In Joseph Peterson’s novel “The Rumphulus,” a group of people have been relegated — just how is not terribly clear — to a nature preserve for offenses they themselves cannot name. One among their number attracts the attention of a woman who takes him out of the preserve and into her home.
That may sound like the set up to a thriller or a mystery, but “The Rumphulus” might be better characterized as a meditation on what it means to be human and the ways in which our humanness is best revealed in relation to others.
Peterson’s novel is published by University of Iowa Press. A resident of Chicago, he also has published seven other novels, including “Ninety-nine Bottles,” “Gideon’s Confession,” and “Inside the Whale.”
In an email interview, he talks about “The Rumphulus” and its unusual structure and the influences that have been important to his work over the years.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the origin of “The Rumphulus.” What was the initial spark of the idea and how did it develop into the characters you created and the story you tell?
A: I’ve always been interested in writing about the condition of people who don’t belong in a group and my various works try to understand the condition as one, do they not belong because they are excluded in some way and for some reason from the group, or two, do they not belong because for whatever reason they don’t want to belong to the group. My books are also keenly interested in the condition of mortality especially as it pertains to solitary people who live alone and who therefore fall into the possible condition of dying alone, and unknown.
“The Rumphulus” has a long evolution going all the way back to 1985. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I read Sophocles’ “Antigone” in one of the Common Core courses. In that story, King Creone tosses Antigone’s brother, Polynices, outside the city gate and he bans burial rites and tragically for Antigone, she violates this edict and attempts to bury her brother. This idea of getting banished outside of the Polis and also of being deprived of proper burial rites worked powerfully on my imagination, and I think in some way it shaped my worldview.
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For the Greeks, a proper burial was very important, because without a proper burial one couldn’t gain access to the afterlife. I think, in some way, a proper burial not only commemorates a person’s life, but it also bestows recognition of that person’s humanity in a circle of society. It takes someone to bury someone and at some level this is a basic condition of humanity. If one falls beyond the scope of such help when one dies, then no one is around to recognize that such a person lived and to tell that person’s story.
My book, “The Rumphulus,” explores the condition of folks cast out of the village, and who grapple with the question: will I somehow get back to the village and if not, will I at least get a proper burial out here in the forest preserves or will I end up like the common skunk dead where it falls. This last fate, of dying like the common skunk, is to a high degree ignominious, because ultimately these are persons not skunks.
Q: One of the things that jumps out at the reader right away is the unusual approach to punctuation and syntax. What can you tell me about finding Joseph’s voice and putting it down on paper?
A: I think that getting cast out and having to confront one’s solitary condition can induce, for want of a better word, madness. My characters grapple with the circular mind-churning questions that inevitably arise when one is cast out and forced to deal with the solitary condition: Why was I cast out? What did I do to deserve this? How will I get back in? Will I ever get back in? If I don’t get back in then how will I go forward? If I can’t go forward, then what will deal with this? My characters don’t ask these questions once or even one at a time, but the voice becomes a churning cascade of whys and how-comes and how-will-I and what-will-I etc.; and this language is not only the language of the book, but it is the story of the book.
The story of the book, really is this: look at what happens to the language in the mind of a person who has literally been rebuked and cast out into the solitary spaces of one’s isolation. When I was writing the book, I pursued with absolute freedom whatever direction this language needed to go whether it made sense or not; whether it contributed to the storytelling or not. And when I ran out of language, the book was finished. When I was finished writing the book, then I realized that I had written a book that might speak to a prisoner in solitary confinement, or to a homeless person who has pitched his tent under the viaduct and who doesn’t know how they will ever escape their condition of social isolation while the rest of the world drives by in their cars.
Q: The book seems to me to be both mythic and postmodern — while also being compact and almost incantatory. So, what are you up to in this novel?
A: I figured out who I was as a writer when I discovered that it was OK to repeat myself. My first book, “Beautiful Piece,” was originally titled “Alone in the Heat Alone,” and that too is a book that obsessively tells over and over again the very short story of what happened: a man went out to gas up his car during a heat wave; he talked to a woman at the gas pump, and then he went home with her for an afternoon tryst. Repetition or circular storytelling, allowed me to burrow into the language, and one of the properties of linguistic repetition is that it has an incantatory effect.
I remember even when I was a young boy thinking that the moments of incantation in the Catholic Mass were my favorite parts of the Mass and the most beautiful; and for a long time before I had become a writer, I had always dreamed of writing some sort of long prose piece that you could properly incant while incense burned in the thurible. Later it occurred to me that you could write a quite moving piece of oratory if you incanted all of the names and dates of those killed by gun violence in the city of Chicago in a single year. I never wrote that piece, but the idea of such an incantatory piece informs a lot of my work.
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I should add that incantation is a form of repetitious oratory that both draws you into the meaning of what is being repeated, but that also causes the meaning to disappear so that all that is left is the sound of words uttered over-and-over again. There’s a long section in “The Rumphulus,” the second section, where a vast repetition of logical syllogisms with small variations occurs. I think of it as the middle passage of the book, and if a reader can cross through the middle section then something of the power of religious incantation might enter into the reader’s mind. This is followed by a section where the burning of a sacrifice — a sort of purification takes place; and this is followed by the final section which deals with the concept of dwelling alone in one’s dwelling.
Q: As I was reading, I was at times reminded of Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Tinkers.” Who would you say are your influences — and among your contemporaries, who do you think of as doing work in a similar space (if anyone)?
A: Going back to my college experience at the University of Chicago, I should say that I bought a slim volume of prose written by Samuel Beckett called “Voices.” I read this piece over and over again while I was in college. It’s the story of one’s inner voice talking to one. It might only be 50 pages long, but I might have read it dozens of times. I’m guessing that this reading experience at such a formative time in my life shaped who I am as a writer. I haven’t read that book since the 1980s, but I’m guessing if I were to read it today I would see that everything that I’ve written has more or less come out of that book.
I spent most of my college years reading Kant and I think something rationalist and logical was opened up in my mind that continues to influence my work. William Gaddis wrote a short book, “Agape Agape,” which I also read several times and which I am certain left a primary mark on my brain, or perhaps it resonated with my brain because I was wired similarly to the author who wrote that book. Gertrude Stein’s work on language influenced me. I love Stanley Cavell’s writing. Thomas Bernhard, Laszlo Krasznahorkai are also writers that I love. More contemporary writers like Anne Carson, “Nox,” and Maggie Nelson, “Bluets,” really thunderstruck me because they both exhibit unbridled intellectual power combined with extraordinary abilities to create beauty with words.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a book called, “Introductory Monologue By Gina Modigliano.” It’s a book told in the first person by Gina Modigliano, who is a manicurist. She has a habit of filling notebooks with verbatim conversation that she overhears in her salon, and she also has a habit of recording all the other things that friends tell her. She is such an obsessive note-taker that she has filled closets of notebooks.
One day she meets a famous local Chicago playwright who has staged 13 successful plays, but the playwright is running out of ideas and that’s when Gina offers the playwright access to all of her notebooks, and from this vast resource of words, the playwright’s creativity is restored. It’s a book about the dark nihilism that sometimes confronts creative artists; and it’s a book about artistic inspiration. It’s working title was “Muse,” and I had in mind the Pygmalion myth when I wrote it.