As I sit in the wood-paneled study atop my ivory tower, hemmed in on all sides by esoteric works of fiction, I begin to wonder how I came to this place. On one wall are slim volumes that refract and reflect each other like a Borgesian hall of mirrors, and on another are fat epics of Pynchonian complexity overstuffed with arcane and useless learning. In between are multi-authored novels in verse that make myth out of the Golden Age of Hollywood; plays that shift their characters achronologically through times past, present, and future; histories that masquerade as novels masquerading as histories; unfinished fragments by sickly Latin American geniuses; and futuristic stories told by narrators so unreliable that they call into question my existence as well as theirs.
Why must everything I read be so damn tricksy, and why am I not satisfied with simple tales straightforwardly told? After much self-examination I’ve come to realize that the foundation of the baroque structure that is my literary taste was laid quite early, and not by my own hands. The reader I am today is built entirely on two books given to me when I was barely out of the crib. It’s not my fault, in other words. I blame my parents.
They couldn’t have known the damage they were causing, of course. What harm could lie behind the shiny binding of a Little Golden Book? There were clues, though. What normal story can’t wait for the first page to start, instead beginning right on the cover? The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover plunges you immediately into the maelstrom. Before it’s even opened, the grinning title Muppet is already greeting his soon-to-be acolytes with a friendly “Hello, everybodeee!” Before you’ve had a chance to take in the title page, Grover is already commenting on it as “very dull.” And things get slipperier from there.
Suddenly shocked by his recollection of the title, Grover fears what he’ll encounter at the end of the book and begs the reader not to go on: “Oh, I am so scared of monsters!” He constructs ever more intricate barricades of rope, wood, brick, and steel, but even a toddler knows that these are only ink on paper, no obstacles to a a determined page turner bent on reaching the dramatic conclusion. The pleas grow more impassioned and the suspense ratchets up until the ultimate twist arrives—the dreaded monster is Grover himself. Relief and chagrin ensue for the protagonist, along with a heady swirl of ideas for at least one young lap-bound listener. The fourth wall shattered! Identity destabilized! The once-transparent page made glaringly visible! The step from sunny Sesame Street to the darkness of Barth’s metafictional funhouse was a short one.
Perhaps I could have turned from that path if not for P.D. Eastman. His Go, Dog. Go! fatally fed my appetite for complexity and experimentation in prose. Even the name of his book is elaborately punctuated, for the love of Melville! What chance did I have? G,D.G! begins with deceptive simplicity, as a reportorial account: “Dog. / Big Dog. / Little Dog. / Big dogs and little dogs.” But the facts accumulate exponentially as dogs of all hues parade dizzyingly past, until a blooming, buzzing, hyperreal confusion is achieved. The dogs play and work, swim and ski, drive cars and fly zeppelins (are those goggles and scarves steampunk prototypes?). They ride roller coasters and wander through labyrinths. Yes, labyrinths. This is no mere picture book, but a phantasmagorical encyclopedia, the Ulysses of its kind.
Avant-garde lodestar David Markson described his own work as “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like,” but he might well have been talking about Eastman’s. Instead of a single storyline there’s a series of continually interrupted scenes written in different styles and registers. Two dogs meet cute and enact a near-Beckettian playlet about a displeasing hat. Optimistic dogs enjoy the sun; pessimistic ones complain about the heat. The driving dogs stop for repairs. A new hat fails to impress. Three dogs have a party on a boat at night that’s so sad and comic it would make Padgett Powell laugh and Charles Portis cry. The cars approach a mysterious tree. The hats grow grander and the rejections more stinging. And then the threads join in a spectacular, colorful, climactic snarl, a two-page spread that rivals Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in imaginative detail. What a dog party!
After that, the deluge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say, so drink deep or taste not the postmodern spring. I slaked my unholy thirst by swigging from The Phantom Tollbooth, and then things got blurry for a while. I woke up in a pile of Barthelme shorts and it was like I didn’t care any more. My habit got so bad at one point that I could get through a brick of Gaddis in a weekend. I tried to wean myself off the stuff by switching to the Russians, but Tolstoy and Chekhov led to Bely and Bulgakov and I was right back where I started.
It’s not so bad here in the Library of Babel, really. It’s not crowded, for one thing, so I don’t have to fight for first dibs on that new novel by the obscure Romanian with the unpronounceable name. Still, I sometimes wish my folks had made different choices for me. Dick and Jane? Then maybe the straight dope would be enough for me.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He actually reads and enjoys “realistic” fiction quite often, largely because its directness and clarity help him escape from the nonsensical confusion that real life really is.