In my upcoming workshop, Surrealism, Magic Realism, and Fabulism, we’ll be discussing a bunch of wonderful non-realist texts. There are so many we could talk about, but I’ve included some of my favourites – and ones we’ll look at in the workshop to break down how they work, why they work, and how you can make your own non-realist, symbolic, stories work.
Peter Carey 'Collected Stories'
I don’t remember how I discovered Carey’s short stories, but it was in my early 20s and I thought, “This is it! This is what I want to do. This kind of thing.” Like most collections, it’s uneven, but “Peeling”, “Crabs”, “The Fat Man in History”, “Report on the Shadow Industry,” “Exotic Pleasures”, “American Dreams”, “Life and Death on the South Side of the Pavilion” – each of these is surreal (or magic realist or fabulist) genius. In “Crabs,” the main character is stuck forever in a drive-in, where roving bands steal parts of your car. And the story ends [spoiler!] with him somehow turning into a pickup truck (or somesuch) and driving himself out of this surreal world, onto a dark endless highway. Carey pulls it of brilliantly. His stories burst on the Australian scene in the 1970s (being published in places like Meanjin and Overland) like fireworks over a barren plain. They instantly became famous and for good reason. Later he wrote The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, another wacky surrealist piece of genius (boy do I love that book). At a signing, I once told Carey that he should write more short stories. He looked at me blank-faced, as if I’d said “I like to eat whole lemons for breakfast.” Still, one can never recapture past glories, only move forward to new ones. You can see his influence in stories of mine like “The Interminable Suffering of Mr Wu” or “The Fear of White” and I suspect in less obvious ways elsewhere.
Angela Carter 'Collected Stories'
Rich, literary, magnificently written. Carter’s short stories have had an influence on a generation of writers, particularly feminist ones. So much has been written about her, I’m not sure I can add much. Fairy tales are highly symbolic, and symbols are the region of the unconscious. Rearrange the characters and the narrative of a fairy tale and the symbols all shift like planets and constellations in the sky. But Carter does it with such style and panache. Her non-fairy tale stories are just the same. The oddness of a man who loved his double bass, which he calls “Lulu”! But these stories are organic. Carter’s stories are mostly smooth, united, non-contradictory. Now that’s a feat.
Eugene Ionesco 'Rhinoceros'
When I was around 10 years old, back in the days when the family would sit around the TV for the Saturday night/Sunday night movie, we watched the film version of Rhinoceros, staring Gene Wilder. My brain was imprinted. But what was it imprinted with, exactly? The bizarreness of people turning into rhinoceroses – a kind of inverse of Kafka’s Metamorphosis – was simply accepted by me. Children have strange minds, where such oddities don’t seem incongruous. Nor could it have been the absurdist humour, since that would have gone way over my head. No, it was the predicament of the main character, his struggle, and the final images as he climbs to the top of a building, alone. I suspect I was slightly disturbed by it all too. I mean, I’d never seen a narrative anything like this. Later, I fell in love with Ionesco’s The Chairs. But Rhinoceros is the one that stamped my soul.
Leonora Carrington 'The Hearing Trumpet'
Perhaps better known as a surrealist painter, Carrington’s novel is wonderful in so many ways. To begin with, its main characters are mostly old women – over 70 years of age, though the main character is in her 90s. That in itself is terrific since it’s so rare and seeing the world from that point of view. Our culture sees the aged as invisible, or insignificant. This book destroys that. Then there’s the delightful humour (and absurdity, as in Rhinoceros) of their situation (a very bizarre retirement home where they live in bungalos shapes as igloos, cakes, giant mushrooms, and so on) and, well, just the rollicking elderly voice. A lovely book filled with oddities.
J.G. Ballard, 'The Atrocity Exhibition'
I might have chosen the bizarre Crash (Ballard himself wrote that on reading the opening pages he thought it must have been written by a disturbed mind). But Ballard’s “Condensed Novels” -- which in true surrealist fashion bring together technology, death, a-moralism, symbolic imagery and the new – are unique. A story like “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Down Hill Motor Race” has no equal in literature. I mean, how could it? It starts with the lines, “Oswald was the starter. From his window above the track he opened the race by firing the starting gun. It is believed that the first shot was not properly heard by all the drivers ... Kennedy got off to a bad start.”
Paul Auster, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Kelly Link, André Breton, M. John Harrison, Karuki Murakami and so, so many more.
Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Chicago Review of Books recommended Rjurik’s latest novel, 'The Stars Askew' as one of the best 10 SF novels to read over the 2016 summer and Pop Mythology said it "fleshes out his wonderfully bizarre world, a world that blends familiar elements of history and mythology in unique ways.” Rjurik is a former Associate Editor of Overland journal. He is at www.rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.
Join Rjurik for his workshop Surrealism, Magic Realism, and Fabulism on Saturday 13 June.