Since the mid-1990s, after the waning of postmodernism, as well as the minimalist neo-realism that succeeded it, no comparable practice has really emerged that aims to revise and reconfigure wholesale the formal and stylistic moves with which writers have been working. There has certainly been increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusion in recent American fiction, but generally this is a diversity of themes or perspective that does not privilege formal or stylistic variation, at least not for their own sake.
Still, there continue to be writers who challenge expectations and deviate from established norms, writers who risk confounding readers by seeking out less familiar methods and unaccustomed arrangements, whether of language or form. If there has been an approach that more than any other identifies such writers, without quite acquiring a particular nomenclature to unite a fairly disparate group of writers, it is a broad tendency to fantasia or surrealism, although in some cases the writer indeed favors outright fantasy through something close to fairy tales, as in, say, some of the stories of Aimee Bender, while in others the ultimate effect might more accurately called surrealist, or perhaps absurdist, more reminiscent of the fiction of George Saunders.
These two writers might in fact be cited as the most recent progenitors of this mode of non-realist fiction, presaged in their early books The Girl in The Flammable Skirt (Bender) and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Saunders), although they were of course not the first modern writers to depart from the canons of realism, nor are they necessarily the primary influences on all of the later writers who have worked in this mode. Some of these writers seem to be influenced by fantasy and science fiction, producing work that is more a hybrid of genre fiction and literary fiction, with some of the tropes and imagery of the former but the attention to language and broader thematic focus of the latter. But while the work of both Saunders and Bender signaled a shift among non-genre writers to something like fantasy, and even if their fiction as well as the subsequent fiction they influenced clearly enough has something "surreal" about it, finally neither of these terms quite adequately names the practice that has come to characterize much of the more adventurous American fiction in the first part of the 21st century.
This problem of fully accounting, at least in critical terms, for the strategies at work in certain works of otherwise indisputably unconventional fiction seems to me particularly acute when considering the work of Christian TeBordo, a writer well enough known to dedicated followers of small presses, but whose name is probably less familiar to readers who tend more strictly to the mainstream. Since 2005, he has published four novels and two collections, the latter of which includes his newest book, Ghost Engine (Bridge Eight Press). A survey of his published books would suggest an evolution of sorts from the first three (The Conviction and Subsequent Life of Savior Neck , Better Ways of Being Dead , and We Go Liquid ), all novels), to the most recent (in addition to Ghost Engine, the novel Toughlahoma, published in 2015, and the collection The Awful Possibilities, from 2010). The early novels conjoin elements of black humor and a kind of farcical absurdism: much about the actions, behaviors, and situations in these novels is strange and at times disturbing, but there is also in all three of them an underlying spirit of slapstick comedy that in a sense still grounds the characters and events in a recognizable reality--the reality encompassed by the act of comic exaggeration.
The most disturbing of these might be We Go Liquid, and the strangest Better Ways of Being Dead (which finally seems like a puzzle without an obvious solution), but it may be Savior Neck that enacts this non-realist realism most deftly. Resembling a portrait of a decayed town in upstate New York akin, perhaps, to an early Richard Russo or Russell Banks novel but as if written by Terry Southern or Thomas Pynchon, the novel depicts the inhabitants of Discord, New York, specifically the denizens of the Thirteenth Step tavern, which includes Savior Neck, who also lives in a room above the tavern. Savior Neck is introduced to us first as a young boy, as he wakes up one morning to "the smell of his own death," and when we flash forward to the much older Savior with his "wrinkled gray face and thin white hair," he does indeed look "except for the puddle of drool that had slipped from his mouth, like a dead man." In fact, he's "been a dead man for years."
