I’m a sucker for a man who reads Yeats. So I’m bound to like a man who bases his novel on an obscure Yeats play.
“When I was at Yale in graduate school, a friend of mine brought me to see a play that the undergraduates were doing, and it was ‘The Only Jealousy of Emer,'” David Duchovny recalls one rainy day over lattes at Tavern on the Green in New York City. “It’s a verse play, so it’s kind of unwatchable. But I got the gist of it, which was a very cool wager about love, and it stayed with me forever.”
Naturally, since this is Fox Mulder of “The X-Files,” there’s a supernatural element and a parallel universe. And since this is also Hank Moody of “Californication,” there’s some drinking and womanizing, too.
In the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, Emer and the warrior hero Cu Chulainn fall in love and marry after trading cryptic riddles.
The Yeats play conjures a moment when Cu Chulainn inadvertently kills his own son in battle and then, distraught, begins fighting “the deathless sea” and almost drowns. A demonic Irish fairy, called a Sidhe, appears and offers Emer a cruel bargain: If she gives up her fondest hope that the warrior will tire of his mistress — also at his sickbed — and grow old with her, the fairy will let Cu Chulainn live.
“He’ll never sit beside you at the hearth,” the Sidhe tells Emer, “Or make old bones, but die of wounds and toil, on some far shore or mountain, a strange woman beside his mattress.”
After agonizing over the choice, Emer finally says, “If he may live I am content.”
In “Miss Subways,” published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Duchovny modernizes this myth into the tale of Emer Gunnels, a 41-year-old New York schoolteacher who likes to take the subway and eat ice cream and make love with her boyfriend, Cuchulain, a writer known as Con.
Duchovny, 57, says the hardest thing about putting out a novel in the age of Trump is Trump. Or, to purloin a line from his novel: Are we all characters in a Beckett play directed by Sartre?
“Every time I’m talking about something that’s not politics or Trump, it feels insignificant, like child’s play,” he says, calling the president “the single most reprehensible human being I’ve witnessed in real time.”
Perhaps since President Donald Trump prefers hiring good-looking people he has seen on TV on the Fox channel, Duchovny may be in line for a job. “The first internet sex symbol with hair,” as I once called him, is sporting stubble, a black cardigan over a striped T-shirt, black pants and shoes from the Canadian company Roots.
“I’m waiting for a call,” he says. “I could be the next director of the FBI.”
In “The X-Files” reboot on Fox, an alien comes down an escalator and announces plans to build a great, magnetic wall to keep humans out of the rest of the universe.
I note that the president may be the only person who is more paranoid and conspiracy-minded and worried about the Deep State than Spooky Mulder.
“I do have a Deep State hoodie from the Samantha Bee show,” Duchovny says.
The president and Duchovny have one more similarity: Both have Scottish mothers. (The actor refers to himself as a “macaroon,” because his mother is Scottish and his father was Jewish.) “I talked to my mother about it. I said, ‘Can you believe Trump’s mom is Scottish?’ and she’s horrified,” he said, adding that since his mother came to New York by marrying his Brooklyn-born dad: “I’m an anchor baby.”
He says about the man he calls “Orange Julius”: “I don’t think it matters if there’s a pee-pee tape because that’s not what makes him unfit to be president. Nor does his horrible attitude toward women make him unfit to be president. His attitude towards human society and the environment and everything else makes him unfit to be president.”
Duchovny has called Fox Mulder “the worst FBI agent of all time” because he never solved one case in nine years. What does he think about Trump tweeting that James Comey was “the worst FBI director in history, by far!”
“Comey seems like an honest guy, maybe too honest in a way or maybe too proud of his honesty,” Duchovny said. “He’s like a Joseph Conrad hero from the 19th century. He’d be a tragic figure in another time.”
Since Russians are among Duchovny’s biggest fans — he made an ad for a nonalcoholic Russian beer called Siberian Crown several years ago, playing a cosmonaut — I wonder what he makes of the Trump-Putin relationship.
“I don’t think Putin needs anything on him,” Duchovny said of the blackmail rumors. “Putin just needs to strut around in front of Trump and do the horrible things he does and Trump is going to admire that.”
He doesn’t get into politics in his book because he thinks it can slide too easily into propaganda, although he has some zingers. He refers to Trump as “a hybrid monstrosity,” Rudy Giuliani as “that lispy, hissy, death’s head of a mayor” and Sean Hannity as “that pinched-faced thumb in a real-hair toupee.'’
