D. Foy on the Violence We Channel From One Generation to the Next
In Conversation with Michele Filgate on his New Novel Patricide
To sum up what Patricide (Stalking Horse Press) by D. Foy is about seems superficial. You could say it’s a book about Rice, who grows up in an abusive household, survives and stumbles (quite a bit) along his way to adulthood, and ultimately finds some redemption in his life. You could also say it’s a book about patriarchy and its fallout. But mere explication of the plot of this novel doesn’t do justice to the experience of reading it. It’s a gorgeous, revelatory story told in dizzying prose that circles around the reader with the force of a tornado. Tornados, as it turns out, are instrumental in the structure of Patricide.
Foy is also the author of Made to Break (Two Dollar Radio), a novel that the writer Adam Wilson compares to Celine, William S. Burroughs, and Denis Johnson. I recently interviewed him over email about his writing process, a genre he invented called Gutter Opera, and whether memory is muse, oppressor, or a bit of both.
Michele Filgate: I want to talk about the structure of this novel. You jump around, chronologically, within each chapter. How did you settle on the best way to tell this story?
D. Foy: The relationship between Patricide’s content and structure seemed to me a magic trick. A lot’s been said about the benefits and detriments of form reflecting content, and there are arguments that support both, but here the benefits far outweighed the detriments, in the sense that the book’s structure enabled me to close the gap between both form and content and medium and message. As much as possible, the two are interchangeable. The form isthe content, the content the form—the medium isthe message, and the message the medium.
What, then, is the form, what the medium? A tornado. But this tornado isn’t for its own sake but for what it expresses and destroys, which is patriarchy itself. I’ve been talking about these things elsewhere—people are curious about the book’s structure, apparently—but one of the things I haven’t addressed explicitly is how uncanny it is for me to see the relevance of the book to our present disastrous moment, sprung by the annihilating powers of our various fathers, first, but even more so by the thing that makes them, the patriarchy, which is to say The Father. This synchronicity was an unintentional benefit. I wasn’t concerned with the zeitgeist while I was writing, not remotely.
And yet here we are now, confronted with a villain like Donald Trump with all his minions. Everything he and men like him represent is the distilled incarnation of The Father, whose ideology is as ancient as dust—the ideology of power, and nothing more or less. And the physics of power, when you study it, is, like the book’s structure, also a tornado, or, in other words, a vortex.
Do you know the painting “Angelus Novus” by Paul Klee? It features an angel whose bearing Walter Benjamin said must be that of what he calls the “Angel of History.” Where most people see history as an endless string of unrelated moments, Benjamin says, the Angel of History sees a single protracted catastrophe, a wake of destruction it’s helpless to repair or even to touch but only ever to witness, wreaked by the ongoing storm we unwittingly call “progress.” I remember how I clamored when I read that. I’d never had such a trope in mind, yet I’d always been convinced, and still am, that “progress” is actually a terrible storm, and that the notion of it is therefore a euphemism of unparalleled deceit, created by the patriarchy and for the patriarchy, and foisted upon us masses to legitimize its ongoing atrocities. It’s the same argument we’ve seen from the latter part of the 20th century till now, really, where the Powers That Be, for example, use democracy to mask the face of greed that drives the wars It prosecutes, from those on the bodies of black people to those against any nation holding what greed tells the Powers It must have.
There’s a lot more to be said about this stuff, but you get the point. We’re witnessing all of these things as we speak, yet another phase of this ongoing, catastrophic storm. Donald Trump isn’t the source of this catastrophe, either, but only its symptom. He’s a malevolent father produced by an increasingly malevolent Father, a patriarchy in the form of rapacious corporations, conniving financiers, and venal government institutions that have been pillaging its victims outright, raping and assaulting our women, destroying our environment, stealing our money, killing and imprisoning our people of color, debasing our immigrants, oppressing our lesbians and gays, and so on and so forth, ad infinauseum. Is it any wonder that vast swathes of our country support Donald Trump and his ilk after having suffered the famine that The Father’s pillaging has brought to them? They’re right to be angry and hurt. It’s just that in their blindness and pain, they’ve misdirected their animosity.
It should be no wonder, either, that a figure like Trump would appear at this time, committing the crimes of The Father on a lesser though equally malevolent scale—raping his victims, both figuratively and, by his own words and all available testimony, literally, as well. Nor should we wonder that his base is almost entirely white men who believe everyone else is trying to take what they’ve got. And certainly, too, after hearing Trump brag about his sexually harassing women, and after the litany of the rest of his crimes, it stands to reason that women are coming forth in droves to denounce not just him but all of the men who’ve harmed them, in whatever form of abuse. But what women are really denouncing, fully justifiably, is patriarchy—The Father. The fury is very real. Recent statistics, for instance, show that if only women were to vote, Trump would lose catastrophically.
So, yes, Patricide is about a father and a son and the violence and abuse that gets passed through generations like blue eyes and red hair, but it’s also very much about these other things. These other things, in fact, are both the cause and effect of this violence and abuse in the nuclear family. All of this—our morals, our laws, our customs, our codes—is a storm in whose midst our societies have been suffering for millennia.
