A New Voice in Bizarro Land: An Interview with Christopher Rigel

I picked up Christopher Rigel’s debut novella, Oval Orifice, almost entirely by chance. I knew Chris from college and was delighted to discover he had written a book. He had always been one of the sharp students in my literature courses, and I was certain his work would be worth a glance. When I discovered that Oval Orifice was, not only pure bizarro fiction, but extremely well written, high quality bizarro fiction, I was shocked, thrilled, and chomping at the bit to help introduce him to the kind of readers who would certainly appreciate Rigel’s wild blend of rollicking humor, satirical nastiness, and incisive intelligence. To bizarro fiction fans everywhere, Oval Orifice is for you. Stop by his Amazon page, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and, above all, help me give Rigel a bizarro welcome to our strange corner of the literary universe.

-Justin A. Burnett

“I began by asking how fiction should function–what its role should be–in an increasingly post-truth society. Strict literary realism seemed a daunting task, especially when stacked against the absurdities of real life… I realized fiction would probably have to be WAY over the fucking top to compete.”

-Christopher Rigel

Justin A. Burnett: I read your novella, Oval Orifice, and was absolutely delighted with the precision of your writing and the truly laugh-out-loud humor. I can’t seem to find anything else by you on Amazon, however. Is Oval Orifice your first book?

Christopher Rigel: Thank you for that. I’m certainly glad the jokes have translated at least decently well out of my head. And you’re correct: Oval Orifice is my first and currently only work of fiction for sale. If you search Amazon for Christopher Rigel, however, you’ll likely find a couple psychedelic pop songs I released a few years back.

Burnett: Awesome. So you do music as well? What do I need to imagine when you say psychedelic pop: something closer to Flaming Lips or Syd Barrett?

Rigel: Yeah, I do music and poetry and some visual art… no sense in arguing with the muse, you know? And yes, at the time those songs were recorded, I was listening to a ton of the Lips.

Burnett: I completely understand that. I dabble in the three myself. I don’t think any artist could possibly be “too diverse,” despite the industry-standard shove towards specialization implicit in the emphasis on “branding.” Before we get back to Oval Orifice, how would you describe your visual art?

Rigel: I like to combine text and images to create sardonic anti-memes that can hang on someone’s wall.

Burnett: They certainly sound interesting; I’m trying to think of another artist who, as I recall, combined text and image ironically, but I’m coming up short. The mention of memes sort of brings us back to Oval Orifice in that it seems critical of the media culture surrounding both sides of the current political divide in the US. Do you want to give readers a brief summary or plug for Oval Orifice before we discuss it more directly?

Editor’s Note: For further criticism of media culture, memes, and the duality of political views engendered by the “viral” phenomenon, see “Reading in the Age of Trump: the Danger of Low-Hanging Fruit on SMM.

Rigel: Yeah, the fringes of the main narrative look at our sociopolitical left/right divide, particularly in media portrayal and subsequent audience interpretation. While I myself am certainly left-leaning, I hope that I at least somewhat skewer both sides.

Burnett: You do so much more than that, I feel, but I’ll return to that point. First off, it’s not a conventional narrative at all. This site generally promotes what I loosely call “the literary weird.” Horror, experimental, and bizarro fiction is frequently featured, and your book falls beautifully in with some of the best of bizarro fiction. Did you set out to write a “bizarro” book?

Rigel: It is sort of serendipitous that Oval Orifice fits into this bizarro literature category. I did not begin the project with that label in mind, nor was I fully cognizant of its existence, I’m afraid. Ultimately, though, how else could one address honestly the recent (and still roiling) wave(s) of American strangeness?

I began by asking how fiction should function–what its role should be–in an increasingly post-truth society. Strict literary realism seemed a daunting task, especially when stacked against the absurdities of real life. I mean, FFS, there was an NSA whistle-blower named Reality Winner; readers, I suspect, would roll their eyes at such a name in fiction.

And, of course, there was *sigh* fake news, the prevalence of which further sowed public distrust and political discord and… whatever… we all know this already. My point is that I realized fiction would probably have to be WAY over the fucking top to compete.

Burnett: That’s a very good response. I agree that addressing an overtly absurd reality requires even more absurd fiction. There’s also the FART Act and children in cages; as reality increasingly leans towards the bizarre, fiction has to shout louder than normal to get its point across, I think. Did any particular political event “spark” the writing process? If not, what made you decide to write Oval Orifice?