He makes a slighting reference to “Penceville” in the novel, so I ask him about the vice president’s draconian attitude toward gay people and the strange way he calls his wife “Mother.”
“I could sit here and try to be Mike Pence’s armchair psychologist, but clearly something happened that he hasn’t dealt with, and I wish him luck,” Duchovny says. “I wish he didn’t use the United States as a canvas upon which to work it out.”
I wonder what Duchovny made of the story broken by The New York Times in December, revealing that the Pentagon had a shadowy $22 million UFO program, with most of the money going to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire who said he was “absolutely convinced” that aliens exist and have visited Earth. “When it happened,” he deadpanned, “I said that I was finally really impressed by the Fox publicity department, that they were able to plant a story like that to sell the show.”
He dropped out of Yale before writing his Ph.D. dissertation, which was to be “Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry.” (His senior thesis at Princeton was titled “The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett’s Early Novels.”) Like his 2004 movie, “House of D,” which he wrote and directed, his new novel is a meditation on his hometown — “So much of New York involved looking away” — and his heroine, Emer, has many of the same traits as Duchovny.
Like her creator, Emer has green eyes with different-sized pupils, which reflect “some charismatic, universal, lighthearted melancholy, like she saw things at a distance, a gently ironic remove.” She’s a reader, “it defined her.” She does not “like to kill anything and has been an on-and-off, semi-strict, nondogmatic, occasional vegetarian since college.” (But she makes an exception on the killing ban for mosquitoes and really good sushi.)
She thinks Twitter is the end of the world. And she is a schoolteacher, like Duchovny’s mother, Meg, who was a cherished teacher at Grace Church School in Greenwich Village and his sister, Laurie, who is a teacher at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn.
The book is dedicated to his 88-year-old mother, and he has Con tell Emer a story that actually happened to Duchovny and his mom when he was a boy eager to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History. They missed their subway stop and ended up, flummoxed, in Queens. As Duchovny writes in his dedication: “Our curiosity and incompetence taught us it’s not the destination, it’s the ride ... stay on the train, the scenery will change.'’
The author, who has written two previous novels, has no trouble slipping into the female voice. He was a jock who dreamed of playing basketball at Princeton, which he did for a year on the junior varsity team before “the heartbreak” of no longer being on the team.
But he was professionally gender-fluid before that term became popular. He suggested a plotline to his friend Garry Shandling for “The Larry Sanders Show” in which he played himself hitting on Shandling, doing the Sharon Stone opening-the-kimono reveal. On “Twin Peaks,” he played a detective in drag named Dennis who liked it so much he transitioned into Denise. “High heels and tights and underwire bras are painful,” Duchovny says with a grimace. “I had marks, I had bruises. It’s not fun.” His father, a publicist and writer, left and moved to Boston when Duchovny was young. The way he, his brother and sister were raised by his mother, he says, made him think that “there was no difference between men and women — not intellectual, emotional, spiritual. I’m aware that I don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman, be attacked as a woman, to feel endangered as a woman, to be abused as a woman. But I feel like I could hear Emer’s voice in my head. And I know ‘appropriation’ is a dirty word these days, but that’s all an artist can do. I mean, there is no art without appropriation. You take what you find and you make a collage and you imagine the rest.
After the Harvey Weinstein revelations, he said, he had to “re-educate” himself. He said his belief in equality between men and women and blacks and whites skewed his perception of the problem.
“So my education has been to acknowledge that even if I didn’t perpetuate it, it has to be dealt with — if I’m not being part of the solution I’m being part of the problem,” he says, adding that witnessing all the hatred and division that has cascaded since the advent of Trump has “reopened” his eyes to misogyny and racism.
Gillian Anderson has complained that after struggling for years to get equal pay for playing Scully — initially, as a newcomer, the actress was even told to stand several feet behind Duchovny in scenes — she was at first offered half of Duchovny’s salary for “The X-Files” revival.
When I mention that only 4 percent of women directed the top 100 grossing films, he shakes his head. “That’s mind-blowing.” For a long time, Duchovny was touted as the next George Clooney. “I envisioned a career more in movies, but we all did at that point,” he says. “Now the business has changed, where everybody’s doing television. I felt like I could have collaborated better. I could have sought out people more who were better than me. I could have gone to more parties. I could have been more social.
