Jordan A. Rothacker’s The Pit, And No Other Stories

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Jordan A. Rothacker’s The Pit, And No Other Stories

by Melissa Ximena Golebiowski

“The Pit is a journey in itself, a ride with flashes of life and an ending in a place, in a world, you didn’t quite anticipate.”

Rothacker opens his novella with a vivid image of a small community in which all inhabitants eventually are hurled into, well, a pit. Just as the title suggests, the Pit is our central location. In a town, aptly named Pittsville, our narrator who remains as mysterious as the Pit itself has ventured down below in search of a watch promised to him by his grandfather upon his deathbed. The first chapter pulls the reader into a world where the inevitable is a focal point, and hints at it as something to strive towards. This is not a world of traditional burials and ash scattering; once someone has expired they are given to the Pit in a funereal fashion. After the narrator witnesses his grandfather “going over” with this promised watch still secured to his cold wrist, he sneaks out to see just how far he can reach to get back what was meant for him. As soon as he falls in, Rothacker changes the channel.

We land in 1959 New York City, inside the office of a private investigator in conversation with a potential client who has no more information on his target than a nickname, The Speckled Hen. Not only have the time and place transformed, the way of talking and character’s tones are completely new. There is a hardboiled feeling added to the plot–yet a dark curiosity felt with our first character remains within this American Noir portion of the novella. This curiosity, along with the Pit, continues to rise, fall, and rebuild itself throughout the remainder of the novella.

From the P.I.’s office, we are taken on a wild ride through rainy Shanghai in 1945, fast forward to a Hollywood in 1982, drop down to Chicago in 1956, eventually falling further back in time to 1812 West Africa. There is a natural attempt to piece together the characters encountered in these various time periods and locations but Rothacker turns the corner so rapidly that the threads seem to unravel quicker than they’re sewn. This isn’t a jab at Rothacker as his chapters are packed with enough life to quickly settle you into your new environment. He’s done the research and taken the time to carefully craft the people we experience within a limited space. Many of the voices we find in The Pit are as varied as the stories we find them in. There are moments of West African Islamic Law, Mao’s takeover, and UFO sightings. Some characters return while others make a single yet impactful appearance such as an American Indian grandmother from 180 BC who begins a journey from which she may not return. However, everyone we encounter eventually meets a very similar fate that is difficult to ignore.

The Pit is an existential take on the after-life, the talk of where we go afterwards except modeled by an almost tangible place. The Pit, And No Other Stories is exactly what is presents itself as, it may seem at first as if the first six chapters serve as seven different stories all beginning with our unnamed character who falls into the Pit accidently, but slowly they begin to intertwine and unwind until we realize that there is indeed, only one story here. It is a novella full of histories and ideas. It is a story about the trials and obstacles that fall into our path as we desperately try to unearth the genius within something we deeply care for.

The Pit is a journey in it self, a ride with flashes of life and an ending in a place, in a world, you didn’t anticipate but because of Rothacker’s craftsmanship, you find yourself wholeheartedly accepting.

An Interview With Jordan Rothacker:

M: The Pit, And No Other Stories is just that, what a brilliant title, it takes place within many time periods and places, with a variety of voices. When did you stumble upon this idea? Did you fear for your reader? (Meaning, because there were so many sub plots though they all tied into a bigger portrait…)

J: Thank you. I worry that the title is cumbersome, especially when people ask, “So you wrote a novel, what’s it called?” and I tell them and then they ask, “Is it a story collection?” and I say, “No, it’s a novel. It’s The Pit, and No Other Stories.” I occasionally feared for my reader, but ultimately I trust my reader. Due to television shows like Lost or really so much in film and television and literature, people handle far more non-linear narrative than they realize. And of course it’s linear when it comes down to it. You start at the beginning of the book or film and you read and watch to the end, a straight line. William S. Burroughs used to talk about, in the 50’s and 60’s, how literature was behind visual mediums, but ultimately it is the way humans naturally tell stories, we jump all over the place, we digress, we give flashbacks and even flash forwards as we hint to the punch line of the story before we get there. In some ways I see The Pit as a more accessible or dumbed-down version of what Burroughs has done in so many novels in regards to form or what Italo Calvino had a good time playing with.

