dumping you in the ocean if you follow it all the way.


This means that at some point you have to try to make something of yourself wherever you are. I see that as one theme of Dodge City 2, where the narrator realizes he can’t go on being a drifter forever, and so he tries, somewhat haphazardly, to become a filmmaker.


It’s interesting that you posit the narrator’s decision to become a filmmaker as a … I wouldn’t quite call it a “grift,” exactly, but as a choice made at the crossroads of necessity and opportunity. Likewise, as you note, the mythology of Dodge City is itself as much created by the movies as it is precedent to them. At the same time — you know, Kansas and Hollywood represent antipodes of American life. There’s nothing less “Hollywood” than Kansas, and yet you seem — very intentionally — to braid the two. Are these places perhaps not so opposed after all?


The Wizard of Oz connects them in a beautiful way, where Dorothy leaves her “normal life” in Kansas to enter the fantasy world of Oz (that is, Hollywood), and yet she learns that almost everyone from her previous life has been recast in the new one, and hence the two aren’t really separate at all. This is another of those porous boundaries. Kansas has been coopted by Hollywood as a stand-in for “normal America” and yet, even in the fantasy depiction, it’s anything but.


I wanted to play with this idea so that, in the psychogeography of these books, Hollywood is right next to Dodge City. Just beyond the Dodge City outskirts, the narrator finds himself on Mulholland Drive, going to the creepy mansion of a famous director who might be dead. Conflating those two frames of reference in a feedback loop gave me a lot of excitement as I was working.


In the book, The Dodge City Film Industry is propagating all these myths about Dodge City, trying to furnish a rich history for the town, which in reality, as you say, is what happens with Hollywood. There, too, the myth factory becomes the subject of its own mythology, as Hollywood specializes in movies about itself, which must seem deeply unreal to those who live there. This is part of why so many people are drawn to it without a full understanding of what they’re getting into.


I’m going to quibble with this a little bit. When you say these films must seem “deeply unreal to those who live there,” I keep thinking, Sunset Boulevard, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown … even something as industry-specific as The Player doesn’t seem “unreal,” really. All of these films might be profoundly acerbic, maybe even nihilistic, but they don’t seem unreal, even as they all seem to posit a very seductive surface while at the same time flattering the idea that we, of course, are too cynical, too aware to be fooled by it.


That’s a great point. It’s a really interesting question whether self-awareness can ever be a durable form of self-defense, or if knowing how deep and dark the depths are is no guarantee against falling into them.


Maybe Hollywood guards its secrets by flaunting them — this could be why the films you mentioned actually make me want to live in Los Angeles even more, despite presenting such a jaundiced vision of what life there is like. The same goes for the novels of Bruce Wagner, Bret Easton Ellis, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Nathanael West, and your own American Dream Machine — none present the city in a positive light, and yet they all serve to deepen its enchantment. Right now, I’m reading a new book called Chaos, which purports to upend the narrative of the Manson murders and tie it to a much larger set of events in the ’60s. I have no idea if any of it is true, but it’s gripping as a narrative insofar as it keeps deepening the depravity of its take on Los Angeles, and that depravity only grows more glamorous the worse it gets.


Somehow, as a native, my first instinct is to confirm that both the glamour and the depravity are real. But — you happen to hail from Northampton, Massachusetts, which happens to contain its own grounds for mythology, even if fewer people were aware of it. When I lived there, back in the ’80s, my friends and I used to refer to it as “the sixth borough” as a way of mocking its downtown pretensions, but … the joke was on us. It had a music scene (Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. were residents), an incredible literary history (James Tate, James Baldwin, Joseph Brodsky, and Anita Desai all taught in the area, David Berman and David Foster Wallace were both students at the same time I was). Did any of this rub off?


Northampton is a huge center of gravity for me. It’s the place I always return to in my imagination (and often physically, as well). My novel ANGEL HOUSE is my most explicit engagement with a New England sensibility so far, but even in the Western world of Dodge City, Northampton is a key influence. I feel that I have a “Northampton imagination,” in the sense that I lived there all my life until college, so everything that I saw, read, dreamt, thought, wrote, and aspired to become was filtered through the lens of this town.


There’s something about Northampton that seems to concentrate New England’s most picturesque and its most Gothic qualities. It was always (and I’m sure remains) strikingly beautiful, but as soon as you move toward the outskirts you’re confronted almost immediately with a landscape of industrial decay. While I was there, the Northampton State Hospital was still open, and so you could feel that pressure as well: the terror of the old 19th-century insane asylum, of which there were several in the area.


Absolutely. Northampton has a very dark underbelly, which is part of why it feels like there’s a city within or beneath the town — the way that Dodge City is a town but has “City” right in its name is a paradox that speaks to my feelings about Northampton, and the general sense that small, remote places can somehow also contain vast urban mindscapes.


I was aware of this underbelly from an early age because my father is a psychiatrist. Although he wasn’t affiliated with the state hospital, which closed soon after I was born, he was very involved with the mental health community, so I knew that there were a great number of, to use the term I would’ve used as a child, “crazy people” around — something that always intrigued me. When the hospital closed, the residents were largely released into outpatient care, and this definitely made an impression on me, as did the abandoned hulk of the hospital itself, which was a popular destination for scary Halloween break-ins and has now, of course, been converted into (haunted?) condos. There’s still a burial ground behind it, where more than a hundred patients were buried in unmarked graves.


