Adam McOmber’s new novel, Jesus and John (232 pages; Lethe Press), is a uniquely engrossing book, one that blends the sacred and the secular, the real and the surreal, and also offers an artful and subtle interrogation of what consciousness is and what, ultimately, it means to be alive. Not only is it a genre-defying novel, but the author immerses us in the strange world of ancient Rome, which at the time was the seat of a polytheistic empire.
Throughout Jesus and John, there’s the inimitable sense of the biblical title characters advancing through a mysterious and possibly malevolent, maze-like Roman house, the Gray Palace, only to find themselves forced to double back or else take an unforeseen detour to evade danger. The pair appears to be caught in the web of a collective dream (or a nightmare, depending on your tolerance for mazes). Like Estragon and Vladimir, Samuel Beckett’s most well-known characters, for much of the novel, it isn’t clear if Jesus and John are going anywhere but deeper into a harrowing dreamscape.
Similar to the author’s three previous books—the story collections This New and Poisonous Air (BOA) and My House Gathers Desires (BOA), and the novel The White Forest (Touchstone)—Jesus and John features a seductive commingling of classic horror tropes with a progressive queer sensibility.I had the opportunity recently to interview McOmber, who teaches in the MFA Writing Programs at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Los Angeles, about his new novel via Google Docs and email. Jesus and John will be released June 9.
ZYZZYVA: I’ve never read a novel quite like this—literary horror that’s also historical fiction: a reimagining of Jesus’s resurrection as a kind of fever dream, one in which he travels to Rome with the disciple John and enters into a mysterious, possibly sinister house where he must journey through a series of strange, enormous rooms that might or might not be real. What inspired this novel? Where/how did it begin?
Adam McOmber: Jesus and John was inspired by so many experiences, honestly. It’s difficult to follow all of those threads back to their sources. But one thing that has influenced all of my writing is the experience of growing up gay in a small, predominantly Christian town in Ohio. The feelings produced by that experience made my own reality feel perpetually slippery and weird. Surfaces, I understood (even as a child), did not match the murky complicated depths they covered. My mother, who has thankfully always been a kind of spiritual rebel, kept books on her shelf like God Drives a Flying Saucer and The Secret Power of the Pyramids. Wonderfully esoteric New Age stuff.
As a boy, I would page through those books and get ideas. Jesus and John can be viewed, at least in part, as queer feedback for my small Christian town. A kind of surreal retort conjured by a child looking at his mother’s mysterious books. Coupled with that, I’ve always been inspired by certain works of nonfiction that investigate and analyze the underpinnings of Christian mythology. Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, C.G. Jung’s Answer to Job, and James Frazier’s The Golden Bough are all major influences. Pagan sexuality and sensuality also hold consistent sway over my imagination.
Any time I encounter a text that I think represents that thrum of ancient desire, I feel so compelled. Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, the metaphysical horror stories of Vernon Lee, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Gaspar Noé’s Climax. I love the idea of getting lost in a forest, a mansion, a ruin. I wanted to make a book that felt like that.
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Z: Waiting for Godot and Alice and Wonderland both came to mind as I read Jesus and John. Were they or Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey on your mind as you wrote this novel?
AM: I love Joseph Campbell and I’m equally compelled by Wonderland, but I’m not sure if there is any sort of guiding text or blueprint for this book. Honestly, I think what actually brought me to the narrative pattern for this story is a dialogue exercise I do in creative writing classes. The idea behind the exercise is that it’s not particularly interesting if Character A asks a question and Character B simply provides an answer. It’s much more interesting if Character B answers with another question or finds an inventive way to avoid answering entirely.
So the narrative pattern in Jesus and John is something like—how long can I go on not answering the question posed at the beginning of the book? What would it feel like, in fact, to get lost inside that question, to double-back, fall down, get more and more confused, until the echoes of the question itself begin to look like the answer? That’s sort of how the human invention of religion makes me feel. And it’s often how life makes me feel as well. So if there’s a guiding principle for Jesus and John, it’s that inability or refusal to answer a question. Old school noir and Victorian ghost stories (both genres I love) work in a similar way, I think.
Z: The female characters in Jesus and John are as elusive and complex as the male characters, if not also as physically present as the title characters are. There’s the Gray Lady, who presides over the frightening Roman house; a young woman, Sapia, who, with her twin brother, Jax, is the house’s caretaker; and a silent weaver woman who refuses to answer any of John’s questions when they meet. The Bible, which, from what I remember of it, is much more concerned with the patriarchal figures it apotheosizes (we do have Eve, of course, who serves as the grand villain of the whole story). Were you thinking specifically of any contemporary women or other fictional characters when you wrote Jesus and John’s female characters?