M: I’ve studied many religions myself though not to your degree or level. What influence would you say your M.A. in Religion had on this novel? What about the ideas of death within the religions you’ve studied?

J: The first novel I wrote, about ten years ago, is very much a religious novel. I actually took on the M.A. in Religion as research for the book (which is set in Atlanta and the reason why I did the MA in Georgia) and my M.A. thesis was comprised of two chapters from the book followed by an exegesis and annotations. I specialized in religion and literature in my coursework. It’s a discipline mostly coming out of Chicago and it is often said to begin with a text like The Heart of Darkness. Horror and horror in the face of the Modern is explored in this study. I also got into post-colonial studies and now combine that with romanticism in my PhD work and dissertation. Both Romanticism and Post-Colonialism are a reaction to the Enlightenment in their own ways. They seek to return a voice—and power—to those marginalized by the Enlightenment Project, so that includes the feminine, the indigenous, the non-white, the pagan, and often merely the religious, for religions are irrational, like the arts. All the “Others” of the often male, rational, white, Euro-American “Self.” While writing The Pit these thoughts certainly got in there. I thought about Burroughs a lot as I wrote this book and I often think of him in a religious context, as a mythmaker like Borges, Faulkner, Danilo Kis, and Amos Tutuola, like Hesiod, or Snorri Sturluson who wrote the Eddas. The Pit for me is a roundup of how I see different American myths. As far as a religious connection with death, I mean, it’s right there in the first chapter, The Pit is a funereal site. This weird small town gothic setting has a secret from the outside world that involves how it handles death. There is a lot of death and religion in the book, come to think of it. I think you’re on to something…

M: Reading through the novel, I couldn’t help but feel similarities within other greats that I’ve read, particularly Slaughter House Five by Vonnegut. Was this an inspiration for you? What other inspirations did you have writing this?

J: I hadn’t thought of that Vonnegut book, but without giving anything away for someone who hasn’t read The Pit yet, I can kind of see it in the “outside of time” stuff. I do like that book though; I re-read it a few years ago on the plane over on a visit to Dresden. It certainly enhanced my Dresden trip. As for other inspirations, I got to meet Margret Atwood at a reading a few years ago and I was so giddy, she’s so great. One of her books that had a great effect on me I read back when I was like 19. It was a slim collection called, Murder in the Dark. It was the perfect book for that age, too. It showed me how ok it was to break down form in a really interesting way and how much can be done with so little space. The Pit was about me returning to that youthful excitement of playing with form. For some reason in my twenties I couldn’t feel legit without writing a long naturalistic novel. That novel has yet to be published, but direct inspirations for The Pit would be Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler.
Romanticism and Post-Colonialism are a reaction to the Enlightenment in their own ways. They seek to return a voice—and power—to those marginalized by the Enlightenment Project, so that includes the feminine, the indigenous, the non-white, the pagan, and often merely the religious, for religions are irrational, like the arts. All the “Others” of the often male, rational, white, Euro-American “Self.” While writing The Pit these thoughts certainly got in there.

M: What about some subconscious inspirations, who are your favorite writers?

J: That’s always a tough question, but I guess it’s a bit easier than asking what my favorite book is. For that question I’d give you a list of books, most likely categorized. Of living writers I have a deep love and appreciation for William T. Vollmann. His brilliance, breadth, and proficiency is really seen in an artist, as well as the heart and social conscience he brings to his work. Reading him makes me a better writer, thinker, and person. Some times I say he is our Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wrapped up in one.  He is one of the great living American writers and for skill and importance I put him up with Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon of our country today. As far as other favorites go, Maggie Nelson is brilliant and the way her mind is able to harness great thoughts and deliver them with such style gets me really excited. I really love Steve Erickson and look forward to a new book from him next year and Cesar Aira blows me away. Writers of the past who get me super excited—just the first few that spring to mind—are William S. Burroughs, Anna Akhmatova, Hesiod, Ovid,  Ousmane Sembene, Frantz Fanon.

