ACTUALITY IN ACTUALITY: An Interview with Chase Griffin

ACTUALITY IN ACTUALITY: An Interview with Chase Griffin

In an era transfixed by categorization, there is marked mischief in material that sets out to subvert entire concepts. How To Play A Necromancer’s Theremin (Maudlin House, 2023) is a joint project undertaken by Chase Griffin and Christina Quay. We are in the province of especially weird fiction here. At once an existential lark into mind expansion and a bamboozlement of ideas presented via advanced stonerism, the book whizzes through its lessons with the fervor of the prankster. The wildness of the ride veers from wowza deconstruction to laidback swingin’ on the flippity-flop. Upon finishing the novel, I felt as if I’d hit the ejector seat button on a carousel, afraid to look back in case the merry-go-round wasn’t there. Chase spoke to me about the book.

 

Rebecca Gransden: How To Play A Necromancer’s Theremin begins with a foreword narrated by musician Joshua Bohnsack. Here he talks about the time The Simpsons took a chance by animating Conan O’Brien, before it was known how he would be received after taking over from Letterman. This sense of risk, of throwing the cosmic dice, pervades the book. Could you expand on the use of chance in the novel?

Chase Griffin: Chance is the main engine of our novel. In the literaryverse of the Theremin, improv comedy is an esoteric magick. Sometimes, instead of communicating with their own words, characters rip the collected fictions of Rocco Atleby to tiny pieces, throw the confetti into the air, and – when the letters and word chunks land – speak the sometimes nonsensical, sometimes coherent, sometimes profound confetti arrangements. 

Christina and I constructed a lot of the book using these two methods. The main improv game we played was Del Close’s game called The Harold. And for the page confetti, we snatched the nastiest, moldiest books from neighborhood book boxes, blessed them with nag champa, playacted that the moldy books were the collected fictions of Rocco Atleby, tore them to shreds, tossed the confetti like I-Ching coins, and recorded the sometimes nonsensical, sometimes coherent, sometimes profound arrangements.

RG: Central to the book is the figure of author Rocco Atleby. For those who encounter his work, he and his addictive ideas take on the quality of an obsession, and he possesses a strange type of psychic hold over those who follow him. Did the writing of the novel bring you any closer to unraveling the enigma of Atleby?

CG: We will find out in the Rocquel.

RG: What is your general opinion of pomo fiction? Do you have any influences that would fall within this category, and is Theremin part of this tradition?

CG: I think the works of Pynchon and Robert Anton Wilson might be my favorite pomo books. I think all of the dissecting, deconstructing, dissolving, reducing, and self-reflection of pomo was totally inevitable. I think the rise and normalization of the surveillance state could absolutely not not create an art form that’s like a type of mass Hawthorne effect. When change is that vast and dramatic, the change morphs into a kind of self-conscious living information that gobbles up everyone. I think pomo, as crazy and convoluted as the concept is, was a very positive thing. It was a sort of mass therapy session meets the eleusinian mystery rites. I also think it’s a great tool for helping one avoid grand sweeping narratives and for staying sane on the journey through our chapel perilous world. 

I think pomo is still necessary and inevitable but I agree with Alan Moore when he says that as a society we’ve kind of reached peak deconstruction and it’s time to put the pieces back together. And I think that’s where the Theremin falls in this tradition. Christina and I were stitching those delicious reductions of the postmodern era back together.

RG: How did the co-authorship come about, and what form did this take in practice?

CG: At the beginning of the pandemic, Christina and I would go on these long, late-night walks, and we started riffing about this cult classic author character. That’s what we do for fun. We will riff and make up ridiculous characters and stories for hours at a time. After the walks, we wrote a six-episode improvy podcast series called The Rocco Atleby Foundation. And that series was the literal foundation of How To Play A Necromancer’s Theremin

A friend of mine, Joe Kamm from Zero Point Fiction, suggested we turn those podcast seeds into a novel. So we started piecing a story together. We started with the Rocco pilgrimage, Rocco’s superfans, the bookpowder, and then we Yes-Anded from there, jokingly musing about the nature of things, flirting with each other, and trying our dang hardest to make each laugh so hard we pissed ourselves. 

We wrote the book like a conversation in a Google document. Christina developed and wrote the dialogue for Octavia, Newsom, Will, and Ruby. I developed and wrote the dialogue for Rocco, Echo, Tony, Bobby, and Flynn. Christina was the John Swartzwelder and Kurt Vonnegut of this book – all of the funniest scenes and lines with the best comedic timing are hers. This book could not have happened without her. She’s literally the funniest, coolest, smartest person you’ll ever meet in your life. 

