James Reich - Giving voice to one of the most enigmatic characters in the literary canon, Reich presents meticulous and controversial solutions to the origins, mystery and messianic deterioration of Mistah Kurtz: company man, elephant man, poet, feral god

James Reich, Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness, Anti-Oedipus Press, 2016.

In Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness, James Reich discloses the contents of the papers that Kurtz entrusts to Marlow and the end of Joseph Conrad’s canonical novella. Drawing on clues left in Conrad’s account, the novel anticipates and dovetails with the arrival of Marlow at Kurtz’s ivory station in the Congo. Giving voice to one of the most enigmatic characters in the literary canon, Reich presents meticulous and controversial solutions to the origins, mystery and messianic deterioration of Mistah Kurtz: company man, elephant man, poet, feral god. Appalling rivalries, murder, fragile loyalties, doubt and desire shroud the pages of this book—part adventure, part desperate confession. Filtering the strangeness of Apocalypse Now! and historical accounts of the ivory trade, this irreverent, audacious endeavor lends meat and madness to the ghosts of the Congo, names that which had been nameless, and renders this Season in Hell in crystalline clarity.

"Mistah Kurtz! is not only satisfying because it reintroduces us to an adored classic but because it takes us so convincingly someplace new. The deceit, longing and mosquitos are so thick you’ll grip your chair and slap at your ankles. " —RAMONA AUSUBEL

 "I kept stopping to reread sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs—not because they were difficult to understand, but I couldn't believe the writing was that good. It's an incredibly well-crafted, uniquely insightful book. Mr. Reich set himself a formidable task and he accomplished it with a masterful piece of fiction.” —MALCOLM MC NEILL
"In Heart of Darkness, Marlow tells us that Kurtz's voice 'rang to the very last,' hiding 'in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart.' In Mistah Kurtz!, James Reich turns back the clock to give that eloquence fresh room, bringing to new life one of the great characters of literature by channeling Kurtz's insistent voice directly onto every inch of these fantastic pages." —MATT BELL