M: This novel really ignites existential thought, not only through the construction but the ideas presented, ideas many people avoid. I found myself, while reading the novel, constantly thinking and venturing into deeper places. Was this the intention you wanted for your reader? Or did you envision the reader at all?

J: I love that you read it as existential. I mean I finished it after really loving what a perfect creation the first season of True Detective was. That show brought me back to reading Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, E.M. Cioran, as well as the Ligotti and Chapman that inspired it; and Vollmann had just published his gothic masterpiece, Last Stories and Other Stories. Delving into that infectious darkness, letting the pessimism wash all over you can be an engaging journey. I have to live in the world and get up every day and experience the joy and beauty of life and the people I love, but I never stop thinking about how humans are the worst species, that ultimately we are doomed. People love going to these places, the fantasy of darkness, horror movies, and literature. The arts let us tour these dark places. That’s why I think of this as an entertainment or a jive book. I’m glad it made you think and I hope it makes others think and value life in regards to death, but there are a lot of people in this world, this country and abroad, who don’t have the luxury of dabbling in darkness because they live some pretty awful situations. There’s one book that I read last year, which still haunts me deeply entitled The Corpse Exhibition, by Hassan Blasim. He is an Iraqi who now lives in Finland. The book is a collection of stories all set in contemporary war-torn Iraq. They are masterful and horrific, sometimes even surreal, and very hard to characterize. I’ve called them “war-zone gothic” for lack of a better term. Though the stories are macabre and might feel like horror writing, the thing that hits you the hardest is to know that they are based in an awful, awful reality that is part of daily life for so many people.

M: Where does death come into all of this? Does it? You seem to bring a metaphorical sense of death and sit it next to concrete examples.

J: The pit of the title is a funereal site for many who encounter it in the book. For others it involves new life in a weird way—but I’ll give no spoilers. There is a real cyclicality about life and death that flows through this book. It’s hard for me to imagine this giant deep Pit that is described in the first chapter without thinking of Ouroboros. That ancient Greek symbol loved by alchemists. It is the “tail-eater” and like many great serpents of myth—the Midgard serpent comes to mind—it is often associated with beginnings and ends. So, it is all about death but also new life, kind of how the Death card in the tarot just represents change. In some ways, and I don’t want to give too much away, but it seems like, in the book, that inside the Pit is a sort of liminal space, or a bardo, as mentioned in some Buddhist teachings. A between life and death, a place of becoming and potency, the place where the shaman or the artist goes in their practice. Hemingway was asked once what he thought about death, and he replied that it was “just another whore.” Maybe in The Pit it’s “just another trope” or “just another metaphor.”

M: You bring life to characters from many different walks of life (Black Muslims, American Indians, Chinese, even a man who sees a UFO), what sort of research was involved with this?

J: That’s the fun of a book like this and the restrictions I had upon myself: each section and plot line involved its own problem solving. Some sections required research by studying maps, digging through histories and chronologies, and some sections were just pure imagination pouring forth. I’ve taught an African Diaspora Literature class at UGA I think 20 different times over six years and yet still I went in to telling my own original slave narrative from a cautiously researched place. The device of that narrative voice in those sections worked out pretty well.

M: Why did you choose the particular backgrounds and stories you chose?

J: The whole book began for me with that first story and writing it to try my hand at this American trope of the small town gothic, a Shirley Jackson or even Mark Twain type thing. And then it became for me all about exploring all the different American tropes I like, the detective noir, the sc-fi, the southern slave narrative, a nautical/pirate story, Native American folklore, a desert roadtrip, aliens sightings over a cornfield, the tragic Hollywood fall of an actor, and even corporate business. Some are, of course, more serious than others and I spent the most labor and worry over the Native American and the African American slave portions.

M: I took note of some sentences that stood out to me, would you mind elaborating or explaining your thought behind two of them for fun?