MF: For a book that’s about the sort of inherited violence, cycles of abuse, mental health, and addiction that you mention, there’s also an earned beauty on the page. I love the incantatory sentences. Reading it felt like a prayer of desperation and a celebration of despondency. But there’s hope and redemption too. How did you strike that balance?
DF: I’m so glad you recognize the balance. My greatest fear about the book has been just this—that readers wouldn’t see its light for the darkness around it. Without the balance between hope and despair, I could only have dropped on the world another lump of the afterbirth of potential, and who needs that?
The balance between these is as important as the balance between the book’s message and medium. A whole lot of my life has been about imbalance, about continuous intolerable excess or relentless deprivation, not merely in the physical sense but in the psychological, emotional, and spiritual senses, too. My path to manhood was excruciatingly long. And by man I don’t mean “human of power” but “person of honor and reason accountable for his actions.”
At the risk of sounding maudlin, if I had to choose the most important lesson I’ve learned along the way, I’d say it’s that life is not many things but just one thing, a continuum of activity and perception whose basis isn’t hatred and fear but harmony and love. Desperation and despondency are a sort of filth, like smog, maybe, that poison and obscure this harmony. But when we wipe it all away, what’s left is a world full of people doing their best to get along, awho want nothing more than to love and be loved. Once we know this, compassion comes more easily than it might have before.
For me, it’s impossible to create something of meaning without this compassion. Without it, I’m simply shedding emotional dross. With it, I can go into the darkest cave without a torch because I know that I myself am the light I need to see. If when I’m being honest in my work I sense that I’ve made something absent compassion, either I fix it or throw it away. I love all of the people in my work, whoever they are. Ugly is relative, and the prettiest one isn’t always the most beautiful one.
MF: The mother is abusive towards the main character, but the father is complicit in the abuse and violent at times, himself. Who is worse, in your opinion? And who was the hardest character to embody on the page?
DF: I’d like to be able to choose an arch villain, but I’m afraid I can’t. The mother and father in this book are themselves, each in their own way, victims of either violence and abuse or loss and neglect. In this sense, they’re the medium through which an institution of horrors is transmitted one generation to the next. For whatever reason, they’ve been deprived of the ability to see themselves with the cogency they need to transcend themselves. They can’t give what they haven’t got. And if they haven’t got the vision to see the consequences of their actions on the people around them, it’s because they never received it.
We almost always give what we’ve ourselves been given. It’s no one’s “fault.” If a woman with big feet bears a daughter with big feet, is it the mother’s “fault”? I know this sounds specious on the face of it, but when we remove the value systems according to which we judge our fellows, the ability to harm the people we love most is as much an inherited trait as is the size of our skulls.
This isn’t to say, either, that seeing any of this comes easily. Easy is the last thing it is. Mostly when we’re harmed the first thing we want to do is return that harm. As far as I can tell, what eases our pain is recognizing that in the end none of this stuff is personal. That is, if it weren’t Jane or John being abused, it would be Judy and Joe. Abuse is all the abuser knows. Until the abuser’s been gifted the ability to see their abuse for what it is, they’re bound to abuse. Their victims will appear as surely as the image of our face before a mirror.
As for the challenge of embodying a character with words, the only thing I can say is that it’s always hard. No matter who it is, the most difficult thing in the world, for me anyway, is to fill them with the humanity I know they have such that everything they do has the illusion of truth. For me, it’s no easier to create a black Zen gardener than a white stripper savant with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of burlesque. Everyone is wounded. That’s a fact. My task as an artist is to reveal those wounds, both to my reader and to the characters with whom they live, and then, more importantly, to show how they transcend or fail to transcend those wounds.
This is all writing is. But that “all” is at once a blessing and a curse fraught with huge responsibility in the face of odds apparently insurmountable, given the paltry bits with which we’re tasked to face them. Those of us who do surmount them, regardless of the form we’ve chosen to work with, are what I call “artists.”
MF: I love how the market copy says your book is “a heavy metal Huck Finn” and compares it to Moby-Dick, Joy Williams, and Jack Kerouac. Were there specific works that you were thinking of or inspired by as you wrote this novel?
DF: I can’t say there’s one or even a handful of anything—books, film, music, painting, dance—that guided me through the work. When I’m deep in a book, actually, I read almost nothing that isn’t research for it. And if I do read, say, fiction or poetry, it’s usually as a mechanism to free me from a rut. Probably you’ve heard this before, how different artists use different art to guide them through an impasse. It’s not as if I’m looking for a specific method or strategy but rather, as you say, to get the inspiration I need to move beyond myself.
MF: At one point in Patricide, you write “The greater the sense you try to make of these years, you’ll think, the deeper you find yourself in the whirlpool of memory, knowing very well that the harder you try to remember, the more incomprehensible things become, that the more pictures you try to gather, the more certain you are your past isn’t as you thought but a baffling meld of lunacy and grace.” So much of this book is about memory, how we are formed by it but also by the memories that are embedded in us. Is memory your muse, in a way? Or is it your oppressor?