RG: “The cover art was a gold leaf rendering of Rocco’s own making, his famous sketch of what he called the Patasphere, a pandimensional sphere that appears to be eating itself, a symbol he created to represent the all-encompassing dualist universal narrative he believed entombed all of creation.”

Here we have the Patasphere, described as it is represented on the cover of Rocco Atleby’s Unabridged Exegesis. The concept of the Patasphere is hard to pin down, although it’s a crucial element of the book. In layman’s terms, what is the Patasphere, and what is its significance in relation to How To Play A Necromancer’s Theremin

CG: The Patasphere is the climb up the ladder of hierarchies of richer and ever richer language. The Theremin exists within this journey-climb and the book creates the journey-climb. 

RG: Instead of—or perhaps in addition to—Reality, the book presents Actuality, a definition of existence most of the characters confront at some point. What is Actuality in actuality and where does it stand on the idea of self-actualization?

CG: Actuality is a bit like a paratext to reality’s main text, or it’s like the map to the territory, or the menu to the meal. Actuality is a constructivist mantra, an exclamation of dismay, and a message of hope. 

RG: What constitutes, as you understand it, the indie lit fantasy experience?

CG: One of my buddies asked me the other day if it had anything to do with indie lit. I said, “Nah.” These four words – indie lit fantasy experience – came from an unrefined pageconfetti tossing. The indie lit fantasy experience is more like a thought experiment. First, imagine what money can do. Then, imagine the white male imperialist state corporate nexus sophist caudillo oligarchs that run the world – the heads of the military-industrial complex. Next, imagine how vast their wealth is. Imagine what you can accomplish with a wealth that’s not actually infinite but is so vast it might as well be described as infinite. Also, imagine Road Rules versus The Real World – because it’s funny to be totally random and out of pocket and imagine Road Rules versus The Real World

After imagining all of that, imagine that people this obsessed with wealth and power would do anything to protect their positions as heads of the state corporate nexus sophist caudillo oligarchy. Now, imagine how surreal some of these protection tactics might get. Imagine, these oligarchs hiring theater directors, comedy writers, pataphysicians, perception managers, and etceterists to set up a self-feeding mass surrealist, Dadaist, cannibalized-situationist political theater in which all of us preterite know that we know that they know that we know that they know that we know that they know what’s going on but no one can answer because to answer is to switch the revelation off, trigger mass Hawthorne effect, change the names and costumes and angles, and start all over again.  

RG: Much of the book is fuelled by book powder, a stimulating substance made from ground-down books. Many of the characters enter heightened states, rhapsodizing on the nature of Actuality, musing philosophically, and setting the world to rights. Does Theremin have an affinity with any stoner lit classics, and if so, what titles should readers of the book also investigate?

CG: The stoned conversations of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and VALIS were definitely mentioned quite a few times while we tinkered with the Theremin. I absolutely adore stoned talk and cannabis logic. I don’t smoke anymore, but Christina and I have joked about becoming pot farmers once the kids are all grown up. Our book is definitely designed to be read while stoned for sure. 

True Hallucinations by Terence McKenna is another classic that was on our minds as we tinkered. That one is absolutely incredible. It’s a stoned adventure sci-fi comedy novel for sure. A Separate Reality by Castaneda is also required psychonautical reading.

RG: “When I got older and started working I realized it’s because we’re all overworked…society has collectively stagnated because of it and we’ve become soulless workers without time for passions or hobbies or friendship or creativity, and everyone is too tired and overworked and cynical from the soullessness of society to want to do anything about it, so this prepackaged version of culture is easier.” 

Theremin grapples with growing societal undercurrents that I think are only now beginning to be articulated by artists. How do you view the artist’s lot at the moment?

CG: The following answer was cobbled together from collected cut-up clippings:

I think it is the fate of us preterite to never stop throwing wrenches into servomechanism. I think fragmentation stagflation is very much on purpose and I think that it not only does everything mentioned above but it’s this dark box that we’re all dropped inside of and forced to fight within. And I don’t think it is being perpetuated by top-down intervention. I think it’s seeping through much more subtle channels – which is why I think a non-top-down esoteric improv approach might be the best way to throw the wrenches. In the age of hyperindividualism, all is mood and no one wants to be told what to do or think, so to change hearts and minds living info must moodily seep like ecto goop into the nooks and crannies of a stone crumpet. People must be allowed to figure things out for themselves. And I think maybe the more the artist improvs the faster the artist can manifest this moody seepage through the stone.

