My ‘Realism’ Problem

Why am I – as Steve Miller once sang, ‘right here at home’ – at Anobium?

I had initially considered answering this question – posed to me by a friend who had considered me a ‘guy who didn’t go in for the bizarre for bizarre’s sake’ – as an essay proper, but then that didn’t quite seem right. I had wanted to explain – in objective, rather than subjective terms – why I enjoy strange and experimental writing, while I like surrealism and why, in spite of that, I find myself writing what amounts to realism. Is it because I want access to social issues? Because the world is troubled, and even Beckett eventually made a detour from the abstract for Václav Havel? Because I think that, after Aragon’s Irene’s Cunt, a lot of experimental writing is comparably timid and regressive? Because I harbor embarrassingly mercenary dreams of financial success? Or – gods help us all – dreams of writing something my friends and family might relate to?

Well… yeah.

Put it this way: if Tyler Durden had a literary journal, he would likely kick me off the porch – shouting ‘You’re too…fucking…normal!’ – and yet I’m not quite normal. I can’t bring myself to believe in the frictionless, modern functioning of the standard-issue book-club novel, the clever, deeply-wrought and thoroughly conventional Richard Russo School of Serious Realism. And so, I find myself lumped – by editors and agencies, in acceptance and (more often) rejection letters – with the Hysterical Realists (those writers, identified by the New Yorker’s James Wood, including Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace and, going back a bit, Thomas Pynchon). And that’s not all bad – whale-gagging arrogance! – and I can largely live with the label, in large part because Hysterical Realism often seems like the only viable compromise for authors who want to write about the world and who also understand that straight, third-person objective omniscience is a forever-unconsummated wet dream. Hysterical Realism, with its nervous insistence on the details (knowing details, pop-culture reference, über-hip observation of trends and fads) and paradoxical refusal to be realistic (alliterative and allusive names, slap-stick physics, deliberately ridiculous plot-mechanics) seems like a successful tonic for the crisis of the novel that has apparently been kicking our asses since 1965 (or 1945, or 1914, or forever). My only problem – aside from the stylistic, I can (obviously) forgive verbal diarrhea – is with Hysterical Realism’s constant reaching for allegory. The condensing – even the cataloging – and representation of the improbable, thrown against the challenge of mundane reality and disconnected fantasy, so often finds itself striving for deeper resonance. What does it all mean, this hyper-literate goofball of fiction? And does it constitute an end-run-around all the tired tricks – the deus ex contrivances, the porcine figurations, the undernourished satire – that modern fiction was trying to avoid in the first place? Underneath the histrionics, what it all means is that they’re still asking what it all means, still trying to write the Great American Novel (or regional variations on such), still trying to write The Great Gatsby.

Do I think that can’t be done? Do I think that shouldn’t be done? What, again, am I doing in this insectile collective, floating – as “MJL” would have it – seven inches above the floor?

Of course, I found myself unable to answer these questions objectively. Perhaps (what a corrupt hedge that word is), there is no right answer, only the answer that makes us happy (however furtively). So, paying appropriate disrespect to boundaries of genre and truth, here is a highly subjective answer, phrased as a short hysterical realist story, in three acts:

(Act I)

In the late spring of 2003, a young man named B______[1] fled the college scene to spend a weekend in his hometown with the defensible but clearly parasitic goal of playing anthropologist amongst the ruined and degenerated lives of his former high school friends. Misguided, myopic and seriously drug addled, they made him feel at once normal and exceptionally charged; they were, in other words, bona fide literary grist. Vollman, Bukowski and Carroll could eat at this table for a week and not make a dent in the spread.

On this particular night, much to his ambivalent surprise, all of friends had prior – and more or less respectable – engagements: romantic, familiar and – most improbably of all – employment. So, there he sat, self-displaced with only cable television, his parent’s liquor cabinet and a zip-lock bag full of dried, psychoactive mushrooms with which to entertain himself. It was at this point, reduced to contemplating the tablecloth’s ability to camouflage marinara but not vodka sauce, that his brother – J_____, two years his junior – came home.

A word of advice about younger brothers: don’t have them. Or, if you (or rather your progenitors) insist: have a younger brother whose age is calculated by the following formula: n = y- x – 2, where y is your age, x is the number of years it takes you to stop being an adolescent shithead, and 2 is for good measure. An ideal calculation for the current scenario would be y = 21, x = 18 and n = 1. Yes, had J_____ been one year old at the time, he would have known B_______ mostly as a beloved – though secondary – father figure. Instead he knew him as a surly, untrustworthy asshole, one who on numerous occasions beat him up rather than allow him access to his own circle of friends, J_____ being several orders of magnitude too smart and too creative for his own cohort.

The typical ironic flourish: all of their friends were now equally inadequate for J_____’s creative needs (and, conversely, equally perfect for B_______’s).

