By John Flynn-York
I read George Saunders’ short story “Sea Oak” the other day. (It’s in the Barcelona Review—read it here if you want to avoid spoilers.) It is deeply weird: the main character works at an aviation-themed male strip club called Joysticks (of course), there’s a television show called How My Child Died Violently, and the main character’s grandmother dies and then returns as a zombie with psychic powers. She sits in a rocking chair and issues orders to her grandchildren while her reanimated body falls apart. (In life, she was pathologically nice; in death, not so much.)
No single element of the story makes it weird, though. It’s their juxtaposition inside the story, the way they interact with each other. Not just a zombie grandmother, but a zombie grandmother who can see the future. Not just a strip club, but one where the strippers pull off flight jackets at the start of their routine and are rated on a scale of Knockout to Stinker. Not just your normal ridiculous daytime TV talk show, but one that pits the parents of murdered children against the parents of the murderer.
Saunders’ story is a great read for many reasons besides its weirdness, but that’s the thing I want to pull apart here, the squirming mass on the dissection table. Because we at Automata are into weirdness and genre-blurring. We like the way it throws contradictions at the reader, forces a reckoning with a world in which things are hard or maybe impossible to explain—a bit like real life, no? Or maybe there are too many explanations, a multitude of connections that entangle to form a single idea. Overdetermination, you might say, is just as weird as the inexplicable. Lovecraft’s horrors are rarely glimpsed; Borges’ aleph reveals the entire world.
“Sea Oak” uses a variety of mechanisms to achieve its weirdness. There is, first, the juxtaposition of contrasting elements. The pioneers of juxtaposition were the twentieth-century surrealists, who used it unsettle and disrupt the viewer, one goal being to reveal the sub- or unconscious. Hence Dalí’s melting clocks, Magritte’s bowler-hatted man with his face obscured by a floating apple, the strange jump cuts in Un Chien Andalou. By forcing strange connections, juxtaposition reveals—so the idea goes—the inner workings of the mind. The juxtapositions in “Sea Oak” are less confrontational than those of the surrealists, but no less effective: the zombie grandmother, reanimated in the world of the living and full of regret and anger, pulls at a raw nerve of empathy in the reader.
The story never explains how or why she’s come back, however. Another classic flavor of weirdness. Writers sometimes go astray by communicating how things work, or why they’re even possible. If it’s the point of the story, sure, go ahead. Borges is a great example: his story “The Library of Babel” is all about explaining the organization of the Library, but it uses that explanation to vault into otherwise unreachable ideas (and leaves many other things unexplained). But if it’s not crucial to the story, then leaving the explanation to the imagination can work wonders. “Sea Oak” derives a lot of humor and conflict from the fact that a zombie grandmother is as weird to the characters as it is to the readers.
Finally—at least, finally for this quick and dirty dissection—“Sea Oak” uses exaggeration to great effect. Exaggeration can be funny or horrifying; here, it’s both. The ridiculous atmosphere of Joysticks? Comic, but also a little scary. The TV show How My Child Died Violently, which exaggerates the conflict-driven approach of real shows (though not by much)? Terrifying, but shot through with gallows humor. The zombie grandmother whose limbs fall off of her body while she screams at her grandkids? All of the above. Again, the juxtaposition—here, of the reader’s emotional responses to what’s on the page—makes this story weird, and weirdly enjoyable.
Steal a few tricks from Saunders and go be weird.