The Overwhelming Bizarro Urge
I found this in depth analysis of Andersen Prunty’s “The Overwhelming Urge” online today, at Joe Brainard’s Pyjamas. I think the guy has an interesting perspective on bizarro fiction, much of which I agree with.
Check it out:
Andersen Prunty’s The Overwhelming Urge is probably my first satisfying experience with the newly-fledged Bizarro movement in fiction. Bizarro lit seems to be gaining momentum and a readership rather quickly. This is probably due to the easy readability of these books, and because the works are often fun and unpretentious. Bizarro books (when they are enjoyable) feel almost like guilty pleasures, and restore us to the time when we read more fanciful, “messed up” sci fi or fantasy books–when we were kids or teenagers. “You reading that crap?” was the sort of comnment we’d get from those more enlightened beings around us who were probably reading Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins. Or worse: Tom Wolfe.
We knew why we read those books back then, but many of us have forgotten. Wasn’t it for the sense of the miraculous and the marvelous, the sense that anything was possible in this weird universe? Well, Bizarro is bringing that sense back by the shovelful.
Bizarro fiction is not for everyone. You have to possess a rather macabre sense of humor, for sure. Do you laugh often at David Lynch films? If so, you will probably enjoy bizarro fiction. Andersen Prunty’s book of flash fiction and short fiction, The Overwhelming Urge, was published by Eraserhead Press, after all, and once you read it I don’t think you will find that fact a coincidence. Bizarro fiction appears to owe more to David Lynch’s brand of American surrealism than the surrealism of Breton and Company. Bizarro has a gooey, macabre and existential (but often hilarious) take on life. You get the impression these books are probably as much fun to write as they are to read.
Of course, freedom always brings liability. And this means the extravagant freedom that Bizarro encourages in its authors will not always result in books of quality. For every Pollock, there will be 10,000 more Jack the Drippers out in the garage, sure they are creating a work to rival “Lavendar Mist.” I have seen some very bad Bizarro writing, and have seen some of these books get their comeuppance in astute literary reviews. As with any style, there must be substance. There must be a real author, chosing to wear this skin for a while. Wallace Stevens’s infamous charge directed at European surrealism (that it “invents without discovering”) should be kept in mind by any would-be Bizarro litterateur.
I first encountered Bizarro fiction on Goodreads.com. There are a number of practitioners of the aesthetic on there, and many of the authors are enjoying a nascent popularity. It’s not a literary movement in the traditional sense. The authors have not been publishing annoying manifestos, and condemning the art of the past as “bourgeois” or “irrelevant.” (At least this hasn’t happened yet, which is a refreshing change.) No one is getting ground down under a critical or theoretical apparatus which is clearly designed for future academic consumption and the torture of undergraduates. Hell, there is not even a Wikipedia entry on Bizarro Fiction yet! Now how unlikely is that? Could you imagine any poetic or prose-based avant-garde movement in the 20th century not making a beeline for Wikipedia codification in the first fifteen minutes of existence? I think of the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I think of most of those literary movements. Let’s hope the purity remains in Bizarro.
Oh, one last note before discussing Andersen Prunty’s book in particular. I haven’t established what Bizarro fiction acknowledges as the source for the name itself, but I don’t believe it’s Superman’s hilarious alter ego, Bizarro (see the Wikipedia article by the same name for some marvelous tutelage on this). Perhaps it’s from Mondo Bizarro. It doesn’t seem to really matter, since everyone gets what Bizarro is. Everyone uses that word naturally at one point or another to describe something they are encountering beyond the bourne of recognition. Breton called it le merveilleux. These writers simply call it Bizarro, which is much easier to pronounce, and just as useful.
Andersen Prunty’s The Overwhelming Urge is a decidedly uneven collection. There are stories I think are rather brilliant; there are near-misses; there are duds. I don’t want to be cavalier here. I do want to say I think there is a real originality present in the best pieces, and that I’m impressed that the work is always accessible, even when it’s challenging. I get the impression that many of the stories I don’t like will be loved by others. I feel the author has a real sense of the variousness of his audience. And that’s a good, compassionate thing. As one reads the stories, possible literary antecedents flit through one’s mind. Kafka? Definitely. Donald Barthelme? Possibly. Edson? Oh, yes. The Steve Martin of Cruel Shoes? Very probable.
Like many of the authors I just mentioned, Prunty has a gift for writing the weird parable. Many of these stories resonate well beyond their particulars, and leave a real smack on the brain. I am going to scan in two stories I wanted to share (“Vagina” and “The Joke”) to give you an idea of the sort of writing I think Prunty does best. Several of these stories deserve to be anthologized and given a wider readership. I love the simplicity of Prunty’s language, the refusal to deviate stylistically from what is essential to the telling of the miniature tale. It’s hard to write well about the relationship between the sexes, or our relationship to sex itself, but Prunty has a knack for that. But he has no particular obsessions or subject matter; he’s pretty much interested in the whole weird platter of life, and in that regard the stories deliver up a Petronian spread. The longest piece of fiction in here, “Discovering the Shape of My Skull,” is a compelling demonstration of how the entire universe of Eros is really only a spinning plate balanced on a thin stick for a circus act. Read it, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
When Prunty succeeds, he creates a vision to rival the best scenes out of Lynch (and yes, often the darkest works, like Eraserhead or Lost Highway). When he fails, it’s a joke with no punchline, or a too obvious punchline. “Prince,” in which the narrator finds himself inexplicably babysitting the rock god–who is now a geriatric teenager–flops flat on its purple lame belly. “Void” (“I have a bowel movement that lasts for three days”) inexplicably discovers a Kafkaesque tale of strange beauty in extremely disgusting, scatological circumstances. “Vagina” and “The Joke” both work their stiletto heels beautifully on the literary runway. “Shoes” and “The Johnsons” are both too close to pieces in Martin’s Cruel Shoes for my liking. “Frogs” is hilarious and filmic. Andersen better watch that one doesn’t get cribbed. I expect some screenwriter to steal that baby from him.
Prunty’s best writing is completely aware of the thought that runs under our thought, the humongous fears and worries we carry around with us on this planet in which everything is uncertain, and it sculpts those fears…not into epiphanies the way the worst mainstream fiction does (the man wouldn’t insult you like that) but rather into a strange sort of release that may be a laugh, may be a gasp, or may just be a moan.
The French poststructuralists would have a field day with some of his writing on the body and sex. Even Bachelard would love the obsessively attentive way Prunty plays with our sense of space in these stories.
Discovering Prunty as a young author (with all the inevitable imperfections and rough spots) is rather like encountering Bukowski early in his career. You know this guy is gonna take a lotta shit from people who are sure they “know better.” You know it will be fun to watch this display of ego in the monkey house. But you also see the wild hunger, and the gift. You know who you’re putting your mental money on. You know who’s going to win in the long run and the big picture. And you know it will be a fun film to watch.