RG: Does your original vision for the novel match the final result? How much did the narrative content impact the style of the book?

CG: How To Play A Necromancer’s Theremin is very much an ever-shifting eternal text. This book went through at least ten drafts, rewrites, retoolings, and revisions. Side note: My favorite part of writing is rewriting. I’m kind of addicted to it.

RG: “The world remastered itself.”

The novel goes one step further in its world-building and into something like plane-building (dimension-building, place-building, state of mind-building), with a textual framing of reality, many intersections involving ideas and states folding into and out of each other in a fluid way, and the material in dialogue with concepts. How did you approach constructing the rules and logic at play in the book?

CG: When we started the book, I was heavily into Harry Stephen Keeler’s theory of webwork plotting, which is the creation of “ludicrous yet internally consistent coincidences.” Christina and I took this anarchic approach to this book. The great anarchist sci-fi writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, in her book on writing, says something close to “Fuck the writing rules and you as the writer can make up your own rules and just make sure you follow the rules you create.” 

I was also reading Del Close’s improv comedy manual while we were tinkering and editing. That manual is probably the biggest shaper of our current culture and nobody realizes it. It’s like an esoteric magick spell book, I swear. I recommend improv comedy to everyone. Just reading about it will change your life. I think it’s an invaluable secret tool for fighting against totalitarianism. And it’s all there, the improv tool, heinleined and stitched and scattered throughout nonlinear time and into the Theremin.

RG: At times the book is a carnivalesque ontological romp, leaping from one metaphysical and phantasmagoric version of nonlinear irreality to the next. The density of ideas is frequently a head-scramble, and exhilarating for that. Were any counterculture or nonsensical nerdist psychonauts a direct or indirect influence on the novel? 

CG: Absolutely. Robert Anton Wilson and his off-kilter brand of maybe-logic and guerrilla ontology were a major influence on the book. I will forever be influenced by the ridiculousness of Rabelais. Octavia Butler is the most important sci-fi writer of all time. Her soothsaying abilities were on our minds as we pieced the Theremin together. I listened to hours and hours of psychonaut and raconteur extraordinaire Terence McKenna’s speeches while writing this book. Dr. Erik Davis and his book High Weirdness were a big influence on us. I could go on and on about Borges and his brain-wrinkling analyses of impossible objects, places, and people. The ghost of necromancer Mary Shelley was one of our consultants. There’s always something new to learn about anarchism and world building from Alan Moore, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Michael Moorcock. 

In my mind, Pynchon and Harry Stephen Keeler were having the strangest conversation ever, waxing poetic about “ludicrous yet internally consistent coincidences and plots.” Harry Stephen Keeler is beyond fantastic. His webwork plot style has influenced everyone from Simpsons and Futurama writers to the singer Sia. He was a totally out of pocket writer, a hundred years ahead of his time. This is the plot of Finger! Finger!: “When our hero inadvertently switches overcoats with a stranger and finds a human finger in a pocket, he is plunged into a tiramisù of telegrams, newspaper stories, endless phone calls, hieroglyphics, and a 67-page deathbed confession. Notable for the opening chapter, written by Harry’s wife, Hazel Goodwin Keeler, as a parody of her husband’s style.”

We’ve always resonated with Authors of the PeopleWe will forever love Shakespeare because he wrote his plays for the people on the wrong side of the river. Joyce and his wordplay and association games tickledeetoinkened Theremin often. Kafka and his damn paranoia of course did a number on the book. The influence of Alfred Jerry can not go unspoken. While clicking the components of the Theremin together, Christina and I were constantly reading Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poetry – The Hunting of the Snark and “Jabberwocky” – to each other.

RG: There’s an anarchic immediacy to the book, a type of giddy limitlessness. Is there an element of pranksterism to the novel?

CG: I think the pranksterism of the 60s and 70s that was aimed at oppressive powers-that-be has been co-opted by the powers and pointed back at the people. Christina and I wanted to do a little recuperation and give it back to the people. 

