For self-made novelist Frederick Reuss, nothing matters as much as writing by the book.
In a crowded Eastern Market buffet, where people chat loudly about Blackberries and baseball, Frederick Reuss is telling me about his first novel.
“The title of the novel was Anxiety,” says the 42-year-old Washington author, who looks like a younger, handsomer Garrison Keillor, “and it was narrated by Anxiety, who I portray as a kind of impish…It was a sort of interhistorical, intertextual farce.”
“Hmmm!” I reply brightly. Inside, my panic rises.
“It began with Genesis,” Reuss continues, “and then sort of skipped lightly through various canonical texts until, ah, the birth, sort of, of the modern concept, which I very cavalierly traced to Descartes, you know, because of Cogito ergo sum. And he sort of, like, birthed, at that moment—and that’s where the novel ends.”
An engaging grin, half-mad, half-shy, spreads across his face as he continues: “I wanted to go up to Kierkegaard, but by that time it was too long, and I’d sort of exhausted the comic point.”
I brace myself to laugh at the punch line, if called upon to do so, even if I don’t get the joke. But Reuss, who lives in Capitol Hill with his wife and two daughters and whose latest novel, The Wasties, was published in August by Pantheon Books, isn’t really interested in showing off his erudition. He’s just an avid fan of the Word.
He’s not, however, a fan of talking about his background. “Somebody needs to write something about the obsession with biography, with memoir,” he protests, theorizing that “it has to do with the culture of the individual.” He later e-mails an autobiographical sketch that touches on a number of interesting points that may or may not be relevant to his work.
The son of a foreign-service officer, he was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and later lived in Nigeria and India. He came to D.C. for a brief stint in his early teens, but then moved on to Germany, where, his autobiography reports, he “wrote poems and long strange letters and was encouraged in my literary pursuits by two very understanding teachers.”
He is unable to identify a particular moment when he decided to write. “It wasn’t a careerist epiphany,” he says, with a snort of self-deprecating laughter. “All the writers I admire weren’t worried about their careers. They were too busy trying to figure out how best to live their lives.”
To that end, Reuss attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, one of those schools that put the “liberal” in “liberal arts college” in the late ’70s. “It was a good place to duck an education,” jokes Reuss, who ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. “I consider myself pretty much self-taught. People always ask me”—here he drops into a deep, mock-professorial tone—”‘Did you study the classics? Ahem-ahem.’ No. I didn’t. And I can’t read Latin or Greek. I wish I could—I consider it a gap in my learning. I just enjoy reading. Stumbling along in a library—it’s more fun than anything else.”
Characteristically, Reuss, who keeps office hours and scoffs at writer’s block, made his career in academia as short as possible. “I didn’t go to the MFA writing programs,” he notes. “I got out of college and immediately began figuring out ways to sustain myself as a writer without really having to find any other kind of work.
“When I set out to start the process of trying to be a writer, which I found very quickly involved having to write, I did what I think a lot of people do: try and get short stories published. And that didn’t work at all, mainly ’cause I don’t think I ever wrote any good short stories.” So Reuss decided to aim for writing novels instead—”the whole hog,” as he puts it.
He lucked into a $97-a-month rent-controlled East Village apartment, “did a lot of really stupid odd jobs,” and saved up enough money to move to upstate New York. There, Reuss says, he “took all the money I’d saved and, instead of giving it to a graduate writing program, decided to just pay some rent.
“And that’s where I started writing.”
It comes as no surprise that Reuss’ protagonists are largely self-taught. Or that they’re also men of action—whose actions involve understanding the world by means of literary experience.
In his first published novel, 1997’s Horace Afoot, Reuss depicts a small-town loner who has renamed himself Quintus Horatius Flaccus, after the ancient Roman poet and social critic. If the unexamined life is not worth living, Horace’s life could be worth millions, though he minimizes what he has to analyze by controlling as much of his existence as possible: He cooks all of his own meals, walks rather than using automobiles, and maintains no job or other structure for social interaction. He connects to the world by calling strangers for dialogues on whatever question is occupying his thoughts; after he has rescued a woman from a crime scene, he picks a phone number at random and asks the answerer, “Do you like Saint Bernards?”
