James Reich is the publisher behind Stalking Horse Press and author of numerous books and articles. In this interview, Reich discuses his two most recent novels from Anti-Oedipus Press. Soft Invasions is set in Los Angeles during the early ‘40s and dramatizes psychoanalysis, nativism, and paranoia at the dawn of the Second World War. This psychedelic book focuses on Maxwell McKinney, a psychoanalyst, and Sid Starr, a screenwriter, in the form of a noir tale that plays with motifs and plot elements of Oedipus the King. Stylistically, Reich blends the language of Freud, the structure of Didion, and the mystery of Dashiell Hammett. Next, The Song My Enemies Sing takes mid-century science fiction tropes and twists it into a narrative that exists somewhere between a collection of stories and a novel. The cast is larger than Invasions. The setting more diverse—including California, Australia, Mexico, and Mars. While there is a thematic and stylistic connection between the books, both are unique. In this interview, Reich discusses his inspirations and the development of these books.
Jacob Singer: I’m interested in initial “big bang” moment of the story. What was the origin of Soft Invasions? And how did it progress stylistically? Psychoanalysis is woven through both substance and style. Was that there from the beginning?
James Reich: Soft Invasions is the fallout from two volatile elements: the first was a vision I had of the “real” Battle of Los Angeles—the mass consensual UFO sighting that occurred in February 1942. That was its Jungian element. The second was the Freudian element, incest and the Oedipal family—the father who is so enamored of his son that he can longer tell whether that love might have a sexual component, and what, if anything, might prevent him from transgressing that taboo. The title Soft Invasions is multivalent, political, sexual, psychological. The novel also draws on psychoanalytic theory via Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Korzybski, both of whom were influential among the mid-century moderns, not least William S. Burroughs. Those things were always there for me. What developed most perversely was the spike in nationalism, nativism, and the very fears of invasion and contamination that the novel covers, during the 2016 election. As to style, I think our styles are dissimilar, but I was very impressed by Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, that structure, and of course McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
JS: I can see how Didion’s Play It As It Lays is a model with the short chapters that layer atop one another. While there’s unity in plot and narrative voice, this model utilizes fragmentation to create narrative gaps—especially when you move between characters, like Maxwell, Joan, and George. Can you share a bit about how this helps to achieve your literary outcomes?
JR: Fragmentation plays a paradoxical role in my fiction: I’m concerned with the instability of the ego, the center not holding, but my fiction—if and when it works—reveals existential contingencies, and, like all of us, the characters in Soft Invasions are vulnerable to their environment. I’m interested in the tension between the idea of the sovereign individual and their “thrownness.” All of my books are written from a broken mirror perspective. It’s not scattershot. And that plexus, the internal resonances of a book, are the way it “thinks” and argues for its existence.
JS: In chapter six of part one, Maxwell has a dream that seems to allude to “Ozymandias” by Shelley, a poem about the decay of empire. He wakes to what is described as a cancer opening in his face and white light pouring out from the wound. In the following page, the narrator points out that he had a nocturnal emission. Here you’ve connected a number of different things, including sexuality, disease, and decay. Can you comment on this and how your using different narrative lens—one in the dreamscape (unconscious) and another in the world (conscious)?
JR: This is Maxwell McKinney’s dream of Freud and his cancer, and you’re right, the allusion to Shelley’s poem is quite deliberate, but it’s a double allusion because it’s also Oedipus Rex. It’s McKinney’s unconscious recognition that his life as an analyst, as a father on the threshold of incest, is contingent on the two-thousand-year transit of Sophocles’ play to Freud’s desk. In the dream, it never reaches him, and McKinney understands that the structure of his thought is not his own. That’s an epiphany, but that kind of ecstatic insight is freighted with its own terror, and crisis. I haven’t written a novel in which the characters don’t dream. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche sets out a pre-Freudian argument for the potency of dreams and the unconscious, their shamanic function, their training function, and so on. The first antagonist is always the unconscious of the protagonist. For Max, the doppelgänger Sid Starr represents a certain kind of projected escape, but Starr has very serious problems of his own. I hadn’t read Jonathan Haidt when I was working on Soft Invasions, and chronologically it wouldn’t have worked for the novel, but among the writers on the contingency of morality, instinct, and so on, I think his work is important.
JS: I’m fascinated by your choice to oscillate between 1st and 3rd person POV and work outside of chronology. Can you explain your intention with this in Soft Invasions?
JR: Sure, I think it’s common to all of my work. My belief, and the reason I persist with it, is that it is existentially “true” or authentic. The subject in action is unstable. I prefer to shift the angle, show the simultaneous. If that has an unsettling effect, then good. Disorientation, delirium, these are important. They can shift the moral axis. I think of what I’m writing as an aesthetics of ambivalence. The Song My Enemies Sing, continues it. When I read, I read through and across the text. When I write, I write through and across my ideas or the cultural or historical context I’m using.
JS: Some criticize fiction that is idea-driven. Do you think of yourself as an idea-driven writer or does your work with psychoanalysis belong in the realm of theme? How would you parse these concepts?
JR: I think those criticisms are idiotic. Tell me something I don’t know in prose that shows commitment, otherwise make the familiar unfamiliar and uncanny through style and attitude. Show me a new language. That’s exciting. To your previous question, I’m also very restless. I need challenging ideas. I go to art for ideas, for style, for exceptions. I can’t relax with a stupid book. When people say, “It’s a beach read” or “summer reading” I can’t relate to that. I don’t put on shittier music in the summer, or suddenly feel the need to buy Jack Vettriano prints, so why do that with literature? Reading is time-consuming. Why waste time on a book without ideas, or an author just putting out product? That’d be like watching a television channel showing nothing but commercials. Fuck that.