J: Sure!

M: “With his father gone, Quentin stopped even pretending to hide how free Amadou really was, or how integral he was to the business… The African-American experience is the most important lens by which to understand America itself.” I was really intrigued by this.

J: In Steve Erickson’s last novel, These Dreams of You, a great book about race in America—so good that I even taught it despite the fact that he is white—he mentions that the American Dream belongs most to the African-American because it was betrayed for them (their ancestors) en route and yet they have stayed for generations and made America home despite the betrayal.

M: “I watched the black bile sparkle and pour from my mouth like stars from a pitcher in the sky… But to her my front was an appetizer. And she was the most frightening and real woman I’d ever met.” The imagery in of a pitcher filled with stars is very poetic.

J: That image just came to me; I think I was picturing something astrological, like a medieval drawing of Aquarius maybe. I guess I also pictured how activated charcoal would look if one were to vomit it. I’ve never tried ayahuasca actually.
The Pit, And No Other Stories is out now from Black Hill Press. You can grab your copy here.

***

Jordan A. Rothacker is a novelist, poet, and journalist who resides in Athens, Georgia. He received his MA in Religion from the University of Georgia and is currently a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature. His dissertation-in-progress is titled On Cultural Guerrilla Warfare: Art As Action. Rothacker’s journalism can be found in the pages of magazines as diverse as Vegetarian Times and International Wristwatch and his fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in such periodicals as The Exquisite Corpse, Mayday, Curbside Splendor, Red River Review, As It Ought To Be, Dark Matter, and Dead Flowers: A Poetry Rag. He was also a contributor to William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, which published this past December. Three of his favorite things to talk about are sandwiches, indigenous land rights, and his cat, Whiskey.

Melissa Ximena Golebiowski is a writer and literary marketer based in New York City. Her poetry was most recently published in Noah Literary Magazine. She is currently at work on a novel. @MelissaXimena

Black Hill Press is a publishing collective of a growing family of writers and artists dedicated to the novella—a distinctive literary form that offers the focus of a short story and the scope of a novel. Their independent press produces uniquely curated collections of Contemporary American Novellas.

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: JACKIE TREIBER

Jackie Trieber


from ‘A DANCER’
By Jackie Treiber


And from eternal life found in the eyes came the truth: she was one witch. She was from Atzlan. Of Avar, wore the bridal relic, sat at the heels of mother fire. Mary A. of Massachusetts, little unclear Mary. Celine of Normandy, sick on milk. Joan of Arc. Strega. Lost in the woods in her red shoes. Caught in the rain at the base of a mountain. No survivor of death, survivor of transcendence. Torched, entombed, excised. Acrid climate, cupidity, war, drought. In lieu of an oral lineage, in lieu of explanations, there came the gift of death to her. When death was collective, she was anonymous. When death became individual, she died with little handfuls of dirt on her chest, thrown with purpose and care. Her conclusion was more than physical death now, and her body nothing more than a reed carved to sing its masterful song. This is why she stood resolute—she had known a thousand floods of death. This, out of all of them, was nothing.


Today’s excerpt appears here with permission from the author.


Jackie Treiber writes, reads and edits in Portland, Oregon. She is drawn to conflicted and damaged characters. Dualities such as profane/magical, masculine/feminine and stability/chaos thrill and inspire her. Her poems will be published in an anthology of Kansas City poets in Spring 2015 (UnHoly Day Press). Her most recent work was featured in Smalldoggies Reading Series Chapbook (2011).

Editor’s Note: Today’s excerpt is part of a larger work of fiction, though it stands on its own as a poem, blurring the line between prose and prose poetry. From within its almost choral narration (despite its third person narrative perspective) emerges one woman who is also every woman. She is a witch, a bride, Joan of Arc. She is our collective suffering, our recurring death. And yet her story is epiphanous. Because she has suffered, she knows that she can rise above. She has lived—and died—often enough to know that death is nothing more than metamorphosis.

