Rush-That-Speaks (rushthatspeaks) wrote,

Horace Gerstenblut n'existe pas, or, why Daniel Pinkwater is the greatest living Surrealist

I grew up with the work of Daniel Pinkwater. A copy of Lizard Music (1976) somehow or other appeared in our house when I was quite young-- I say appeared because I don't remember buying it, I don't remember being given it, and no one else remembers anything about it either-- and ever since then every so often I go on a Pinkwater reread in which I dive through whatever selection of his sixty to eighty books for children and young adults I can get my hands on.

Describing Pinkwater as a surrealist, small-s, is probably one of the two or three most common adjectives people use about his work, along with words like 'zany' or 'odd' or 'whimsical' and things along those lines. One of his most famous and best novels is called The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. It contains not only an avocado of death but a murderous orchestra-conducting orangutang. In various Pinkwater novels the space-time continuum is described as homologous to a map of New Jersey, an orange popsicle contains within itself the meaning of life, giant extraterrestrial worms believe firmly that the greatest desire human beings have is for Post Toasties, and the Flying Dutchman's curse can be lifted if he not only gets onto solid ground but has someone freely offer him a cheeseburger without onions. I've seen a fair amount of speculation along the lines of 'and then I guess he free-associates the rest of the plot'.

It was not until quite recently, however, that I noticed that Pinkwater is actually a capital-S Surrealist, by which I mean that he is intentionally and with forethought following the artistic and literary principles established by André Breton and his circle in Paris in the 1920s as part of the Surrealist movement, and that he is alluding in his body of work to the Surrealists and their intellectual ideas.

At the beginning of August, while I was in Montreal, I happened to read a book I'd brought with me called Mount Analogue, by René Daumal, a Surrealist work written in the late 1940s and published incomplete and posthumously in 1952. Mount Analogue is structured around the following ideas: 1), it is philosophically necessary to the human spirit that there be, somewhere in the world, a mountain so high that no human has ever climbed it; but 2), it is also philosophically necessary that said mountain be climbable, and that every human have the hope of climbing it. Since we have climbed Mount Everest, it therefore becomes a matter of logical necessity that Mount Everest not be the highest mountain in the world. The questions facing Daumal's characters, therefore, begin with not whether there is such a mountain-- they take it as an axiom that there is-- but with why they have never heard of it or seen it, where it is, how one gets to it, why it's unmappable, etcetera. For all of these questions Daumal has ingeniously worked out internally consistent and joyously well-worldbuilt answers, all of which the characters are able to deduce from philosophical necessity before ever getting up from their own tea-table, and all of which turn out to be the case. I can only regret that Daumal died before his characters got very far up the mountain. The book literally ends in mid-sentence, but it's well worth reading anyway.

So I was sitting in various restaurants and conference rooms reading this book, and I came down with an incredibly strange-feeling case of déjà vu. I knew I had never read the book before. You don't forget books like that one. And yet, I also knew that in some way I had, that some really idiosyncratic thing about it was reading as incredibly familiar, and familiar in the way that something only is if you have read it many, many times.

It dawned on me that I was observing in Mount Analogue the central worldbuilding chunk of Lizard Music. That in fact Pinkwater's invisible island full of sentient lizard-people in one of the Great Lakes was set up and structured exactly like Mount Analogue, like the mountain itself. So as soon as I got home, I went to reread the Pinkwater, and discovered, in the description of the invisible island:

"If you look straight at Invisible Island, you don't see the island, you see around the island, and you think you're looking directly at whatever's on the other side. Also, if you sail straight at the island, you will simply sail around it, thinking you're going in a straight line. It isn't easy to explain-- there's a book called Mount Analogue by René Daumal that tells all about it. Just take my word for it." (pp. 101-102, NYRB edition)

Now for twenty years I had managed either to read past that description entirely, or to assume that Pinkwater was not talking about a real book. Because Pinkwater's work is full of fictional books-- he freely mixes descriptions of real books and movies with synopses of books and movies that don't exist, and with synopses of other portions of his own work. In Lizard Music, for example, the protagonist watches Pinkwater's novel Fat Men from Space on TV as the late movie, along with a serial-numbers-filed-off Island of Dr. Moreau and the actual, extant, precisely-as-it-is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I usually look up things that are cited in things I'm reading, but with Pinkwater either it doesn't help or you get sent around the barn and back and wind up watching the filmography of Laird Cregar (which I believe happened to sovay once).