JS: In The Song My Enemies Sing you set up a metaphor between the brain and the city when Ray Spector undergoes an “experimental cerebral commissurotomy to interrupt the waves of seizures that pitched and tossed his body like a drowned sailor.” I’m interested in learning more about how you use this metaphor in science fiction, in particular how operations like this allow for you to tap into aspects of genre and setting. Is this simply an opening move to get away from the limits of realism?
JR: Philip K. Dick uses it in A Scanner Darkly, and it’s present in a significant amount of Burroughs’ work too. It’s an exaggeration of the divided self, the split personality, and ambivalence, again. I use that word too much in conversation, but it’s the part of narrative, politics and myth that interests me. That image of quieting the storm, I imagine, must reflect more than the influence of certain writers – the science fiction I like is, generally, “calm”, relatively quiet, the introspective New Wave style. That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about The Martian Chronicles. Extraordinary, understated episodes. I can’t write space opera. The SF film that I’m most interested in right now is Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which I’m writing about for a book I have planned.
JS: Later, Spector breaks down the rise of the UFO phenomenon in film by tying it to the Holocaust and Carl Jung. Have you read Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies? Or does this stem from low-brow sci fi? Or are you a huge fan of the “research” Tom DeLonge has been doing since leaving Blink 182?
JR: Ha, I’m not a fan of anything Blink 182, thanks very much. But yes, I know the Jung book quite well. And I’m still full of admiration for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and have been since I was a was a kid in the ‘70s. I had the movie poster on my wall before I’d even seen it. Like Alien, I was so agitated by the time I saw it, it was a transcendent experience. The Jungian vision—almost like Gibson’s phrase “consensual hallucination” —is present in Soft Invasions, obviously, but there it is as history, as witnessed and reported in the newspapers as the Battle of Los Angeles then repressed. In The Song My Enemies Sing, the vision has never been explored, except by Ray Spector the writer-protagonist, or well, me.
JS: The setting in Song seems to be inspired by your location in the New Mexico. Can you talk about being an English expatriate living in the American Southwest and how that has impacted this book?
JR: In writing the novel, I made a series of road trips which followed a previous visit to Spaceport NM: to the Roswell “crash” coordinates, and to Alamogordo to visit the Turin Shroud lightbox exhibit, and to the gravesite of HAM the astro-chimp – I think of HAM as the emotional core of the novel. In the Old Testament, the children of Ham are cursed. And in this world, there’s a price to be paid for how we treat animals. When it comes to space exploration, we are all, in the technological sense “children of HAM.” To the national point, I’m an American citizen now, with a US passport, but Englishness runs deep. “England” is still very emotional for me, there’s a profundity to my experience of it, my memories, formation, and hopes that will always be there. I saw Brexit coming, and it’s a catastrophe. So, yes, I was moved to tears by the new The Good, The Bad & The Queen album.
JS: Without giving away any of the plot, there is a mixing of actual history with speculative fiction. Can you share a bit about your intention to blend realism and genre? What is your relationship with verisimilitude with how you included Martin Luther King, Jr.?
JR: I write about the affective valence of historical moments, synchronicity, the layers of meaning beneath the surface narrative. My characters are always looking for the raw, new skin beneath the scab. They pursue it through neurosis and shamanism. They are pattern-seekers. The novel has a thread of assassinations, rifles, suspension, and cryogenics running through it. The civil rights era and the space race coincide, and it’s through those alignments that Sun Ra and afro-futurism emerge. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the chapter he appears in, is best understood in a system of valence and symbolic meaning.
JS: Toward the end of the book you build a metaphor between the image gray bodies of aliens from science fiction with the gray bodies of Jews in the Holocaust. This is a fascinating blending of high and low brow subjects that creates a sense of uncanny. A similar moment happens when Ballantine Books censoring a controversial moment that transforms the Eucharist into something more literal.
JR: The uncanny is precisely what I’m interested in, so I’m very pleased that it struck you that way. One reviewer has already made the mistake of trying to discover historical proof of what the novel suggests in that regard, which is to miss the point entirely. You can’t find the “meaning” of that suggestion outside of the psyche. It’s a mythic meaning, to return to your question about MLK. I’m not working toward alt-history or historical revisionism. The Ballantine moment was inspired by something Philip K. Dick said about science fiction and profanity in his work – if it had profanity in it, it couldn’t be marketed as science fiction.
JS: Both of these books are so much about bodies. Can you share your inspiration for this literary exploration? Was the inspiration tied to a personal experience? Or did this motif arise through writing?
JR: Yes, bodies and their imprint upon one another, and upon things. Embodiment and disembodiment are our eternal crises. Mutability, tragedy, moments of transcendence…That’s all there is.
James Reich is the author of the novels Soft Invasions (December 2017), Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness(March 2016), Bombshell (July 2013) and I, Judas (October 2011) published by Anti-Oedipus Press and Soft Skull Press. His account of the New Wave of British science fiction appears in Bloomsbury Publishing’s Decades series: The 1960s. James is a regular contributor to Deep Ends: The J.G. Ballard Anthology and his work has been published by numerous international magazines. He is the founder and publishing editor of Stalking Horse Press, and a professor of philosophy and literature. James was born in England in 1971, and has been a resident of the US since 2009.