AM: I do love this question. Spaces dominated and controlled by women are certainly an interest of mine. I guess even more than that I’m interested in spaces dominated by a queer presence. Often those representations overlap—Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Doctor Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
There is a moment at the beginning of Jesus and John where John and the Apostle Peter talk briefly to Mary Magdalene. She’s treated as almost a means to an end by these two men. Peter says something to her like: “Don’t draw your story out in a womanish way.” I think this initial interaction opens a kind of doorway in the novel. John and the resurrected Yeshua are put in dialogue with women for the rest of the book. And as you know, their reality, or what they imagine to be reality, is slowly stripped away by these interactions. I was interested in how an absence—the silenced female or the silenced queer other—might possess and deform a space. The Gray Palace, the primary setting for the novel, is a result of that deformation.
Z: Gallus, a Roman soldier Jesus and John meet not long after the novel begins, is an important supporting character. He’s very appealing—both physically and emotionally—but ultimately, he causes much moral confusion for John. Can you talk about him? Was his arrival and his importance something that evolved as you wrote or was he there in the narrative from the start?
AM: Tennessee Williams once said, “I cannot write any sort of story unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.” I think that’s probably true for me as well. Almost all of my stories are about desire and the trouble that comes from desiring. We build desire up around ourselves like a house and then we live inside that house. And, sometimes, something wakes us up, and we realize just how out of joint the whole place is. We didn’t build a beautiful mansion; we built Hill House or, in the case of Jesus and John, the Gray Palace.
John is adrift at the beginning of the book. He’s lost his beloved, Yeshua, and now he’s floating in the wreckage of that relationship, trying to hold onto memories. Then, along comes this handsome Roman soldier, someone who should be an enemy, but who instead offers to provide much needed help. That was interesting to me. I wanted to learn more about what would happen between these two men.
Stories are investigations for me. I know a little bit about what might transpire. But most of the fun of writing is being surprised. I knew that Gallus, the Roman soldier, was a character capable of surprising me. So I let him do just that. If I get in a certain mindset when I’m writing, I feel like I’m watching the characters rather than making them take preordained actions. So I really just watched the John and Gallus storyline like a movie. It was great fun for me and greatly distressing for the characters.
Z: There’s a worm-like monster that appears toward the end of the novel. It is truly grotesque and brought to my mind Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits. Were you drawing from cinematic influences as you wrote this novel and created this monster in particular?
AM: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Time Bandits! I do love Terry Gilliam, though. I watched his film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote while I was working on Jesus and John, and I think parts of that film crept into my imagination, particularly certain scenes near the end of the film at the house of the duke. The worm, however, is inspired by depictions of the serpent from the Garden of Eden. In Medieval art the serpent is often shown as having legs and wings and even a human face. I pulled from these various fantastical depictions to make my worm. I wanted him to be a grotesque and sad sort of monster. An animal who is suffering, like we are all suffering. The worm’s suffering emanates outward like an aura and causes suffering to those who come into contact with it. A truly monstrous presence.
Z: You’ve published two story collections (This New and Poisonous Air and My House Gathers Desires) along with one other novel, The White Forest. They all share a few notable characteristics, for example, the repressed and expressed sexuality of the main characters, an elusive connection between real and imagined worlds. But Jesus and John is different in that it draws its main characters very explicitly from the Bible and is set in an ancient era. How much research did you do for this novel?
AM: I did a lot of research. The books and lectures of New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman were particularly influential. At first, it was difficult to imagine a way into this story. Depicting a reality from two thousand years ago seemed almost impossible. But once I came up with the idea of the Gray Palace, the primary setting for the novel, things got easier and more fun. Stories from the Bible exist primarily in John’s memory. They are frequently left half-told and broken as well. The deeper we get into the Gray Palace and the narrative itself, the more those Biblical stories begin to feel like inventions or even hallucinations. It was great fun to do the research and then play with all the pieces inside my own narrative.
This novel is a sort of nightmare version of the classic Sunday school felt board. All the characters are present and wearing the right costumes, but you’ll definitely be surprised by what they do.
Adam McOmber is the author of The White Forest: A Novel (Touchstone) and two collections of stories, This New & Poisonous Air and My House Gathers Desires (BOA). His new novel, Jesus and John, is forthcoming from Lethe Press in June 2020. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, Fairytale Review and Diagram. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Los Angeles.