Friday, February 24, 2012

"Pseudo-City" by D. Harlan Wilson (2005)


"I have difficulty finding the words to adequately express the truth about my life and selfhood. Do words even possess the power to express truth? Civilized communication, after all, amounts to nothing more than the conveyance of a series of word combinations that exhibit so-called meaning. Removing a word, or replacing one, or relocating it elsewhere can result in semantic catastrophe, not to mention that meaning itself is a subjective business. One series of word combinations might mean one thing to one [person] and another thing to another [person]. It's really all just a bunch of hoo-ha, if you ask me" (223-224).

If the diffuse array of texts that make up D. Harlan Wilson's Pseudo-City can be consolidated along any teleo-thematic line, it is this: text is meaningless. But insofar as Wilson expresses (via text) that his meaning is un-meaning--both in maxim-passages like the one quoted above, and through entire stories like The Rorschach-Interpreter--he seems to defeat himself by definition.

Fortunately for the reader (though perhaps unfortunately for the author, depending on how deeply he values the interpretation of his metaphysics through the analysis of his texts), the philosophical orientation "but what if it doesn't mean anything"--having been done to death not just by scholars but by potheads the world over--is more or less the least interesting thing about Wilson's writing.

Pseudo-City is a collection of twenty-nine short stories that take place in Pseudofolliculitis City (PC). The name is a reference to pseudofolliculities barbae, "razor bumps." Says Wilson: "The condition is a consequence of extremely curved hair follicles growing backwards into the skin, producing inflammations, discolorations, and pusy [sic] formations" (9). We take this to mean that Pseudo-City is itself a consequence of extremely curved psychology that produces inflammations of normal thinking, reading, and writing.

And so it is. In PC, there are too many births and not enough deaths; "ultraviolence"--generalizable mass-killings, flagrant murder, careless slaughter, etc.--is accepted, and even encouraged, as a method of culling the interminably growing populace. "The Law" is a force that is all powerful, arbitrary, and even a little kinky. Everybody has facial hair and a hat, and the most respected professions are those of barber and haberdasher. For your weird with a twist of degradation, there are nearly no women, and certainly none represented as adequate (i.e., non-patriarchically envisioned) individuals; and doll hairs, not dollars, are the preferred mode of currency. Right after meaninglessness, hair is the next most important thread in this collection. The first story, Hairware Inc., demonstrates to what strange degrees hair is influential and important in PC:

"The hairware began to growl. A handful of goatees barked. They had been relinquished from the faces that once bound them, yet they continued to be treated like extremities by their former masters, like parts of the faces rather than individual, capable entities. Moreover, it was obvious that they had been mistreated. Very few pieces of hairware were properly groomed, a number of sideburns had dandruff and lice, many of the mustaches had chunks of vegetable soup hidden in their bushy depths, and a few beards had been moonlighting as bird's nests... They were less than pleased" (28).

This passage might be written off as simply rather outlandish fantasy, whereas Wilson's work is usually touted as the forefront of the Bizarro movement. I would agree with the latter assessment, insofar as Wilson doesn't stop at turning mundane objects into weird, fantastical creatures. His fiction makes what might be called an existential (in the vein of absurdist writers)--or, more properly, phenomenological--move, bracketing the strangeness of the most simple behaviours and beliefs in an effort to show off the depth of their oddness:

"Mr. Krapps was wearing a banana yellow tie and an angular black suit with white pinstripes. As he strode out of the conference room and skipped down a stairway to the street, he untied and retied his tie and buttoned the two buttons on the lower half of his suit, then decided he'd rather only button one of those buttons, the top button, and he unbuttoned the lower button. Then he unbuttoned the top button, too, realizing he would rather not have any buttons buttoned on his suit at this time" (51).

Wilson walks a tight line, bringing the normal to bear with the abnormal, facing the two off until we can't say which is which. Mr. Krapps' decision to button and unbutton his suit is exemplary of some of the most everyday absurdities we have to deal with. Although there may be some logic behind these decision-making processes, they are ultimately meaningless: they don't signify some deep metaphysical roots. Some of the most disturbing passages in Pseudo-City are the ones like that above, where some idiocy reveals the animalistic nature of humankind: the petty pleasures and unconscious actions that inhabit and control our every movement and thought.

