The Poppies of Terra #4 - Who Will Drive Your Hearse?
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
On August 6th, 1982, The Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson prophetically said, “I think you’re going to find him a little different.” Moments later Steven Wright made his national television debut. His surreal, absurdist one-liners, delivered in an endlessly downbeat monotone, have continued to be “a little different” for the last forty years. Now, the master of upside-down concision and bottoms-up compression, whose very career is a gravelly whispered ode to implausibility, has seemingly done the impossible by stretching out his focus to novel length.
How do you transition from packing ironic wisdom into five-word sentences, like the classic “Plan to be spontaneous tomorrow,” to storytelling over several hundred pages?
A clue lies in Wright’s comedy: “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” And so every literary form is writing distance, if you have the time. Which Wright apparently did, explaining in recent interviews that it took him seven years to write Harold, published on May 16th by Simon & Schuster. He started by posting one sentence at a time on Twitter, and then decided to work offline, mainly during two-hour coffee highs.
But is word-count enough to fashion a novel? What about plot? Narrative structure? Character development? Themes?
Wright forgoes most of this, focusing instead on stream-of-consciousness musings, putatively from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy attending Wildwood Elementary School sometime in the late 60s. Harold, who thinks of himself as a “wondering machine,” imagines “a little very very small rectangle in the middle of his brain.” There are “thousands and thousands and thousands of tiny birds in his head,” and whenever one of these birds flies through the rectangle “whatever thought that bird represented that’s what Harold would think about.” Courtesy of Wright, that’s what we then think about.
The novel is set during a single day of external time, but roams back and forth through decades of psychological time. The subjectivity of time is itself one of the novel’s subjects, as when, for instance, Harold reflects that “dream time must be different than awake time.” The novel, which comedian Bill Burr has described as The Catcher in the Rye “on mushrooms,” contains a limited supporting cast: Harold’s teacher, Ms. Yuka, a girl in Harold’s class named Elizabeth, and Harold’s grandfather, Alexander, who pops up via flashbacks. Near the end, Carl Sagan makes a brief appearance.
There’s no plot, barely a smidgeon of story, and, despite microscopic access to Harold’s scattershot brain, only a fraction of the character development we might expect. During the 1989 Oscars, when Wright, along with Dean Parisot, accepted an Academy Award for their thirty-minute film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, Wright said, “We’re really glad we cut out the other sixty minutes.” Likewise, I’m sure Wright is presently glad that he cut out the other three hundred pages, you know, the ones containing all the traditional novelistic elements.
Still, though Harold is indeed “a tangent festival” of a book, certain recurring attitudes arise, and possibly some themes. Early on we learn that “one of Harold’s hobbies was to try to see the world through the eyes of other people or animals.” Wright once joked, “I live on a one-way street that's also a dead end. I'm not sure how I got there.” If Harold, Wright’s de-aged proxy persona, is any indication, relentlessly abstract empathy might be how.
The novel espouses a kind of quaint anti-establishmentarianism, with “the establishment” being consensus reality. Harold often expresses distrust of authority figures, including all grown-ups: “Harold realized that adults were always saying and describing how the world worked and he felt sorry for them because he knew they believed it and he knew they knew nothing and thought they knew everything which was the lowest rung on the whole ladder.” Socrates would be proud.
Harold intensely dislikes people who monopolize conversations. He rails against anything he perceives as an invasion of privacy, and despises prevarication: “When Harold became aware of how politicians on TV refused to answer a question directly, it infuriated him and he thought someone should come out of the wings and ask them this: Do you agree that you are not answering the question? Then no matter what he says he should be beaten until he’s unconscious on live television with no criminal consequences.”
On the positive side, Harold often references the Lakota admiringly. Though he regularly enlists scientific notions such as the speed of light, a part of him craves mystification. He values science as a way of debunking nonsense, but perhaps values debunking the drive to debunk even more. In Chapter 10 he realizes that “as he learned more about the scientific reason for things, he always liked the before science versions better. Harold thought they somehow connected more to human beings even though they were mythical.”
His sense of injustice relates back to the very fabric of chronological existence. We learn that “Harold resented that when you were born determined what time in history you lived—He felt that birth had an undeserved claim to time.” He is constantly trying to untether himself from linearity, as when he wonders: “Wouldn’t it be great if he had a big house and in the many different rooms he could have Elizabeth at different ages.”
Several layers beneath Harold’s literalized bird-flights of fancy, fears congregate. There is, for instance, the dread anticipation of romantic pain: “Maybe it would keep girls from hugging him and then he would never have a broken heart.” Certain experiences–like death–seem more manageable to Harold if he somehow gets some practice in first. He fantasizes about going for a ride with whoever will be the driver of his hearse when he dies, so that “that way when he was dead in the hearse it would be the second time he was in it and then he would already be a little bit used to it. That made Harold wonder if there were other things you could do now to help you be used to being dead.” This is followed by the telling repetition: “Used to being dead.”
Stand-up comedy, though it may be recorded with modern technology, is evanescent in nature, a one-time exchange between comedian and live audience. But written works are temporally dislocated from their perceivers. Existing in perfectly preserved limbo until inquiring eyes land on them, texts can endure past the lives of their creators. In a way, then, writing this novel may have been Wright’s attempt to get a little used to being dead. Harold is Steven Wright’s hearse test drive. Call it a re-hearse-al.
The twinning of deep-seated fears and narrative nonlinearity make me think, somewhat obliquely, of Beau Is Afraid, another recent work, albeit filmic, of extended macabre comedy. Beau is a child trapped in an adult’s body. Harold is the exact inverse, an old man funneled into a vehicle of youth. With these works we might be seeing the birth of a genre capturing a new condition: temporal body dysmorphia.
As formally experimental as Harold is, its sensibility can be traced back to Romanticism, an exaltation of the mysterious beauty of nature amidst disillusionment with modern life. One of the granddaddies of this aesthetic is Lord Byron’s long poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. With some slight tweaking–Kid Harold’s Pilgrimage of the Mind–that same title could serve Wright’s book.
Every page has laugh-out-loud beats. The plentiful comedy in the novel arises not only from Harold’s observations, but from the fact that Wright doesn’t take himself too seriously. Harold “wondered if it was possible to be in your 70s and have the perspective of a 5 year old without being nuts.” To quote Michael Keaton's Batman: Let’s get nuts. For readers jumping at the chance to point out anachronisms, Wright is one step ahead: “mind your own business.” As Harold says, “all art is modern art at some point.”
Wright himself reads the audiobook version, by the way, which contains a treasure of a moment. Twelve minutes and thirty-five seconds into Chapter 10, Wright breaks character. What he’s reading is so ridiculous that it cracks him up and for a precious second he gives up the pretense of deadpan.
Wright’s stand-up comedy is stupendously non-sequential and often radical in its inventiveness of perspective. Watching a Wright set is a bit like listening to a long Ornette Coleman solo: you keep waiting for the boundaries. By pouring his off-kilteredness into a fictional point-of-view narrator, Wright has tempered the fracture of himself, containing it and couching it in the birds of Harold’s mind. Ordinary literary criticism can’t do justice to Harold; it calls for the creation of a conceptual ornithologist–or, perhaps, ornette-ologist.