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His Shadow Book: Jordan A. Rothacker Interviewed

Jordan A. Rothacker interviewed by Chris Kelso.

Picture by Ben Rouse

I’ve known Jordan Rothacker for almost a year now. He was brought to my attention after reading a fascinating article of his in Entropy magazine. It focused on his best friend who died of a heroin overdose in 2016. Three years later Rothacker would embark on a pilgrimage of sorts, to St Louis where he would transport his friend’s ashes to the grave-site of William S. Burroughs. It was a powerful piece. Powerful enough to make me seek out Rothacker on social media. We haven’t looked back.

His novel, My Shadow Book is an example of a ‘nested novel’ that (stylistically) meets somewhere between Burroughs’ early SF-infused fragmentations and the wisened meta-charms of Alan Moore or Iain Sinclair. The premise may seem somewhat prosaic, but the cumulative patchwork is both complex and enlightening. Jordan A. Rothacker places himself at the centre as facilitator — a ‘double agent’ who stumbles across a box containing the journals of a myth-making being known as ‘Maawaam’. Rothacker succeeds in making a poignant and resonant statement about the nature of art, the prison of art, and the plight of the hostage artist. Maawaam is driven yet dour and directionless. The fact the book feels cohesive is a testament to the writer. It’s fantastic, really. Rothacker’s new book, Death of the Cyborg Oracle, is a heart-aching death note to our philosophical and spiritual future.

Rothacker currently lives in Athens, Georgia where he received an MA in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia. He also received a BA in Philosophy from Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, the state in which he was born. His essays, reviews, interviews, poetry, and fiction have been featured in such publications as The Exquisite CorpseGuernicaBomb MagazineEntropyVol. 1 BrooklynBrooklyn RailRain TaxiDead FlowersLiterary Hub, and The Believer. Rothacker is the author of the novels: The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015); And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016); My Shadow Book by Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017); and The Death of the Cyborg Oracle (Spaceboy Books, 2020); and the short story collection, Gristle: weird tales (Stalking Horse Press, 2019). 2021 will see Rothacker’s first non-fiction collection, Dead Letters: Epitaphs, Encomia, and Influence (Reprobate Books).

3:AM: Your novel, My Shadow Book, occupies a strange artistic space. You place yourself as facilitator or archivist rather than ‘writer’ — for a work so beautifully-written was it difficult losing the ‘writer’ credit and assuming one of ‘editor’? For most writers it’s unthinkable to remove the ego. It seems like a brave creative sacrifice. Are you someone truly devoted to Trocchi’s commitment of exile? Art above all else at any cost?

JAR: Well, certainly not above all else. I don’t have that deep selfishness that I’ve often worried is required to be a great artist. Or maybe it is discipline instead of selfishness I lack? This of course ties in with the construction of My Shadow Book. Through method acting it became almost a passive writing experience. And that is also why such a short book took me years to write.

3:AM: And The ego?

JAR: And as for ego, it’s still my book, so if anything, that separation of myself from the work is a failed conceit. But a fun one. But it also ties in with some of the disillusionment in the book, and which ultimately led to the creation of the book. That struggle with the emptiness or pointlessness of art. Art is a thing that is so special to me, that makes me feel so excited about life and the potential of humanity, and quite often it falls on deaf ears and artists feel like we are creating into a vacuum. I know I’m not alone in this. So, the book is to speak to that, and to reassure others who feel that way. It is the closest I’ll ever write to a self-help book, but that is what it kind of is, like a pep talk for artists and activists.

3:AM: So, if we could stay on My Shadow Book for a moment: Maawaam, while driven mad by the process, is an entity who really revels in the fantastic possibilities of achieving authentic art. I think about Michel Houellebecq saying, ‘we need a supreme antidote against all forms of realism’. Do you agree with this? Does art still have that power in a world of over-saturation and a society’s complete immersion into jouissance?

JAR: Haha, like old Uncle Bill, “Storm the reality studios!” I might share Houellebecq’s sentiment, but with an inverse of semantics. Recently, I have been picking at a manifesto of art (not that My Shadow Book isn’t its own sort of manifesto) and it’s all about extreme realism and anti-genre. There are lines like, “Everything is real. Everything matters. The role of art is to convince everyone of this;” and “Extreme naturalism includes unicorns, aliens, and gods;” and “If a book jibes with your feelings of mystery in the world, how is that not realistic?” As we in this woke 21st century global society seek to expose and lessen binary thinking genre in the arts needs to find a way to the chopping block. Particularly in the Anglo-American literary world, the obsession with keeping fiction and non-fiction clearly defined and separate needs to be cured. But I do worry of art’s power.

