On Not-Knowing

One night after a lot of whiskey and beer, a friend of mine suggested that we head down to Main and rob someone. We had no money but what we’d just spent on the booze, and we knew that when we woke up we’d be hungry. Deep down we both knew that we didn’t have it in us, but we still hyped each other up, shouting back and forth about how those rich fucks didn’t earn what they had (and you know, that for some reason we deserved it). The friend grabbed some pantyhose from his room and we each pulled a pair over our heads and posed in the mirror. We took knives from the kitchen and shoved them in our jacket pockets with the makeshift masks and headed out into the cold. Now that I think on it, I wonder why he had so much pantyhose.

Most of the night was spent sitting in a pizza place, eyeing the popped-collar stumble drunks, seething at their stupid faces and our own impotence. We couldn’t do it, we both knew it, but we still nodded at certain people, targets I guess, and pretended that this was the guy, this guy was getting his shit took. We sat there up until they closed. We walked home and slept. When I woke up the next morning I just bawled, furious at my situation and completely hating myself for even considering hurting someone, or taking what didn’t belong to me. “I have morals,” I told myself, “I’m a good person, what the fuck is wrong with me?”

I despised myself for a long time after that. A solid week of wondering did I even deserve to be here. Once I got past it, though, I decided that it was good that I put myself through that. Now I knew that part of myself. Not having money will make you a little crazy.

Crime fiction, at its best, can give you that same level of introspection, but without any of the self-loathing. By chronicling the lives of thieves and murderers and drug dealers, a good crime fiction author can dig into what it is that drives people to do bad things. We’re not all heroes. Some of us are cowards, and some of us are too cowardly to even function as proper cowards. But exploring that in an honest way is absolutely vital to building up a sense of empathy that we can then carry into the real world. When we get to the bottom of what makes us bad, we’re able to find out something about what it means to be human.

On the flip side, however, there’s a lot of honesty in the not-knowing. I am eternally grateful that I don’t know what it’s like to take someone’s money, or worse, hurt them physically. That not-knowing, that’s what I think attracts me to Bizarro fiction, and why I think that injecting a little bit of this weird genre into crime fiction can be massively healthy for the latter.

Bizarro officially became a “thing” in 2005, though it had been around for many years before that. Bizarro fiction is absurdist, surrealist, just plain weird. There are books about people falling in love with houses and men who survive the nuclear apocalypse by wearing a suit of cockroaches. It’s a genre fascinated and turned on and frightened of the strange shit we deal with on a daily basis. In its weirdness, I feel a lot of comfort and solidarity. There are things out there that I just don’t understand, and Bizarro books, to me, are that not-knowing made fun.

There is a lot of crime fiction that tells the story of characters who descend into evil. Breaking Bad is a great example, taking five seasons, over sixty hours, to tell that story. For most audiences, the story of a good person, or even a regular person turning evil, it takes time for that change to be convincing. Otherwise it seems like it comes out of left field.

Sometimes, in real life that shit does come out of left field, though. My pathetic little episode wasn’t preceded by a steady buildup. I got drunk, and thought it was a good idea. Thought it was something that I was owed. The problem is that when we try to document this in crime fiction, it comes off a little half-baked. It feels like the plot is being rushed. It feels under-thought.

And that is where the not-knowing comes in.

Bizarro can be a great addition to crime fiction, and I’m seeing the combination more and more often. It’s an artful, impressionistic representation of the bewilderment most of us feel when confronted with these acts. I’m not saying that those of us who haven’t committed crimes aren’t talented enough to write about it, but it feels more real to me when you get right up to that point in the fiction and then you say, “This is fantasy, this is my impression of the act, because I really have no fucking idea what’s going through their heads.” Using Lynchian imagery, you can make a fine analogy, you can capture the adrenaline and excitement and fear and sadness of an act, without having to document it and risk coming off sounding like an outsider.

By utilizing the weird, you’ve made yourself an insider, because you’ve changed the paradigm to one that’s universal.

In terms of film, what I’m trying to describe could be found in almost all of the films of David Lynch. Far from being “meaningless” surrealism, most of the imagery found in the context of Lynch’s films seem to be gorgeous approximations of how he’d imagine the characters feel, going through what they’re going through. The Not-Knowing isn’t cutting from a sex scene to show flowers blooming and waves crashing against the rocks, it’s the “Welcome to Canada” scene in Twin Peaks, which uses strobes and loud music and strange-looking people to instill a fear, a dread that can only come from not quite understanding how people can do what Laura Palmer does. You have to be in love with something, on some level, to get too close to it, but you can (kind of counter-intuitively, I think) give a better idea of these things feel by keeping a bit of distance. By being a bit weirded out.

Back to books. Take, for example, Kris Saknussemm’s Bizarro crime masterwork Private Midnight. Detective Ritter is, for the most part, your stereotypical noir protagonist, one with plenty of demons and skeletons in the closet. He meets a mysterious woman and soon he’s obsessed with her. Again, typical noir trope. However, what begins to happen to him defies genre convention: Ritter begins losing weight, his skin becomes smoother, his hair softer. I might be delving into spoiler territory here, though I would encourage you to read this book, as it’s in the execution that the novel really excels. Anyhow, he is essentially becoming a woman. The key factor to look at, here, is that this is not a dream. In the world of the novel, he is actually transforming. Whether acting as a metaphor for shedding the old self or becoming who one really is or even as a male beginning to understand the female, this is one of the great examples of not-knowing in fiction. What Saknussemm does so brilliantly here is, rather than try to explain Ritter’s change of mind or heart through a tedious description of his feelings or thoughts, instead shows a physical, monumental change in the character himself. And he keeps it as “real,” in the sense that it’s really happening. The act of transformation becomes one of acknowledging that a change is indeed taking place, and admitting that the author has no idea what that change might actually be like. This metaphorical change is alien, and is represented as alien through this visual.

And in case I’m not up my own ass enough here, I’ll use an example from my first novel, By the Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends. A character attacks another one, who is pissing at the time. They begin to fight for their lives, and the pissing guy just keeps pissing. It’s completely absurd (and at the time I thought it was pretty funny). What I was trying to do was represent the energy, the craziness, the dirty feeling of mixing fluids whilst fighting for your life, without resorting to typical descriptions of sweat and pain.

In my own experience, there is only so far that I’m willing to go when it comes to criminal enterprise (read: not very far). In order to tell crime stories, then, there are times when I sit back and admit to myself that I have no idea how a character would act in a certain situation. So what I try to do, and what I’ve seen a lot of great weird crime writers do, is pull back into fantasy just when it gets to the point of not-knowing, to go from crystal clear picture quality to a muddy Impressionist painting just at the moment where their understanding ends. It feels more real to me, more honest. In my own experience, there’s a lot of truth in not-knowing. Bizarro helps to represent that not-knowing in the most interesting way possible.

About the Author

J David Osborne

J David Osborne is the author of Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit, Low Down Death Right Easy, and the Wonderland Award-winning By the Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends. He runs the indie crime fiction press Broken River Books. He lives in Portland, OR with his wife and dog. He doesn’t miss Oklahoma yet.

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