The Appeal of Bitterness in European Fiction

I’ve been thinking lately about HERMAN KOCH and HOUELLEBECQ — why do I love these smug, acid-tongued, bitter European old-man authors so much?


I think it’s because, as a younger American, my struggle is between idealism and sadness: I want to believe in something (the transcendent power of art, the presence of some eternal force beyond or within the apparently ephemeral world we live in), and yet I never fully do. I’m always afflicted by doubt, and feel sad at the possibility that the things I want to believe in don’t exist, or that if they do they aren’t accessible to me because I’m not good or strong enough to reach them.


And this sadness leads to shame, which is an entirely unproductive emotion.


Bitterness, on the other hand, as deployed in a novel like THE DINNER, has a grim but ultimately soothing appeal. Koch’s narrator is so sure that society is doomed and morality doesn’t matter, he’s so willing to give up on any search for meaning and any compulsion to treat others decently, that there’s a kind of cool, smooth power in his narration. It’s refined and sure of itself in a way that gives his voice secular authority, even if he’s clearly someone who’s lost at life, or someone who’s decided that there was never anything to win.


This kind of refined European bitterness is a relief from my rawer feelings of American sadness, though of course it’s a far cry from a solution.

Bad decisions vs. Certain doom

At a panel on horror writing yesterday, Joyce Carol Oates said that all of her horror stories feature a character who makes a bad decision at some point. They turn toward disaster, whereas the reader can take comfort in knowing that she’d make a better decision, and thus be spared the character’s fate.


This seems like one key form of horror — terrestrial horror, in which the drama comes from morality and the complexities of decision-making — as opposed to the more celestial horror of Lovecraft, Kafka, and Ligotti, which is less about decision-making and more about forces operating on people that are way, way beyond our comprehension … the drama here is religious rather than moral, in the sense that it’s about accepting our absolute smallness and insignificance in the scope of the universe, rather than accepting the consequences of our actions (which, in such a universe, have basically no consequences at all).


Is the distinction thus Active vs. Passive Horror?

The Awful Reckoning with Who Characters Really Are

Looking back over everything I’ve written so far, and several things I’m gearing up to write now, it seems that almost all of it is about characters being forced, through violence or depravity or horror of some kind, to confront who they really are.


The idea that people are extremely reluctant to meet their true selves, and that they ultimately only meet those selves by having illusions stripped away, not by building up to them by adding on to what’s already there, seems to have struck a deep and ongoing chord with me.


Maybe I think that all deep, spiritual knowledge is negative — it’s about stripping dross away to get down to what’s already there, not building up to what isn’t yet.


Maybe this means I believe in fate, but it’s the fate of personality, not that of external luck or predetermination.

“Now here’s my chance … “

I was talking to a psychology student the other night when the topic of life-changing experiences came up. We wondered aloud what causes people to make changes that reverberate over a long period, rather than intending to make changes and then reverting to how they were before (which seems more common).


He said that people need to make changes within a psychic window — if you come home drunk from a party and draft an angry email to someone you hate, you know you have to send it then if you want to send it ever. If you wait until morning, the chances are very high that you won’t send it.


Same with proposing to someone on a whim, quitting a job, making a huge purchase or gamble, etc … any casting of the die that impacts your longterm future.


This got us thinking about a friend of mine who committed suicide five or six years ago, jumping off a balcony while tripping on acid.


Clearly, he (or some part of him) wanted to die — he must’ve seen very little future for himself, and very little ability to go on in the marginal state he’d been in for years.


But, while sober, the life-saving mechanisms in his mind kept him from killing himself, though I’m sure he thought about it, as we all do from time to time. It was only while tripping, and alone in the house, that he saw his opportunity — the window of insight, or insanity, through which he realized he could cross the boundary between thinking and doing, and actually throw himself off the balcony before any part of him stepped in to reconsider.


In essence, he recognized a temporary window of opportunity through which to make a permanent change.


Though not always so dire, the process of permanent change — rather than toying with change but ultimately staying the same — maybe always follows this pattern, seeking out such windows and jumping through them before they close and the mind’s tendency toward stasis returns.

