The Resurrection of Jack O'Connell, a True American Original
Jack O'Connell's The Resurrectionist is one of the most original American novels of the year. A quest by a father to save his son, a tale of mad scientists and dream-logic, the story of a band of "freaks" on their own strange journey, and the chronicle of an odd coma clinic, the book defies easy classification. As I wrote in my recent Washington Post Book World review, "I've read The Resurrectionist twice now, and both times it came as something of a revelation. It seems odd we should care so much about the freaks, for example, when we know they're merely characters in a boy's comic book. Nor should the dream-life of a coma patient be so resonant, and yet it is."
The Resurrectionist has been reviewed by the LA Times, BookPage, The San Francisco Chronicle, and many others. The New York Times Book Review wrote of the book, "“To call Jack O’Connell’s novels imaginative, or even original, doesn’t begin to say it...There’s something both exciting and unnerving about [his] kind of hallucinatory writing.” Ron Hogan at Galleycat also posted a very nice feature. A website for The Resurrectionist exists at Enter Limbo.
The novel comes nine years after O'Connell's last, in part for reasons revealed in the interview below and in part because his previous novel, Word Made Flesh, "was an extremely dark book. By the time it was published, I had two young kids. And I didn’t want to go back in the darkness for a while. So I spent a couple of years writing a satirical road novel. It’s a book I still like but my agent convinced me that it was not what readers expected or wanted from me. And that it might diminish whatever small readership I’d built up over these last 15 years. So I put it in a drawer and launched Sweeney’s story. Which was soon invaded by a troupe of wandering circus freaks." Other novels by O'Connell include the cult classic Box Nine, The Skin Palace, and Wireless, all set in his iconic, uniquely American creation, the rustbelt city of Quinsigamond.
As a long-time fan of O'Connell's unique surreal noir approach to fiction, I was thrilled to have a chance to interview him. When I asked where he was while answering my emailed questions, he replied, "I’m in the lab. The sepulcher. The dreaming vault at the top of the house. Hermetically sealed and insulated with 40 years worth of collected pulp. It’s about 5 a.m. and I’m stupid with jet-lag..."
Amazon.com: Where did your city of Quinsigamond come from? How has it changed over the years?
Jack O'Connell: Quinsigamond is my home-city as refracted through a quarter century of fever dream. I’ve lived my whole life within about three square miles of central Massachusetts. That was not the intention. No kid ever fell so hard for the standard clichés of an imagined writing life. I haunted the corner Rexall store and memorized the bio-blurbs on the rear covers of the paperbacks. Was long convinced that I needed to travel the globe, drive dynamite trucks, pan for gold in the Yukon, and fight fascists in Spain in order to become a writer. Things didn’t work out that way. And so, to paraphrase Thoreau, I have traveled much in my old, rustbelt, native city.
Basically, and over time, Quinsigamond became my supreme noir machine, the eternally dark and unknowable American metropolis. A nefarious, urban, capitalist hive where cycles of mystery, violence, manipulation, degradation, fear, loathing and meaninglessness play out repeatedly. Quinsigamond is the enormous, shadowy, chaotic, violent city that you have seen in so many films: It is Alphaville. It is Chinatown. It is Gotham City, Sin City, the Naked City. It is the Asphalt Jungle, the Nightmare Alley, the Shock Corridor and the Street of No Return.
But it’s also the archetypal real-world urban industrial city of the northeastern United States. So, Quinsigamond is Detroit, Michigan, of 1976. It is Akron, Ohio. It is Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Bangkok Park section of my city is Watts of 1965 or the most ravaged section of the Bronx in New York in 1972 (crossed with the Harlem of a dozen b-budget crime movies). The Canal Zone section of Quinsigamond is Manhattan’s East Village, on a Halloween night when someone slipped a particularly potent brand of acid into your punch. In one sense, Quinsigamond is this stew of my perceptions of what happened to all these once-teaming, once-vibrant metropolises of the American empire; these large urban municipalities that were emblematic of the industrial age. And as we moved into a post-industrial era, these cities were sort of abandoned and left to decay.
