Q&A with James Reich, Author of Mistah Kurtz!

Mistah Kurtz

Why did you write a prelude to Heart of Darkness? What does Conrad’s book mean for you, and why should readers revisit it today?

I’m writing this on MLK Day in the United States, but I grew up in England where protesting apartheid, demanding sanctions and boycotts were part of what it meant to belong to the Left as a youth in the 1980s. I’m forty-four. As anachronistic as it may seem to revisit Conrad, those conditions, of the Congo, of institutional racism, exploitation, uniformed brutality, capitalism and privateering have not changed. As for the book itself, Henry James had a phrase: “The plot won’t tell… not in any literal vulgar way.” And the impressionism of Conrad’s novella is masterful. The nebulous horror, the lack of elephants in a book about the ivory trade, the haunted corruption that make Heart of Darkness one of the ur-texts of modernism, also mean that it is a pulled punch — Yet, the fact that Conrad planted the existence of Kurtz’s papers in Heart of Darkness says that there is a counter-narrative to all that Conrad obscures, or a narrative that has no need of ambiguity — that has always been there. Heart of Darkness is everywhere, not just Apocalypse Now, but in the original screenplay of Alien, in the post-punk of The Gang of Four (“We Live As We Dream, Alone”), in T.S. Eliot, and the streets of American cities. Mistah Kurtz! is a vulgar book, in at least one sense.

Do you have a favorite copy of Heart of Darkness that’s all banged up and scribbled on?

I wish that I had the first copy I ever read. I can’t remember what I might have written in it, but it’s a book that dogs you, because it is — for good or ill — canonical (and all that implies), and I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with it for decades now, as ‘a casual reader’, as a student, as a teacher, and as a novelist. I used two copies when writing Mistah Kurtz! The most recently published of them disintegrated. Production values…

You must have known how Mistah Kurtz would end before you started writing. How do you plan out a novel whose end is known but whose beginning is unclear?

James Reich

James Reich

Heart of Darkness has elements of the detective novel, and Conrad litters the jungle with clues to who and what Kurtz is. There are allusions, rumors, objects, testimonies. A significant aspect of writing Mistah Kurtz! was the detective work involved in presenting a Kurtz who does not actually deviate from what Conrad suggests, but does deviate from what generations of readers think they know about him. My Kurtz is faithful to Conrad, but not to the reader. In Apocalypse, D.H. Lawrence said that “once a book is fathomed, once it is known, and its meaning is fixed or established, it is dead.” In a critical sense, Heart of Darkness has been a ‘dead’ book for more than a century. Mistah Kurtz! takes Conrad at his word, but also destabilizes 100 years of consensus reality. I let Kurtz do the work for me, that almost unheard voice, the wounded contrarian, always dying and reviving through culture.

When you want to depict madness in your writing, where does it come from? How do you deliberately craft madness, or enter a mindset where madness comes out?

All of my protagonists, including Judas in my first novel, and Varyushka Cash in Bombshell, are iterations of “the philosophical psychopath” — Mailer’s term, or the Rebel Without A Cause, except that Kurtz conforms to The White Negro more directly, and especially in the sense of that phrase via Rimbaud. I’m interested in the psychopathology of everyday life. You can’t avoid it. We all have it, and neo-liberalism embodies it as a system. Ballard was right about it, as was Freud before him.

Which part of the book gave you the most trouble?

After my first two books, I had the idea that I would write a dead straight bourgeois novel – I suspect because I wanted to push myself into the least comfortable mode I could think of, to write a book that, theoretically, I would hate, to see if I could occupy that space. For a week or so, I even thought of writing Kurtz that way, a 19th century novel of manners, but you can’t deny that voice, and as soon as I gave in to Kurtz’s voice, to the necessary eccentricity of it, my life as a writer became a lot easier!

You live in New Mexico. Mistah Kurtz is about the Congo. What was it like to walk around New Mexico with Congo on the brain? Any strange overlaps or jarring disconnects?

New Mexico is explicitly present in Bombshell, and implicitly in I, Judas where the desert is one of the vital landscapes. In Mistah Kurtz! the desert was a foil, another extreme landscape of alienation, but I’m actually more alienated by the celebration of Spanish-Catholic colonization here than I am by the red dirt. Because Heart of Darkness has been with me for so long, I went deep into my personal anti-canon, so there’s a scene — the Victoria Hotel — which resembles the pop video for The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown”. That’s a kind of overlap from England, how I experienced a vision of exploration and colonization as a strange waltz about heroin. That song is also like Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat”… I’m a writer who reads overlapping culture through his novels. It’s pattern recognition that saves and condemns us.

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