David Vichnar of Equus Press continues his series of mini-reviews covering the best of contemporary independent small-press production, each instalment dedicated to some (usually three) of their most recent & interesting titles. In the sixth instalment, the focus is—mono- & polythematically—on the work of D. Harlan Wilson (DHW), his five books brought out by Raw Dog Screaming Press (RDSP) over the last fifteen years.
RDSP are dedicated to “putting into print the highest quality literature from the fringe. If it’s dark, deviant, off-kilter & thought-provoking — we will sniff it out.” Their magical mystery tour through publishing started with The Dream People, an online literary journal focused on bizarre, surreal & experimental writing. According to San Diego Book Review, DHW is “the Loki of modern American letters.” This RDSP DHW retrospective is meant as homage to the “dark & off-kilter” literary tricks played by this mischievous spirit.
DHW, a professor of English at Wright State University, Ohio, writes all over the map, & has been said to defy categorisation; some critics have been cited as calling him “a genre in himself.” That’s lazy, though, for in the best spirit of the avant-garde business, DHW has helped to cofound & shape the movement & aesthetics of “bizarro fiction,” a mélange of elements of absurdism, satire, & the grotesque, along with genre fiction staples (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) aiming to create subversive, weird, & above all entertaining works, & defined as “literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store” (cf. Bizarro Central). In DHW’s hands, bizarro is a sometimes extreme, sometimes (hyper-)exaggerated, sometimes flippant, but always blackly humorous critique of what our lives have become.
This, as clearly as anywhere in Natural Complexions (Equus Press, 2018), which explores “the dynamics of contemporary American media pathology” by collecting “satirical vignettes & docufictions extrapolated from actual news stories, spam emails, advertisements, social networks, & other scraps of disposable infotainment.” Through the interactions of more than a hundred characters, among them movie stars, ex-presidents, televangelists, motivational speakers, con artists, back-alley philosophers, forensics experts & Biblical kings, Natural Complexions functions as “a biting satire on modern life as lived online & virtually more than here & now, saturated by media idiocy & the closed circuits of celebrity status at every turn” in which there is “no need to surrender to psychosis” as here, “sanity is no longer an option” (publisher’s blurb).
As I’ve suggested in an earlier 3AM Magazine piece on DHW, his “programme” as writer is such that in a world of absolute commodification—not least, that of literature—he takes up the position “against” the system of literary commodification by producing writing that reveals its own economic basis & capitalist artifice & debunks the many of its own clichés: the writer’s “message”, the text’s “mission,” the “hard work” of literary “production”, its somehow inherent or transcendent “value”. Despite all that, DHW’s “bad” writing still manages to be “interesting” enough to keep academics such as this one invested in it in essays such as this one: the only way not only to “secure one’s immortality” à la Joyce, but also to keep the sales afloat.
As DHW has made clear in several of his interviews, much of his writing satirizes the idiocy of pop culture & western society, illustrating how “the reel increasingly usurps the real” – but DHW’s is a Swiftian satire whose critical distance is often & with malevolent glee abandoned in favour of joining the ranks of the usurpers. Dr. Identity, or, Farewell to Plaquedemia, his novelistic debut, focuses on the feats of an English professor (Dr. Blah), so weary of his pedagogical commitments at Corndog University he purchases a robotic dopplegänger, a psychotic android (Dr. Identity), to teach his classes for him. “But how,” asks the Publisher Blurb, “does it reflect on your teaching skills when your dopplegänger murders the whole class?” The annihilation of the “student-things,” following a class on William Gibson/Philip K. Dick whose graphic demonstration gets slightly out of hand, gives way to the murder of the entire English Department (“How am I supposed to get tenure now?” ). This in turn is followed by a killing spree of epic proportions all around “Bliptown”, many of whose “Beesuppies” (acronym for “Brett Easton Ellis-Style Urban Professional” ) feel the wrath of the duo’s “Saussurian suits”.
Rather than taking to a flight from from the agents of the law, the “Papanazi,” Dr. Blah & his Id-Entity embark on the plan of merging in with the crowd of commodity-paraphernalia created in their image:
It was no use trying to escape Bliptown. The whole world knew about us now. No doubt commodity-paraphernalia created in our image was already in production. As early as tomorrow morning I expected to find Dr. ——— and Dr. Identity action figures in store windows. Our avatars were probably already for sale in the Schizoverse. Variations of our names would soon be affixed to jetpacks, hairdos, fast food. Book sales of the author I surrogated were probably on the verge of skyrocketing. No matter where we went, we would be hunted by countless human and machinic extensions of the Law. Every city on Earth and Mars was immediately accessible via the Schizoverse anyway. Bliptown seemed as good a place as any to suffer and die. (35)
What follows has been alternately described as a “blur-fast caper through a mediated nightmare future which will thankfully be prevented by a series of massive natural & man-made disasters” (Steve Aylett), “a rollicking romp through a future so absurd, it can’t help but feel real” (Robert Venditti), & “a funhouse mirror whose cartoonish distortions continually amaze & amuse—until one realizes that what we’re seeing is a disturbingly accurate vision of ourselves” (Larry McCaffery). After an interstellar holocaust to the Moon & back, the story purposefully ends on a rewind back to the beginning, with Dr. Blah establishing his own university, “Blah Blah Blah State University or the University of Blah Blah Blah. Maybe just ’Blah College” (128), & laying his doppelgänger to rest:
Dr. Identity’s pupils morphed into turning cogs. “You’re delusional.”
I took another bite of the corndog. “Perhaps. But it’s a new world now. One man’s delusion is another ’gänger’s reality.”