Northampton embodies a potent contradiction, in that it’s both this very enlightened, sometimes arrogantly progressive college town, but it’s also located amid the ruins of an entire failed civilization — the whole New England industrial system that collapsed over the course of the 20th century. It really does give this sense that you’re living in a postapocalyptic landscape, trying to intellectually deny what you can viscerally feel. The empty factories might be full of yoga studios and microbreweries now, but this can’t hide the eeriness of living in the shadow of a lost way of life.


The term “surrealism” is always a little suspect to me, as it can evoke something that seems at once haphazard and narrow (your work is neither), yet you’re working in a tradition where the ordinary terms of what we consensually call “reality” don’t apply. The book seems to descend, really, from what I might term a burlesque tradition: Sterne, Pynchon, Cervantes even. What do these writers mean to you?


I love the idea of a burlesque tradition, and will gladly accept a place within it. I think all forms of deliberate exaggeration, whether it’s camp, or grand guignol horror, or slapstick, are appealing as modes of expression and get at the subjective truth of experience. Even the great supposed realists, like Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy, fill their books with grotesques and melodramatic maniacs, so I don’t feel any compunction about pushing the material in that direction. I find that it’s only by embracing something seemingly outlandish or disturbing on the surface that you can penetrate, in the reader’s or viewer’s mind, to the space where what you’re doing has a chance to make contact with the real.


In terms of antecedents, certainly all of the epic, comic writers you mention resonate very strongly. I’m also influenced by the Jewish mystical tradition of Kafka, Bruno Schulz, I. B. Singer, David Grossman, Clarice Lispector, etc., by magical realists like García Márquez and Murakami, by current American authors like Brian Evenson and Steve Erickson, and transgressive authors like William S. Burroughs, Samuel R. Delany, and Dennis Cooper, who are crucial in how they model risk-taking in fiction. Other than that, some of the biggest influences have been Southern Gothic writers, Faulkner foremost among them. I was talking to another writer from Northampton recently, and it turned out we’d both always pictured Northampton in summer, rather than Mississippi, while reading Faulkner. I was gratified to learn I wasn’t alone in this — I think it goes back to the post-industrial landscape, a sense of vine-choked Gothic decay in every direction.


There’s also a direct and exceptionally strong influence of film in your work: Lynch, Cronenberg, Jodorowsky. I grow up in a context — this was a very Gen-X-and-before-type issue — that felt movies and literature (or TV and literature, as Wallace argued) were at war. You seem to have absorbed these influences (as one should) without stress. Was there a conflict for you? Did you ever think about writing for film?


Growing up, books and movies were completely intertwined for me, so much so that I didn’t draw a distinction between them when I was imagining how my inner world might find an outlet. I always thought I’d be a film director, and yet I loved books and spent more time writing than filming, though I did work for Northampton’s cable access channel in high school, and made short horror films with my friends. In college, I focused on animation, which felt like a natural synthesis of the solitude of writing with the visual language of filmmaking.


For me, the Garden of Eden was the period of my life when I saw film and literature as coterminous, and the Tree of Knowledge was the realization that, at some point, I’d have to choose one or the other. I went through a crisis in my late 20s, after I’d focused on writing for a few years, when I felt like I’d turned my back on film too soon. I panicked and went all around New York City and sometimes to Los Angeles, trying to meet with people in the film world, pitch ideas, and so on, but I could never stick to it. I yearned to go back to writing prose, so eventually I did, and now I feel a lot better. Though I do still dream of making a movie one day.


In another interview I read with you, you talked a bit about the Book of Job. Do you consider yourself a religious writer?


I do think of myself as a religious writer, or at least a spiritual one. In college I studied medieval mysticism, because I was drawn to the idea of how individuals, pursuing their own private quests, could have transcendent visions of (and even mergers with) the divine or the infinite. This is the feeling I seek through fiction, which perhaps can’t be achieved in the same way through filmmaking. The monastic solitude of writing, wherein you tunnel deep inside yourself in hopes of finding a way to escape or overcome your own consciousness, feels spiritually healthy to me, in a way that nothing else quite does.


This takes us into the realm of the uncanny, because I think that deep inside yourself, at the absolute innermost point, way beneath all the layers of familiar narrative about who you are, you discover some kernel that seems completely foreign. If you can bear to spend time with this kernel — this essence of yourself that’s also not yourself — you can get to someplace that feels charged with religious meaning. I don’t subscribe to any official religions, though I do value my Jewish heritage, but I also don’t believe that there’s nothing out there. I feel pretty certain that something beyond our understanding is true about reality.


Off-topic — or perhaps not, as nothing is ever more on-topic than this no matter where we are — what are you reading? And what are you working on next? 


I always seem to roam among a few books at a time. Lately, I’ve been reading Gary J. Shipley’s Terminal Park, Dempow Torishima’s Sisyphean, and Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is the Flesh, an Argentine novel about human-meat farming. Along with Samanta Schweblin and Mariana Enríquez, Argentina seems to be producing especially compelling fiction in recent years.


As for what I’m working on, next up is my story collection, Drifter, coming out in June. It collects about 10 years’ worth of stories, so I’m very excited to have all that in one place for the first time. Then, Dodge City 3, which rounds out the trilogy in apocalyptic fashion, is slated to come out in 2022.


And I just started a new novel about an adrift animator who gets a chance to teach at the rural art school where he studied, only to find that it’s turned into a cult where everyone pretends that it’s still 1986 as a last-ditch effort to maintain denial about whatever’s happening to the outside world in the 2020s. In other words, it’s back to my shadow version of Northampton once again.


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Matthew Specktor is the author, most recently, of the memoir Always Crashing in The Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, forthcoming in July 2021 from Tin House Books. His writing has appeared in The New York TimesHarper’s, the Paris Review, and many other periodicals.