3:AM: With the oversaturation?

JAR: Well, yes, we are oversaturated. There is just so much. So much shit, sure. But there is also so much great stuff. What worries me most is a generation raised on the Internet that has access to all of this information and actually accesses it, but has no education, and by that I mean understanding of context. It is information that never becomes knowledge and is then doomed to never contribute to wisdom. It might be the dumbest postmodern actualization of Hassan I Sabbah’s “if nothing is true, everything is permitted”.

3:AM: Could it be that the truth is that realism is adulthood, the loss of child-like ignorance and bliss? Therefore, adulthood must be hell, or some equivalent? My younger friends love to debate the mechanistic materialism of H.P.Lovecraft. His work is accessible and appeals to their youthful fascination with the macabre. And Lovecraft was, somewhat notoriously, a man unable to transition into full godless adulthood, much like myself; a state of being congealed by a series of private inadequacies. As such, his characters tremble with the same inadequacies. But, of course, Lovecraft was a pretender, a false heir to the throne of nihilism and chaos. His theories are thoroughl inconsistent.

JAR: Doesn’t Ducasse joke about that in a letter when he is ready to let go of the Comte persona and publish his Poésies under his own name?

3:AM: You know, I’m not sure…

JAR: His second and final work is his mature, reverent one. Of course, he subverts all of that through détournement. I think that you, especially in your recent work, show a sense of maturity and certainly an open-mindedness and wisdom that has surpassed Lovecraft. He was a bit of a one-trick pony and maybe crippled by his own narrow worldview. I think the most original thing in his work — and I might be wrong, and someone else did this first — is the idea that human beliefs, myths, and fears all go back to an Ur-myth that came from outer space.

3:AM: How much is Rothacker and how much is Maawaam?

JAR: The writerly answer would be that it is a totally fictional creation, but all me, as all the characters I create come from me, out of me, and are me. But this writing process was one of method acting. I developed this character out of my own pain and frustrations and then gave him life in his own journals. When I thought thoughts that fit him, I wrote them in there. That journal — which became several journals — was always in my pocket and I wrote in it out in the world. The text itself bleeds in and back out of reality and life and the clues within it support this idea and crazy experience. References to Anna Kavan and Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” tease out the lie that Maawaam is me and that he isn’t. Also, for the narrator of the text becoming Maawaam within the book is just as much a twisted process.

I have a deep love of Jean Genet. Notice I didn’t say “Genet’s work,” or “Genet’s work and life,” because he is one of the greatest examples of an artist whose life and work is almost impossible to untwine. A journalist at The Guardian, Tim Keane, who reviewed a collection of Jean Genet’s art writing described it perfectly so I’ll quote him entirely: “Genet’s moral universe interprets reality and human actions as inherently, if subconsciously, purely performances. To him, the failure to understand the preordained aesthetic motivation within every act is the basic source of our misunderstandings about how the world works. And it is our moral failure. Art may not be redemptive, he suggests, but its primacy should be our main priority. He interpreted his whole life, even the most mundane or vile experiences, as high art”.

3:AM: You know, if we think about Lautréamont’s work, could Maldoror be described as a protagonist of Lovecraftian motivation? It is not so strange to say it — after all, Lovecraft and Lautréamont share a theodicy, a kind of inbuilt cosmicism that permeates their work.

JAR: I definitely feel connections in their work. And it is more of a feeling of something shared and you might be right about a cosmicism. However, there is a bravado and swagger to Maldoror — maybe it’s his Frenchness — that seems unthinkable for a Lovecraft character. I can’t imagine any character in Lovecraft’s oeuvre having sex with a shark. It’s such an amazing scene. Also the confidence behind Maldoror’s utterance, “Si j’existe, Je ne suis pas un autre”. It’s a coincidental reversal of Rimbaud, but such a strong assertion of selfhood and sovereignty.

Chris Kelso is is a British Fantasy Award-nominated writer, illustrator, and anthologist from Scotland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 8th, 2021.