But Wilson really hits his stride when he is able to combine surreal images with (ab)normal situations and blend them with his transparent, hop-skip-and-jump kind of prose, to create a poignant mix of meaning (whether or not he's sure of its reality) in the midst of grotesquerie. In Classroom Dynamics, he rises to the possibility of meaning-laden metaphor with a horrifying image:

"The next day, Pseudofolliculitis State University was soaked in darkness; a black cloud of towerfog had wrapped itself around the upper portion of the Ameliabedelia Spacescraper. Dr. Bobby Lee Beebody gazed listlessly out of a restroom window at the darkness, admiring the flashes of electricity that would periodically spark up. He thought he saw the visage of his frozen, screaming face in one of these electric flashes. Then he realized that he was not looking at the window, but the mirror" (95).

It is these passages--the kind that strike into the heart of the reader by dint of empathetic or intellectual connection; that, in short, have meaning (even when their meaning is un-meaning)--that make Wilson's book worth reading. Many times, we can't say quite what it is about these stories that is striking, merely knowing by the twist in our guts that they've hit us. To wit: one of the best stories in the book, Deli, shows us a deli counter cashier who is wearing the bleeding heart of his girlfriend--whom he has just murdered--around his neck. He killed her for having an affair with his co-worker, the sandwich maker--who does not realize that it is in fact his mistress's heart around the cashier's neck. Meanwhile, there is a painting on the wall depicting a murder, in which the murderer is holding a heart; and four different episodes of the same sitcom playing on four different televisions, in each episode of which the protagonist violently murders his various girlfriends while pausing to crack jokes. Lunching in the deli are a heart surgeon, a private detective investigating a murder, and a couple unaware that they will soon be the victims of a cannibalistic, heart-eating murder. It is the punch-line that categorizes the whole absurdity of the thing:

"There is only one more figure in the deli: a human-sized bleeding heart. The creature is sitting alone at a table. It is reading a newspaper with lobsterlike eyeballs. It is also smoking a cigarette and nibbling on a bleeding heart sandwich with an octopuslike beak. Nobody notices this figure, however, disconnected as they are from the goings on of the real world" (122).

The best stories in this collection, like Deli, seem to occur at the very centre of the book--between the groundwork Wilson lays at the beginning, prepping us for the tumultuousness of Pseudofolliculitis City, and the steadily more ridiculous qualities of the narratives that ensue afterward. This degradation can in one sense be attributed to the absurdist style of the work, which simply becomes tiresome and stale after a point; but I would argue that, in some editorial decision or other, the latter half of the collection was slated to absorb those stories that were, on the whole, less powerful, or simply too strange to be as appreciable as the others--the "B-sides," as it were. There are also moments when Wilson goes too far; or when, by going/having gone so far, he desensitizes the reader to any possibility of receiving new or interesting impressions by dint of having exposed them to so much already. By stretching the limits of absurdity, he produces narratives that--meaningless are otherwise--are manifestly stupid, lame, and annoying.

Overall, though, Pseudo-City is worth reading--not only for the first, effectively stellar half that, in the ultimate measure, outweighs the other half that is of lesser quality, but also for the very fact that Wilson forces the reader to dislocate him or herself from the normal narrative tradition. Although this book will be of interest to readers of speculative fiction, it goes far beyond the bounds even of that traditionally imaginative genre. It is not only the limits or excesses of our imaginations that are questioned, but the very possibility or validity of the imagined--and what, in the last analysis, these acts of superlative creation and subversive thinking might mean.

I don't think, however, that Wilson believes so little in the possibility of meaning as (at least some of) his texts might lead us to think. Behind every text is a creator, after all. From The Rorschach-Interpreter:

"The nobody grabbed a strand of his tattoo, and he peeled the whole thing off like a slice of boloney he had pasted onto his face... Beneath the tattoo was a hole--a hole that exposed the nobody's skull cavity, which was entirely hollowed out. Inside was a tiny little man no bigger than a human thumb. The man was wearing a wee black trenchcoat and stovepipe hat. He had been whispering something into the nobody's inner ear, his mouth shielded by a cupped palm. But once the tattoo was removed and he was revealed, he let his palm fall to his side and turned to face the Rorschach-Interpreter... the Rorschach-Interpreter frowned at the little man, trying to figure out if the mustache on him was real or fake" (41).