Soon after, Savior Neck has a run-in with the local policeman, "Officer Longarm," with whom Savior continues to clash throughout the novel, leading to various encounters with characters such as Harold Esquire, Esq., Penny Dreadful, Richie Repetition, and Grace X. Machina. The plot, such as it is, is as preposterous as the character names, involving mistaken identities, a murder for hire gone wrong, and a search for the owner of a pair of pumps, culminating in the demise of the Thirteenth Step in a conflagration. We are always seemingly on the verge of a revelation that will conjure sense out of the contorted narrative, but it never arrives. This is of course deliberate, as the novel is essentially an extended exercise in controlled absurdity. Inevitably we do feel some sympathy for the sad sack Savior Neck, but his misadventures are not of the sort to be resolved into a final retrospective concordance. They are to be appreciated for their very absurdity, acknowledged as misadventures with their own kind of outlandish integrity.
Something similar can be seen in Better Ways of Being Dead, although if anything the incongruities here are even more emphatic, even more directly enlisted as a structural principle. The novel begins conventionally enough as the story of a college student taking a class he knows little about in order to maintain eligibility for insurance (he suffers from severe dermatitis that makes him break out in terrible skin lesions). But it doesn't take long for him (and the reader) to discover that both the students in the class and the professor behave oddly indeed, and the story itself soon becomes just as odd. However, again it is an oddness that, perhaps because it is allied with a mystery plot of sorts, seems to promise the telling details that will provide the key to the characters' puzzling behavior and the story's contradictions and discrepancies, yet even when the contents of a mysterious box (which must surely hold the key) are revealed, they really only intensify the confusion--unless of course the solution to the mystery is simply that there is no mystery.
We Go Liquid is a more accessible story that like Better Ways of Being Dead begins with a recognizable situation: a boy coping with the death of his mother, as well as his father's own inability to cope with it. But the situation only deteriorates after the boy receives a spam email appropriating his mother's name as the sender and responds to it as if he is communicating with his dead mother. Further emails arrive offering various products which the boy purchases, in particular a penis enhancer called Cocksure. Meanwhile he also develops a crush on a girl who lives across the street, whose later departure from town seems to finally take the boy across a line into outright delusion--as opposed to the almost willed naivete with which he has previously warded off the latent desperation of his circumstances. This novel leans less on the absurdist or the surreal than the first two (although it is surely strange enough), but while this perhaps makes We Go Liquid the least "weird" of TeBordo's books--it actually winds up being a rather poignant account of adolescent trauma--it doesn't really presage the direction his subsequent writing would take.
The only novel TeBordo has published since We Go Liquid has been 2015's Toughlahoma, and if the former is among the writer's books the most explicable as a work of fiction enlisting the traditional elements of fiction in a more or less customary way (although we may conclude that the protagonist is somewhat of an unreliable narrator), the latter might be the most wholly subversive of traditional practice. There are characters in Toughlahoma, but they are mostly deliberately cartoonish figures whose actions work to fulfill the book's primary ambition, which is to imagine the land of Toughlahoma itself, a primordial realm situated among its rival states, Roughlahoma and Ughlahoma (Toughlahoma is the land-locked of the three). The story of Toughlahoma begins with its origins in the "Time of Truth," when "a man could kill a man and that man be killed, and the killer be a killer in truth, in Truth" and loosely (very loosely) chronicles the attempt by Jesus Cristal (later also called Jesus Crystal and Jesus Chrysler) to fulfill the prophecy of the Toughlahoman holy book, Toughlahoma: You Are There!. The quest mostly fails, although Jesus Cristal manages to liberate himself after a fashion, while the Toughlahomans are more or less left to their primitive ways (which they mostly enjoy, anyway).
Such a synopsis hardly captures the demented spirit of the novel, however, which combines mythological fable and anachronistic social satire: While the guardians of the lair of the Great Teen Spirits, monstrous teenagers to whom unlucky Toughlahomans are fed, are busy at the local community center, Jesus Cristal enters their lair and slays a Spirit. A consultant (named Nicky) lays out an elaborate plan to conquer Toughlahoma, not through military action but through "I. Capitol Expansion (CE) II. Horizontal Exegration (HE) III. Strategic Disinformation (SD)." (Nicky advises against building more condominiums, since they won't help procure "exponentially more cheddar biscuits and crabcakes.") Near the end of the novel, the Toughlahomans win a decisive battle against the Ughlahomans by burning down a brand new Applebees. ("We didn't know much about Applebees, but we knew it was an Ugly thing").
