It’s only appropriate that Marc Anthony Richardson’s voluble and fearless Year of the Rat should reach readers courtesy of FC2. Like the novels of Raymond Federman—one of the founders of the original Fiction Collective (along with Ronald Sukenick, Steve Katz, and filmmaker Noah’s dad, Jonathan Baumbach)—Year of the Rat is an attempt to transmute the shame and tumult of obsession into something like grace, not by means of narrative, but by way of making narrative confess to its own pathologies. Further, like Federman, who described his novels as “concrete,” Richardson brings to his story the shaping intuition of an accomplished plastic artist. But, for this reader, Year of the Rat feels most like a spiritual descendant of Clarence Major’s Emergency Exit. Both books negotiate the burdens of originality, the problems of presence that taunt representation, the agonizing absurdity of our attempts at coexistence. And both texts make significant contributions to African-American literary tradition, which is itself a tradition of innovations only belatedly recognized as such. However, waiting isn’t an option with Year of the Rat. This is a novel that commands attention, both because its forms and expressions are so contemporary, and because it reminds us that telling is often insufficient—that, even if it’s not thus excused, at least what’s most wanting about us might be accepted by virtue of being retold.
The following questions and answers were exchanged between September and October of 2016.
We see the word “polyvocal” tossed around quite a bit when it comes to experimental fiction. Year of the Rat is polyvocal inasmuch as it ranges across a broad array of discourses. But one of the things I most admire about your book is that it is polyrhythmic. How would you describe this novel’s cadences, both micro- (e.g., prosodic) and macro- (e.g., plot, or structure, i.e., chapter-to-chapter)?
Well, to start, I didn’t plan anything. For me it was very important to be messy, to allow the voices to speak to me in an organic way, and, of course, to allow them to be filtered through my own emotions. Also, being my first novel, let alone my first story, I really didn’t know what I was doing. But I always loved listening to the rhythm of people’s voices—their moods and their tense shifts when telling an emotional story. So the mind, personal and universal, is always creating patterns, and the trick is to have no trick up your sleeve, to allow the process to “happen” to you. Of course, when I read my writing aloud—I always read aloud, over and over again—I started picking up on the patterns and the cadences; I started hearing the rhythm of the voice, which is many voices. Then, and only then, did I consciously start expanding on the patterns, the mood swings, the switch in persons, the torrential sentences, the dense paragraphs, the happenstance alliterations and rhyme scenes. Basically, in an exaggerated style, I wrote the way I speak in all my moods and intonations, sober and drunk (often in the same paragraph), like a “shapeshifter” sort of speak, but with sounds instead shapes—while, at the same time, I am also a composite of other people’s voices and feelings. I allowed them to happen to me, the voices, to create “a many-limbed lament,” as a friend once said, a polyphony of a person, which is why there are no quotation marks (only italics), rarely no names (people or places), and multiple people employed by the second person: because everything belongs to everyone, and no one. There is only one “person” in the book.
While I’d hesitate to describe Year of the Rat as a critique of tragedy, I certainly departed the book thinking that “tragedy,” as a concept, is incommensurate with the generation upon generation of horrors heaped upon the main character and his family. And maybe I’m still thinking this because my notions of “tragedy” are inextricable from the Western canon. Do you believe that this book contains a tragic narrative? Why or why not?
I really love the sensitivity of these questions. To answer this one, yes, the book can have an extremely tragic element to it. Not because I, as the writer, think so, but because the narrator thinks so. He is a “thought-form” in a way, and the primary composition of his thoughts is negative, and this negativity not only creates but “attracts” the tragic mentality, thus the tragic element. As the writer, I think the story is just a story, it could be tragic or comedic or both, for whatever door of perception you have passed through will obviously color your opinion. Even Shakespeare once said: “Neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so…” The reader is also allowed to view the story through whatever lens they are looking through, for it’ll also reflect the kind of thoughts and feelings they are looking with.
At another level entirely, Year of the Rat is a Künstlerroman. What’s really at stake in the narrator’s pursuit of Old World, Academy-approved artistic mastery?
