When Grief Becomes Surreal
On the Reality-Bending Effects of Trauma in Literature
The way that we experience life can alter as events overtake us. A rush of adrenaline due to fear or conflict can be as transformative as any drug. Depression or elation can rewire the way we see everyday life, rendering familiar experiences in an alien way. The cleanly moving narratives of our lives become disrupted, staccato, an unsteady rhythm with an uncertain destination.
Certain changes can alter these narratives on a fundamental level. This is something that we have seen most dramatically in film: the way that movies like The Wizard of Oz and Kafka shift from black and white to color, for instance, when the scenery changes. Consider the way that Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel uses a different aspect ratio for each of the timeframes in which it is set, or the way that Joachim Trier’s Reprise turns the choppiness of dialogue between one of its central characters and his estranged girlfriend and uses it an illustration of that estrangement. In David Lynch’s Lost Highway, one character’s denial over having committed a murder literally causes him to become an entirely different person, complete with a distinct family, girlfriend, and history. Emotional distress can change the world, and that can impact the methods by which these stories of disquiet are told.
This approach often applies to fiction as well. There’s a scene in Idra Novey’s recent novel Ways to Disappear where, when the protagonist is faced with a particularly nerve-fraying situation and threat of bodily harm, the text suddenly becomes fragmented. The result is an abrupt shift from lucid, carefully composed prose to a more splintered approach that has the effect of reading free verse. It’s an effective and dramatic evocation of a shift in that character’s mental state–a haunting take on how a tense moment can alter perceptions and upset the way that we experience the world.
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Some prose laces a narrative with elements that abut the strange and paranormal to illustrate the sense of unreality that can come with mourning. Tee, the protagonist of Matthew Salesses’s novel The Hundred-Year Flood, is a young man grappling with grief and confusion after the death of his uncle, the revelation of his father’s infidelity, and his continuing restlessness over the aftereffects of his adoption as a small child. And while the novel doesn’t explicitly veer outside of the realm of the realistic, there are a number of details that closely navigate the border between real and surreal: “They heard something crash in the other room. His uncle’s plane, twisted, in flames.” Tee’s dreams loom large, and there are repeated references to a ghost that makes its presence felt.
It doesn’t hurt that nearly all of the characters encountered in The Hundred-Year Flood bear some burden of the past. For Tee, it’s his increasingly complex and wrenching family history. For the Czechs he encounters while in Prague, it’s their time spent living under Communist rule. In Salesses’s novel, memories lurk in darkened corners; they take on weight and depth, and menace the characters like some sort of restless spirit.The Hundred-Year Flood skirts the edges of realism in other ways as well: though the cataclysmic food that his novel’s title refers to reads like the stuff of epic fiction, Prague was, in fact, horrifically flooded in 2002, the year in which this novel is set. It’s a primal event, and one foreshadowed early on, when Tee steps away from academic life. “He was turning to older stories, stories people had told for centuries,” Salesses writes. “Compared to the culture of revelation (in poetry, in the news, in life), myth was constant.”
A sudden cataclysm echoing characters’ conflicts can take many forms: some rooted in reality, some more fantastical. Jonathan Lethem’s novella Five Fucks memorably features two characters who can’t quite stay away from one another, even though their attraction is catastrophic. That isn’t hyperbolic: each time they come together, the world itself is remade, shifting over the course of the narrative from a realistic view of contemporary life to a bleakly minimal existence in a crudely made cartoon world. Here, emotional pain doesn’t just play out over the course of one person’s existence–it shapes the boundaries of the world, altering time, space, and form in increasingly bizarre and unsettling ways.
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The realm of speculative fiction allows for an even deeper immersion in the ways that grief can alter the world. When Dexter Palmer’s novel Version Control opens, the reader is introduced to Rebecca Wright and her husband Philip. They live in New Jersey in the very near future: Rebecca works for a technologically advanced online dating company, self-driving cars are commonplace, and Philip is at work on a mysterious piece of technology that may have profound implications for society (or may be entirely nonfunctional). Their marriage is one that’s clearly endured something terrible: Rebecca has stopped drinking at Philip’s request, and there are certain subjects that they allude to but don’t linger on. Slowly, though flashbacks, we learn that they had a son; their child’s absence in the present-day sequences indicates that this narrative is less about whether something terrible will happen than what the nature of that terrible thing will be.
Reality flickers in a number of ways in Version Control. In addition to Philip’s work, there are also avatars used for online dating purposes that are indistinguishable from humans, and a governmental initiative involving the President making random appearances on assorted forms of media. But for all that Palmer’s novel makes use of technology, the real sense of disquiet kicks in from the opening pages, as Rebecca finds herself grappling with a sense that things are fundamentally not as they should be:
Countless things just felt a little off to her. Sometimes she would fork a thick eggy chunk of French toast into her mouth during a Sunday brunch to find that a faint taste of soap lay beneath the flavor of maple syrup; sometimes when she kissed her husband his breath smelled of loam, as if he’d been surreptitiously snacking on top-grade soil. Sometimes the setting sun seemed to her to be hanging in a slightly incorrect place in the sky, to be a slightly inaccurate shade of red.