Want to read more by Jackie Treiber?
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How Do We Look?
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Book Review: The End of the Circle, by Walter Cummins

BOOK REVIEW by DUFF BRENNA

Walter Cummins has published more than one hundred short stories in venues such as Kansas Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, Confrontation and many, many other journals and magazines. His fourth collection of stories, The End of the Circle, takes place on the run, so to speak, in various places like America and London and Venice and Leiden, the Swiss Alps and Paris and other locations in Europe.

“Oxfords” dips into the lives of Stuart and Winnie and baby Tink; Elaine and Henry and baby Joy. Stuart and Winnie live in Oxford, a tiny farm town in America. They are prosperous and have a very comfortable home. Stuart has a large library that Henry envies. Both Stuart and Henry work at a nearby university, but Stuart is not a teacher. He’s a renowned scholar. A renowned scholar doesn’t need to teach; he does renowned scholar stuff. These contrasting personalities, especially Stuart and Henry, find very little in common. Their wives have babies, Tink and Joy, to help them connect, but Elaine and Winnie would never have formed a friendship otherwise. It’s what the story is about ultimately—connections, how vague and formless and happenstance they are, even those connections between parents and children.  This unlikely foursome never really coalesces. The men are awkward together, having only Stuart’s work to talk about (because he wants to talk, not listen), work which Henry finds only mildly interesting. What Henry notices more than anything other than the renowned scholar’s library is that Stuart can’t stand his son Tink, seems to hate him, actually. We find out the boy was an “accident.”

One day Henry and Stuart are talking and the thread of the conversation leads Henry to think that Stuart is going to explain his aversion to Tink. But instead of an explanation, Stuart wants to discuss Tristram Shandy, and Henry, trying to follow Stuart’s elaborate thesis, ends up “uncertain whether he was in the presence of genius or a bizarre form of madness.” The upshot of Stuart’s problem with his son? He’s a noisy kid, a distraction.  A magnificent mind needs quiet in order to work well. Stuart can’t have a screamer around the house. Too disturbing. Too bothersome. Ultimately, scholarship wins and Stuart leaves Winnie and Tink.

Later, after tragedy strikes Henry and Elaine, the story shifts 20 years into the future and a coincidental meeting in England. A grant has taken Henry to Oxford University. He runs into Stuart who is there doing research. But there’s a large problem for the renowned scholar who needs quiet. His son Tink is there too. Tink is searching for his daddy, who vehemently does not want to be found.

The second story in the collection, “Baggage,” might have been called “The Irritable Traveler.” Or maybe “The Rotten No Good Bastard.” His name is Howard. He’s on a train going from France to Italy. He’s packed into a compartment with five other people of various nationalities. They’re all kind to each other, affable, accommodating; all that is except Howard who decides (capriciously) that he doesn’t like any of his fellow passengers and will not speak for the entire trip no matter what language they use to communicate with him. An old woman in the compartment drops her passport accidently. Howard knows where it is, but he won’t tell her. Let her fret. To hell with her. The passport is found by one of the other passengers and given back to the fretful woman. But Howard’s baggage is on a rack over her head. He sees it is going to fall on her if he doesn’t do something. It is a moment wherein Howard can redeem himself and also spare the old lady from serious harm. Do it, Howard. Come on, man move. You could call this one a cliff-hanger to the last page.

“The Happy Frenchmen” is a story about funny doings. Man. Woman. Love affairs. Let’s get away from it all, darling, away from your wife, away from our colleagues who might rat us out. Let’s go to Italy and call the trip our honeymoon. Sex, good food, wine. And sex and sex, yes lots and lots. Grand idea. Except fate steps in and the couple suddenly have to deal with the man’s dislocated sacroiliac. Sex? What man can have sex when he can hardly get out of bed or dress himself or move other than in a crimped crab sort of way? He’ll find things he doesn’t want to know about his new lover. She’ll be enlightened as well. And there’s that pesky wife waiting back in the States. This story isn’t a belly laugh, but it’s full of irony and knowing chuckles and wise insights into the nature of “lovers” like these two. “Awful Advice,” “Poaching,” and “The End of the Circle” come at the same theme of illicit love in various ways.  All three narratives are little gems and perhaps the most haunting stories in the book.

