Archive for landrew42

Being Surreal(ist) a Century Later

A pleasing consensus so far about my novel Crazy Time is that it’s pretty darned surreal: one reviewer calls it “not just a horror novel, but a surreal world,” which makes my heart race a little. I was certainly going for effects I think of as surreal, but now that I’m accepting the surreal as part of my brand, I’m thinking more about what makes the surreal tick and how I feel about Surrealism in general. For help, I went back to a text I hadn’t read in more than 25 years, André Breton’s The First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924). The reread made me realize that, although I agree with many of Breton’s fundamental points, having explored a century of writing since his manifesto, I simply can’t agree with one thing: his concept of Surrealism! So, I’m going to do a few things. I’m going to say what I have in common with Breton. I’m going to say why I break with his Surrealism and propose a way of approaching the surreal informed by more recent thinking. To exit, I’ll make a few notes about how I attempt the surreal in my writing. I am not seeking a revisionary manifesto-level performance here; I just want to get some thoughts out.

So, to begin, Breton struck me with his wit and insight; we have a lot of snarky things in common, not merely a love for Matthew Lewis’s forever-iconoclastic Gothic novel The Monk (11). Here are two major points from his manifesto that I can’t deny:

  • “The realistic position… appears to me to be totally hostile to all intellectual and moral progress. It horrifies me, since it arises from mediocrity, hatred and dull conceit” (5). Don’t get me wrong. I love some (R/r)ealist art. However, an insistence on the realistic combined with the uppity assumption that the best works hold a mirror up to “nature”–whatever that means–is about as dull as that Hamlet reference.
  • “In the realm of literature, the marvellous alone is capable of making fertile those works which belong to a lesser genre such as the novel…” (11). Okay, now Mr. Breton’s being a little snooty about the novel, but he mostly means realistic novels, and in any case the good point here is what he says about the marvelous, meaning the fantastic, the supernatural, that which stretches the imagination rather than relying on regurgitation of the quotidian… this stuff is what makes for the richest lit, not the pretension to capturing “life as it really is”–whatever that means. The marvelous opens doors to new possibilities. An attempt to nail down life within imaginatively bereft boundaries denies more possibilities than it allows.

So, Breton looks to counter realism with the marvelous, acknowledges the Gothic already does that to an extent, and wants to go further. What he wants is more psychologically involved, more opposed to conventional thought. He complains, “We are still living under the rule of logic… in our day, logical procedures are only applicable in solving problems of secondary interest” (7). His primary interest is in what lies beyond the merely rational, which stretches the purview of the traditional Gothic (and of contemporary horror), and in that, he and I are allied.

To go beyond the rational, Breton turns to “the omnipotence of dream” to access “the superior reality of certain forms of neglected association” (19). He gives “thanks to Freud for his discoveries” (7). The Surrealist turn to dream associations as an alternative to rational associations is incredibly productive. The marvelous permeates dream. Moreover, dream and the dream-like involve connections among words, images, objects, concepts, and experiences that unseat rationality as the only possible way of constructing and understanding worlds. The ruling regime of the rational is tyrannical; dream is liberatory. “Liberatory” is as far as I’ll go, however. I can’t agree with Breton about any “superior reality,” and though I’ve read and enjoyed more of Freud’s work than is healthy for any individual, I can’t link Freud to anything like what Breton eventually calls “absolute truth” (28). My rejection of Freud comes not merely from his myopia with regard to human diversity, nor merely from his limited understanding of how dreams might actually operate. The main reason is simpler. The notion of truth, especially an absolute one, and the notion of a superior reality–notions prized by both Freud and Breton–are not notions I, having survived in the postmodern condition, find tenable. Surrealism’s dreamy alternative to rationality points to a plurality of thought models, a plurality of realities, not a higher, “omnipotent” truth. Breton refers to madness and madmen several times, perhaps inadvertently positing mental illness as a third thought model to go along with dream and rationality. In one of several definitions of the surreal, Breton claims, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, seemingly so contradictory, of dream and reality, in a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak” (10). In the absence of absolutes and confronted with pluralities, I must revise and extend Breton’s claim into one of my own about what constitutes surreality. I believe in the concurrence of these two states, seemingly so contradictory, of dream and reality, in dreams as realities among other realities that expose the fragile illusion of a single, rational “real.” That process of exposing illusion creates a surreality, so to speak.