So after banging my head against the page for a while, I realized two things: one, the guy who is describing the Invisible Island in Lizard Music is being a dick, because he makes the protagonist go through this entire scuba routine to get to the island, when Daumal says plainly that it is perfectly possible to just sail up to the island if you are coming from either due east or due west at the precise time of sunrise or sunset, but I'm not surprised because that character is kind of a dick. Two, Daniel Pinkwater is the kind of person who looks at one of the greatest unfinished Surrealist masterworks and says I have to rewrite that and what it really needs is sentient lizards!

Plus, the new NYRB Classics edition of Lizard Music has Pinkwater's own woodcuts for the thing, and one of them is a lizard version of M.C. Escher's The Regular Division of the Plane, and that just clinched it.

Lizard Music, then, is directly intellectually traceable as a Surrealist descendant and fellow-traveler and is textually aware of itself as such.

Now, one such novel does not a Surrealist writer make, but there isn't only one; there's also Young Adult Novel. Young Adult Novel follows a group of high school boys who call themselves the Wild Dada Ducks, and who are devoted to Dadaism as a gesture of rebellion against the social stupidities of their school and surroundings. They have taken Dadaist names, as the real Dadaists and Surrealists did (one of them calls himself The Honorable Venustiano Carranza, President of Mexico); they wear unconventional clothing in unconventional ways, such as using a rubber lobster as a necktie; and they are writing a young adult novel whose hapless protagonist is put remorselessly through the plots of every cliched problem book about teenagers ever to come down the pike (among other things, he gets pregnant, becomes addicted to heroin, and goes through a series of foster families in a series of truly execrably written and hilarious pastiches).

At one point, they print up a lot of business cards saying that Horace Gerstenblut, the principal of their school, does not exist, in French: Horace Gerstenblut n'existe pas. When called in by the principal and asked what these are, they say that they are business cards. Well, what do they say, Gerstenblut inquires. They say you don't exist. Why are they in French? Well, we can't tell you. Why not? Because you don't exist...

Besides making me laugh so hard I hurt myself every time I read the book, this joke is pretty obviously an update of Magritte's famous Surrealist painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe/This is not a pipe. They can't tell Horace Gerstenblut why the cards are in French: the cards are in French because Magritte's caption, which indicates that this is not a pipe but a representation of a pipe, is also in French, and this allusion to Magritte reminds us that this is not a high school principal. Horace Gerstenblut is in fact a character in a book. He is a representation of a high school principal, and of a cliched one at that. It is impossible to tell Horace Gerstenblut that he does not exist because Horace Gerstenblut does not exist. Only the signifier of Horace Gerstenblut exists, and you can't explain anything to a signifier; it may show the appearance of understanding if that is part of what it signifies, but it isn't really sentient.

The thing the Wild Dada Ducks trip over is that you can only break the fourth wall so far. They encounter a person at their high school who has the same name as the protagonist in their terrible young adult novel (which, I should note, is also titled Young Adult Novel, as of course is Young Adult Novel itself), and decide to manipulate his life because they feel an authorial kinship to him. The plot demonstrates quietly that though it can be an allowable (though socially unacceptable) act to point out to somebody that he doesn't exist, actually trying to act as someone else's author just never seems to work out somehow... and the tables turn on the Ducks in a logically foreshadowed, carefully designed conclusion that is ten times as surreal as anything that's happened to them previously. "It has no meaning," one of them says afterwards, "it is a Dada story." But there is, of course, meaning in the Dadaists, some of it carefully structured around the absence of meaning, just as there are meaning and absence at play here.