After pursuing a traditional art education, the narrator eventually comes to feel that, as J. Krishnamurti once said, “the truth is a pathless land,” there are countless ways of approaching art, or, in a broader sense, the meaning of life. So he soon comes to the conclusion that the Academy, symbolizing the basic Western way of uniformity, will ultimately, if not kill them, inhibit his “wilds.” In the same vein, I also reference Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, which was very influential to me, not just as an art student, but as a spiritual adventurer.
Some of the most memorable scenes in Year of the Rat are the scenes in which the narrator takes on the role of his mother’s primary caregiver. (This just occurred to me: the terms caregiver and caretaker are essentially synonymous, even though the root verbs are, on their own, antonyms.) I very much admire how you approach this subject as well. The granularity of the actual care that must be given (and taken) has the texture of humiliation, but, no matter their bodily or spiritual ailments, these characters are never denied their basic dignity. What special difficulties, if any, did you encounter in writing these scenes, or about caretaking in general?
Yes, to give and to take care, to be mindful of. This is what I want the reader to understand. This mindfulness of every detail that must be considered in caring for the sick or even for yourself. And, of course, this takes an emotional toll on the caregiver/taker, as it did on me as a writer and a son. To have to keep revisiting these emotions was very intense—especially when I was still being a caregiver/taker. Even now, when I read certain scenes in the book, I have to remind myself to be a good little conduit, to not identity with that which has flowed through me as me—for you don’t see an extension cord trying to retain any electricity, do you?
Further, part of the narrator’s struggle in Year of the Rat seems to be against the emasculation, or infantilization, he feels lurking beneath the domesticity demanded of a caretaker. The masculinity he desires for himself as an artist is also fraught, but with indulgences—narcissism, drink—rather than abnegations. Not to mention all the ways in which the dominant culture complicates and challenges his masculinity as an African-American male. Is it possible to be a man in the world of Year of the Rat, and if so, who or what is a man within the rules of that world (contiguous and coterminous as it is with our world)?
The narrator feels the weight of the expectation of being the masculine provider for his family, while having a strong desire to create, which often requires a separation, physically from people, mentally from societal and cultural mores, and emotionally from familial obligations. I don’t think he wants to be a man as much as he wants to become a god, to realize his own divinity, and the power to recreate himself. Any other concern—being a man, an African-American man, an artist, or even a good son—merely mires him, prevents him from seeing himself as he truly is: a no body, a spiritual being experiencing a physical existence. When I started writing Year of the Rat, which is largely a confessional novel in the tradition of Celine, Miller, and Duras, I didn’t want to write about race or violence or manhood or anything like that, but these were all layers that needed be presented in order to understand the depth of the core. They are layers of me, parts of my individual existence, but not my universal self, which, I believe, is all “selves.”
Another one of my favorite scenes in Year of the Rat: the narrator takes a phone call from his incarcerated brother, and we are treated to this exchange:
I could have made a sock puppet that could’ve defended me better than [my attorney]. I laughed because I could see the sock puppet…. I laughed because the laugh isn’t a laugh or a scowl or even a smile: I laugh because it is my point of view my prism my power—and the laugh is triumphant! Yet the shadow of my laughter would seem to exacerbate the second son at times and make him feel the butt even more. But you’re the one making me laugh, I’d say. Am I killing you or are you killing me? Who’s killing whom?
Is “fraternal affection” just a euphemism for “protracted fratricide?” Can these brothers survive as a unit, a family, or can they only survive by radically (murderously?) differentiating themselves from one another?
The “killing” is, while figurative, definitely protracted, because the pain of not having the brother around for almost a decade, as a confidant and a co-caregiver/taker for the mother, is a bit overwhelming for the narrator. The brother’s presence of absence is intensely felt, as most families feel when they have a loved one behind bars, a prohibited would-be provider for the family—it’s like they’re in prison as well. And quite possibly the brother is being protractedly “killed” by the very thought of not being able to provide for his family. The brothers have definitely taken two different paths, and if they weren’t blood-related, I wonder if they would rub shoulders: the evangelist and the avant-garde artist usually don’t—although, they both originate from the same obsession: the desire to speak the truth.
If a novel can be compared to a cartography of hell (or, more accurately, one of the infinite number of hells human beings create for themselves), is satire necessarily one of the points on the novelist’s compass?