(Act II)

Being equally dispossessed of company, the brothers – despite their long history of asymmetrical warfare – decided to drink a bottle of their parents’ better-than-average Scotch (a 12 year MacAllen cask-strength single malt that Spirits Spectator gave an 88, and Spirits Spectator gives out very few 88s, rarely – if ever – something in the 90s, as they appear to grade on a rather steeply asymptotic scale). This, B_______ could not help but note analytically, was typical and nearly cliché fare in family melodramas from Roseanne to Franzen, but it nevertheless amounted to a breaking of liquid bread (quoth the older brother: ‘…or if that that too sloppy a metaphor, the sharing of a grain-based product reflecting some sort of common union in a Joseph Campbell fertility-god ritual, ah fuck it, you see where I’m going…’). It reminded the younger brother of fabled WWI détentes during which German and British airmen would land in a field, play a game of chess or backgammon, down a cordial, and return to the skies to again attempt to murder each other, though he held his tongue as he suffered less acutely from the verbal diarrhea and nostalgia of his older brother. All in all, a pretty if not unprecedented picture.

And then they decided to eat the ‘shrooms.

(Act III)

Several hours of implied but undocumented time follow. The two brothers turn on the outdoor stereo, smoke a joint, and spend the evening speaking in hushed giggles and attempting to levitate potted plants and an aged turtle-shaped sandbox. It seems they may have mistaken the wooded backyard for the forest of Dagoba and, responding to a kind of visual rhyme, donned some of their parents’ terrycloth robes (without declaring it directly, this was an acknowledgement of their mutual childhood experience of – having feigned sickness to avoid public school – spending entire days in the damp basement watching first the Star Wars trilogy and then the first and third Indian Jones movies – both of them detesting the second film with equally outspoken vigor – all followed by an encore showing of the Ewok scene from Return of the Jedi). Years later, B_______ would acknowledge that the radical intrusion of this kind of hyper-nerdy system of reference into a narrative that – at least in his own mind – was being deliberately laced with hints of Dostoevsky and Hubert Selby, well it just screamed ‘Pulitzer!’ or, barring that, a kind book-jacket word from fellow hybridist Junot Diaz, but – as it turned out – lots of middle-class beige kids grew up watching sci-fi space operas and heroic archeologists and then went on to fist-fuck themselves (with said fists full of roxycodone suppositories), or sit around drinking Milwaukee’s Best until they were morbidly obese, denying any adjacent narrative even the slimy glamour of an overdose. And – let’s be honest – the whole thing really needed a catchy urban language to make the duality stick – Spanish or Portuguese worked best, but Korean might be cool as well – and the brothers spoke predominantly English, a little French (which was worse than English) and a few Yiddish gems (which wasn’t cool at all, and – anyway – was being Bogarted by Gary Shteyngart and Woody Allen).

All of this hysterical concern for the appropriate tone will come later, at the time the brothers are unselfconsciously shroomed out of their gourds, unaware of the particular resonance of their hallucinations. That is, until it becomes unavoidably literal. At first it registers only as a hiccup in the otherwise fluid stream of classic rock hits, a burble if you will, but then it becomes clear that a particular phrase of ‘The Joker’ by The Steve Miller Band is repeating itself. The brothers, huddled around a weather-proof speaker, realize with slightly delayed surprise that the line ‘cuz I’m right here at home’ is playing, over and over again. What gradually occurs to them, in swelling waves of awe, is that the MP3 file is not only glitched but glitched in precisely the right way to play this line over and over again, maintaining with a DJ’s finesse the mid-tempo beat of the song. The brothers even go inside to stare at the computer screen, the older resting his hand on the younger’s shoulder, watching the MP3 player’s display, the progress bar scrolling forward and then jumping backwards every two or so seconds, over and over and over.

Only later would they excavate the layers of improbability: that this should occur (a) from the binary codes which know nothing of measures or lyrics, (b) during this particular line of this particular song, with all its devastating, if melodramatic, ironies (c) at this particular moment, the only time in a decade or more when the brothers might even conceivably be together and open to the rather blatant emotional suggestions of this phenomenon.

Then, as the alkaloid compounds – the ones that had been so exotically flavoring the normally bland neuro-chemical stew – began metabolizing, the brothers grew tired and went their separate ways: the older to fitful, melancholy sleep, the younger to the basement to return to a painting he had been working on. The two did not speak again for over a year and after that only intermittently. B_______’s failure – and he had failed in one of the most basic, primal ways: as a brother – was not to be undone by a quick trip down, or rather the brief poking of one’s head into, the rabbit hole.

And thus, the final irony: the brothers witnessed a moment of pure magic – in this gruelingly real world – a moment of the beautiful, dreamlike surreal which will continuely insist upon itself for a decade to come. An enchantment that changed nothing.


[1] The reference here is to the author – Benjamin (Schachtman) – not Anobium editor Benjamin (van Loon); the subsequent redaction “J_____” refers, likewise to the author’s brother Justin, not Anobium illustrator Jacob, though both are graphic artists and brothers of authors affiliated with Anobium. This is in some ways a shame, because the latter in these two situations would represent a literary joke with real cojones. It would be great fun, for example, to submit a story about ‘Mr. Remnick’ – and his brother, if he has one – to the The New Yorker. Alas, what we have here is a tamer meta-fiction. And also a genre-requisite footnote. Consider the master narrative challenged, and the sanctity of the general tone corrupted, whoop-de-blah-blah-blah… thankfully, one footnote will suffice.

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One Comment on “My ‘Realism’ Problem”

  1. justin
    September 3 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    love it, remember it well.

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