About thirty months ago, Gary Garth McCann, my husband, founder of Late Last Night Books and the author of several works of realist fiction, suffered a massive stroke. I won’t detail the myriad ways this cataclysm has changed our lives. The changes his brain injury has wrought in his writing, however, are worth discussing here. It recently dawned that these changes relate directly to a question that has preoccupied me for some time: how we perceive reality, how we represent it, and the ethical implications of what we deem to be weird or unreal.
The accepted parameters of “weird literature,” parameters set by American writer HP Lovecraft in the 1920s, state that weird writing provokes disgust and discomfort, forcing readers to question their relationship to reality. But this approach to the weird and its relationship to a supposed objective reality is culturally circumscribed. Any student of Latin American literature can tell you that the very concept of “magical realism” comes not from a desire to make perception of reality uncertain or discomforting, but from the conviction that reality in Latin America does not fit the mold set by Western European or Anglo-American writing. In other words, Latin American writers, from the enshrined García-Márquez to hundreds of more obscure authors, do not really question reality, but suggest that reality is not as other Western cultures represent it.
Horacio Quiroga, one of the 20th-century writers I’ve studied length, insisted that realist technique was the only acceptable method to represent and explore reality, but he applied that technique in ways that were undeniably weird. One of these methods was to portray animals not as humans are accustomed to seeing them, but as sentient beings with their specific, peculiar ways of knowing the world. Many of his works in this vein are juvenile or young adult stories; the most famous, “Juan Darién,” portrays a boy made a pariah, hunted down, tortured and left for dead by his community when they discover he is a tiger transformed into a human child. Juan Darién, in other words, is unable to fit his community’s understanding of reality because that reality is circumscribed by human social convention.
Gary is now at work on a novel (or novella, its length yet to be set) that is frankly one of the weirdest things I’ve ever read. Weird especially for him, who prior to this life-changing catastrophe never displayed an interest in the paranormal. At first blush, it is the story of a transgender woman (who has also suffered a stroke) and her gay husband. But the book quickly reveals itself to be mainly about the fate of what we normally regard to be inanimate objects—principally bathrobes—that in fact have lives, histories and feelings, and who are at the heart of a worldwide campaign to assert and defend the rights of all oppressed and persecuted beings.
It took me a while to understand why Gary undertook to approach human rights this way. (In the novel, he extensively cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated by the United Nations in 1948.) But a new passage in this book-in-progress finally turned on the light. When a person shreds an old cotton bathrobe with a scissors, uses the pieces as rags, soils them and discards them, we think nothing of it. But if that same person uses that same pair of scissors to dismember a child’s fabric teddy bear—and does it in front of the child—he or she instantly becomes a monster. You see? Inanimate objects are not what human convention assumes them to be. The identity of any object, inanimate, animal or human, must not be subject to such assumptions, since objective reality is never fully objective. If we come to care about cows as sentient creatures and good mothers (which they are), then some people may choose never again to drink cow’s milk or eat beef. If we recognize an entire alternative world in a pair of old red sequined shoes, we put them in the Smithsonian Institution rather than in the trash.
Weirdness comes not from efforts to make reality disgusting or uncomfortable but from the recognition that the cosmos does not conform to our socially and culturally constructed parameters. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which is based on a Daphne du Maurier short story of the same title. Hitchcock and du Maurier don’t set out to make birds disgusting and terrifying in themselves—they set out to show us that the way we circumscribe, suppress or distort our own understanding and emotions about ourselves, each other and the world around us can transform birds into horrific monsters.
So does cherishing, or even revering, that old ragged bathrobe from your youth make you weird? Maybe. It certainly makes you human.