I suppose I might seem hypocritical by making the surreal superior in its faculty for exposing rationality’s claim to monolithic truth as illusion. Yet I am not saying rationality is an illusion, inferior to dream or to that which would expose its claim to being the singular reality as false. Rationality, too, is a reality among other realities. The surreal is a leveler that destroys claims to singularity and the absolute with unexpected associations, of which dream associations are exemplary. The surreal unsettles by disrupting hierarchical relations, but otherwise, it doesn’t play hierarchical games.

Breton holds up automatic writing as a process likely to achieve surreal effects. It allows the writer to channel thought while staying ahead of rational calculation and self-reflection, and in that, I can’t argue with its validity as a leveler. I don’t have much interest in it, though. I find the concurrence of different thought methods–such as rationality, dream, and different manifestations of psychosis–far more productive, and frankly, I think calculated effects work out better (I believe calculation, perhaps combined with other types of association, lies behind the most effective early Surrealist art as well). Here are some ways I calculate for the surreal in Crazy Time and other writings:

  • Broken causality. Realistic narratives, and even most narratives that indulge in the marvelous, rely on chains of cause and effect to tell their stories in ways that make enough sense to keep readers comfortable (and paying). A causes B, which causes C, and so on, until the story reaches a logical and satisfying conclusion. To create the surreal, I break causal chains, withholding causes, supplying effects that have unclear or distorted connections to their apparent causes, etc., failing to provide sense and comfort. When rational, causal explanation is unnecessary, very strange things can happen. Writing seminars will tell you that you have to provide logical reasons for the things that happen in your stories and clear motivations for characters’ actions. I’m saying you don’t, but I’d add that causality shouldn’t be broken all the time. The broken stands out when it disrupts the unbroken.
  • Unresolved multiplicities. The flip side of broken causality, which is an absence of conventional narrative logic, is an abundance of causality, or multiple explanations for events and behaviors that coexist simultaneously, in tension with each other, while none has clear priority. This multiplicity is not the same as having multiple theories in suspension until a mystery is resolved. This multiplicity proves to be unresolvable, and it works best when at least some of the explanations in play are irrational, absurd, or all-out batshit crazy.
  • Uncontrolled resonance. Repetition always involves difference, and as elements in a story repeat and transform, we tend to like to infer causal connections that motivate the repetition and spur the transformation, but such inferences can be difficult or even impossible. I tend to repeat words, phrases, images, and events, sometimes with premeditation and sometimes without, so that all the instances of the recurring elements resonate (often eerily) with each other. The resonance can accumulate into a theme, but it’s surreal when it prompts a reaction along the lines of, “Why the hell is this showing up again here, now, in this context?!?”
  • Unreliable physics. So-called “nature” is supposed to follow laws. The core physics class I took in college was called “Space, Time, and Motion.” We talked a lot about smart people who formulated some of those natural laws, which we expect to function in a way that keeps the universe more or less rational and orderly. Ergo, breaking those laws–having space, time, and motion misbehave–can produce surreal effects. Perhaps I should have titled this bullet “unreliable science.” Unreliable biology can produce rather surreal effects as well, but that might fall mostly under…
  • Imagery, imagery, imagery. Breton devotes space in his manifesto to making fun of the tediously detailed imagery of realistic writers. I take his point, but I nevertheless think that, while much great writing aspires to the condition of music, surreal writing aspires to the condition of painting (or graphic arts). By the time they learn to read, most people have prejudices about how “real” things appear to their senses. Describing people, places, things, movements, sounds, smells, etc.–but especially visual images–that fall outside most people’s understanding of the real provides a challenge to complacent thought. It can also accomplish the surreal at its most twisted, majestic, beautiful and/or sublime.

“Surreal” is a word tossed about in a way that often simply means bizarre, unusual, or weird. Breton helped popularize “surreal” and “Surrealism” with much more specific ideas. Rereading him, I know I can’t call myself a true Surrealist in the 1920s meaning of the term, but if you will accept my modified understanding, I’d be happy to call myself a centennial Surrealist, still working to overthrow the tyranny of logic in 2022.

