Can You Be an Outsider Artist If You Crave Mainstream Recognition?

David Leo Rice's novel adds an uncanny layer to ideas of Jewish identity, masculinity, and artistic ambition

Photo by I.am_nah on Unsplash

David Leo Rice’s newest novel paints an unlikely and often uncanny portrait of the artist as a young man. In The New House, that young man is Jakob, the only child of promise in a family of Jewish outsider artists living in isolation in a surrealist approximation of rural New England. When they’re not taking Jakob on blindfolded trips to Trader Joe’s or lecturing him over Wheaties on the Jewish visionary tradition (Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Chagall, etc.), Jakob’s parents are engaged in elaborate, iconoclastic projects of their own: his mother constructs a neon “graveyard of dead futures” on the outskirts of town, while his father tinkers in the basement on a sprawling, undefined masterwork that recalls the maniacal patriarch from Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles. Soon, Jakob embarks upon an artistic career all his own involving found sculptures made out of roadkill and anthropomorphic miniature replicas of the town where he lives. The “Art World” welcomes Jakob as one of its own.

But when Jakob comes under the influence of his reclusive and possibly homicidal grandfather Wieland, whose unorthodox artistic techniques have done as much to lionize as ostracize him in the town’s mythos, he begins on a path into the soul of his own creativity that strikes at the heart of all he loves. Written in the tradition of Schulz and Kafka, with a visual aesthetic that recalls David Cronenberg and the Quay Brothers, The New House is a singular, disquieting novel that explores the fringes of Jewish diaspora and the limits of artistic transgression.

Over the course of several weeks, Rice and I talked virtually about Judaism’s shadow-side, the outsider artists of the literary world, and how writing is the act of “gambling with repression.”

Adrian Van Young: The New House, which is about a family seeking an intangible paradise they call the “New Jerusalem” through the intensity of their art pairs moments of extreme Jewishness with moments of extreme uncanny-ness and terror. You aren’t the first Jewish artist to recognize or explore this relationship. In your view, what is the connection between Jewishness and the uncanny? 

David Leo Rice: The uncanny, as defined by Freud in his 1919 essay, centers on the discomfort of the past coming back into the present, whether it’s one’s personal past—the perspective of childhood filtering into that of adulthood—or humanity’s past—the ancient, superstitious world filtering into whatever we call disenchanted modernity. This is extremely compelling to me, both as an artistic approach and as a description of how I observe my life playing out. Many experiences are uncanny to me, so much so that it forms the bedrock of my spirituality with the sense that there’s always something haunted or supernatural afoot, but rarely in a clear enough way to form any dogma about it. I distrust formal dogmas for this reason, but that includes the dogma of atheism. I see the job of the writer being to flesh out these intimations and entertain various forms of “what if all that I sensed abstractly were concretely real?”

The Jewish condition is always that of something from the past that has neither been absorbed nor annihilated by history. Jews exist therefore in a permanently “un-dealt-with” state, never vanishing altogether nor reaching full harmony with the larger world. This is uncanny in that we’re haunting the places we inhabit, whether in a cultural sense in Europe and America, or a military sense in Israel. We’re always everywhere and nowhere, a crucial voice in what it means to be, say, Polish or American, yet also a voice that is seen as undermining those identities.

AVY: I love what you say about Jews throughout history “haunting the spaces they inhabit,” which I think speaks equally to the way Jews view themselves (as ghosts in their own historical narrative) and how Jews are viewed (as a wandering people, as social outsiders). Interestingly, what you say also harkens to the Jewish notion of the afterlife itself, Sheol, which usually manifests in Jewish holy texts as a sort of in-between state or limbo. Can you talk a little about the family of Jewish outsider artists at the center of The New House in this same context? How do they haunt the faux-New England town they inhabit? 

DLR: I’ve always been drawn to searchers, so my characters, whether in the Dodge City books, the Angel House universe, the stories in Drifter, or here, roam a blighted but also enchanted landscape, often an American one, in search of some form of deliverance. Here it’s the “New Jerusalem,” the fabled “end of wandering” that spurs the wandering onward.

It’s important that this deliverance feel possible but never quite within reach—that’s the beauty and tragedy of America, whether in the early days of pilgrims coming to the East Coast, or in the later days of setting out for the West. The possibility of deliverance, whether in the material terms of “striking it rich” or the spiritual terms of being born again, has to be real in order for the American Dream to continue, yet it also has to be denied in order for it to remain a dream.

The family in this book are looking for an afterlife within this life. They don’t believe in the Christian idea of a life of suffering followed by a life of bliss, but they also don’t accept that “this life is all you get.” They’re determined to seek something transcendent within this world, and to bring it to light and, for better or worse, take credit for it in the eyes of others. Their artistic ambition is infused with a messianic ambition.

