Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Servante of Darkness #6: Absurdism and Bizarro Literature
Sky Tongues (2011) by Gina Ranalli
Reviewed by Anthony Servante
Welcome once again to the darkness with your host, Anthony Servante. In this, our sixth venture into horror, the grotesque, and their various branches of literary genres, we explore the ‘absurd’ and “Bizarro Literature” today. We will analyze “Sky Tongues” by Gina Ranalli and deconstruct its elements of absurdism and try to define the term ‘bizarro’ as it applies to literature. Right off, let me say that today’s use of the word, ‘absurd’, as ridiculous or exaggerated, is not the philosophical definition I am discussing here, where it is closer to ‘meaninglessness’ or nihilism, but when combined with the comically ironic that relies on a suspension of disbelief, it becomes bizarre. Quite simply, Sky Tongues, the character, is real in a bizarre universe that we can enter and share when we don’t accept it as real or validate its existence. But we can visit anytime just by opening the pages of Ranalli’s book again and again.
Let’s begin with Albert Camus, who helped define absurdism in his existentialist writings. He stresses that the absurd is the realization that the universe is without order, that man’s quest for meaning is endless and futile. He says, “The Absurd arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual's search for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the universe” (Wikipedia). But Philip Thompson in The Critical Idiom series, The Grotesque (1972), clarifies that Camus believes that in the ‘search’ for meaning, there is meaning; the journey, not the destination, is real, and the opposite of real is absurdity, such as one finding meaning in religion, love or in just being alive (suicide for Camus is not a solution for meaninglessness as suicide itself is an absurdity). So, let’s clarify. Absurdity is that which does not make sense, but the quest for truth in absurdity is valid, as long as answers are not reached. Thus, the question: Does life have meaning? is not limited to answering yes or no. We can simply recognize the question itself as absurd and consider other answers in addition to the negative or positive, including the grotesque possibilities, such as life is but a dream or nightmare.
The ‘bizarre’, Thompson notes, is the disharmonic elements clashing, similar to his definition of ‘the grotesque’ but with an absurd apportionment; the grotesque is revolting and frightening, but the bizarre is “eerie and comical”. Camus sums up the balance in this disharmony as freedom from a need for harmony: “By accepting the Absurd, one can achieve absolute freedom, and that by recognizing no religious or other moral constraints and by revolting against the Absurd while simultaneously accepting it as unstoppable, one could possibly be content from the personal meaning constructed in the process.” To embrace the bizarre liberates the subjective need for order. It becomes an ongoing process, a journey, a progression.
Thus Bizarro Literature must include elements in conflict but in subjective harmony and acceptance. Consider the world of animation. In the movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Eddie Valiant’s brother is killed by a piano being dropped on him in Toontown, but when Eddie visits the animated town, and rides the lightning quick elevator operated by Droopy, he is flattened like a pancake at the bottom of the elevator floor, like a cartoon. Why isn’t he killed by the flattening? His brother was killed by a cartoon piano. Are the physical rules of Toontown variant? Do they apply differently to different people or are they constant? One could argue that in a cartoon world, there are no rules, and therein lies the crux of the matter. To find order in a cartoon is to give absurdity validity. To argue that toons can or cannot kill is a fallacy begging a conclusion. We are talking Roger Rabbit, folks. There is no answer, but seeking one gives one a greater enjoyment of the movie, itself a disharmony with its animated characters and the real actors blended into the same story. When we suspend our disbelief, the disharmony becomes harmonic and subjectively entertaining, but objectively, it is bizarre—just as bizarre as if Roger Rabbit, or better yet, Jessica Rabbit, walked right into the room like any flesh and blood creature or person and interacted with you. Some may be amazed, others horrified.
Which brings us to Sky Tongues by Gina Ranalli. The novel is a series of disharmonious elements coalescing into a bizarre world where we find ourselves accepting the absurdities as subjectively valid as we would a novel with harmonious elements. For instance, in Peyton Place (1956), “the main plot follows the lives of three women—lonely and repressed Constance MacKenzie; her illegitimate daughter Allison; and her employee Selena Cross, a girl from across the tracks, or "from the shacks." The novel describes how they come to terms with their identity as women and sexual beings in a small New England town. Hypocrisy, social inequities and class privilege are recurring themes in a tale that includes incest, abortion, adultery, lust and murder” (Wiki). We do not question such goings on in the “soap opera” town; we accept it without question, but when we approach the same themes in a world where disharmony reigns, the absurd is the standard, and to question it itself becomes absurd. To accept it is to accept the bizarre and its rules of chaos, an oxymoron in essence.
Gina Ranalli offers her own brand of the bizarre in Sky Tongues (ST). The story of a Mue (mutant) in a world of norms, mues and countless other humanoid and nonhumanoid characters, ST is the real world presented in absurdist fashion. Sky is an Outie, born inside out, with Tongues for fingers and toes. On the meaningful side, ST is the Horatio Alger-ish autobiography of a person’s rise from poverty, abuse and alienation to fame, wealth and power. On the other side, it is a fantastical world of environmental corruption and its pervasion of the human DNA pool—in other words, a world of mutations: people who are born inside-out, transparent, multi and single limbed, coated by shark skin, and many other variations of mutated humans. But this is not a story of fantasy, of science fiction, where the focus of the story is on the reasons and results of the polluted world, and in the solution to this “problem” comes a return of the DNA to ‘normal’ expectations for a happy ending to the human race. Instead, the focus of ST is on the ‘soap opera’ reality of a young girl tossed into a world she wasn’t ready for and her trials and tribulations in conquering this world. The bizarre DNA background is there like clothing on a character, but the story is character driven, not based on the bizarre circumstances or in what she’s wearing.
To tell Sky’s tale is to speak of human problems. Her father resents her for being an Outie, born inside out, yet he loves his son who was born with a glossy shark skin sleeker than his dad’s. We can parallel the description of skins throughout the book as metaphors for Blacks, Latinos, Anglos, Asians, etc, but that shifts the counterbalance of comical and eerie to “real” again and the flavor of the bizarre is lost. We are talking about Sky Tongues, a hermaphrodite who traverses two worlds, a famous Mue who exists between the world of accepted mutants and rejected ones. It would be too easy to simply say that Sky represents the story of a girl who goes to Hollywood seeking fame and encounters trouble and redemption. It reduces the bizarre effect. It is the story of a Mue who goes to Hollywood; it is the story of many Mues and non-mues living their lives in their world. Theirs is the Peyton Place of mutants, not the metaphor for humans in a soap opera.
So, Bizarro Literature utilizes disharmonic elements that create a world that can only be entered by a suspension of disbelief because the absurd structure (another oxymoron) requires a unquestioning journey into “real” lands in unreal places, for it is not “getting it” or making sense of it that makes Sky Tongues a unique and valuable read for fans of horror and beauty but the journey one takes in reading it without question or assigning it a value that makes Sky Tongues a remarkable accomplishment by Gina Ranalli in both Bizarro and literary fiction. I look forward to reading the rest of her books, many of which I’ve already placed in my library.
If you have found today’s Servante of Darkness a bit bizarre, then good—you understand. Thank you for coming today, dear readers. Sky Tongues can be purchased in paper or ebook at Amazon.com here
One last footnote about Bizarro Literature as I believe Camus may have considered it:
“For Camus, it is the beauty which people encounter in life that makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life (if there is one), but can still provide something for which to strive. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd, lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd”
Sky Tongues creates its world and maintains its irony for the reader to enjoy as he would a bizarre journey.
Until next month, stay cool in the darkness.
(Visit Gina Ranalli's Official Website here)