Other treasures include “Stef,” “What Eamon Did,” “The Beauties of Paris,” and “Missing Venice.” Stef shows us a father visiting his estranged daughter in London. She has a new baby and she’s not married. Her flat is a rundown disgrace. The father has married a younger woman and he doesn’t want to tell her about Stef, but he also wants somehow to connect with his daughter. He is clumsy and awkward. He tells Stef that her baby looks well-behaved. Rapidly, caustically Stef says, “You’ve only seen her for ten seconds.” He asks if the baby gives her problems. With obvious annoyance Stef replies, “She’s a baby, isn’t she.” Then this telling exchange:

“I only meant that some are easier than others.”

“So are some parents.”

And therein hangs a tale of parents and children and everyone going their own way, cutting themselves off from their blood ties and finding how impossible it is to backtrack or start a relationship over. Too many mistakes, heartaches, failures, lapses in caring that turn things so sour nothing can sweeten even an hour when you haven’t been around for years, Daddy. But surprisingly this story concludes on an encouraging note, an ending suggestive of the hopeful possibilities it uncovers.

Carter in “What Eamon Did” is a loner. He saves just enough money at teaching each year to set out for the countryside, living in the woods sometimes, or renting a room when the weather turns bad and he has to. When he stops at a pub for a drink one day some musicians show up to entertain the patrons. One musician who plays a pipe aggressively taunts a man in the audience named Eamon. There is obviously bad blood between them. Carter wants to know what in the world the problem between the two men is. He tries in various ways to find out. By the end of the evening the piper has provoked a fight, not with Eamon, but with Eamon’s overwrought wife. A fight because of something Eamon did, “some crime or sin or stupid error.” Carter knows that the people in town won’t ever let the man forget, not for as long as he lives.

In “The Beauties of Paris” we have another father estranged from his daughter. Her name is Ariel. She has nursed her mother through to a painful death and it is obvious that she, Ariel, is still deeply grieving and angry and emotionally exhausted. The father wants to distract her from her grief by showing her the beauties of Paris. Like the father in “Stef,” he also wants to connect. In an odd way a tentative connection happens when he gets them both lost at night in the middle of a Parisian riot.

“Missing Venice” has David and his son Donny on a train to Venice. David is divorced from Donny’s mother. The fourteen-year-old brat has been making trouble for her. She has remarried and is having another baby and she wants Donny out of her hair, so she guilts David into taking his son on a trip that was originally planned for David and his new wife Virginia.

David and sullen, pissed off Donny meet Maria, a homely woman who doesn’t know when to shut up. She barrages the father and son with her knowledge about Italy and the places the train is passing through. When the three of them reach Venice they can’t find a place to stay, so they end up searching for lodging, wandering the city at night with their cumbersome luggage. It’s very late and very dark and Maria is in an alley crying, David trying to comfort her, Donny standing by angry and bitter at the whole stupid world. When two women and a man they had seen earlier show up and start beating David and Maria, “This is death,” David believes. The sensation of “an absolute emptiness” shudders through him. But finally Donny has somewhere to put his anger. And he does. The result creates one of the most satisfying endings in the entire book.

All of the stories in this latest Cummins’ collection tell us how difficult it is for human beings to really know one another—to really connect—and how unpredictable our futures are. With subtle symbols (trains, unknown streets, crumbling towers to nowhere, dark alleys, claustrophobic hotel rooms) and character insights that only the finest writers have at their command, Cummins reveals another fact over and over: nothing turns out the way you think it will, so don’t create scenarios for your tomorrows. Don’t make inflexible plans, dear traveler—unless you want to hear God laugh.


Duff Brenna is the author of the novels Too Cool (a New York Times Notable Book), The Altar of the Body, and The Book of Mamie (an AWP Best Novel selection).