AVY: I’m interested in the way you approach the topic of Jewish spirituality in The New House. Did you conceive of the characters as being spiritual in an institutionally religious sense, or only as it relates to their art? Are they practicing Jews or “cultural” Jews?

DLR: They chart a middle path between practicing and cultural Judaism. This middle path is that of the “visionary Jew,” which does tend to manifest through art—Pinter, Jodorowsky, Cronenberg, all my heroes —but it doesn’t have to. It can manifest through any practice that involves making it up as you go along, rather than signing up for an extant program, like being a member of a synagogue, or putting it behind you entirely and saying “my Jewishness is irrelevant.” The visionary path is by necessity a solitary one—the family is thus doubly exiled, both from Gentile and from Jewish society—but it can also be an extremely productive one, because there’s no way to “be” in the Good Book . . . you have to constantly “do.”

AVY: The family at the center of the novel is certainly up to some transgressive mayhem all their own. It’s not unlike you in your own career, maybe. You’re an experimental writer. You could be called transgressive. (I remember you telling me once that Jack Ketchum, the late “extreme” horror writer, was an early mentor of yours.) Do you consider yourself to be an outsider artist of sorts in the literary world? Is that a designation of necessity or choice?

DLR: I used Jakob’s conundrum as a form of self-reflection. He’s torn between the committed outsiderness of his father (whose rejection of all dogma becomes a dogma of its own), and the worldly ambitions of his mother, who secretly instills in him the desire to “take the Lincoln Tunnel into New York City.” I feel just like that—torn between wanting to truly do my own thing, to an aggressively anti-mainstream degree, and craving mainstream recognition in a way that is perhaps shameful, but is therefore necessary to admit. It’s the condition of wanting to have your cake and eat it too, of wanting to be, like the Quay Bros., or the Chapman Bros., or Joseph Cornell, both genuinely immersed in your own obsessions and also feted by the fancy powers that be.

Jack Ketchum was an incredibly important mentor for me early in my NYC years. He nurtured the strangest and most depraved aspects of my early work, but also helped me infuse it with humanism. He stressed the importance of what he called “real” characters, people who truly lived and breathed on the page, rather than ciphers in a parable. He also taught me to have fun with my work. 

In terms of publishing, there’s an exciting movement afoot today with many new independent presses starting up to promote the kind of work that is being ignored by the consolidating mainstream houses. I feel “saved” to have discovered this world, and its readers, and thus to see that it isn’t necessary—as I once deeply feared it would be—to force myself to become a different kind of writer in order to play a role in the public square. I almost can’t believe my good luck at having received the message from the world that I can and should go ever deeper into my own obsessions, rather than needing to “put childish things behind me” and learn to write for Netflix or whatever. If a larger press is ever interested in that, I’d certainly be interested too, but it’s not something I’m actively courting the way it once was.

AVY: That notion of going “ever deeper into [your own] obsessions” seems particularly apropos, not only in terms of your work as a writer but also when it comes to the protagonist of The New House, who in the novel’s climax, under the dissociative posthumous influence of his grandfather, goes off on a kind of maniacal vision quest. It’s vivid and disturbing. Not to mention the fact that this neurotic creative obsessiveness seems to me ubiquitous to the Jewish artistic psyche more generally–you see this same tendency in a lot of Roth’s artist characters, Grace Paley’s, Zach Lazar’s. Famously, Bruno Schulz’s. How do you view this tendency in your characters—in your own life as a writer? Is it an unhealthy yet necessary part of their/your craft? Or is it the kind of thing where in order to realize your vision, you have to sacrifice yourself to it on the altar of your own relentlessness?

The Jewish condition is always that of something from the past that has neither been absorbed nor annihilated by history.

DLR: I made a note recently, in a massive doc called “Goals for Art” that I’ve been keeping since I was a teenager, that said, “Writing is gambling with repression.” What I meant is that you have to be a somewhat repressed person to be a writer—you have to be conscious of tamping a lot down, and feeling it stewing in the center of your own earth—but then you also have to be cognizant of “unsealing” those tamped-down reserves when you’re writing. You hope that you can engender controlled chaos, blasting out these toxic chemicals onto the page in a way that, if successful, is doubly successful because it both relieves the toxic buildup in you and creates something dynamic and alive for the reader. If you fail at this, you either repress too much and become sickened with it (unproductively neurotic), or else you unseal too much and find that you can’t render what you’ve dredged up into a coherent piece.

AVY: You recently became a father. Like, a few weeks ago recently. To what degree are you able to feel parenthood beginning to work on the “humaneness,” as you call it, of your craft? What form do you feel your “gambling with repression” taking even at this early stage of balancing the artist’s life with Dad life?