From the beginning, I was writing stories set in some version of my hometown. By the time I hit my 20s, it had morphed into Quinsigamond. And to this day, I continue to watch it evolve...or, maybe, devolve. It has grown in ways that amuse and repel and surprise. These days, I’m most interested in the totality of its history, which I’ve been mapping in the notebooks with ever-increasing detail over the last decade or so. I know how Quinsigamond began and how it ends. And I’m discovering with a good bit of excitement what happened in between.
Amazon.com: Your writing often mixes noir, horror, and the grotesque with your own brand of what I'd call American Surrealism. What influences on your work might surprise readers?
Jack O'Connell: Not sure how surprising any of the influences might be. I came of age in the late 60s/early 70s and, like a lot of my peers, I confess to a crazy amount of joy derived from wallowing in the pop of that era. What I get a kick out of is discovering, via the Web, that though we often thought we were the only Secret Martians on the planet grooving on the weird stuff at 1 a.m. in our parents’ paneled rec rooms, we were actually part of a teeming, semi-hidden nation of pulp-devouring geeks. I really dig that shock of recognition when somebody references that ancient ABC Movie of the Week that played with his head for two weeks in 1971. Or that German horror flick that triggered a month of dissociation when it was screened at the downtown grindhouse one weekend in ’72.
But the writers who really knocked me over and shaped me were people like Bradbury and Richard Matheson and Harlan Ellison. I always loved stories that seemed rooted in the mundane here and now until about three pages in. Then someone turns down an alley and everything becomes bathed in a growing aura of weirdness. I had the good fortune to spend a day in Phoenix a couple weeks ago with Jim Sallis, and, as always, I couldn’t help but hound him for anecdotes about the New Wave cabal – about Ellison and Delany and Spinrad and Dangerous Visions and New Worlds and such. Those guys hit me at a crucial time. From someone like Ellison, I took this lasting notion that you could mix things up, that you could retain the coolness, the flash, of SF, and merge it with mainstream literary devices and concerns. That you could cross-breed genres. That you could experiment, you could have fun. You could play with new effects, styles, approaches. That you were allowed to use whatever you felt best illuminated the story at hand.
A lot of noir writers that I know acknowledge an adolescent love of mystery stories. But during those crucial years when I was driving around my hometown with my father and soaking up my particular landscape, I was also feasting on different kinds of stories, which, though often housed inside a variety of different mediums, shared tone--a kind of weird, noirish, dystopian-but-still-romantic, individualistic, visionary vibe. Whether in stories and novels, or films, or even in TV shows or record albums, I was hungry for fables about the tensions between rebellion and conformity, the individual and the faceless state, control and freedom, illusion and reality, comfort and liberty. I was always a sucker for neo-Orwellian weirdness. I guess I’m thinking of stuff like The Prisoner, this blatant, strident, anti-totalitarian serial--Mod Kafka for the late night tube. And that trickle of early ’70s SF films about near-future dystopias--movies like A Boy and His Dog, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and Rollerball--which all seemed, even to my hormone-engorged, pubertous brain, incendiary critiques of contemporary culture. You know, I’d even include Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” which was a corner drugstore JD paperback novel set to music, exploded into a Wall of Sound, electrified, supercharged, made epic and operatic, a teenage Iliad staged inside the noir daydreams of my own city.
Amazon.com: What was the hardest part of writing The Resurrectionist?
Jack O'Connell: Everything was difficult throughout the course of this composition. I started out imagining that I was writing one book and ended up realizing, at one point, that I was writing another. I’ve never had a writing experience like this one. Originally, my intention was to write a sleek noir story that could have been sold in a 1959 Detroit bus station. In four or five months, I had completed most of a first draft of that book. In that draft, I had my protagonist repeatedly reading a comic book to his comatose son. Then one day, I asked myself, “What’s the deal with this comic book? What’s the story?” And thus was born the sub-plot about the Goldfaden Circus Freaks and their travails, as detailed in the comic book, Limbo. In short order, the freaks’ story began to expand and grow. And before I knew it, the freaks’ tale was rivaling my little bus station noir. Then it was mirroring the original story. And then it was making moves to merge with the noir thriller.