“I would never complain about a career like mine because I feel like that’s silly, but certainly there were times where I was just feeling like, damn, you know, ‘Why am I not doing that?’ or ‘Why am I not getting this?’ I wish that ‘House of D’ would have been accepted in a different way. I feel like I’ll continue to direct.” He plans to direct a film of his second novel, “Bucky Dent” (the full title includes a profane middle name for Dent), another one inspired by his own life, about a son making peace with a distant father who is dying.
Duchovny, whose Twitter biography at one point was simply “Dilettante,” has also gotten a band together and he has made two albums, “Hell or High Water” and “Every Third Thought.” Rolling Stone described his first album as “lyrically tart” and “vaguely Wilco-ish.” Critics were less kind to the second album. A Jezebel post was headlined, “I Wish Aliens Would Abduct David Duchovny’s New Rock Album.”
“I think people like you to stay in your lane, and it’s easy to take potshots at me for dabbling, I imagine, but that’s OK,” he says, adding that he is waiting for the “Not bad for an actor” reviews of his book.
After his divorce from the actress Téa Leoni in 2014, he learned to play guitar, asking the writers of “Californication” to weave in Hank’s playing “so I could get free guitar lessons from the show.”
He has gotten points for being humble and accepting that he’s putting out what The A.V. Club’s Sean O’Neal calls “perfectly serviceable famous-dad-rock.” I ask if a song on his first album that mentions a 12-step program — “Three thousand steps, forget about 12” — alludes to his 2008 stint in a sex-addiction clinic, an attempt to save his 17-year marriage to Leoni, with whom he has an 19-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son.
“Yeah,” he says. “I think there’s wisdom to be had in looking at any kind of behaviors that we do to manage our unease and make ourselves feel better or to alter our consciousness.”
He has, however, given up therapy, because shrinks tend to shrink, as he likes to say, a line he says he borrowed from his old Yale professor Harold Bloom.
Poignantly, his ring finger still has a wedding tattoo, of the letters AYSF, which stand for At Your Side Forever. “But people think the AYSF is American Youth Soccer Foundation, and I tell them, ‘Yes, that’s it,'” Duchovny says. “I’m a big fan of the game.”
Two men at the restaurant stop by to say they loved “Californication.”
I ask if he has any similarities to Hank, whom Duchovny has described as a guy who knows the right thing to do but can’t get himself in a position to do it.
“What I loved about that character is that he was a truth teller,” he says. “He was a fantasy, the guy who always speaks his mind and that’s a fun character to play.”
I ask Duchovny about the influence of pornography in the culture. He started his career as the narrator and occasional star of Zalman King’s “Red Shoe Diaries” on Showtime, which popularized erotica on late-night cable.
“I’ve got kids, and they deal with the explosion of porn and the internet, so I’ve had to think about it for sure,” he says. “I think it’s dangerous because there’s no more innocence. There’s no chance for a child who has had no sexual experience not to have seen the most extreme sexual experiences that human bodies can offer. That child no longer has the option of figuring his or her way through that themselves. When you have the porn discussion with your kids, you should say: ‘You’re really good at science, but I wouldn’t want you practicing brain surgery at 14. Those guys are professionals. There’s reasons why I wouldn’t want you watching that — the same reason I wouldn’t want to put you in the operating room right now. You’ve got to develop yourself to get to a certain point.'”
I try a question on Duchovny that was asked of me recently.
Who would you like to collaborate with, have a drink with and have a conversation with (alive or dead)?
“I would pick Paul Thomas Anderson to collaborate with,” he says.
He would like to have a drink with René Girard, the late French philosopher who is also a favorite of Peter Thiel’s.
“Girard was talking about mimesis, that humans are monkey see, monkey do,” he says. “That makes sense to me.”
And he would like to have a conversation with Jesus. “When Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek,’ it was a revolution in human consciousness,” Duchovny says. “Did he just wake up and think of that? I’d like to know.”
I can actually visualize Jesus meeting up with Duchovny in Los Angeles for some yoga and vegetarian fare, hitting a juice bar on Melrose Avenue.
“He’d have a man bun now,” Duchovny says.
“And washboard abs,” I say.
“And he’d be doing that P90X workout, that thing that Paul Ryan does,” Duchovny adds.
The sun has finally come out. And Duchovny goes out to have his picture taken among the bright yellow and pink blossoms in Central Park. But he still manages to look noir.
Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.