Invasion by Luke Rhinehart is the latest book by the cult American author who lived in Deià in the late 1960s and early 70s and it’s a great read.
In June 2015, not so long after I started writing for this blog, I talked to American Luke Rhinehart AKA George Cockcroft about his time in Deià in the late 1960s and early 70s. This was the period when he was writing his cult book The Dice Man. In September of last year, I was delighted to read a glowing review of Luke’s latest, Invasion, in The Independent.
The reviewer, David Barnett, described Invasion as ‘The best and funniest sci-fi satire you’ll read all year.’ While I’m not sure it’s satire – although that’s also how Luke describes it – I will say that Invasion will make you grin from ear to ear a lot and probably laugh out loud.
As far as the plot goes, all you need to know is that earth is invaded by hairy, highly intelligent beach balls. In cahoots with Billy, the embodiment of the playful, anarchic values of the 1960s, and his family, the hairy beach balls – or FFs, for Furry Friends – proceed to threaten the very foundations of civilization as we know it by not taking it remotely seriously. Or perhaps taking it seriously enough to play with it.
I was mightily impressed by Invasion. Although why I should have been I don’t quite know. I recently reread The Dice Man and, probably because of its status as a cult book, I’d never realised how well-written it is. Anyway, I fired off an email to Luke asking if I could interview him again and he graciously agreed.
How long did Invasion take to write, Luke?
The novel took about a year to write and another five months to do a major revision. I got much help on the book from several writer friends (acknowledged at the beginning of the book) and several thought the novel was too long and the second half definitely needed cutting. After much thought, I reached the conclusion that the problem wasn’t length but rather that I hadn’t come up with any fresh story lines for the last third of the book. The Lord Chance blessed me with several new ideas that actually are some of the funniest things in the whole novel. So the book ended up being longer after revision, but much much better.
One of the things I like about Invasion is that it’s ridiculous. It’s not satire or a rant. Do you think it’s possible to satirise our world today?
Invasion is often satirical, but the satire is not angry. The FFs are all for play and lightness and that makes my satire light. And satire itself is alive and well throughout the world.
(My feeling is that it’s impossible to satirise the wonderful times in which we live today because the people being satirised are immune to being embarrassed. To my mind, satire should somehow be a weapon. I would say that Invasion works so well because it’s a hilariously funny story, superbly plotted. But, hey, what do I know?)
Billy Morton, your central human character, embodies many values I’d associate with the 60s and 70s. To what extent do you think these are heroic?
‘Heroic’ is too strong a word, but I admire the spirit of those times. I admire the withdrawal from and protest against the dominant consumer and militaristic culture of that time (and today of course too); I admire the experimentation with alternate ways of living like the hundreds of communes that sprung up at that time. I and my family were part of the first summer of a commune called ‘The Abode of the Message’ in New Lebanon, NY, a commune that still exists, only ten miles from where we have been living for the past 40 years. I also admired that although most political protest was serious, often it was also playful—Abbie Hoffman and the 1968 democratic convention, girls giving flowers to soldiers confronting them, circling the Pentagon to ‘raise it’ off the ground.
Did you also decide ‘to resign from the human race’ when Nixon was elected?
No. Since I find both major political parties in the United States committed to gigantic military budgets, interventions throughout the world, rampant consumer culture and economic inequalities, I am never upset at any election result, including the last one here.
I have many times resigned from the human race but for my own sanity rather than as an act of political despair.
Would you say that writing is your version of the ‘hard, hard work’ that Billy does to avoid ‘worrying about what a mess humans are making of this world’?
Writing for me is never hard work. It is always fun.
Louie, the FF, tells Billy that the aliens’ arrival on earth is to no purpose, ‘we’re here to play’. But the games they play have rules, they’re not entirely random. What are your rules to live by?
All games must have rules or there can be no game. The FFs could win every game they entered with humans unless they accepted rules that limited the powers that they can use.
I have no rules whatsoever that I live by, unless you think aphorisms like “This truth above all: fake it,” constitutes a rule.
(I’m not sure if this is a rule. It’s more like a Zen koan. But it’s a good reminder that we should take nothing for granted.)
Is there any reason why one of the agents is named Graves?
What do you think happens to ‘the shit that doesn’t hit the fan’?
It hits something else.
(Although this is a reference I’m afraid you’ll only really get when you read the book – another good reason to do so – it does say something profound about the nature of existence. Even if I’m not quite sure what.)
At one point, Lita, Billy’s wife, describes the aliens as having the characteristics of a plant. I have to ask: do the aliens symbolise marijuana?
No they don’t, at least not in my mind.
In Louie’s op-ed piece in The New York Times you have him write ‘only change is interesting’. Would you agree?
I agree with everything Louie said in that piece.
Do you think there could be a revolution in America?
I doubt it, but who predicted Donald Trump would become President of the United States?
In the last selection from the New Protean Dictionary of American Usage, a sort of manifesto for the FFs, you describe Zen as ‘An Eastern mode of thought that appears to be strikingly similar to Ickian (Protean or FF) non-thought’. Is Zen as important to you as it ever was?
Zen is not a single thing in my mind and certainly not a religion, so I am reluctant to say that it is ‘as important as it ever was’. However, the effects of my studying Zen and other Eastern modes of thought have made me the person I am today, so in that sense they are as important as ever.
Towards the end of the book, Louie says ‘Death is just life in other forms’. Is that what you believe?
The Proteans define Death in their dictionary as follows:
DEATH: Life’s transition to a less active state. Considered by humans to be highly undesirable, but by most of the rest of the earth’s life forms as natural as birth.
Invasion ends somewhat abruptly. How long will we have to wait for the sequel?
Beats me. My hunch is that the book will pour out of me this year and I’ll finish it by September. It will then take the publisher another full year to get it out into the world. Long time. Hope I live to see it.
Thanks, Luke. If it doesn’t sound too ghoulish, so do I.
The more I think about it, the more I realise that Invasion is so oddly powerful because its silliness is a carrier of deadly serious observations on the nature of life, death and society. This, to my mind, sets it apart from anything I’ve read recently that attempts satire – I’m thinking of Jarrett Kobek’s acclaimed I hate the internet in particular. Kobek’s book is a great rant but, because it doesn’t offer any kind of hope, nothing more.
By laughing at the terrible state we’re in, Invasion is peculiarly life-affirming. We’re living in chilly times, especially if you’re in Deià – and you could do far worse than curl up and keep warm with Invasion.
In a twist that would no doubt have delighted Luke, The Independent reviewer actually wrote ‘The best and funniest sci-fi satire you’ll read all year…at least until Donald Trump is in the White House.’ I’ve got the feeling that Trump’s horrifying elevation to 45th president of the United States may well figure in the next thrilling instalment of the adventures of Billy and his Furry Friends. At least I hope so.
Luke was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about his life and the circumstances that led him to write Naked Before the World, set in Deià. He was also sufficiently tactful to treat some of my crasser questions with a respect they didn’t deserve. Tune in next week for more from Luke.