Among the incongruities characteristic of this novel are the frequent references to "the problem of language," especially as formulated by the philosopher Mediocrates. Dispensing wisdom at the community center, he declares that "The problem of language. . .cannot be expressed, much less solved, in language, any more than a broken bone can be mended by the breaking of more bones." Asked how it can be expressed, Mediocrates takes the questioner to the roof of the community center "and shoved him over the edge. I have splattered your brains on the pavement. . .My saying this is an enactment of the problem of language." Language inherently distorts the reality it is meant to be representing, so that a project to enlist language for the purposes of "realism" is a hopeless task (although Mediocrates concedes that the expression of the problem perhaps "could be hinted at with language"). With Toughlahoma, TeBordo presumably is in part affirming an aesthetic philosophy in which material reality remains a necessary predicate that nevertheless cannot be delineated in itself, making reality instead a source for imaginative transformations enacted in language.
Such transformations are arguably most impressively achieved in TeBordo's two collections of short fiction, The Awful Possibilities and his most recent book, Ghost Engine. These stories are in general just as committed to imagination and invention as responses to the "problem of language," but they are also more sober in subject than the burlesque myth and legend of Toughlahoma allows. "SS Attacks," the very first story in the book, depicts a frustrated teenager (from Brooklyn, Iowa) fighting the impulse to carry out a school shooting, while "The Champion of Forgetting" is the young narrator's account of his kidnapping and coerced participation in an organ harvesting operation. Other stories involve car accidents, the fashioning of a pair of gloves out of human skin, and various forms of anomie and social isolation. Many of the stories hover in an uncomfortable zone somewhere between absurdity and pathos so that, although none of them depart from ordinary reality as arrantly as Toughlahoma, the dominant tone throughout the book is one of lurking menace, disorder and chaos barely held at bay.
This effect arises less from what the characters do or say, from what explicitly happens, than from what remains latent but unknown: the awful possibilities. The situation described by the narrator of "The Champion of Forgetting" seems almost inexplicable until we suddenly realize the horror that is occurring as if in slow motion, a horror the narrator cannot directly articulate. Something similar is achieved by "Moldering," in which the narrator's account of his trip (at midnight) to the tanner's for a new pair of gloves seems weirdly genteel until he finally encounters the tanner and ultimately commits a casually savage act. In this story the narrative manner acts as a distancing device that reinforces the shock value, and the adventurous formal variety in many of the other stories (e.g., the second-person narration of "SS Attacks") also create distance--or at least a kind of dynamic uncertainty--that heightens the unease they gradually induce.
Ghost Engine more closely resembles Toughlahoma in its use of non-realist strategies, but it does seem like a more miscellaneous collection than The Awful Possibilities, not as unified in theme and approach. On the other hand, the balance between consequential subject and humorous treatment lends more to the latter in this book, even if the humor can be bleak. In "Hard Times at Galt's Gulch," the humor is in part ostensibly at the author's own expense, the story being in the form of an email sent by an old girlfriend to "TeBordo." Before taking up the real subject of her email, the girlfriend observes: "You were going to go to college, move to the city, become the voice of your generation. How'd that work out, TeBordo? I've seen the Amazon rankings, read the reviews." The email relates the story of the girlfriend's brother and his unfortunate infatuation with Ayn Rand, which leads to serial failure and eventual residency in the sister's basement. Conceding her brother is a loser, she nevertheless exhorts Tebordo to draw attention to his fate: "Copy and paste this motherfucker into one of your books, a mediocrity within a mediocrity." A brief epilogue from Tebordo explaining why he has done so extends the story into something like autofiction (most likely pseudo-autofiction).