And after a person writes two books like that I think it is reasonable to call him a Surrealist, especially since the larger themes of Surrealism are also at play in the rest of his work, although not as specifically cited.

Some Surrealist themes in Pinkwater:

1) textual interchange as a means of depreciating the commonly accepted sense of reality. As I have mentioned, Pinkwater uses fictional books and movies, fictional philosophies, real books/movies/philosophies slightly altered, real books/movies/philosophies, and his own work, either altered or not, freely throughout his novels. Some of the celebrities he mentions are real celebrities, and some fictional. It's almost impossible to have read all of Pinkwater because he has written an extremely large number of books of which many seem to have been in print for about ten minutes in the eighties, so it's pretty much impossible to be completely sure when he isn't being self-referential. This gives the things that get mentioned or cited in his books a really strange reality status. Is it real? Is it nearly real? Was it ever real? If so, in what direction? I mean somebody in The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death goes to a double-feature of the Max Schreck Nosferatu, which exists, and The Curse of the Mayan Mummy, which... I don't know. It could be lurking out there somewhere, or not, and either is about equally likely. The net effect of this, over a course of a lifetime of reading Pinkwater, is that it makes the real things stranger when you suddenly stumble across them.

2) social rebellion as a goal to be striven for on every occasion, although not necessarily at the expense of others. This is huge in all of Pinkwater, both in major plots and in subplots. In The Education of Robert Nifkin, for instance, every single teacher at Robert Nifkin's terrible 1950s Chicago high school is frothing at the mouth over the idea that there may be Communists in their midst. Nifkin joins the high school ROTC; it is, of course, the ROTC's rabidly anti-Communist drill instructor who turns out to have been taking orders directly from Moscow, and overt shows of anti-Communist militarism are suddenly taken as the epitome of Communist activity. This sort of social inversion is Pinkwater at his most overt, but can still be pretty funny.

3) Pierre Reverdy describes the purpose of Surrealism as "a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities-- the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be..." This is the centerpiece of Pinkwater's worldbuilding process and of many of his best jokes. He may well come up with his images and plots through free-association, but he then proceeds to build correspondences between the images so that the reader is lulled into thinking they make some sort of sense. Then he capitalizes on the original disjunction. The easily explained example here is from Borgel, in which the title character explains to the protagonist that time is like a map of New Jersey. The protagonist is incredulous, until Borgel explains that, just as each town in New Jersey is at a certain point on the map, and there are routes going from one town to another, also marked, so various points in time are markable, stay in the same location, and have routes between them can be mapped. "Oh," says the protagonist, getting it, "so time is like a map of New Jersey or some other state?" Not some other state, says Borgel. Just New Jersey. Why not some other state? Well, they're the wrong shape... You see here the disjunction, the bringing together, the re-emphasis of the disjunction in another place. The relationship between the images is both distant and true. The joke is strong. The worldbuilding is accepted in the reader's brain along with the joke. (Another author I have seen make use of this method is Terry Pratchett; I think it's one of the principal devices of comic fantasy. But Pratchett also uses other methods, whereas Pinkwater's cosmologies are structured around and by it.)

Angela Carter has applied Wallace Stevens' dictates about poetry to Surrealism: "It must be abstract. It must change. It must give pleasure." She says that the combination of these three qualities lends Surrealism its convulsive, violent beauty and humor. I am therefore not sure what she would have thought of the concept of a Surrealist children's writer, but Pinkwater's work certainly meets her definitions as well, especially if we take 'abstract' to mean the blurring of ontologies that surrounds reality in his fiction. (It's also beyond denial that his work is full of change, although pleasure is of course in the eye of the beholder.) And the original Surrealists would, I think, have found the idea of a Surrealist working for decades as a children's writer in such a way that nobody ever notices to be, well... surreal.

And, probably, hilarious. That's why I say he's the greatest living Surrealist: it's such a beautiful meta-joke.

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Tags: my girlfriend dared me
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