by Jacob Bacharach)
Sometimes I think that all the really great works of surrealism predate our boring, modern obsession with dividing the real from the unreal, truth from fiction, the conscious mind from the dream. I'm using surrealism in its common and not specific sense; a lot of the works I'm going to mention are what you might call magical realist, or experimental, or postmodern, or just plain weird. I'm actually a fan of weird fiction myself. If my own writing ever spawns a genre, that's the name I'll lobby for. Anyway, in working on a current unfinished writing project, I've been rereading the Bible, and it's reminded me that of a friend of mine who once said that Revelation was his favorite science fiction novel. I'm a fan of Job, myself, which would give Burroughs a run for his mugwumps, although for true weirdness, you really ought to reread Genesis, in which the utterly ordinary and the utterly otherworldly coexist and commingle in a manner totally alien to the modern ear and imagination; the poetry of creation gives way to genealogy, and God flits between instantiating His word and dickering with little humans over the specific price and measure of disobedience.
When I set out to write my own novel, The Bend of the World, I knew I wanted to write something in which the utterly bizarre, otherworldly, and supernatural exist as part of the texture of mundane reality, where the gods, so to speak, are ever among us, often distinguishing themselves only by being bigger assholes than we are. And when I think about my own favorite works of weird fiction, I find that they tend toward the intersection--sometimes humorous, sometimes horrible--of the luminous and the banal. Like a lot of boys, I came to weird fiction by way of science fiction, Asimov to Heinlein to Vonnegut and finally to Philip K. Dick. When I first read The Man in the High Castle, I was mostly interested in the setting: the Axis powers triumphant, America defeated and colonized. Nazis! Rockets! Later on, though, when I reread it, I was most struck by the moment when Nobusuke Tagomi has a brief vision of his own San Francisco peeling away to reveal ours (he sees the Embarcadero Freeway, now demolished, adding another layer of surreality for current readers), or at least, not his. The moment has elements of a beatific vision, and Dick was very good at that sort of thing.
Later on, I read A Scanner Darkly, which is still my favorite PKD novel: a book about a near-future cop under deep cover, posing as a junkie, or maybe having really become a junkie, where one self pursues and investigates another and discovers that he may be both, or neither. It's a bent story, all holes and no rabbits, and yet a surprising amount of real estate is given over to the utter ordinariness of life in a druggie house and life as a cop, the repetition, the bickering, the inescapable boredom of it all, and the genealogical relationship of boredom to paranoia--the ordinariness of the extraordinary.
Dick was a mystic. The Man in the High Castle visits Buddhism and the I Ching. Dick eventually had, or suffered--it's hard to know which word is the right word--a revelation of his own, which he wrote of explicitly and affectingly in books like Valis and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. And it's interesting how frequently the divine and the supernatural shade into the surreal in works of fiction. Muriel Spark, for example, wrote The Comforters (the title, by the way, is from Job) after converting to Catholicism. Also after taking too much Dexedrine, but, well, you know. (PKD took Dexedrine, among others, as well.) That novel is about Rose, a writer and Catholic convert, who begins hearing a typewriter and narrator in her head, narrating, as it turns out, her own life as she lives it and her own thoughts as she thinks them. It sounds like a gimmick, and it probably would be in the hands of a lesser writer, but Spark makes it direly convincing: that sort of dream that convinces the dreamer it isn't a dream at all. Also, there is a jewel-smuggling grandmother; how could it be anything other than great?
This capacity to fold the completely weird into daily life, to make the aliens ourselves, is a quality I look for in a good, weird book. A few years ago, I happened across Lisa Dierbeck's early-2000s novel, One Pill Makes You Smaller--the title is from Alice in Wonderland by way of Jefferson Airplane, and it jumped off the shelf at me at the Downtown branch of the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh. It literally leapt from the shelf into my hands, animate and alive. Here the magic and parallel worlds are mostly the products of drugs and sex; a young girl, surreally physically precocious, abandoned by her family, ends up reliving a version of Alice's story in a Manhattan flop house and a dilapidated institution-cum-summer camp . . . among others--a child's consciousness in an adult body; reality upended by use and abuse and the simple fact of the 1970s.
Well, I also like a good conspiracy, whether it's Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, about a fake conspiracy that may be coming true, or Ishmaeal Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, in which ordinary society is the conspiracy and only Voodoo--and jazz--can save us. Or what about China Mieville's The City and the City, about two cities occupying the same time and space on interpolated planes of reality, where residents of both must go about not noticing that the other city is there? And then there's my recent favorite, a small-press novel called Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant by Edmond Caldwell, which manages to combine the surreal landscapes of airport hotels with a living Matryoshka doll with a wrenching account of the massacre of Lydda in the 1948 Palestine War with a rambunctious conspiracy to abduct and replace James Wood--yes, that James Wood--with a subversive double.
I could go on. I tend to think that all great literature has an element of the fantastical and the surreal: Bolaño, Melville, Djuna Barnes, Anne Carson, Laurence Sterne... Each era throws up writers who take their elbows to the way we're supposed to see things, and these are the ones I come back to when I am bored with being bored.
Jacob Bacharach is the author of The Bend of the World [Liveright, $25.95].