"James Reich writes like a demon." —MARY DEAR

Heart of Darkness is indeed a “story of a man who is looking for a man.” Marlow joins a company, enters the Congo, and looks for Kurtz, another company man, in a period now historically entitled “The Scramble for Africa” (1881-1914), during which 90% of the African continent was colonized: Belgium’s King Leopold II ruled the Congo from 1885-1908, and during this at least 8,000,000 of the estimated 16,000,000 native inhabitants died. Leopold is now remembered for his brutal mandate to cut off the hands of natives who were not productive enough; Amiri Baraka remembered this brutality in a long poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” which is remembered now, and maybe him with it, for what it countered about 9/11: “Who cut off peoples hands in the Congo / Who invented Aids / Who put the germs / In the Indians’ blankets / Who thought up ‘The Trail of Tears.’”
Heart of Darkness is perhaps a “story of a man who is looking for a man,” but it’s also a story about a man who is mansplaining the colonization of Africa to a bunch of sleeping men on a cruising yawl, 20 miles from London. That’s where Marlow sits, in the pose of a Buddha, telling his whole long tale: he had moved in the Congo towards Kurtz, a mysterious company man who had maybe gone insane, or native. Man, man, man, it’s a book about men, and Marlow says as much: “They — the women, I mean — are out of it — should be out of it.” However, Joseph Conrad, author, keeps women in (if in parenthesis) — there’s Kurtz’s “Intended,” a fiancé who pines for him back home, and the native woman who Kurtz must really be in love with. And if not in parentheses, then female inhuman — the novel is told on the back of one (Nellie is the name of that cruising yawl), and beneath that, a sea, that rocks and sways this narrative, “like a mistress.”
The women, I mean — are out of it — should be out of it — very fitting Anti-Oedipus Press (a press that has published only 1 book by a woman out of 13 titles) is a publisher of a new book, by a man, from the perspective of the man the man was looking for — Mistah Kurtz! by James Reich. This book is beyond (“au-delà l’au-delà”!) marvelous. But it’s strange. There are so many holes, enigmas, untold stories, and railroaded-potential-narrators left to potentially attend to in H of D, and to my mind, none are Kurtz: try the microscopic smear of “savages” being leveled off into death every other page, or the native woman who comes forward for Leni Riefenstahl style cameos here and there, the gesture loud and untranslated. Like Jean Rhys who in her Jane Eyre fanfic, Wide Sargasso Sea, wrote from the perspective of Bertha (Rochester’s beastly, colonized wife) maybe I’d try to find, in H of D, a story from the attic, sidelines, the masses (8,000,000 died), or even from the sea. But Kurtz? That putz!
Kurtz surely first tantalizes Marlow, who longs to be in the sway of his powerful discourse — his voice — but by the time the book is done, and Kurtz is done, dead, he’s really had enough: “Oh, yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice.” And this voice, like all of them, makes, what, a “dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense”? The horror, oh, right, them, they — men, Europe’s men, white men, Trump’s men, us — are horrible. Case solved! To shift a narration from the first white male colonizer in the book to the second is . . . uncataclysmic, but this small slide, rife with repetitions, allows Reich to expose the verdant extravagance of sentences. Fanfic often brings me, as a writer, right back into the sentence, because of this genre’s special drainage of plot, the material that has already been flexed (which is the intertextual case for everything, but fanfic exposes it beautifully). Instead the plot in Mistah Kurtz! is a kind of architecture — or series of evil, fantastically kinked displays — to furbish with sentence, sentence — and what is demanded but moment? Sentence is moment, and Reich enacts something which remains the miracle and pleasure of his book: the decadence of the sentence has to do with the material of this earth. Here’s Kurtz stepping into an elephant corpse:
Sunrise, indigo to pink — I was standing erect within the eviscerated corpse of an elephant . . . The beast I wore splayed out in one giant cadaverous robe, as I became its spine, skull and operator . . . Then, slowly, from some instinct, I pushed my hands, my forearms and then the full extent of my arms down into the tusks, until I was clad to my shoulders. As I strove to enter them, their weird marrow slopped out like blue clay.
The raw material of this earth being the obsession of Africa’s colonizers, who wanted copper, cotton, palm oil, rubber, and tin, and who wanted ivory, and slaves. Africa was this world of material, some of it sentient. Reich gives the sentient, historical material, in the mode of Conrad, who also moved his “savages” in masses of mass death; Reich moves these masses as “oil through coral,” a mass grave, “the soft wreckage of so many human beings. They resembled some orgy of trunks and rubber stopped in time, their eyes fixed, dilated, the shocked sclera turned to a dull ivory . . . Wrists without hands projected from the pile.” But the moments I remember best were without history, were their own squishy extravagance: Kurtz’s dead mom appearing in his dream “bearing her intestines across her shoulder like a pet octopus.”
Which isn’t to say Reich turns from the politic of his project. There are wise enough moments: “In the pre-colonial age, anything could be currency. The colonial age narrowed the gauge of currency — and within that was the irony that for all of this stolen flesh to become valuable, it had first of all to be rendered worthless.” And after all, it’s a book that is deeply explicit about the use of guns to dominate, and use, African people: no wonder, on this continent, in our country (Reich is British but resides here), they’re seen by some as valuable as slavery was profitable. And I wouldn’t say Reich keeps the women out of it, either. If Marlow’s narrative is told from the vessel of a female, that yawl, Kurtz’s is told to one, in a letter (an intention) to his Intended — and the native woman does come a little closer than the beach. But the intrigue of this text is Reich’s cataclysmic use of material to make the sentences pump, and it had an effect — I felt like I was walking near horror, and color, for days. The horror, the horror, of this earth, men, yes, but of color, I mean colorfulness, of the sentience of the sentence, which renders small the writer, any self. “Parrot flowers grow in champagne bottles”; “A spare uniform, unworn, hangs from a buffalo horn” — there’s decadence to this rhyme and half-rhyme, a prose a bit touched (in a way not good) — mad.
I liked those moments, yes, when the prose swam off to be with itself in its madness yes, offriver. In places that don’t count. -   

