Cult author David Ohle elaborates on his insane universe.
Thu Jul 10 2008
Photograph: Frank Tankard
For more than 30 years now, David Ohle has been mapping a vaguely postapocalyptic territory known as the USA. In Motorman (1971), protein is so scarce that nominal protagonist Moldenke, a man whose body has been kept running by multiple surgically implanted sheep hearts, casually snatches insects out of the air and eats them. The Age of Sinatra (2004), a sequel of sorts, features a lunatic President, characters who elect to have deformative surgery and Moldenke’s mom, who has invented a popular form of edible money. Ohle’s latest, The Pisstown Chaos, follows lives regularly disrupted by dictator Rev. Henry Hooker’s forced relocation program, as well as zombielike “stinkers,” so ravaged by parasitic infections that they’re nearly dead, though still animate enough to be a nuisance.
“I certainly didn’t grow up with the intention of spending most of my adult life in this insane world I’ve created,” Ohle explains by phone from his home in Lawrence, where he’s lived since coming to teach at the University of Kansas in 1984. “I’m still not exactly sure where Motorman came from. I was in graduate school here, while the novelist Stanley Elkin was a visiting professor. Most of what I’d written at that point was terribly normal. I’d written a few stories with a bit of an edge, but nothing particularly crazy. After I presented an early version of the novel as my master’s thesis, Elkin suggested that I send an excerpt to Gordon Lish, who was still fiction editor at Esquire. When Lish liked and ran it, an agent contacted me and Knopf ended up publishing the novel.”
Apart from a few stories set in what the author calls “the Moldenkian universe,” Ohle’s purchasable fiction output was pretty much nil until Soft Skull issued The Age of Sinatra, written shortly after Motorman’s publication. “I couldn’t find a publisher,” he says, “and not from lack of trying.” Though it seemed to fit well into the early-’70s milieu that produced Gravity’s Rainbow, Ohle’s work soon started to look too odd to an increasingly stodgy book industry. Undaunted, he kept writing. Returning to Lawrence put him in regular contact with William S. Burroughs, whom he’d first met while teaching at the University of Texas in 1972. Ohle helped the older writer get around, cooked dinner for him every Thursday and eventually edited Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William Burroughs Jr.—the tragic story of the Naked Lunch author’s son—at Burroughs Sr.’s behest.
Meanwhile, Ohle’s cult following grew. Well before 2004, when Soft Skull published Sinatra and the small press Third Bed reissued Motorman (soon to be re-reissued by Calamari Press), online dealers were getting more than $100 for copies of his first novel. “When I read at KGB Bar six or seven years ago,” says Ohle, “a bunch of people in the audience had xeroxed copies, so I knew people were reading my work, even if they weren’t able to buy it.”
The Ohle generation, it turns out, had finally arrived. Among his ardent supporters are Ben Marcus, the author of In the Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women; Shelley Jackson, who wrote Half Life, a sturdy yet surreal novel about conjoined twins living in an alternate-reality San Francisco; and Super Flat Times scribe Matthew Derby. “Ohle was one of the first contemporary writers to offer that strange mix of the fantastic and political radicalism that would appear, much later, in writers like George Saunders,” says novelist Brian Evenson, author of The Open Curtain. “Motorman was a cult book precisely because there was nothing else like it and because it anticipated trends in American writing by several decades.”
Anyone who picks up The Pisstown Chaos will immediately recognize why Ohle has become such a beacon to younger, loosely experimental fiction writers. His world is at once vaguely suggestive of a worst-case future yet grounded in historical fact (he often turns to old newspaper articles for inspiration); it is choked by totalitarianism yet rich in rebel souls; and it is always tragically hilarious, its grotesque and outlandish elements anchored by passages of stunning prose: “Victims of the Pisstown parasite were thought of as dead, but not enough to bury,” the novel opens. “Gray, haggard, poorly dressed, they lay in gutters, sat rigidly on public benches, floated along canals and drank from rain-filled gutters.”
A comic, feverish glimpse of a surreal world, The Pisstown Chaos skews a bit differently than its predecessors. Poor Moldenke—returned from the dead—makes but one appearance, as a performer calling himself “Moldenke of the Afterlife.” But the real protagonist of Ohle’s world has always been that world itself. And the more time you spend in it, the more it starts to look and smell like the one we currently inhabit.
The Pisstown Chaos (Soft Skull, $14.95 paperback) is out now.