“I spent probably five years trying to get that book published,” says Reuss of Horace. Fruitless attempts to gain an agent led him to begin mailing the manuscript directly to editors and publishers: “I even stopped sending self-addressed, stamped envelopes out,” Reuss recalls, “because I didn’t want the fucking manuscript back!”
Eventually, however, the book found its way to Fred Ramey at MacMurray & Beck. After Horace’s warm reception by critics—the New York Times Book Review called it a “charming, unexpectedly poignant first novel”—MacMurray & Beck also picked up the earlier, unpublished Anxiety as an e-book. This was 1998: “They wanted, I think, bragging rights—in their publicity they were claiming to be the first trade publisher to publish an electronic text only,” Reuss says, “a book that was published first, and only, as an electronic book.
“And it had a cover—they had it in a PDF file, so you’d download it as a PDF document with a nice cover graphic. It looked like a novel. But the only problem was, you couldn’t get it in book form, and that’s what people wanted in the end: something in book form.”
Reuss acknowledges that his experience with the unconventional form of e-fiction was a flop. The experiment didn’t deter him, however, from continuing to ply his craft as creator of straightforward, lucid examples of the modern American novel. Horace has been compared to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Reuss’ next novel, 1999’s Henry of Atlantic City, portrays a 6-year-old Gnostic-gospels aficionado whose funny, sad coming-of-age tale is set amid casinos and grifters of the modern-day Byzantium of coastal New Jersey. It was also highly praised, garnering a Notable Book Award from the American Library Association in 2000.
“I’m aware of the kind of currents of literary criticism that talk about ‘death of the novel,’ and this and that—the whole sort of tired aesthetic that we call postmodernism,” says Reuss. “Nobody can say that word now without”—his hands describe little air quotes—”that level of self-consciousness….
You can’t even say the word without extreme self-consciousness. So that opens up whole worlds of irony that are being explored now by people in novels.”
Accordingly, the new The Wasties takes Reuss’ theme of text as psychic life raft one step further, portraying Caruso, a mysteriously soul-sick literature professor whose connection to daily life is so nearly severed that he has almost reverted to infancy. “One of the elements of satire contained in that book,” Reuss says, “is that here’s a person whose consciousness has undergone a drastic and radical transformation and who’s essentially left with nothing but the snippets of his learning. His learning becomes a kind of detritus of his consciousness with which he tries to refashion his relationship to the
“And that’s what I consider the comic part of the novel. What if all you had left inside your little head was all of Walt Whitman’s poetry that you remembered and Simon & Garfunkel? How would you go about fashioning your world with that?”
The satire of The Wasties, he elucidates, is embodied in the idea that “Caruso, himself an academic, can’t remember his own contributions to the field. Actually, I like to think he sort of achieves a higher awareness of the poems of Whitman, say, because his speech is filled with Whitman and others. His speech is a kind of Cuisinart of these poems. The corollary, the satire, is that he can still achieve an insight, and the higher madness, that is contained in the works themselves.”
Unlike his previous novels, “the book is not finding a sort of mainstream resonance,” Reuss says regretfully. Kirkus Reviews, which previously called Reuss “one of our most unpredictable and original novelists,” was particularly harsh about The Wasties: “[B]y and large the wasties seem merely incurable, less so meaningful, and Reuss…consequently, burdens his reader with a dreariness of situation that continues—and continues.”
Unsurprisingly, Reuss is more eager to talk about a new project than his latest reviews. “I’m working on a film,” he says. It’s an adaptation of Argentinian novelist Julio Cortazar’s book Los Autonautas de la Cosmopista—as Reuss translates it, “The Autonauts on the Cosmobahn”—by the German company CineNomad. The film will be in English, so Reuss will be basing his screenplay on a new English version of the previously untranslated Spanish text. He has until 2006 to finish the script.
In the meantime, Reuss remains loyal to the novel. “Narrative—it can be experimented with,” he says, “but it can never be made obsolete or experimented out of existence, as some people like to say is happening—or has happened. As long as we have stories, and as long as we have texts, there will always be narrative.”
He empties his glass of water and continues: “Like people who say painting’s dead. There are plenty of painters who are doing quite a lot of paintings. Regardless of what might be said by people—what is that old line from Frank Zappa, ‘Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny’? I like that.” CP