On Sad Cramped Spaces in Terry Zwigoff


Watching Art School Confidential last night, I was struck by how inert and generic the scenes at the art school — in the classrooms, the halls, the dorms, the quad — were. I started to fear it was going to be a bad film.


But then the camera entered the cramped apartment of the bitter, reclusive older artist who becomes a mentor to the naive protagonist, schooling in the infinite shitiness of the art world, and the whole thing came alive. The dingy, stinky, entropic apartment of this old man was so clearly Zwigoff’s home turf — like the basements in Crumb, like Billy Bob Thornton’s car in Bad Santa — that it seemed a shame to see him working anywhere else. I want to see Zwigoff do claustrophobic dysfunction, not sassy teen drama.



I think all artists have their things and their places — true style is, as much as anything, a default … a process of arriving at the only thing you can do well, rather than choosing what you want to do from many viable options.


I love artists like this.


The question is: how big is the region of one’s true style? Is there anything Zwigoff could do to breathe the same life into the college scenes as he did into the apartment? Or should he simply stick to the apartment? Do we all have apartments like this that we’d be better off sticking to, or should we always be trying to outdo ourselves?

‘My Ear is a Doodle’: A Brief Note on Growing Up

When I was a senior in high school, my two best friends and I saw ourselves as a sort of absurdist trio. Everything was darkly, sometimes painfully funny to us — not that life was a joke in the classic slacker sense, but that everything was infused with a lurid, menacing kind of humor — almost physically, like a sort of oil that was oozing out of the trees and sidewalks and all the people around us — that we couldn’t help but succumb to.


We were taking a lot of our high school courses that year at the local college — there was a deal with the town that let us do this. During this time we got really into Logic, though I don’t think any of us bought into the idea that life could ever be that systematic. We just thought it was cool, maybe all the more so because of its absurdly unfulfilled promise of imposing order on the chaos of language and thought.


One day, our professor announced that a famous Australian logician named Graham Priest was coming to the college to give a one-time-only lecture, which he swore we’d be insane to miss.


So the three of us went. We got stoned, as we tended to, and went to the local chicken wings place, where we almost fought with the airhead waitress (our best attempt at flirting in those days), and then we showed up, late and already giggling, at the dingy seminar room where Graham Priest’s lecture was underway.


Five or six college students sat dutifully taking notes while he scrawled on the whiteboard with his back to the room, making minute scribbles and mumbling to himself in his Australian accent. Alien-looking notation spidered around the board, and he seemed completely invested in what he was writing, so much so that he had no concern for whether it made sense to any of us.


The other students didn’t seem concerned either: they wrote down everything he said with a kind of automatic thoroughness that made it seem like they weren’t even listening.


Inevitably, the three of us began to laugh. At first, it was just a modest stoned giggle at the absurdity of this supposedly Great Man, reduced to gibberish and too far gone to notice. But soon we couldn’t control it. We were guffawing so loudly we had to run out of the room, knocking over desks and tripping over backpacks as we went.


The Great Man didn’t even turn from the board.


When we got outside, we were heaving and sweating, tears in our eyes. “All I could think,” one of us said, when he could breathe again, “was of asking him to demonstrate the validity of the proposition ‘my ear is a doodle,’ and watching him get right down to it without batting an eye.”


We convulsed in laughter again, then started mocking him: “Well, if we let the letter E stand for ear, and D for doodle, we see right off that the connective unifying lemma would have to be …”


The self-seriousness of the Great Man was so absurd it hurt our sides and throats to consider it.



Now that I’m 29 and not 18, I see him in a different light. At the time, I remember thinking of his pathetic self-seriousness as a personal choice — I thought, ‘here’s a man who, for reasons of his own, has chosen to be absurd and pathetic. Or, at least, has failed to choose not to be.’


I, on the other hand, was certain that I’d rocket far beyond this fate, into the realm of glory I felt absolutely bound for.


But as I enter the world of adults more and more, I can appreciate that this man was only responding to the circumstances around him. He strikes me now less as an absurd and pathetic individual, and more as a man trying to make a living and carve out a niche for himself within the absurd and pathetic world of academia (not that it’s any more absurd or pathetic than any other profession).


I see him now as a man living in the real world and trying to make a go of it, however much the compromises hurt him.


