“Swarm Theory,” the debut novel of Hypertext Magazine editor Christine Rice, is a complex biome of connective tissue that maps the lives of mid-Michigan small-town inhabitants as through a glittering, shifting glass. A collection of linked stories told through individual viewpoints, “Swarm Theory” spans issues of infidelity, homophobia, torture, sexual abuse and more in the imaginary town of New Canaan, Michigan. This is a 1970s version of “Winesburg, Ohio,” a novel that looks under the skin of a town on the fringe.
The title of your novel-in-stories is “Swarm Theory,” a scientific term for the behavior of colony insects. How did that become the title of this collection?
I have always been fascinated by swarm behavior; how ants and bees and birds and fish possess a kind of intelligence that defies explanation. They innately know their roles and how to work together. I’ve been equally fascinated by how when people pull together they’re able to accomplish amazing, positive things. On the other hand, humans are the only higher form of life that commits trespasses against each other. It’s bad enough for an individual to lose her humanity, but how do two or more people lose their collective humanity? It’s incredible to me. And I could never really express the sickening feeling I get when confronted by evil, except in my fiction.
“Swarm Theory” is set in New Canaan, a fictional town outside of Flint, Michigan, that is based on your hometown. Who were the inhabitants of your hometown in the 1970s?
When I was in first grade, my family moved from Flint—a diverse city—to a freshly minted suburb. At that time, Grand Blanc was not a very diverse place. There were only a handful of families of color—Indians, blacks, a few of us of a Mediterranean background. There weren’t even many Jewish families. My mother’s parents came from Lebanon and then, as well as now, Flint had a vibrant Lebanese community. Dearborn and Detroit also have wonderful Chaldean, Palestinian, Yemini and Lebanese communities. And since my mother’s family is so close, I identified with that side of my heritage.
There were two sides of Grand Blanc. There was the southern half where professionals lived—doctors, lawyers and General Motors’ executives. The northern half of Grand Blanc was made up of middle- to upper-middle class families including middle managers, salespeople, line workers, small business owners and teachers, where we lived. I ended up loosely basing New Canaan on Grand Blanc. I used small businesses that everyone would know, like Halo Burger, Angelo’s and Mitchell’s from both Grand Blanc and Flint to serve as touchstones. In the end, I wholly reimagined New Canaan and that really gave me the permission to let the place breathe on its own.
What was important to you to convey about the seventies as a historical period?
Well, I did truly believe that, when I turned sixteen, my life would be perfect if I had a Camaro or a Corvette. I’m not even joking about that. Because Flint was a General Motors’ town and Michigan was defined by the automobile industry. If your parents didn’t directly work for GM, they relied on the GM economic engine. I felt that we were very much defined by what we drove. My uncles and aunts always had really sweet Buicks and Lincolns and Cadillacs. My folks—Chevys. It would have been unheard of to drive a Honda or Toyota.
And AIDS was beginning to be discussed in hushed tones. And those same hushed voices were used to discuss violence toward women. As a young woman, I felt quite powerless to process these things. We would internalize and, in a weird way, accept the notion that “boys will be boys,” that crimes like rape couldn’t be committed by people we knew but by deranged strangers. That cultural blindness allowed a lot of people to go unpunished.
The collection is told from multiple viewpoints across several years in New Canaan. Why was this the best form to tell “Swarm Theory” as opposed to a conventional novel?
I kept bumping against that conventional idea of the novel. When I sent out “Swarm Theory,” a few agents got back to me with the, “I love the writing but…” line. And I understand agents are beholden to the big publishers who mostly publish conventional novels, memoirs, nonfiction. There were just so many characters bumping around my brain that I couldn’t contain them to one character’s point of view or even to an overall narrator with access to all those characters’ interior lives. And while agents approached this as a problem to be solved, I saw it as the story’s strength.
By Christine Rice
University of Hell Press, 372 pages, $20
Christine Rice reads at Sunday Salon Chicago, June 26, 7pm, Riverview Tavern, 1958 West Roscoe (773)248-9523. Free.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.