Most definitely: to some degree, satire is on every point of hell (hell being a position of the mind and not a place for the soul), and the degree decreases upon your descent. I reference Dante’s Inferno quite a bit in the book, and horror and humor are blood-related. I can easily call Year of the Rat a tragicomedy, but I know it is much more than this. There is a penultimate scene in the Inferno when Virgil is guiding Dante down Dis’s hip, which I think is quite telling of horror and humor, descent leading to ascent, and of the narrator’s predicament: Dis is trapped up to his waist in a table of ice, a frozen river of tears, which he perpetuates by the flapping of his wings—for the more he tries to escape, the deeper he is imprisoned. The narrator, too, is trying to escape: the mother, the family, the responsibility, but when he tries to—subconsciously, at least—he sabotages it. If he would just be still, the ice would melt and he would be free. But he’s also Dante (and maybe Virgil are the voices of the dead inside his head, guiding him), for when he passes through the gap in the table of ice, down Dis’s hip, everything is inverted, the descent turns into an ascent, horror turns into humor, dark into light. So it is up to the reader as to how they want to feel about the ending, because it is not an ending, just another transition, a transmutation sort of speak.
The point-of-view in Year of the Rat is somewhat unorthodox. For one thing, the novel’s narrator and main character is never named. Secondly, the narration is often in the second person. Sometimes this “you” is clearly identifiable: a parent, a grandparent, a former lover. Sometimes not. How are these two aspects of point-of-view linked? Or: If we were to place a mathematical operator between these two aspects of the novel’s point-of-view, what should that operator be (e.g., +, -, ×, ÷, ∉, ⎷ etc.)
1 + 1 = 3. What branch of mathematics is this? I don’t know. But that would be the equation I would use to describe this “shape-changing” you. And, to add on why there’s namelessness in the book, the narrator states that “a name is nothing more a cage,” for once you give someone or something a name, it tends to limit that person or thing, as well as the person who is naming that person or thing, sensually speaking. You cease to see that person or thing with great attention, with an innocent curiosity.
You yourself are African-American, and Year of the Rat is a novel of not only African-American experience, but of the African-American imagination. Imagine your ideal white reader. How is that reader taken apart and put back together in the process of reading your book?
I wouldn’t say the African-American imagination, just imagination. Imagination transcends everything, without discrediting anything. I never, and probably will never, image a type of reader for my work (although, I was often told that I should, to market the book). My belief is, if you write the book, its reader will come and see. I’ve had readers of Year of the Rat tell me that it was like swimming through quicksand, and only when they stopped reading a chapter, and fell into a daydream, did it sink into them. One woman, who is Puerto Rican and was raised in a harsh urban environment, jokingly said it was like running the gambit of her emotions, that she quite possibly needed medication afterward. And another woman, who is white and was possibly raised middle-class, said that she felt submerged in the stories and subsumed the memories as her own, so that when she finished the last line, it was like being thrown back into her own reality. Books can do this to you only when they are written with no one in mind to read them.
The jeopardy is pretty elevated in Year of the Rat when the narrator pauses long enough to make this observation: “Left knee is moving, she [the mother] told me, as though using herself as a metaphor to explicate my condition.” Metaphor, almost certainly more so than metonymy, energizes the phenomena it couples, deploying them within a hierarchy (tenor, vehicle). Should metaphor be allowed to employ anything and / or everything? What are limits of the permissible within the context of metaphor?
Everything is everything. Anything can be a metaphor for something else, even people to a degree. To me metaphors have no limits, which was why the prophets employed them perhaps: they’re multifaceted, like gems.
Year of the Rat was awarded the 2015 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize. As a reader, what innovations draw you into a fiction? As a writer, how do you feel fiction must innovate in order to remain a vital contemporary art form?
As a reader and writer, the greatest innovation that draws me to and will revitalize fiction is a strong, original voice. And what makes a strong and original voice, to me, is not being clever or evasive with your emotions as a writer (although your narrator may very well be), but being raw and open, as though you were a piece of fruit just bitten into. Vulnerability is strength. And the careless person can be the most considerate person to us all. The most courageous. Not because she braves the pain of being exposed, but because she sees that this is the only way for her to be, and quite possibly have always been: in love.
Marc Anthony Richardson received his MFA from Mills College. He is an artist and writer from Philadelphia. Year of the Rat is his debut novel.