I still hope I don’t turn out like that, but I can see how I might.


I think the difference between dreaming of being an artist as a teenager and struggling to actually be an artist as an adult comes down to this:


Though I no longer feel myself to be an impervious individual living outside all social systems, I’m still working to maintain the freedom and clarity of thought that allows me to see those systems for the absurd and pathetic constructs I still fully believe they are. In short, the perspective that allows one to see and embrace absurdity no longer comes for free, so the question is how hard do I want to fight to maintain it?

The Truly Disturbing vs. The TRULY DISTURBING

I always tell myself that I aim to create work that’s truly disturbing — that’s not just gory or creepy or weird, but that has a genuine, insidious effect on an ontological level. I want to make things that the viewer or the reader cannot recover from, that they feel changed by having encountered … work that provides no answers, no reassurance, no room for denial or reconciliation. Work that is the sworn enemy of repression of any kind.


And yet, I know, I still want to be an artist, an aesthete, not someone bringing about real change in the real world. Thus, I want my work to be ‘truly disturbing’ and yet somehow still comforting due to the fact that it’s art — a form contained within a certain medium, accessible only to those who choose to engage with it — and not reality. This is certainly a comfort to me.


I know that, beneath all this, is the realm of the TRULY DISTURBING — the place where art doesn’t matter, where intellect doesn’t matter, where the entire human race doesn’t matter. And this is a place I’m as scared as anyone to go to. It’s a place I work very hard to avoid ever having to even consider.


So I may aspire to create art that’s truly disturbing, but I’m still a coward. Maybe more so than most people, who at least accept that there are real things they’ve repressed, and are happy to go on repressing those things for as long as possible, without clinging to the belief that exploding repression somehow liberates the mind from the terrors that seek to annihilate it.

On Truth Being Stranger than Fiction in Human Behavior

People’s behavior, in real life, is often bizarre and inexplicable, but, because they’re standing in front of us, we don’t have cause to doubt that they’re real people. Thus, we buy whatever they’re doing as real, even if it’s incomprehensible.


In fiction or drama, because the characters aren’t inherently real people, the rules are different: very often, characters’ behavior can come off as impossible, as not belonging to real people at all, and thus not viable within the story … so the challenge of making people seem real is distinct to art, as opposed to life, even if their behavior is exactly the same.

IRRATIONALITY in life and movies

In real life, people do irrational things all the time. These things serve no purpose for anyone, at least no conscious purpose. They are thus truly irrational, and often highly destructive.


In a movie, if someone behaves irrationally, it seems to serve the story in a contrived way — like the writer/director has made this person do something they have no reason for doing in order to serve some preordained narrative end. And the audience won’t buy this — people in movies have to seem like they’re acting of their own free will, rather than fitting into a larger narrative scheme, even though, of course, that scheme (the movie’s plot) has no way of manifesting except through them.


So, I think, people in movies are not allowed to behave as irrationally as they do in real life because true irrationality is not achievable in a work of art that has an author.

-Ism vs. -Esque: Mini Style Essay

The work of any artist that rises to being an -esque has some element of humor in it.


Somewhere, in great art (at least great narrative art), the lines of horror and humor cross … no great art is dead-serious all the time (except maybe Cormac McCarthy’s). Art that achieves the state of -esque (Pynchon-esque, Pinter-esque, Kafka-eque … Lynchian, Cronenbergian, and Beckettian as honorary -esques) describes the world as only it can, granting those who come in contact with it a portal into a place they recognize as real but could not have accessed on their own.


Work on this level is morally neutral: it’s describing reality as the artist encounters it, as if he or she were a highly articulate alien visiting earth, not arguing for how it should or shouldn’t be. This encounter, for its disarming combination of surprise and recognition, is funny.


Art that becomes an -Ism, on the other hand — like David Foster Wallace’s in its later years, or George Saunders’ some of the time — contains a plea for change, an ideological, almost Evangelical dimension demanding that readers become better, strive for more, lift themselves up … which, for me, much as I appreciate the sincerity of the sentiment, keeps it short of greatness because it refuses to take on the world as it actually is. To insist instead on a better world feels like a failure of attention on the artist’s part.


And this isn’t funny — it’s grim, no matter how much humor it strives for.