“Releasing a novel into the world is like dropping a baby from a high rise building and trusting that someone will open their window, reach out, and catch it before it hits the ground,” says James Reich, Creative Writing and Literature faculty member and author of the soon-to-be published novel, Mistah Kurtz! 
Deeming his latest work postmodern literary fiction, Reich describes Mistah Kurtz! as a prelude to Joseph Conrad’s infamous novel Heart of Darkness and adds that he is grateful to Anti-Oedipus Press for “catching” his third official novel and for slating its 2016 release.  
Heart of Darkness is such a closed book for so many people,” Reich says, considering his motives for a prequel. “We think we have all these certainties about it morally and aesthetically and I think if there’s one thing that I wanted to do it was to open the book back up. To destabilize those certainties. To stop thinking about Heart of Darkness itself as being canonically fixed.”
Reich shares that the mystery of Conrad’s main character Kurtz is the core of his investigations and fictional creations in Mistah Kurtz! His story, for example, revisits the letters Kurtz gives to Marlow at the end of Heart of Darkness and Reich utilizes first person perspective to solve the supposed madness of the famously impenetrable character.
“So it tells all the story that is implied about Kurtz in a concrete way,” Reich says. “His confession, his account of his childhood, his lies, his rise as a company man and an ivory collector, and his messianic disintegration. So where Heart of Darkness is impressionistic, [Mistah Kurtz!] is actually harder, more concrete and tries to put detail in terms of historical detail, dates and more specific places.”
A lot of the fun in writing a prelude to a well established text, Reich says, is recognizing patterns or “aligning Conrad’s mythology of Kurtz with history.” According to the author, this was done by considering historical context. Though Conrad doesn’t give specific dates and places in which the characters of Heart of Darkness were living, Reich imagines what Kurtz would be like if he had a relationship with King Leopold II of Belgium, for example, or how the Jack the Ripper murders would affect him if he were living in London. It is also an opportunity, Reich says, to explore answers to theories about Kurtz’s relationships to Conrad’s cryptic women characters, to Kurtz’s ancestry, his upbringing, his education. “All these questions that Conrad implies I have to answer to make Kurtz real,” Reich says. “To make him less of a ghost.
And his novel ends, Reich explains, in the pivotal moment where Marlow meets Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. In that way, “the two books dovetail together,” Reich says, “and you get the same ending, but from Kurtz’s perspective rather than from Marlow’s. So what is Kurtz thinking of Marlow as Marlow approaches from the river and tries to confide in him and what does he mean when he writes ‘exterminates all the brutes!’? We think we know that, but I’ve given a different, probably controversial take on it.”
And part of that take, Reich suggests, is more political, because though Kurtz’s madness is implied by the circumstances of colonialism, the reader is not privy to the historic situation. “I think Heart of Darkness is so impressionistic and obscure in some ways,” Reich says, “it’s almost possible to read it as a first contact novel, where as prior to the events of Heart of Darkness there had been European involvement. There were established trade routes and conflicts and histories that involved Europe already. Conrad tells you about absurdity and waste and suffering, but by not calling out King Leopold II, by not referring to the international situation…it is perhaps a flaw of the novel to be investigated.”

When he began writing Mistah Kurtz!, Reich admits that it read much like a nineteenth century novel. He realized, however, that Kurtz’s voice demanded access.

“I had the idea that the book would have a relatively mainstream tone, to the extent that Conrad can be considered relatively mainstream. Even thematically it pushes buttons and transgresses, but I realized the voice of this character had to be slightly decadent and sane and tortured in many ways.”

He believes, however, that the novel’s voice and style fit well into his signatory and antagonistic relationship with “the canon,” a class-based consensus of what is classic art. Because he considers himself part of the working class and theoretically excluded from that category, Reich says that whether it’s an archetype he’s attacked in his first novel I Judas or the idea of the thriller in his latest novel Bombshell, he is always looking to “interrogate and fuck with [the canon].” The writer adds that the great thing about “entering into the mythology of Conrad” is that Mistah Kurtz! is not meant to imitate classic style but to discover ways in which Heart of Darkness works as a novella.

In his research and construction of the novel, Reich also describes the similarities he found between the young rebellious writer Arthur Rimbaud of the late 1800s to Conrad’s character of Kurtz. Reich describes Rimbaud’s type as “ascendent and emerging,” and says it was interesting to him how both Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Rimbaud in real life experienced their decline in Africa. 
“All of my writing is deconstruction,” Reich says, observing once again his style and political activism in his work. “Is it regressive to raise Kurtz in the 21st century? Well, only if you believe that industrial capitalist notions of Africa have actually changed substantially. In terms of policy, civil rights in America, police brutality, for example, the attitudes of the Belgian Congo surround us.”
Reich adds that those same themes are part of his motivation for constantly challenging himself and making himself uncomfortable while writing.
“I think if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right,” Reich says. “Writing is fundamentally going to those really difficult places and exploring them. One of the things my agent said to me after he read [Mistah Kurtz!] was, ‘you realize you’re going to take a lot of shit for this.’ So I said, ‘bring it on.’” -

