Sunday, September 18, 2011

Weirdness evolves

Book: Innovative Fiction: Stories for the Seventies

Authors: various

Pages: 224

Published: 1972 (Dell Publishing Co., Inc.)

The seventies, man. To me, they sound like Led Zeppelin, look like my parents’ faded high school senior portraits, and make me blink like I’m staring at a disco ball. I don’t know how much of the persevered nostalgia to believe; I wasn’t there.

But I’m most inclined to believe real time travelers like this collection of short stories, which have the authentic whiff of being written and published in the era. It’s interesting to see what qualified as innovative fiction from forty years ago, because to me, it seems like avant-garde prose shares a lot of the same underlying structural principles:
  • Stream of consciousness narration that implies chaos and all its marginalia is important because it’s closer to the actual thinking process and thus a more authentic way of recording
  • Screwing around with grammar, most notably making up new words and writing dialect phonetically
  • Seemingly nonsense that represents a higher theme buried under stupid-sounding sentences
  • Titles that crack me up (I’m going to start yelling, “Miss Euayla Is the Sweetest Thang!” [all emphasis and capitals and exclamation points the author’s] at random intervals to liven up my work of standing at a cash register)
  • Multiple points of view that clash together like jagged pieces of glass to make the reader wonder what really happened and how

But just because authors play around the same way doesn’t mean they come up with the same thing, or even things that look remotely like each other. These stories still seem odd now, which means weird just keeps evolving. (Woo!)

Most of these stories I enjoyed on at least one level. Sheer absurdity carries a lot of them, like the first one “The Hyannis Port Story” about a guy who goes to install windows in a very vocally Goldwater-supporting house that’s right near the Kennedys’, and “The Jewbird,” which is about a talking bird who comes into a family’s house and starts integrating himself into the family before the dad decides he hates it and kicks it out. 

“Momentum,” the story I was most reluctant to read because it was presented in one big breath of stream of consciousness on two independent columns of each page that I had to zigzag both my eyeballs and brain through while still remembering the other side, surprised me at how touching I found it by the end. It’s about a guy going back to his college and trying to relive his glory days. This was the best example of how a weird structure can elevate a common subject; his rush of confessions and digressions revealed his nerves and mood swings right next to the everyday details that he had to pay just as much attention to in order to get through his visit.

A couple stories I just didn’t understand, whether I’m too removed from the political subtlties of the times or whatever a hobo in a wheelchair is supposed to mean as a symbol when he gets shipped across America in a big crate. Sometimes I just DON’T KNOW.

But that’s okay, because as weirdness evolves, so does your Constant Reader.


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