Just when you thought absurdist, humorous fiction was dead, along comes this American Raymond Queneau, T. Sean Steele, with this, his first novel (actually a novella), Tacky Goblin. Of current writers, Jesse Ball and George Saunders, to name a few obvious examples, are working this same vein, but Steele is ... weirder. His left-of-center wit is so far left the center does not hold. He walks out onto the tight rope and then lets the tight rope fall. This is absurdist humor that mixes Looney Tunes, Luis Bunuel, Robert Coover, and Donald Barthleme, with something darker, something more disturbed. You laugh because he's funny — and every joke is set up beautifully like a tiny time bomb — but also because he scares you a bit.
Gleefully anarchist, structured like a Mousetrap Game directed by James Wan, this is a novella you will probably read a few times and, perhaps, keep hidden under your mattress for its barbed marvels. The thin story concerns the unnamed, first-person narrator and his sister, Kim, who leave their parents' home in Chicago to live in Los Angeles. They cohabitate there for a while, in an apartment building designed by Charles Addams and M. C. Escher. The neighbors are as odd as the siblings. Then they move back to Chicago. That's the plot. But what Steele does with this light framework is just this side of miraculous.
He mines the surreal, the unexpected. Every page has its own oblivion ha-ha. There's a baby that's also a dog. There's a talking mold stain in the ceiling. There are voodoo figurines that Kim employs as if playing a board game called Revenge of the Strange. There are dodgy foreign cinema DVDs. The narrator's girlfriend, Laurie says, "Your sister loaned me some French movie. I think it might actually have been some kind of CCTV footage of an alley. It never ended. I got way too invested so I shut it off." Later, Narrator says, apropos of nothing in particular, "My legs worked or they didn't. Who cared? The facts existed, or they didn't, whether or not I paid attention to them." This could be Steele's statement of purpose: Facts — who needs them? Who trusts them?
It's tempting to quote endlessly from the book. The conversations are particularly peculiar and hilarious.
"'There's a guy out there,' I said. 'Do you know him?'
"'Oh, that's Larry. He's not real. That's another thing the pill does. It makes you see Larry.'"
Even time goes catawampus: "'Where the heck have you been?' my sister asked.
"'I was applying for jobs,' I said.
"'For a month and a half?'
"'What? No, like a couple of hours.'
"'I thought you were dead,' she said. 'I even called the cops. There was an investigation and everything.'"
Or this delightful exchange between siblings: "'What's wrong with the roof of your car? It's all scraped up.'
"'High schoolers,' was all I said ... She nodded knowingly. High schoolers were Kim's least favorite thing and I tossed the blame at them whenever possible.
"'Did they try to talk to you?' she asked ... Never let them talk to you. They're skinny and they tell a lot of inside jokes and make you feel bad for not understanding even though you don't really care anyway.'"
Admittedly, this kind of writing is not for everyone. But fans of the kind of antirealism, crackpot fiction of the writers mentioned above will find themselves in recognizable territory. For everyone else it may seem like Wonderland after too many mushrooms.
"A driver's license is one of those things people say you need but really you don't," Kim says. "Like bedsheets, or protein."
Without spoiling anything: Though they are unchanged by the time the denouement rolls around, the ending is, well, a sort of epiphany. By the end of this wild ride, which you might consume in one afternoon, despite all the U-turns and non-sequiturs, you get to know Kim and her brother. You may even feel affectionate toward them.
That is, if you can love a protagonist who describes himself this way: "I have the transplanted legs of a dead man and the last girl I saw put a demon inside me."