“All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” That sentence from Joseph Conrad’s anti-imperialism classic “Heart of Darkness” encapsulates the troublesome character of its protagonist, Kurtz.
The Great White Hope-turned-megalomaniacal demigod, Kurtz’s descent into madness has long been presented to high school English classes and in filmic adaptations set during the Vietnam War as a cautionary tale against colonialism’s taloned grip on humanity.
Aside from eking out “The horror! The horror!” to narrator Marlow as he died, what were Kurtz’s final thoughts? The thoughts in those papers he bestowed to Marlow that Marlow refused to share?
That’s the question that author, musician and scholar James Reich answers in his latest novel, “Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness”. England native Reich is co-founder of post-punk band Venus Bogardus and a contributing faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
ABQ Free Press: Your body of work focuses on the underdog, with protagonists like Judas in “I, Judas” and radical antinuclear terrorist Varyushka Cash in “Bombshell.” How does “Mistah Kurtz!” tie into this?
James Reich: I’m drawn to the antiheroic mode, courageous scumbags maybe, but all of these characters are fighting against aspects of the calcification of narrative in fiction and in our political reality, tyrannies sustained by language, as well as their own existential problems.
Writing is my method of analyzing culture. Their anger is essentially mine, but as John Lydon said, “Anger is an energy.” It’s not romanticized. Their defiance takes guts because they’re all combating extraordinary power.
Given the expansive creative legacy of “Heart of Darkness” which ranges from T.S. Eliot [“The Hollow Men”] to Francis Ford Coppola [“Apocalypse Now”] to artist Fiona Banner does it feel like you’re creating an alternate reality with “Mistah Kurtz!”?
My work was to fit Kurtz to historical, political and geographical reality while exploiting every fictional possibility. Ironically, fidelity to Conrad and to late-19th century realities creates a paradoxical surrealism in the novel while it asserts the concrete. It’s not a new or alternate reality; it simply fixates on the strangeness of Conrad’s reality and gives bones to the ghosts.
Your first two books were released by indie publisher Soft Skull, but “Mistah Kurtz!” was published by lesser-known Anti-Oedipus Press. What inspired that transition?
Anti-Oedipus has a greater commitment to more avant-garde aesthetics, and I wanted to work with the authors on their list, including major influences on my writing like Laurence Rickels and Barry Malzberg. The founder, D. Harlan Wilson, is a longstanding supporter and writer of the bizarre, the slipstream, science fiction, and experimentation.
What have you learned as an author that translates to how you run your own small press Stalking Horse?
My career as a writer, and now even as chair of creative writing and literature at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, have only reinforced my conviction: Profound art demands profound risk. I’m never more satisfied than when I can say, “That was an audacious move.” I can only hope that others feel the same way. - M. Brianna Stallings

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. 
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. - Alex De Vore

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?
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. -

Image result for James Reich, Bombshell (
James Reich, Bombshell: A Novel, Soft Skull Press, 2013.
read it at Google Books

"Somewhere between the macho-hipster fantasies of Quentin Tarantino and the banshee-activist theatrics of Pussy Riot dwells Varyushka Cash . . . Now that's entertainment." —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

Bombshell is great stuff, and James Reich writes like a demon. He invokes figures as wonderfully diverse as Valerie Solanas and Nancy Reagan’s astrologer as icons in a supremely bizarre, darkly humorous universe. Varyushka Cash is a heroine for the ages.”

“James Reich’s Bombshell delivers on every artistic level: visionary story, beautiful language and an unforgettable, emotionally resilient and iron-tough heroine, in this politically charged, indelibly smart, wild and electrifying powerhouse of a book.” —EMILY RAPP

 “I, Judas will have you clenched in a fetal position for a century, relieved only by the occasional orgasms of its mellifluous prose. You have to be strong to read this book: it rains fireballs.” —ANDREI CODRESCU

“Like Cormac McCarthy wandering a William Burroughs wasteland while blasting a riot grrrl mixtape on a scavenged Walkman!”

“Reich is a formidable writer. He brings his characters and events to life with cinematic clarity. His eye for detail makes even the familiar seem alien. Above all he gives form to the terrifying invisible nuclear air that envelopes us all. Bombshell is a cautionary tale well told, offered up by a passionate and supremely gifted new author.”

In this counterculture tale of revenge from Reich (I, Judas), Varyushka Cash, former stripper and member of a now-disbanded radical feminist gang, is dying from thyroid cancer—a result of her having been exposed as a child to fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Hell-bent on sending a powerful message about the evil of nuclear technology to the world, Cash blows up the monument that marks the Trinity bombsite, where the first atom bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert. After fleeing to her present home of Madrid, N.Mex., Cash runs into Molly Pinkerton, a misunderstood post-op transsexual who lends Cash her car. As Cash heads for the Indian Point nuclear facility in New York, Robert Dresner, a CIA agent with deep sadomasochist urges, follows in desperate pursuit. Readers won’t find much in the way of character development, and the twist that brings about the final confrontation between Dresner and Cash is unbelievable.  - Publishers Weekly

“Defiant, toothsome, and flaming with color, the voice of James Reich is one of the most exciting to emerge in recent years; he is both something new and something wholly real. If it is possible for a true underground writer to exist anymore, he is that author. Bombshell is sublime.”