Amazon.com: Did you write the "comic book" sections all at one time and then layer them into the novel, or...?
Jack O'Connell: Yes. Once I realized the comic book story was going to be a running secondary narrative throughout the book, I wrote the freaks’ tale beginning to end. In fact, there is a larger, longer version than the one that appears in the book. I sliced and reshaped and rewrote in order to layer it into the primary narrative.
Amazon.com: There's a remarkable scene between the (mad) doctor and his prized newt. What did you want that scene to accomplish? Was it as fun to write as it is to read?
Jack O'Connell: Ha! Glad you liked René! Mostly, I guess, it’s an expository scene, of a sort. And I was hoping to shine some light on Dr. Peck’s character, I suppose. But the fact is, I’m not done with René. René will return. He and his kind have played a significant role in the history of Quinsigamond and will continue to do so. You know, a couple weeks back, I was walking around Portland, Oregon, late at night and I debated getting a tattoo of René the newt on the bottom of my left foot…
Amazon.com: How much revision do you do? And how much of what you wrote in rough draft made it into the published version of The Resurrectionist?
Jack O'Connell: I’m a compulsive reviser. And I wish I were not. And the compulsion seems only to get worse. I go through multiple drafts of a book and the changes from draft to draft are considerable. Then I work with my agent on additional, successive drafts. And then with the book’s editor once it’s sold. I’ll put it this way: I always begin with an outline. Once a book is about 100 pages along, I put the outline in a drawer and give myself the freedom to take some detours and see where they lead. When the book is finished and I’m packing up drafts and notes and the ephemera that surround composition, I’ll often take another look at that original outline. It rarely bears much resemblance to the published novel.
Amazon.com: Who is the biggest "freak" in The Resurrectionist, in your opinion?
Jack O'Connell: My gut says that the biggest freak of all is the guy who dreamed up the story. And I’m more than a little ambivalent regarding that confession…
Amazon.com: Would you ever consider writing an actual Limbo comic book?
Jack O'Connell: Yup. After the book sold, word got around, apparently, about the comic book subplot. There were some casual discussions between my agent and some comics people. One day, I received an envelope in the mail that contained some pencil sketches of some of my Goldfaden freaks. The artist really nailed some of those characters, I thought.
It’s funny--because of the Limbo story, people think I have some background in comics. I wish that were the case. Growing up, comics were a seasonal, passing fancy. I never read the terrific superhero stuff my friends were reading. Late ’60s, I was feasting on the stories of “Chuck White” in Treasure Chest and things like Archie and Sad Sack. It wasn’t until the 1980s that I became aware of some of the amazing work people were doing in comics. My brother turned me on to Dean Motter’s Mr. X. Right now, I’m smitten with Warren Ellis’s Dr. Sleepless. And while I’ve been out on the road, lots of people have raved over and pointed me to Criminal by Brubaker.
Amazon.com: Buzz the motorcycle gang leader is pretty complex, but basically a sociopath, I thought. Would you agree with that assessment? And if so, what does it say about Sweeney that he in a sense weds his fate to Buzz's by novel's end?
Jack O'Connell: I do agree. And I think it says that Sweeney has come down a pretty harrowing road and emerged at its end a fairly altered individual. One who can no longer accept the consensus reality that, in the past, had defined his existence.
Amazon.com: What are you currently working on?
Jack O'Connell: About ten years ago I started writing a novel about a group of surfistas--the kids who try to “surf” atop speeding commuter trains. Back in the early ’90s, someone gave me a photo of these streets kids in Rio who weren’t allowed onto the tourist beaches. And, so, they found their own way to surf--they’d climb up on the roofs of trains and try to surf them as they sped down tracks and around curves. Until recently, I couldn’t find the correct voice for the book. Now I think I’ve got it. Hopefully, I’ll have a draft done in the next year.