The Marvelous Possibilities of the Irrational
When I wrote my first novel, The Disassembled Man, I sent it to an agent who said he liked it but felt I needed to make some changes. I needed to decrease the bizarre, to make my characters more relatable (if not likable), and to just make the story more damn realistic. For several days I agonized over his advice—I was a young writer then, easily persuadable—before I finally came to a decision. I decided I would, in fact, change the style. But not in the way he requested. Instead, I would make it more bizarre, more over-the-top, more surreal. I don’t know if this was a good business decision or not (it took me another five years before I finally found a publisher willing to take it on, and even now my agent tries desperately to drag me back to the real world), but then I’ve never been blessed with a strong business mind.
Some people have an aversion to tomatoes, others to carnivals. Me, my aversion is to hyperrealism. Not to say there’s anything wrong with reality. Why, just this morning, I went to Target and bought dish detergent and a six-pack of extra-absorbent paper towels, and later this afternoon I plan on mowing our lawn and laying some mulch. No, nothing wrong with reality. But hell, if I’m really honest, I would much prefer to spend my days munching on morphine while watching a limbless gymnastics team perform routines to Lotte Lenya songs. Or listening to redheaded, dwarf triplets tap-dance inside a diner called Mom’s. But that’s just me.
Then again, I wonder how much this hyperrealism actually exists in films or novels. I remember when I first read Hemingway. One way he pioneered the novel, I was told, is that his dialogue sounded the way people actually talked. But it didn’t, of course. Nobody talks like that. Or a writer like James M. Cain, who I absolutely love. Terse, lurid, and violent. But not hyperrealistic.
For me, as a writer and a reader, I’m always looking to find some type of an emotional truth. And I find that truth in the surreal, the bizarre, the unexplained. I find that truth in the muted melody of an unrecognizable song seeping from beneath the closed door of some sleazy club. I find that truth in the moonlit cottonwoods, branches resembling gnarled skeleton fingers. I find that truth in the films of David Lynch or the music of Tom Waits. I find that truth in the novels of Jim Thompson, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, and Franz Kafka. And although I don’t always (usually) succeed, I hope that I’m able to shift from the sterility of contemporary thought toward the marvelous possibilities of the irrational.