Rigel: OMG, the FART Act! I’m so glad that happened after I released my story. I would have otherwise probably admitted defeat.

The main narrative began with my knee-jerk reaction to then-candidate Trump: “Fuck this guy.” And once I interpreted my reaction literally, well… there you have it.

The specifics then derived from the uncanny resemblance of Trump to a comic book villain, whom craft into the fictional Daniel J. Trounce. And isn’t a common comic book trope the dichotomy of hero and villain? It at least seemed accurate enough, so I tried to develop a superhero in direct contrast to President Trounce.

Burnett: I cant remember who said it–it was probably someone’s Tweet or something–but someone pointed out the irony that a culture obsessed with superheroes can’t recognize a real supervillain when faced with one. Despite the apparent dichotomy of good and evil, however, you paint a pretty even-handed picture, as we’ve already mentioned. Even though it’s imbedded in a huge, hilarious portrayal, there even seems to be a tinge of sympathy for Trump. In the book, it’s pointed out several times that a man that fucked up must be hurting somehow. The truly comic aspect of Oval Orifice is that your Trounce is more human than Trump. Is this tiny bit of sympathy real for you in any way?

Rigel: Trounce is more human than Trump… that’s probably the nicest thing anyone’s said about this story so far. Thank you for that. To answer your question: No way, man. I have zero sympathy for that heartless monster. The sympathetic light in which I attempt to cast my version of him perhaps sugarcoats his vileness to an almost palatable level, but its actually another attack. I suspect that someone like Trump would be insulted by the idea that someone felt sorry for him. Or I hope so, at least.

Burnett: I absolutely agree. He seems to have no use for pity, given the fact that he vocally advertises his own perfection. Another impressive aspect of Oval Orifice is that it doesn’t read like a debut release. You came out swinging with a highly developed voice, a strong command of grammar, and a lyrical precision that I simply don’t see much in new writers. How did you develop your “chops” outside of writing poetry?

Rigel: That’s very kind of you to say. Thank you. Outside of writing poetry? I don’t know, man. I can’t really separate myself from it. My background consists mostly of songwriting and competitive/slam poetry. I approach prose with the same sort of performance mindset. If there’s a command of grammar, I must have some pretty great English teachers to thank.

Burnett: What about influences? I sense some David Foster Wallace in your writing. Are there others who have helped shape your style and vision?

Rigel: Yeah, DFW for sure. I’ve also recently taken a shine to Pynchon and DeLillo. My earlier influences include Vonnegut, Bill Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and probably a little from Palahniuk. And, I mean, that list of names feels like such a cliché, but whatever.

Burnett: The fact that they could be called a cliché is a testimony to their greatness. I’ve recently warmed back up to Pynchon myself. What have you read by him so far?

Rigel: That’s a valid point. I’ve only read three Pynchon works so far. I started with Gravity’s Rainbow… earned my merit badge for that one. Then I read The Crying of Lot 49… hilarious, btw. But Bleeding Edge, his most recent, wins it for me. He captures the energy of very specific and perhaps nearly forgotten moment in America between the dot-com bubble and 9/11.

Burnett: I loved The Crying of Lot 49 and his Slow Learner collection. I’ve recently tried (again) Gravity’s Rainbow, but had to put it aside for other obligatory reading. I have to say, while it was an easier go for me now than it was, say, five years ago, it was still a pretty rough first hundred pages. I have to ask: does it get any better?

Rigel: I think it does, yes. I can’t claim to have fully absorbed it after one reading, or that it necessitated the hype, but I found a lot of the ideas presented to be quite worthwhile… mathematically tracing the arc of human destiny between pinpoints of love and war… I mean, maybe I misread it, but whatever… still pretty rad.

Burnett: That’s good to know, and the mathematical arc sounds spot on, given what I’ve read on it. I’ll have to give it another try soon, although I may read Bleeding Edge first. It’s been sitting in my Kindle for a while, but I haven’t touched it. Let’s get back to your work. Are you going to write another book? Please say yes.

Rigel: Oh, most definitely, yes. I have notes started for a few other ideas, but so far nothing has captured and demanded my attention with the same urgency that Oval Orifice did. But yeah, someday for sure.

Burnett: Awesome. That’s truly good to hear. Are you planning to self publish again or try the traditional submission route?

Rigel: I guess it depends on the finished product. If it turns into another bizarro piece, I’ll certainly let you know.

Burnett: Awesome, man. I’ll definitely be looking forward to it!

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