So many great “Avantpop” works—Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope, Jonathan Lethem’s early genre novels, most everything by Kathy Acker—are hanging out, waiting for adventurous oddball filmmakers to adapt them, bringing delightful visions of an American wasteland to silver screens everywhere! Bombshell, a novel by James Reich, descends from this literary sensibility, and it forges the conventions of the thriller with the aesthetics of punk rock; in other words, it’s art film gold. Hell, it even has a 3-act structure already!
So, who is the perfect filmmaker for this adaptation? David Fincher seems obvious—but is that just because of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Sometimes Reich seems indebted to Stieg Larsson, and Bombshell’s version of Lisbeth Salander is Varyushka Cash, an androgynous, Valerie Solanas-obsessed riot grrrl who was born in Pripyat on the day of the Chernobyl disaster. Her mission: Destroy the nuclear pillars of American society.
She starts with the site of Trinity (or, more accurately, the tourist trap that marks its place) and then kicks ass across the country, all the way to New York’s Indian Point. Fincher would saturate all the scenes of Cash’s nighttime infiltrations in deep blacks, and he would also prove adept at delving into the novel’s paranoia about a nuclear culture gone crazy.
In scene after scene, Cash proves completely unrepentant about any innocent people she kills along the way; this is a literary tactic ripe with the potential for reader alienation. But as Reich reveals his protagonist’s back-story—she was raised by a community of female “punks” in Portland, Oregon—Cash becomes a more sensitive character; her yearning to “discover her place within” America softens her edges a bit. This sensitive handling of alternative young people smacks of Gus van Sant, so let’s add him to the list.
Of course, more directors come to mind—Cronenberg would be great with some of the more gruesome, grotesque elements—but are any of those directors women? The world of American film—even American independent film—is notoriously (and disgustingly) a community that shuts out female filmmakers. No doubt Cash would have opinions about this. Radical feminism imbues nearly every page of Bombshell. On her journey to New York, Cash intends to “reclaim the road for the female”—fair enough, but sometimes Reich’s language starts to sound like a dissertation:
“The road, being on the road, [Cash] decided, is to enter a sexualized terrain; this being a post-Beatnik pantomime of phallic reaches and torpedoes in straight lines overcoming the horizon.”
Am I supposed to find this brilliant?
Reich’s perspective on Cash is never totally clear, which often feels brave, but sometimes—like whenever the novel’s violence gets really graphic and lurid and, well, Cronenbergian—feels like a cop-out.
If Reich’s opinion of Cash is elusive, then his opinion of the novel’s other central character—Robert Dresner, a CIA agent tasked with hunting Cash—is like a giant neon sign that blinks right outside your window and keeps you up all night. Dresner experiences constant sexual fantasies, often of a deviant and/or violent nature: in one instance, he dreams of using an “expensive belt” to hang a woman so he can fuck her from behind. In his mind, every female is a “bitch.”
Reich’s intentions here are fairly obvious: The structures of government, as represented by Dresner, are more disturbing than the terrorists they hunt. But I kept waiting for Reich to surprise me in some way; instead, Dresner remains purposefully flat, like a parody of a character from Bret Easton Ellis. Whenever Bombshell focuses on Dresner, it’s disgusting. That’s not a criticism, by the way—just a fact.
Sometimes Bombshell feels a little rough—I’m not sure Reich ever gets control of his POV shifts; sometimes Cash’s path seems free of obstacles; a pretty huge coincidence powers the final act—but the novel’s velocity makes up for most of the lapses. Also, the last thirty or so pages are terrific, painting a vision of the apocalypse that is absurd, scary, and convincing; there’s some common ground here with Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape.
I liked this book a lot, though I’m sure some people will hate it. Would this bother Reich? Maybe not. He seems like a born provocateur; if Bombshell repulses some readers, Reich might feel pleased—might even feel like he accomplished his job.
So, the director of the Bombshell adaptation ought to be a woman who can tap into subcultures; handle sequences of action and violence; deconstruct an aggressively masculine psyche; examine the political and social circumstances of a country at war; and exhibit a genuine streak of daring. I think I’ve found somebody who would satisfy both James Reich and Varyushka Cash. How about Claire Denis, making her English-language debut? -                  

