Saturday, June 14, 2014

Get Some Strange

 I read Infinite Jest in a week. Well, not quite a week: I read the first hundred or so pages in three tortuous months, resentfully flipping back and forth between the book's meaty prose and its spindly, wandering, essential footnotes. Then—and I'm not sure why—something happened. I began to read obsessively, maniacally. I lay in bed reading Infinite Jest (with a dictionary beside me as well, because the book, in addition to its irritating form, isn't known for an accessible vocabulary), sleeping occasionally, waking up, reading more. I burned through the whole book that way; it became a fever dream of tennis and public bathrooms and Canadians who are compelled to lift the heel of one foot slightly when they fart. I kept the lights dim and took frequent naps. When I came to the end of the book, I realized that the actual end of the story had happened somewhere several hundred pages before. I felt perversely satisfied with this infinite loop of story. It was a snake eating its own tail.

As my life moves more and more towards the mundane, predictable cadence of adulthood—with its work schedules and Outlook calendars and highly scheduled ladies' brunches—I rely more and more on the written word to give me a dose of funky, unexpected weirdness. I look to Pynchon and De Lillo, to Chabon's mid-career work and to strange, small-press children's books. I get plenty of strange, highly focused essays from Harper's, where the topics range from people suffering the delusions of probably-imaginary skin disorders, to an alcohol-soaked review of Room 237, a documentary about Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining and the various paranoid interpretations that have been floating around since that film's release in 1980. I read shifty short stories about haunted undersea caves. I could stand to read more poetry.

The stories are linked by a loosey-goosey approach to plot (sometimes, like in Room 237, the plot is basically nonexistent), but an animated and enthusiastic approach to observation. There are patterns in these stories: an attempt to scrutinize the things, mostly unseen, that run our humdrum world. Turn your head fast enough and you might see them out of the corner of your eye, but only if you're exceptional lucky...or is that unlucky? Finally seeing the face in the television static you've suspected has been there the whole time isn't exactly reassuring, you know?

Writers in this genre (psychoanalytically-obsessed metafiction? Postmodern worry-porn?) aren't out to reassure us. They want to make us uncomfortable, because this discomfort creates a space for really examining our normal lives. Reading De Lillo's White Noise, with its blended families and savvy teenaged girls, I had echoes of Ann M. Martin's wildly popular series The Babysitter's Club, albeit perverted and made strange. House of Leaves, an update to the Minotaur legend, uses different formatting tricks and strange appendices to create a narrative that expands and contracts in unexpected ways, like the titular house itself. The worlds are unstable. The form is unpredictable. The guy doesn't always get the girl, and not in that Nicholas Sparks kind of way where it turns out the girl is suffering from a fatal disease and will die attractively sometime in the final chapters. These books are completely bonkers, obsessed with what is "real" and what isn't, and sometimes kind of pointless...then again, life itself is sometimes pointless.

The one that I always come back to is The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon's slim little ode to Italian opera, shadow postal services, the Los Angeles underground scene, and tapestry. Yep, throw those ingredients in a bowl, add a half-baked conspiracy theory, plenty of drugs, and wildly unlikely character names (Oedipa Maas? Doctor Hilarius? Mike Fallopian?) and stir. The result is a short novel long on strange. I find it confusing, meandering, infuriating, and utterly absorbing. I've read it a half-dozen time, each time finding some new oddity. The book's world is a place I like to visit, because it's so structurally weird.

I love that. So many novels chug along at the prescribed novel pace, with a beginning, middle and end, with characters who have clearly defined needs and wants. My own writing is like this: serviceable, but not in the least bit weird. I could stand to use more weird in my writing. Hell, I could stand more weird in my own life.

But for now, I set my alarm for 7:20 AM, and I leave work at 5:05. We grocery shop on Monday nights. I eat one hardboiled egg for breakfast every morning. We ride bikes with other white people, swaddled in technical fabrics and protective helmets. We drink lemonade. We vote. We behave ourselves, and the world around is behaves accordingly. There is no strange. There is no unexpected.

We have to go looking for it.

Image via This Is Colossal.