DLR: I have indeed felt my recent fatherhood impacting my writing. The stakes in the gamble with repression are higher now, as the goal has to be to find a balance between my relation to my child and my relation to my work, hoping to mystically overcome the inevitable tension, on the level of hours in the day, between the two, to say nothing of the third axis of going out into the world to make a living.

Ideally, my developing relation with my daughter will enrich the ways in which I’m woven into the human fabric, while my relation with my writing will in turn continue to make me a more fulfilled and actualized person, which will make me a better father, even if it will also use up some of the time that I might otherwise spend with her.

It’s totally coincidental that The New House, my only book so far to deal with fatherhood on a literal level, came out the same summer my child was born, but it’s hard not to feel like the coincidence has deeper meaning. The book—written before we even considered having a child—is definitely a reflection on how not to be a father, though it’s also an examination of psychic inheritance in ways that aren’t all bad. It’s a story about how to grow up in the world, accepting that your parentage is what it is.

AVY: The father in The New House is uniquely terrible! In fact, as I was reading his sections in the novel, I kept thinking about how the book frames him, with self-awareness, as this “great man.” He subordinates his wife’s promising artistic career to his own endless tinkering and, in certain non-traditional ways, rules the house with an iron fist, but he also manages to cloak some of his more patriarchal tendencies with divinely inspired neuroticism and self-pity. I sensed a bit more modern purpose in how you frame the character and wondered to what extent you intended to push back against the “great man” trope ? How do ideas of Jewish patriarchy and masculinity present themselves and lend themselves for critique, today?

DLR: I’m so glad you brought this up, as it’s an aspect of the book that I thought a lot about but haven’t discussed before. It goes back to the idea of humanizing the surreal. I don’t want to write in a purely realist vein, but I also don’t want the figures or events in my books to feel weightless. I want there to be real terror and pathos, and to consider the unstable nature of masculinity in a serious way.

In 2022, the archetype of the Jewish man is doubly different than he was in the 1920s—he has both endured and caused unimaginable suffering to such a degree that he is irrevocably “in the world,” no longer ensconced in his own neuroses. Maybe this is the essence of our moment today, as Jewish writers: to look back at the last century and begin to see all this clearly, while, as Americans, also standing outside of it.

How permanently have we dodged the bullets that defined Jewish life in both Europe and Israel in the 20th century?

I wanted to play with the Americanness of the father’s self-pity as well, insofar as he’s the only one who experiences the direct impact of what he calls Nazism: the son is taunted by local bullies, but only in the father’s tales do Nazis continue to haunt America, leaving both mother and son to decide whether these warnings are true or if they’re yet another facet of the father’s egomania. This leads to the son’s own metaphysical flirtation with Nazism down the line, like an awful self-fulfilling prophecy.

In America in the 2020s, this feels like a salient question: how permanently have we dodged the bullets that defined Jewish life in both Europe and Israel in the twentieth century? On the one hand, I’ve never experienced direct anti-Semitism here, so it would be glib of me to refuse to give America credit for that. On the other hand, there’s an undeniably dark mood afoot—the question now is whether it will “blow over” or make contact in a more consequential form.

Overall, I’m interested in the question of what masculinity is today, and how (and if) it can continue to exist in a healthy fashion. This gets at the “Great Man” notion you mentioned, and the ways that Jakob and his father variously subscribe to and question it. Father and son represent opposite forms of Jewish masculinity here, but part of the work of the novel was to draw them together in the figure of the grandfather, since sons always realize, usually too late, how much like their fathers they really are.

AVY: Well, at the risk of spoiling anything, I will say that the “unstable nature of masculinity” certainly goes ass-off-the-rails in the book’s final moments! Yet The New House is also one of those novels whose ending felt like a beginning to me in many ways; there’s a sense of uncanny repetition and/or eternal return there, and throughout, that propels the reader’s imagination beyond the novel’s close, into new uncertain territory. Did you envision a future for Jakob beyond the story’s conclusion? Any plans to return to the world of The New House in a subsequent book?

DLR: I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d love to do a Jakob in the City novel that covers his years between where we’ve left him and where he “ends up,” even though, as you say, The New House has an uncanny repetition structure where the ending is already prefigured and in some ways surpassed at the beginning. I’d have to think about how to get the next round of time loops to function, but that would definitely be a worthwhile challenge.

I also want to write my first urban novel, as all my novels so far have taken place in small towns, with mythic reference to distant cities, as in “The Art World” here. I’d like to add a major city to the map on which I see all my books as being connected, so sending Jakob as a young man to make his way in that city would be the perfect occasion to do so.

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