Rebecca’s attempts to explain this to her husband involve language and phrasing typically used to describe dreams or lapses in memory, but the wrongness goes deeper, and it isn’t confined to her. Palmer dispenses his plot gradually: initially, it isn’t clear if Rebecca’s experiences are the result of a psychological breakdown, some world-altering event, or something else entirely. The reader is left as mystified as the characters; the search for answers becomes something shared between both. And while it wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much of Version Control, it is fair to say that both Rebecca’s pervasive sense that something is wrong with the world and Philip’s work with a seemingly inert “causality violation device” have narrative payoffs down the line.
There’s a lot going on in Version Control: plenty of discussions about time travel, ranging from arguments about the ways that societal privilege makes white men much more eager to venture into the past than anyone else to philosophical discussions of whether a time machine could even survive a trip into the distant past, given the corresponding lower technological level of the world. Philip’s quest for funding for his project involves, at one point, one of the most loathsome renderings of a tech bro in contemporary literature. Rebecca’s flashbacks to the time before her marriage reveal a cringe-inducing portrait of the pitfalls of online dating. And there’s a subplot involving whether one of Rebecca’s friends is racist, or just has a knack for saying subtly inappropriate things without intending to do so. In other words, Palmer has spent a lot of time crafting three-dimensional characters here, and keeps them true to themselves even when the ground below them begins to change.
Grieving parents and a break in reality are also at the center of a very different recent book: J. Robert Lennon’s 2012 novel Familiar. Its begins with its protagonist, Elisa Brown, in motion. She is in the middle of an annual trip “from the town where her dead son is buried to the town where she lives now with her husband and living son.” As she drives, she looks at a crack in her car’s windshield–which abruptly vanishes, because the car she was driving is no longer the car she is driving. Her job has changed; her body, too, in subtle ways. And Silas, the son of hers who had previously been dead, is now alive, the event that took his life having played out differently in this new and altered world.
Lennon’s novel is, overall, a more realistic one than Palmer’s–albeit one with a giant enigma at its center. Initially, Elisa attempts to figure out what happened to her: did she have a psychological episode of some sort? A stroke? But the bonds and conflicts that play out over the course of Familiar are recognizable; this is not a novel in which reality falls apart a la Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, but is instead about someone who seems to have fallen through the cracks of their world once in some substantial and mysterious way. And for all that there’s an element of wish-fulfillment in Elisa’s son’s altered fate, it doesn’t necessarily make her life easier–in this new configuration, her marriage is governed by a strange and creepy series of rules, and she and her husband have become estranged from their children.
It’s noteworthy that both Palmer and Lennon make use of technological metaphors over the course of their novels. In the case of Palmer’s book, it’s right there in the title, which refers to a mechanism used in software development to ensure that code is updated in an orderly fashion. For Familiar, a significant moment comes roughly a third of the way through the book, when Elisa finds an interview with Silas, who has become a video game designer of some repute. “Stories exist to make sense of life,” he says. “But they’re a pointless exercise. Life is inherently nonsensical. Drawing strands of meaning together is for idiots.” And for all that this seems to clash with Elisa’s deeply felt humanism, it also introduces a horrifying notion: what if Silas is right? What if the continuities of our lives are meaningless, and reality is more fluid than we’d like to believe? Familiar can be read as an nightmarish exploration of this very position.
There are, perhaps, echoes here of Will Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes as well. In that book, artist Simon Dykes falls asleep one night and wakes to find that human society has been overwritten by a chimpanzee one–hence the title. Much of the novel concerns itself with the transformation at its center: is Simon a man who has fallen from one version of the world into another, or is he a chimpanzee who hallucinated that he was a human due to some lingering trauma? That said, unlike the ways in which grief has a specific and seismic impact on the fictional universes found in both Palmer and Lennon’s novels, Self’s largely ingenious narrative loses momentum by its conclusion. The plot of Self’s novel continues with the question of what happened to the world; Palmer and Lennon are more concerned with the ways in which shifts in the world affect the minds of their characters.
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Grief is a powerful ingredient in storytelling. The ways that we grieve, and the ways that grief can cause us to act, are the stuff of countless powerfully-told stories, novels, and novellas. But the impressionistic ways in which it can bend narratives into abstract shapes is something that can also make for gripping fiction, in an astonishing array of ways. Whether telling a ghost story with ambiguously present ghosts or watching reality itself shift in unsettling ways, the effect of grief in fiction is like fire: it can reshape literally anything in its path, leaving transformation in its wake.
Feature image: Detail from Rene Magritte’s Golconda (1953).