RG: “Accelerated change always, always, always make peeperzzzz go nuts don’t mind if I do lol. You’re gonna beeezz okayzzzz. The whole world is like celebrity gossip newzzzzz now. And the alternative rags like Dicey News and Bad Clusters Mag are owned and operated by third party FBICIANSA entities. Those rags exist to reinforce the linguistic servomechanism. Neo-reactionarism is what happens when anti-democratic hard right narcs infiltrate the hard left, and then aggregate, proliferate, dissimilate, influence, and spread weaponized bad karma. You want advice? Are you a narc? You have the mannerisms, tone, gait, clothing, and thoughts that I can definitely read of a fucking narc. Also, why wouldn’t narcs be errrrrrweeeeeeweeeeere? LOLasaurus. Why would I not be a narc? Why would you believe something just because it sounded good? Like, why take something to be absolutely true simply because of its vervy verve? Why wouldn’t some random person on the internet be a plant? You see the point I’m trying to make here?” He splashed water at the camera. 

Is there something different about the current historical moment, or is it still a matter of society being the same as it ever was? Some predict a coming movement towards technophobia—“Turn on, tune in, drop out,” but this time a rejection of cyberspace. Generally, did we drop out too far, and should we drop back into whatever it is we’ve lost?

CG: I think maybe when electricity was first introduced to society, there were a lot of bugs that needed to be worked out – voltage issues and probably a fair amount of buildings catching fire. During the beginning of indoor plumbing, I bet lots of buildings filled with shit. People probably thought demons and devils lived inside of the electricity and the pipes because of all this fire and shit. Social media might be cyberspace’s voltage issues and building fires. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love me some good memes. And I love using it for self-promotion. But maybe we can still have good memes and self-promotion without these schismogenesis, anxiety, headache, bad karma platforms invented and operated by greedy white bro-dudes. I can’t wait for cyberspace to be more like the Library of Alexandria it was intended to be. I can’t wait for cyberspace to be like every other ameliorated technology. I can’t wait for it to be a boring thing like fire, the wheel, plumbing, and electricity.

RG: Music is of great importance throughout the novel, and appears in various ways. Could you elaborate on the use of music in the book?

CG: I think music is the omniverse. It’s not that existence precedes essence or that essence precedes existence – music precedes everything. And this omniversal music is alive and sentient. Maybe music is orgone energy. Maybe it is the birth of pleasure. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Donec placerat placerat maximus. In ac enim in ligula eleifend ornare sed vitae ex. Cras nec aliquet ris’us, sed phar’etra tellus. In finibus ex in elit auct’or imperdiet. 

Christina and I approached the Theremin with musicians’ ears – in an attempt at communicating with the omnimuzakgawd. Rhythm, flow, and lyricism were words we threw around a lot while writing and tinkering. Most of the time it was the rhythm, flow, and lyricism that dictated the meaning of the content. That’s a pretty liberating, psychedelic feeling – to let go and let the book take over. When you do that the book comes to life. It’s alive! It’s alive! And then your book will start talking to you and your book will tell you what it wants to be.   

RG: “This is not the greatest book in the world,” I said like Jimmy Stewart, waving my hand in a flourish. “This is just a tribute. Eat the fuck outta that fatted calf why doncha.”

Oct said, “Couldn’t remember the greatest book in the world. This is a tribute.”

Flynn threw open his arms and said, “To the greatest book in the world.”

Do you have any music suggestions for readers who would like to blast something loud in tribute to How To Play A Necromancer’s Theremin?

CG: Tenacious D, Cardiacs’ The Seaside, Hawkwind’s In Search of Space, Mt. Gigantic’s Gleanings and Gatherings, The B-52s, TV On The Radio’s Return To Cookie Mountain, Joanna Newsom, Television’s Marquee Moon, Thelonious Monk, Broom Closet (from Tampa), Algernon Cadwallader, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, P-Funk, Sleater Kinney, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Candy Bars (from Tampa), Nirvana, Radiohead, Galaxie 500, and Broadcast’s Tender Buttons, Richard Dawson’s Peasant.

RG: What music would soundtrack the docutainment version of the story behind your book How To Play A Necromancer’s Theremin which takes its title from the docutainment special How To Play A Necromancer’s Theremin? Who would do the narration?

CG: I think the narrator would have to be Vincent Price, Orson Welles, Cloris Leachman, or all three. I’m feeling rickety old BBC or PBS documentary electronic music would be the soundtrack for sure. The soundtrack should sound like it was composed on synthesizer made out of used car parts and chewing gum. And there’s not a theremin to be found. Maybe the ending credits music could be a theremin cover of Mozart’s 25th, but that’s it. 


Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at Tangerine Press, Ligeia, Expat, BRUISER, and Fugitives & Futurists, among others. Her books include anemogram., Sea of Glass, Creepy Sheen, and Figures Crossing the Field Towards the Group.

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