Salvador Dali’s The Face of War (1940)

CRAZY TIME and… Romance???

Kirkus Reviews refers to my novel Crazy Time as having “a side of romance,” which gave me a jolt when I first read it. I don’t write romance! I don’t read romance, and romantic comedy is the one genre of film I categorically avoid. I respect romance writers quite a bit, as theirs is a competitive market and the industry standards have a significant learning curve, but that’s just another reason why I’m not one of them… except… I did put a love story pretty near the center of Crazy Time. Since Crazy Time is crazy Biblical anyway, I’ll echo the Song of Solomon and say it’s one of those “love is strong as death” love stories, if not “love is stronger than death,” as the verse is often misquoted. My novel is primarily the story of Lily Henshaw, secondarily the story of Lily Henshaw’s relationship with Burt Wells, her boss who becomes her lover, as well as someone who protects her and whom she must protect on her quest.

I introduce Burt with the flames already kindled, at least on his side: he and Lily have had a long employer-employee relationship, and he has long been attracted to her, but he has always behaved appropriately. She is aware of his feelings but has never made a move beyond friendship, but when her life starts falling apart, she finds she can turn to Burt, and she does, repeatedly, and he is there for her, even when doing so gets him in trouble (even leading to his arrest at one point). He stays by her side through behaviors and events that would make almost anyone abandon her, and he believes the impossible when she needs him to. After they become intimate, a horrific incident makes Lily’s apartment uninhabitable, so she goes to stay with him—and realizes they are now a couple. Her reliance on him becomes something more, and when, in time, he needs her, her response is passionate. That’s all I’ll say. Read the book to find out whether my lovers achieve the ending romance novels are supposed to have.

Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say one thing more. That Lily and Burt are an interracial couple (Lily white, Burt black) becomes important in several ways. First, there’s the arrest I mentioned: Lily has just been assaulted, Burt arrives to help moments before police, and when the police arrive, they arrest him basically because he’s black, despite Lily’s objections, which leads to other plot developments. More important, though, is Lily and Burt’s battle against the corporation Mansworth Futures and Securities, which is very, very white. They treat Burt dismissively and, later, violently… I’ll sum up by simply saying that in the “working world” to which Lily Henshaw becomes “ambassador,” race is a concern that Lily’s choice of partners helps to highlight.

So, the romance storyline serves multiple functions, but mostly, it raises the emotional stakes, and it makes the characters more compelling. Their need to survive might make you turn the pages, but their need for each other—that might make you hold your breath.

Find Crazy Time at https://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Time-Bizarre-Battle-Darkness-ebook/dp/B09QCVHRBJ/

CRAZY TIME and (Video) Games

Referring to my novel Crazy Time’s opening chapter, in which the protagonist Lily Henshaw and three friends are menaced on the highway, a recent Readers’ Favorite Book Review summarizes, “Two men in a pickup truck pursue and engage them in a brutal and deadly game called Crazy Time.” The reviewer is correct in that the two men, who call themselves Earl and Rob, are playing a game, and Earl does call what’s happening “crazy time,” but I never thought of what they’re doing as a game called Crazy Time, which would make the title of my book the name of a game (among other things). I may not have planned that dimension of the title, exactly, but I’d say it’s appropriate, as ideas related to gaming run throughout the book. Earl and Rob treat their assault on Lily and her friends as if it has rules to follow, beginning with the recitation of a kind of nursery rhyme and ending with murder, and they have lots of fun along the way, using a cell phone to take video of the proceeding, presumably so they can savor the event again and again. For them, the novel’s opening horrors become a digitally mediated gaming experience.

Lily’s nephew Donnie is inseparable from his handheld video games, but otherwise, no one in the novel is involved with literal “games.” A game is at the story’s heart, however. Lily goes through so many traumas that she concludes she’s suffering from a curse like in the Book of Job, which she understands as centering on a bet, or game, between God and Satan, who basically play to see how unimaginable suffering will affect a person. Lily refuses to be a passive participant and does all she can to become a real player, trying to learn the rules from a psychic, a Satanist, and others. To take an active role, she discovers—about midway through the book—that she must go to a skyscraper that houses a shady company with mysterious connections to the supernatural forces destroying her life.