Bombshell, James Reich’s second novel, is an incredibly dense, rich, and well-paced novel. Within its 259 pages the reader encounters Chernobyl, feminism, terrorism, rendition, Valerie Solanas, Jane Fonda, Hiroshima, the Trinity test site, and much more. In the hands of another novelist, this sheer mass of information and references might result in a novel bloated with digressions. Luckily, Reich’s punchy, no bullshit prose style and love of action keeps the plot moving swiftly ever forward toward a seemingly inevitable, doom-filled climax that has much to say about nuclear power without ever feeling pedantic.
From New Mexico to New York, Bombshell follows Varyushka Cash on a cross-country spree of terror targeting America’s sprawling map of nuclear industry. Born in Russia’s atomic city of Pripyat at the exact moment of Chernobyl’s destructive meltdown, Cash carries with her the birth memories of the Chernobyl tragedy, as well as hazy memories of the parents who smuggled her into America and then disappeared. Though technically a “survivor” of the accident, as she nears her 25th birthday in 2011, Cash knows her body is failing from the exposure to radiation years before. As her inevitable death nears, and under the influence of Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto and her own research on America’s nuclear past and present, Cash’s at-all-costs mission seeks to singlehandedly take down the nuclear industry and alert the American people to their own country’s vulnerability and failing atomic infrastructure at the hands of their corporate masters. On her trail from the beginning to the bitter end is CIA rendition expert, sexual deviant, and all around psychopath, Robert Dresner. Dresner’s plans for a clean and easy rendition mission are constantly thwarted by Cash until a final showdown with Dresner in a evacuated and irradiated New York City turns the CIA mission into a personal vendetta.
If this sounds like a lot, it is. Add into this mix an eclectic group of supporting characters including Cash’s young, adopted mothers who raise her amidst the riotgrrrl movement of the Pacific Northwest in the 90s, and Molly Pinkerton (post-op transsexual, Vietnam veteran, and Cash’s only real friend in New Mexico), and you have the definite possibility of information overload and confusion. Yet, by deftly and quickly developing each of his characters, and never subordinating plot to characterization, Reich is able to keep the story moving forward, each new character serving as a clue to Cash’s past and personality, instead of just empty cardboard cutouts or local color. Take for example Reich’s description of Nona Laveau, young woman who surprisingly receives Cash as a baby from her fleeing parents, and Cash’s first surrogate mother:
Nona was the eldest at twenty-five. Nona told Cash about women with strange names: Sojourner Truth, bell hooks; and she introduced Cash to Wonder Woman comic strips on yellowing paper… They danced together in the disintegrating living room, kicking clots out of the carpet… “Cash, do you remember how I told you that Wonder Woman is from a tribe of powerful women called the Amazons? Her priority is truth. That’s what she cares about, exposing things to the light.”
Each character that Reich brings in to the narrative is used to reflect on his protagonist in some useful and defining way. And while each character is carefully described and differentiated physically and visually, the bulk of the characterization importantly comes from their actions and speech, making them feel like real people rather than just mouthpieces for the narrator or author. Using the characters in this way also helps Reich avoid having to spend long periods of on exposition, instead letting the characters shed light onto Cash, rather than Reich himself, and privileging the relationships between characters, again making them feel more complete.
This complex characterization also proves at times more uncomfortable for the reader than the graphic violence sprinkled throughout. As Reich constantly upends the typical roles of terrorist and terrorist hunter, the reader feels more and more sympathetic towards Cash, even as the body count rises and she gets closer and closer to her ultimate goal of releasing a nuclear disaster upon America. The novel, drafted before and published in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, seems to key in to a recent upswing in unease about nuclear power, and the myths about nuclear power being clean. Under the guise of Cash’s research into America’s nuclear plants, Reich is able to further tap into this unease by seamlessly working in little known historical instances of failures on the part of our country’s nuclear industry, no doubt quickly covered up by this same industry. By characterizing Cash not simply as a crazed terrorist or assassin, but rather as a methodical and well-thought out philosopher of sorts, Reich weaves this shocking history into the narrative and makes it seem like Cash’s polemic rather than his own.
Reich also excels at manipulating time and space in the narrative so that any point in the present moment can feel simultaneously like any other. Right from the start of the novel, as Cash crawls through the desert of New Mexico to perform her first act of terrorism, the moment feels both old and new, historic and futuristic:
April 1, 2011. Varyushka Cash crossed the red wasteland in darkness, under the radar, wires, and hexes that had been cast over the contaminated ground… she watched crystals and lambent minerals glimmering in the blood-red rocks between sparse shadowy cacti… she lay on her back staring into the black sky, analyzing the silver zodiac thrown out over this other forbidden space of the world. For minutes, she was paralyzed beneath its brittle, radioactive fur. The silence was profound.
Reich’s description here of Cash’s progress through the desert toward the Trinity test site, and her first act of terrorism, is of course vivid, but also feel strangely out of time. The emptiness of the desert and immensity of the night sky seem to suggest the desert of the past, prior to human intervention. Yet the inclusion of the wire suggests a contemporary time where man’s mark and demarcation of the world are in full effect.  The “red wasteland,” “the contaminated ground,” “the blood-red rocks” push the reader forward in time to imagine a future of apocalypse. Thus, Cash, and the reader, seem to be in three separate times at once. Furthermore, Cash’s single-mindedness of purpose, and constant birth memories of Pripyat and the Chernobyl meltdown also intrude upon whatever place she is in. At any given moment, the “forbidden space” of Chernobyl can lay itself over whatever place Cash is in, as is seen above, or when new-New York City becomes Chernobyl by the end of the book. Rather than causing confusion, this masterful strategy of Reich’s brings the reader even deeper inside Cash’s psyche, and suggests a circularity or interconnectedness to the world and its past, present, and future selves.
James Reich’s new novel stands out because, for all the loudness of its characters and subject matter, it manages to feel subtle and seamless in its execution. It’s a novel that doesn’t sacrifice politics for plot, or vice versa, and it’s a novel that will pass by too quickly and leave you wondering what in the world its author will dream up next. - Nick DePascal