A darker, finally almost maniacal story is "Bear Country," in which a chronically depressed father determines he will not teach his young son a children's book version of reality but will illustrate the truth about life early, before he can disillusioned about it. The effort--the father puts on a panda suit and menaces the child--traumatizes his son, but the father is only further resolved: "I love my son with such a deep, dark, ghastly love, that when I die, hopefully when he is much older than I am now, for his sake, not mine, I will haunt him like some specimen from the deepest, most gorgeous pit of hell." A more purely comic story is "Whose Bridesmaid?," a mock scholarly article examining the place of a band called Bridesmaid in the annals of black metal. Ostensibly a Christian rock band, Bridesmaid becomes an icon of black metal when a famous metal musician, "Gaahl" of the band "Gorgoroth," is sent into a frenzy by a Bridesmaid song, viciously attacks a man, then "drained his blood into a chalice and sipped it contemplatively." The story seems both a fan's tribute to black metal as a youthful enthusiasm and a send-up of the genre's ultimate silliness.
This story as well shares with several of the other stories in the book, and in TeBordo's fiction as a whole, an immersion in American popular culture, frequently satirical (and caustically so) although not just in mockery of its shallowness or absurdity but in recognition of the way it accurately gauges the shallowness and absurdity of American life. Such attention to popular culture now perhaps seems a commonplace in contemporary fiction, but as recently as the 1970s writers such as Ann Beattie and Bobbie Ann Mason were still criticized for too blatantly referring to "brand names" and other supposedly trivial features of ordinary life, and a story such as Donald Barthelme's "The Joker's Greatest Triumph" could seem an audacious crossing of boundaries in its appropriation of comic book characters. Tebordo's invocation of pop culture iconography does not at all seem exploitative--the author's interest in black metal and the logistics of fame whoring as cultural barometers seems authentic enough--but one could still wonder whether the humor of recognition in stories about The Ultimate Warrior and characters from The Cosby Show will remain as compelling for future readers as it might be now.
Arguably the most interesting stories in Ghost Engine are those that continue to develop the irrealism employed in Toughlahoma. "The Wrong Mother" is narrated by a mother who watches her twin sons try to launch a flying machine, and when they succeed, rather calmly settles on a plan to get them back down (which she won't carry out until the next morning). This story could perhaps be called whimsical, although its humor comes from the annoyance the mother feels at having to deal with such recalcitrant children. But especially notable are the four connected stories (interspersed throughout the book) featuring two characters named Frag and Watt and their ongoing work on the titular ghost engine. Mostly the two (who may be robots) engage in abstract discussions about semantics or existentialism (at one point discussing Christian TeBordo), while periodically pausing to inflict violence on each other. Only occasionally do they refer to the ghost machine they are trying to build, so that it remains a mysterious entity the nature of which is left unclear. What is ghostly about it? (It seems quite material, its "bolts tightened" and its "surfaces sparkling.") By the end of the final story, Watt has been eviscerated (although he has no internal organs, it turns out), and Frag is dismembered and tossed into the ghost engine in an effort to see if that will animate it. Watt jumps in after, but apparently to no avail.
It is difficult to put a critical name to the strategy at work in these stories that would altogether capture the aesthetic effect created. Neither "surreal" nor "absurd" will suffice, since both of those terms more precisely identify previous literary movements with definitive assumptions and distinguishing features Christian TeBordo's work doesn't necessarily share. Simply to declare that this fiction uses "non-realist" devices leaves important underlying motives obscure. Is this an attempt to repudiate realism? To mock it? To achieve a kind of realism by other means? Perhaps it is a strength of TeBordo's fiction that it does all of these things, in different instances or simultaneously, but criticism still needs to catch up to the variety of non-realist practices found in adventurous fiction in the early 21st century, especially as offered by independent presses.