DF: That’s a great question for any artist, I think. For me, memory is no longer either good or bad in that while once it was my oppressor, I’ve learned to take what it gives, regardless, and let it be my muse. A simpler way to say this is that my master is my muse. In the passage you quoted, Rice talks about memory as a whirlpool, but that’s just another way of saying, like a tornado, it’s a very potent vortex, too, and this also partly accounts for the book’s structure.
You were talking about jumping around in time. Much of that is a function of Rice’s relationship to memory. When a person begins to explore her past in an effort to understand and reconcile themselves to it, it’s improbable she’ll go through a checklist of points, much less in some defined order. A memory can take us down a wormhole, right? It can seem unfathomable even as other portals open from it, into further wormholes yet. I think part of what Rice is trying to do in the work is to use the structure of the vortex that’s inherent to memory as yet another means to circle this father/Father figure, the circling itself a necessity in the service of meaning. Rice is trying to find meaning in his life through an understanding of his relationship with his father, and within the patriarchy that bore his father and all those before him. To stand motionless before this figure would deprive him of the perspectives from which it’s possible to see him and without which his “understanding” would be incomplete and thus, somehow, a “lie.” I think of this circling as a trick en par with the way we use one mirror to see our backs or sides in another.
MF: There’s a moment in Patricide where the main character watches a bird fly into a tree outside his window, and the first golden leaf of the season falls. You say, “But the leaf as it fell through this tableau was so full of desperate collapsing beauty that a dam opened up inside, the dam that had opened up so many times before, and I gave way and began to sob, and didn’t stop for hours.” This moment haunts me. Here’s a man who has been through so much, who has survived a horrific childhood and alcoholism and a rocky path to adulthood, and he is moved by a single leaf falling through the air, gently hitting the ground. There are so many moments where you focus on nature; where you elevate it as a way to express the unspeakable. You have a poet’s soul. Were you thinking of poetry as you wrote this novel?
DF: I love how you put that—to elevate nature in language and thought as a means to express the unspeakable. This is something I haven’t consciously considered, but when I hear you say it, I know it’s true. The “natural” world, as opposed to the “civilized” world, is something I’ve always turned to for solace, and for the freedom from the stress of being a modern human that I need to see past the surface of things and into their deeper reality—the reality, as you say, that’s unspeakable. To observe a falling leaf with pure attention, and to describe just that, without any hoopla around it, is itself to voice the unspeakable. The leaf is its own description. It doesn’t need a voice. It is the voice itself.
As for the poetry in my work, you’re right. I wrote song lyrics before anything else, and from there I wrote poetry for quite a while, very bad poetry at that, since for all my reading little of it was poetry. But then I did begin to study poets, too—the most influential among them, I think, if I had to name just three, the ones I feel I’m never without, being Whitman, Rilke, and Bashō. There are many others, of course, but these three are certainly mountains of themselves. So by the time I started writing stories, the music and poetry that are inherent to language seemed natural to express. I couldn’t express myself any other way, that is. I still can’t. As I worked on Patricide I never thought about poetry explicitly. Really, it’s not something I need to think about, to consider in mutual exclusivity, because the way I work doesn’t distinguish between poetry and prose. It’s all just writing, it’s all just language. This is why I don’t call myself a novelist or essayist or poet. I just say I’m a writer.
MF: Your book is brilliant, but it’s intense (my favorite kind of book). There were moments that I had to put it down and get outside; I needed to feel the warmth of sunlight on my skin. I’m curious about your writing process. Did you ever find yourself going to such dark places while you were writing that you needed to walk away from your desk for a while?
DF: I understand that need to go outside, believe me! It’s a cliché among artists that their work can destroy them, I know, but honestly I can’t think of any other way to describe the trial this book was. I worked on it for two years, twelve hours a day, on average. Some days would be six hours and others would be eighteen, or whatever. While for about half that time I was doing freelance gigs, an opportunity arose that allowed me to work in solitude for the other half, without which freedom I doubt I could’ve finished the book, because despite that freedom, over and over this thing nearly took me out.
I’m not sure when I understood that if I turned away from the book for even a moment the universe would see my weakness and strip me of the means to see it through. An image arose of the work as a wall I was sitting before, behind which laid the things I sought. Once it had, I knew I could never look away, and determined I wouldn’t, under any circumstance. Of course I had to make my vows repeatedly. I went through phases even of having to do it daily. “I vow,” I’d tell myself, “never to look away from this wall.” Sometimes I had to stare at it for a long time before what I needed surrendered to my will and revealed itself. When that happened, it felt as though the thing I was after were emerging from the wall itself, like an apparition, as opposed to its climbing over the wall or stepping through a gate. Other times I didn’t have to work that hard. As a whole, though, the process was exhausting to the extreme and pushed me far past my limits. Those were the times, totally empty, totally wasted, I had to go outside, in every sense of that word. Even so, I never turned from the wall. The wall was always there. I could always see it, if only from a distance, like during the many walks I took. But then I saw an end, or rather I sensed it was near, and like someone on a forever quest was given the ninetieth wind I needed to see me through.