Bombshell.  It is hard to imagine a more explosive title – and like nearly every word in this incendiary novel, it radiates with so many references, it is impossible not to be awed and astonished.  It has been said that James Reich doesn’t waste a word, and this could not be more true, for each word is chosen with such infinite precision and drenched with so many multiples of meaning, it is simply staggering.
In Bombshell, James gives us a riveting tale that not only mesmerises, albeit guiltily, but ends by grinding us up and spitting us out, so that by the end of the novel, we not only believe what is happening, we blame ourselves for letting it happen!  It is a cautionary tale, that both scolds and scalds us.
Like Deadman, the film by Jim Jarmush, we know from the start that our heroine is doomed.  We recognise that she is both deranged and deformed, but nevertheless the worthiness of her crazy scheme forces us to follow her and root for her up to the novel's cataclysmic ending.
Contrasted against the Blond Bombshell, Jean Harlow, our heroine wears the fragile shell of a woman, but inside she is the damaged daughter of the nuclear age – and it is she who detonates the biggest bombshell of all, the fragility of our nuclear power plants. By the excruciating end of her story, we can’t help but feel this is the beginning of the end for the rest of us. 
The novel accomplishes something else just as important.  It forces us to remember all that we have forgotten since the first atom bombs fell on Japan; forcing us to remember every demonstration, every bra burned, every lip service paid to Feminism, Peace, Love & Understanding, and the fight against nuclear power.  There is no way one can read this volatile novel without feeling complicit in our own destruction.
James succeeds by giving us an exceedingly visceral and detailed rendering of our world.  So real, so thoroughly researched, with prose so richly evocative that every word blazes with the echoes of our past failings and our future doom; we are swept up in the horror as if it was really happening now.  But the message is clear.  It could happen now and it will be bloody awful if it does.
I have one more thing to add and this might be an odd conclusion, but don’t they have a prize for offering a work such as this, one that focuses our attention in a brand new way on a complex issue? And isn’t that prize called 'The Pulitzer Prize?' James Reich deserves the highest recognition for writing such a superb novel. - Laura Dunlap

A feminist activist, born in the midst of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, initiates a series of systematic strikes against the American nuclear industry.
Set in 2011, Reich’s (I, Judas, 2011) thriller introduces the protagonist: Varyushka Cash, a 25-year-old extremist whose personal crusade against nuclear energy is fueled by punk rock, a strict adherence to feminist ideology and a disdain for symbols of masculinity. After her parents disappear in a murky series of events following the tragedy at Chernobyl, Cash is taken in by three older women who offer her a family structure that is fused with an indoctrination into feminist thought. As this loose-knit family falls into disarray, Cash forms a lesbian relationship with one of the women. After losing her partner, Cash heads to the New Mexico desert, where she reflects on her past and plans her mission. Taking a Vietnam veteran who has undergone extensive gender reassignment surgery as her only friend, Cash uses rural New Mexico as her home base for beginning to target nuclear sites and the high-powered executives driving the nuclear industry. In the process, she begins a cross-country spree of violence that takes her simultaneously into an imagined past and an unforeseen future. Along the way, Cash is pursued by an amoral CIA hit squad led by an unflinching, and somewhat one-dimensional, veteran of covert affairs who represents the paradigm of masculine forcefulness.
The feminist heroine is a fresh twist on the thriller genre, but the story doesn't deliver much excitement. - Kirkus

