A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Some of us might stay comfortably away from anything that has a hint of quirk to it, whatever we understand by the term (for the record, OxfordDictionaries.com defines quirky as ‘having or characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits or aspects’). I’m certainly sometimes drawn to novels where nothing more peculiar or unexpected happens than running out of sugar rations or a door slamming too suddenly. That sort of cosy novel is very much one that appears on my much-loved shelf. But the other side of my reading is drawn to the quirky (that word will be repeated so often as to lose all meaning, by the way) where events are slightly unhinged, or the prose is written with a slight twist to it, so that nothing quite settles. The dialogue might be a little out of the natural, or the motivations peculiar.
I should give examples. In this category, I might put anything from Ivy Compton-Burnett to Barbara Comyns to Magnus Mills. Excellent instances include Edward Carey’s Alva & Irva (twins, one of whom is agoraphobic and builds a plasticine model of the town based on descriptions relayed to her by her sister) or Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico, where a young woman falls in love with a series of puppets, while being mistreated by the puppetmaster. Quirkiness needn’t mean darkness, but they do often come hand in hand.
How far from the natural and normal am I willing to go, in literature? It was a question that reared its head because of Andrew Kaufman’s All My Friends Are Superheroes (2003). You know what you’re dealing with from the outset – or, rather, you don’t quite know what you’re dealing with.
Tom and the Perfectionist sit in the designated waiting area of Gate 23, Terminal 2, Lester B. Pearson International Airport. It’s 10:13am. Tom watches the Perfectionist check the address on her carry-on luggage. She tugs the tag. It’s the third time she’s done this. She looks around the airport lounge. There are more people than seats. She can’t figure out why no one has taken the empty chair to her right.
The chair to her right isn’t empty. Tom sits in this chair. To the Perfectionist, Tom is invisible. He’s been trying to convince her he isn’t since August 14th, their wedding night, six months ago.
That’s a pretty enticing, intriguing opening. In his spare, sparse prose – and over only 108 pages (is brevity a quality of quirkiness?) – Kaufman documents the past and present of Tom and the Perfectionist, revealing that Tom is the only non-superhero in his group of friends. Everybody else he knows has a single superpower, from Hypno to the Stress Bunny. It is the control of the prose that makes the absurd nature of the novel still work – even have some pathos.
But my line comes, it seems, when Kaufman starts listing characters and their traits. For the most part, these characters don’t reappear; they are simply in lists. It reminds me of those novelty books Ricky Gervais brought out back when The Office ensured anything he flogged would sell hugely. Every now and then, a couple of pages will be devoted to saying who they are, and what they can do. It’s amusing in a thin-smile sort of way, but it ultimately feels rather self-indulgent.
And perhaps that is actually the line. Anything quirky for the sake of being quirky, and it’s a no from me. If the surreal or bizarre elements serve character, plot, or emotion, then I’m all for it. The idea of a wife having no awareness of her husband is a metaphor writ large, and (to me, at least) a fascinating starting point for a narrative. The idea of (say) The Inverse – ‘Shake the Inverse’s hand and the exact opposite of your life will flash before your eyes’ – who appears only for the paragraph in which he is listed… well, that’s no particularly interesting. It’s simply arbitrary.
I like my quirky stories to have parameters. That’s why I can’t get into Doctor Who – I can’t bring myself to care about the characters and their perils if any solution can be made up on the spot that will save them. In All My Friends Are Superheroes, Kaufman has provided an extremely useful microcosm of what does and doesn’t work for me in this realm: I appreciate any element that serves Tom and the Perfectionist in a coherent and logical way (because the fantastic and supernatural requires logic, to work well, far more than a naturalistic novel does); I am bored by any element that is thrown in for the sake of a momentary, meaningless amusement.
I’d be happy to recommend this novella, with reservations, but more importantly: where do you stand on the quirky issue, and which examples would you put forward for the defence or prosecution?