Absurdism: the Underutilized Tool in the Toolbelt

They Might Be Giants was one of my favorite bands when I was in HS and college. The tunes were catchy and the words were almost nonsense. And yet somehow, they weren’t:

I’m going down to Cowtown
The cow’s a friend to me
Lives beneath the ocean and that’s where I will be
Beneath the waves, the waves
And that’s where I will be
I’m gonna see the cow beneath the sea

[from “Cowtown” by TMBG]

I’d also throw in a couple REM tapes–Yes tapes, as in cassette tapes–once in a while. Michael Stipe admitted that often they would come up with the music first, then start singing nonsense syllables to the music then convert the nonsense to words that might still not make sense. And that’s where you get songs like “Orange Crush.”

Follow me, don’t follow me
I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush
Collar me, don’t collar me
I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush
We are agents of the free
I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to
Serve your conscience overseas
(Over me, not over me)
Comin’ in fast, over me

[from “Orange Crush” by REM]

Being the organized language creatures that we are, humans like to pull words into sentences, and sentences into stories. The logic bit comes later, and isn’t always necessary for enjoyment sake.

On the flip-side, it’s also possible to use the patterns of tropes to one’s favor when writing without citing real world specifics. Fewer people are offended, many look for the patterns and seek an agreeable understanding. Score one point for absurdism.

I enjoy well-written absurd literature: James Thurber, Bohumil Hrabal, and Donald Barthelme have all contributed to the genre. Most of it is shorter, but not all. Hrabal wrote some novella-length, beautiful absurdist works. His Too Loud a Solitude is amazing, poetic and beautiful.

In the past year, I’ve reviewed two works on this blog that I’ve dubbed absurdist in the best sense. “Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program” by Joe R. Lansdale uses the old movie mega-monsters [Godzilla, King Kong, and a few others] to discuss violence, rehab and PTSD. It’s smart stuff. Then last week I received an entire anthology of absurdist vignettes and shorts by Mike Russell cheekily entitled Nothing Is Strange. Both works were immensely enjoyable–I recommend them.

I wouldn’t want to read absurdist lit all of the time. That would get tedious quickly as some tries too hard to be overly smart. But it’s nice to mix it up and I look forward to another dose in another 6 months or so. Like a Dali painting, with clean and beautiful images, I want to figure it out and enjoy the vision while it lasts. Or, I can kick back and listen to a little more TMBG:

Piece of dirt, that is all I’m standing on today
Piece of dirt, the whole world has slipped away
I would climb the highest mountain just to jump into a fountain
Or to fly, I’d fly away

[from “Piece of Dirt” by TMBG]

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