What were Kurtz’s final thoughts? The thoughts in those papers he bestowed to Marlow — that Marlow refused to share?
BY M. BRIANNA STALLINGS
“Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
A Penny for the Old Guy”
– The epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”
“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” (published in March by Anti-Oedipus Press). 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.
Reich presents a reading, Q&A session and book signing for “Mistah Kurtz!” at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW) at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 19. For more info, call (505) 344-8139 or visit bkwrks.com/james-reich. ABQ Free Press conversed via email with Reich about “Mistah Kurtz!”, the compulsion to tell the antihero’s story and making the leap from indie author to indie publisher.
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.
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