Frank Browning: James Reich: Bomblasting Through the Age of Nuclear Folly

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James Reich, I, Judas, Soft Skull Press, 2011.
read it at Google Books

Judas Iscariot is the historical symbol of betrayal. But what really happened at the Garden of Gethsemane? What really compelled Judas to hang himself from a tree? Surreal and provocative, and featuring a cast of displaced characters from Bob Dylan to Norman Mailer and JFK,  I, Judas explores Judas’s orchestration of the elaborate con of the divinity of Jesus Christ, subverting the legend of Judas as he inhabits some of our most notorious literary and historic figures in their darkest hours. Custer, Sexton, Van Gogh: These famous suicides converge through the figure of Judas in a cutting-edge piece of fiction that exposes the dangers of seeking universal truths in myth.

“This one’ll have you clenched in a fetal position for a century, relieved only by the occasional orgasms of its mellifluous prose. You have to be strong to read this book: it rains fireballs.” —Andrei Codrescu

“Reading I, Judas, I found myself often provoked, occasionally disgusted or even enraged, and always riveted. It’s not often that a book or a writer not only confounds my expectations, but makes me question a set of assumptions I didn’t even know I held.” —Julie Powell, author of Julie and Julia
Reich proves to be a thoughtful and meticulous provocateur – a much-needed voice in contemporary fiction. In I, Judas, there is a delicious lawlessness of prose, a revolt against conventional language and storytelling. Some may take offense to his insinuations; but isn’t that often the case with great fiction? Pasatiempo Magazine, New Mexican

“James Reich is a sensible product of 20th century literature, Faulkner, Joyce, Cortazar, Ginsberg, Dylan, — and film maker Kenneth Anger…Best is his surprising ability to strike home continually with an exalted, consummate phrase, paragraph, even a word…a fascinating thinker…a genuine writer.” – Charley Dunlap

“Buy a copy of James Reich’s novel I, Judas. Walk alongside Judas and Jesus, taste the wine, smell the whores, slip the noose over your head, witness the fear, self loathing and betrayal. Then… abandon all hope… of putting it down until you’ve finished reading it.” – Dirt City Chronicles

As Taliban fundamentalists dynamited the Bamiyan Buddhas, with this book Reich blows up the Gospels…Yeats’ Second Coming is so optimistic in comparison. Reich writes beautifully… a gruesome enchantment…a new and personal understanding of that old-fashioned word blasphemous…iconoclastic and brutal prose poetry. – The Historical Novel Review

*Book of the Week* With exquisite prose  James Reich delivers a rich and provocative cultural elucidation as he poetically unfolds the relationship of Jesus and Judas across millenniums. – Bold Type Magazine

With the claustrophobic air of a mosh pit, Reich's experimental debut novel tells the story of Judas and his betrayal of Jesus Christ, with Judas narrating from his current seat in Dante's Hell. Reich skewers Christian orthodoxy (Judas rapes Mary Magdalene), and folds altered Biblical scenes into 19th and 20th century events, including Custer's last stand and JFK's autopsy. In the novel's surrealist non-chronology, historical characters segue into personalities familiar from the present—Herod's daughter becomes a punk-rock-loving teenager abused by her father. The organizing principle seems to be decadence, namely its fascination with death and suicide, which Reich uses as a lazy excuse to make literary and historical allusions which include John the Baptist, Sylvia Plath, and Bob Dylan. Dense with adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors that make little sense, the prose strains for an edgy feel: "With my hair in copper coils, my skull is the pornography of electricians, my features indistinct as stone in slow weather." Though clearly intended as a dark account about the death drive, moments of painful earnestness ("We are intoxicated by symbolic structures.") cause the novel to veer into self-parody. Despite its pretentiousness, it may appeal to disaffected youths between the ages of 13 and 17 who feel that the world just doesn't understand. - Publishers Weekly

James Reich is the author of two previous novels Bombshell (2013) and I, Judas (2011) published by Soft Skull Press. He is a member of PEN American Center and the International Association of Crime Writers: North America. Reich is a regular contributor to Bold Type Magazine, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Sensitive Skin, International Times, LitroNY, The Weeklings, Headzine, Sleeping Fish, and others. Since 2011, he has been a Creative Writing and Literature faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. He is also a founding member of the band Venus Bogardus (“Literate post-punk” The Wire; “World class” BBC Radio) with vinyl and CD releases on independent record labels in the US and UK. Reich was born in England in 1971 and has been a resident of the US since 2009. He is represented by Lippincott, Massie, McQuilkin literary agents. Visit him online at www.jamesreichbooks.com.