I don’t want to drop significant spoilers about the second half of the book, but since video games were very much on my mind as I crafted it, I’ll make a few comments. First, about illustrations: there are five images in the first half, five in the second, and two out of the second five show elevators. The skyscraper’s elevators become crucial to both story and structure because Lily arriving at a new floor of the building generally means facing a new challenge, after which Lily must go to an elevator (often at the end of a chapter) to go to another floor for another challenge. Yes, I’m saying floors of the skyscraper are like levels of a video game. Some of them even have boss battles. Near the end, there’s a reference to the video game God of War that I expect that game’s fans to enjoy.

So why this emphasis on games? Perhaps, in the tradition of the film Funny Games (either version), the malefic and/or irrational forces that treat Lily’s suffering as “play” trivialize and dehumanize her, and by extension people like her, and maybe by extension all people, revealing the brutality of the universal order. But maybe it’s more interesting to think about the phenomenal successes of The Hunger Games (which I knew prior to Crazy Time) and Squid Game (which I encountered after), both of which rely on video game narrative conventions, and both of which use games in their stories for social critique. Such stories suggest that we’re taking our games more and more seriously, relying on them to express ourselves and to interpret our lives. These games are about survival. Lily might not want to play the game of Crazy Time that Earl and Rob initiate, but to keep herself going, she learns what every visitor to Las Vegas knows: you’ve got to play to win.

Find Crazy Time for yourself: https://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Time-Bizarre-Battle-Darkness-ebook/dp/B09QCVHRBJ/

CRAZY TIME Goodreads E-Book Giveaway!

Cooper’s dark horror story is an uncomfortable, trippy, and original roller-coaster ride… riveting and unsettling… with a compelling hero.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Not unlike a Dali painting, L. Andrew Cooper’s latest… is a strange fusion of surreal horror, dark fantasy, and spiritual speculation… powered by stunning imagery and laudable in terms of plot audaciousness… a bizarre and sometimes grotesque narrative.” – BlueInk Review

“A series of traumatic events leads a woman into a battle between good and evil… supernatural twists subvert… expectations… poetic prose… is both unsettling and absorbing….” – Foreword Clarion Reviews

“…truly a bizarre battle with darkness… a unique piece from start to finish… wonderful to read… a great book… engaging and suspenseful…” – OnlineBookClub.org

“Despite its paranormal trappings, the book is a psychological thriller at its heart… disparate threads… are tied up nicely by the ending… A dark supernatural thriller that ponders on what makes us human.” – The Prairies Book Review

“Questions of life, morality, and what it means to be truly human permeate the narrative, giving it depth and substance. A gritty supernatural thriller.” – BookView Review

Between March 3 and March 31, 2022, I will be giving away 50 Amazon Kindle editions of Crazy Time on Goodreads. Please enter, and if you get a copy, please read and review!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Crazy Time by L. Andrew Cooper

Crazy Time

by L. Andrew Cooper

Giveaway ends March 31, 2022.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads. Enter Giveaway

Mental Illness and CRAZY TIME

Lily Henshaw, the central character in my novel Crazy Time, suffers so many traumas in such a short time that she becomes convinced that she’s a target for God and Satan, similar to Job in the Bible. The first chapter describes one of those traumas in detail, and the second chapter opens with a sentence stating unequivocally that, three months later, “Lily [is] not okay.” As she associates environmental triggers with her earlier trauma, bringing on a panic attack, astute readers might guess that Lily has PTSD, and indeed, PTSD and its effects are a major concern of the entire book. I wrote it while coming to grips with my own diagnosis of PTSD and struggling with a long depressive dip in the rises and falls of my bipolar disorder (type two). Although Lily’s traumas and mental experiences are far more extreme than my own, I can still claim that we overlap. “Crazy” is a pejorative word for the mentally typical to use as a description for those of us with mental illnesses, but to use it as an in-group term: Lily’s crazy time is in many ways my crazy time. Maybe that’s why she’s closer to my heart than virtually all my other characters.

