Chair of Creative Writing and Literature at Santa Fe University of Art & Design, James Reich, is the kind of multifaceted artist to which we all aspire. For these purposes, however, he’s the author of Mistah Kurtz!, an original novel that serves as a prelude to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Reich reads from his new book on on Tuesday at SFUAD’s O’Shaugnessey Performance Space (7 pm, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive), so we’re like, “Hey man, here’s some Qs!”
Your book fills in the blanks for Kurtz; why did you zero in on this character?
The best novelists read culture through writing, so when you take a figure like Kurtz, and write through a text like Heart of Darkness, you're adopting and testing a philosophical position, and by interrogating the silences in Conrad's work, the present scene emerges. You have to be dispassionate. You can't do this if you are infatuated with Conrad. Our familiarity with Kurtz, even as a cipher, or under Marlon Brando's contortions, lends itself to a flattening of our affect toward the facts—for me, this is dangerous.
Can you give us an idea of the tone?
Mistah Kurtz! is a confessional narrative, the chronicle of a tragedy. Kurtz's wounded psychopathology and his hyperawareness, not only of the Belgian Congo, but also of London and the other stations on his journey, determine the intensity of his voice, particularly as he deteriorates. Of course, it's a disintegration that also brings an ironic, vivid clarity to his ideas.
Is it daunting to become a sort of caretaker for beloved characters?
In the case of Kurtz, I'm engaged in a dialogue with the literary canon, with notions of "high" modernism, class, and vulgarity. I have too little reverence to be daunted. I'm a critic of archetypes and archetypal thinking. My role is, actually, to steal Kurtz from his traditional caretakers, to make the reader uncomfortable, but to do it in ways that are justifiable, not mere wishful thinking.