The key feature of Lily’s experience with PTSD is repetition, which manifests in several different ways. The most famous kind of repetition tied to PTSD is the flashback, a kind of full-on replay of the original trauma. I didn’t write any long, involved replays for Lily, in part because such moments would be boring in a novel and in part because my dealings with trauma, like Lily’s, have involved multiple incidents, and my repetitions don’t work with cinematic scenes of primal moments. Don’t get me wrong. Associating the right trigger with a traumatic incident can send me briefly back to the horrible moment, and likewise, if Lily sees something she associates with (for example) one of the men who attack her in the first chapter, her mind will briefly take her back to relive some of the first chapter’s circumstances. However, going back doesn’t have to involve a sensory replay, and it doesn’t need an environmental trigger, either. Repetition also occurs through seemingly random, intrusive thoughts. Unbidden, a thought related to a trauma might simply pop into Lily’s (or my own) head, and then it will be there, summoning all the negative emotions associated with it. Intrusive thoughts relate closely to what my therapist calls “obsessive rumination,” what happens when the trauma-related thoughts get into Lily’s and my heads and run around in circles, refusing to leave. The idea of “crazy time” itself, which Lily’s attackers bring up in the first chapter, intrudes on Lily’s regular thinking and circles around, haunting her and gathering new meanings as she tries to make sense of it and dispel it. As she obsessively ruminates, her thinking evolves coping strategies. The repetitions are deep ruts, hard to escape, but each repetition at least has the potential to be a repetition with a difference.

PTSD, the associative nature of its triggers, the seeming randomness of its intrusions, and its obsessive lingering become structural principles for Crazy Time. The novel doesn’t follow a standard narrative line, which would rely on a causal chain of incidents (A happens, which causes B to happen, which causes C to happen, which causes D, etc.). In a standard horror novel, some big bad shows up at the beginning, and a chain of events leads to the big bad being shut down at the end (or, less often, the big bad achieving total victory). Again, not so in Crazy Time. The opening chapter might seem to carry the weight of a causal, original incident, but on the surface, it doesn’t have a lot to do with the rest of the story—except the trauma it causes repeats and shapes Lily’s thinking, which shapes the path she takes toward improving her situation. Indeed, from the first chapter on, Lily’s traumas seem to lack a logical, traceable tree of causes, and a remedy for causality’s absence gives Lily something else to obsess about. A major example of a traumatic phenomenon that seems to lack logical causality but affects Lily repeatedly is suicide. People close to her and people she randomly encounters keep killing themselves. Suicide makes a kind of thematic sense because her traumas leave her depressed, but because she can’t see a more logical, common root for the suicides to be happening around her, she concludes, ““Suicide [is] a rhizome, like certain mushrooms and plants, popping up in bunches here, bunches there… clusters of crazy-time mushrooms” (and yes, I am tipping my hat to Deleuze and Guattari).  Other events and images, such as the intoning of nursery rhymes, seemingly lack logical reasons to recur but do in crucial ways for the story’s development.

Due to a relentless self-reflection that comes with obsessive rumination, Lily at least sometimes recognizes this structure governing her life and book, but she rejects it, insisting on finding a root for the tree that she believes should causally connect her experiences. Her search for the root, which she hopes will point to a remedy, leads to the craziest of her adventures, but she is not wholly resolute in her quest. Doubt follows her everywhere, as she knows “she [has] good reasons… to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and couldn’t that involve hallucinations?” She doesn’t trust her mind or her senses, and others doubt her as well. Such doubt can be one of the cruelest aspects of mental illness—feeling you might betray yourself, and that others don’t take you seriously—and it deepens her desperation while strengthening her determination to discover an all-revealing root for her difficulties.

No matter how mentally ill Lily may be, her strength when faced with doubt and circumstances that lack traditional sense make her heroic. A mentally ill hero—especially one so smart and self-determined—is a rare creature in any form of fiction, especially in the horror genre, which too often uses “the crazies” as villains. Despite the fact that most people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent or dangerous than people without, many horror writers are ignorant, prejudiced, and/or just plain lazy. I encountered enough prejudice and hate associating with certain horror writers that I mostly avoid them now. Lily would gladly show them her middle finger and then go about her quest. She’s admirable, much more so than I. She’s a hero both apart from and because of her struggle with mental illness, which gives her a good chance of coping with her history and, if you’ll give her story a try, having a bright literary future.

Find Lily and Crazy Time on the Amazon Kindle or in paperback.