That night Dr. Identity and I went to my cubapt. I hadn’t been there since the morning of the initial holocaust. Dr. Identity hadn’t been there since I purchased him. The cubapt was a theater of war. […] We lay on the floor and watched the news. Around midnight I told Dr. Identity I was going to bed. The android said goodnight and I turned it off. (128)
Set in a dystopian, mediatised future where “ultraviolence is as essential as a daily multivitamin” (Publisher Blurb), Dr. Identity is also a scathing critique of the fetishisation of fiction at the hands of the academia: the “plaquedemia” of the title refers to the literary academics’ tendency to turn into zombie copies of their long-dead authors of expertise (Blah’s colleague, a Russian-lit expert, undergoes plastic surgery to that effect, becoming “Bob Dostoevsky” to another colleague’s “Gilbert Hemingway”), becoming the “dogs of plaquedemia”: “everywhere zipping in and out of offices with heaps of books and papers crammed beneath their armpits. Dr. Identity nodded politely at Dr. Poe, Dr. Woolf, Dr. Byron as they bumbled passed. It didn’t nod at Dr. Stein” (17).
Apart from spoofing the lit-academe, Dr. Identity is distinguished by its investment in ultraviolence, media technology, & metanarration, but from the very start also by a critique of the “institutional” takeover of reality. In terms of ficiton, this takeover materialises in a burlesque of one of its beloved contemporary clichés: the pre-publication promotional blurb. A more or less random selection from the seemingly endless five pages of introductory text reads as follows:
“D. Harlan Wilson is my favorite author. His books are really great!”
“Postmodernism is dead. D. Harlan Wilson is alive.”
“Breathtaking prose. Wilson is the real deal. & he’s not even gay!”
“Breathtaking prose. Wilson is the real deal. & he’s not even gay!”
The Paris Review
“Dr. Identity is an original book with a unique plot & lots of suspense.”
“Dr. Identity is like my chicken: fingerlickin’ good.”
“My son is talented & artistic & smart & a marvelous teacher!”
D. Harlan Wilson’s Mom
“D. Harlan Wilson is very tall. He’s like six & a half feet tall!”
“Not an Oprah book.”
Oprah Winfrey (3-8)
Side by side with hilariously impossible praise from the likes of Kafka, Stein (her copycat Hemingway), & Kathy Acker, we get an impassioned quote from DHW’s very own mother, a wonderfully inane quote from George W. Bush’s very own Condoleeza Rice, as well as some promo from the essence of America, Colonel Sanders & Oprah Winfrey. Or look here:
“Professor DHW is a big fan of my musicals. He always talks about me. Last year he taught Cats in a LACT (Literature about Creatures with Tails) course. He sends me postcards all the time. Once he sent me a singing telegram for my birthday. How bad could his writing be?”
Andrew Lloyd Weber
“Wow. This is some book.”
“A real edge-of-your-seat page-turner…Stark & gripping…Absorbing…Chilling…Complex & convincing…Awe-inspiring…Relentlessly intense. Kung fu (not to mention Asian culture in general) will never be the same…Ignites like a flamethrower, burns like a forest fire…Impossible to put down…A terrific read…Compassionate, superbly [argued, fluidly written…Fascinating]…Original…More fun than a pocket full of dynamite.”
Life Magazine (7)
ALW’s shamelessly nepotistic quote rubs shoulders & scratches backs with Thomas Pynchon’s non-quote, & Life Magazine contributes its two cents of randomly strung bombastic adjectives, where one almost misses the sly intrusion of bracketed adjectives, signalling editorial intervention. Where do these come from? Does anybody care, really? & if they do, is there any way of finding out?
At the end of the list comes a bizarre disclaimer regarding the coincidence of all resemblance:
(DISCLAIMER: Any resemblance in the above narrative to actual people or publications living or dead or defunct is merely coincidence & should not be taken literally, metaphorically, viscerally, teleologically or otherwise. Blurbs originally written in French, Russian & German translated by Stanley Ashenbach.) (8)
No worries, readers, it’s all just fiction! Back off, lawyers, it’s all just literature! This disclaimer, however, instead of restoring the reality/fiction boundary, serves to blur it even further by mentioning, as “translator”, one Stanley Ashenbach (an imaginary Kubrick/Mann hybrid? Ah yes, the dedicatee “died in Venice” ).
In this ridiculously overblown lengthy entrée, DHW sardonically insinuates that literature in the Facebook & Twitter age has a megalomaniacal need to accrue praise to itself as the commercially sanctioned model of public taste, & to negate all else. Just as any & everything that could sell, literary publishing industry has been lobbied to the nth degree, turning fiction into the product of value-independent systems of power, coterie, quid-pro-quos, readily available on every consumer shelf. Perhaps even more easily in the case of “fiction” as its “fictional” status outside of “truth” & “fact” enables it to steer comfortably clear of any criteria of “veracity” & “fact checking” – with present-day “post-truth” politics following suit.
Megalomania & post-truth sentiments are writ large over DHW’s recent “angry black author” trilogy of biographies: Hitler: the Terminal Biography, Freud: the Penultimate Biography, & Douglass: the Found Autobiography. On the surface, DHW’s trilogy claims to be about the secret lives of three of recent history’s most renowned figures. So, on the cover blurb of Hitler, we read that, “based on more than ten years of archival research & German sociological study, this one-volume account covers ground previously uncharted by other biographers” (publisher blurb for Hitler); the Freud biography is said to “reveal a side of the man that has proven too disturbing & risqué for past biographers” & praised for being “based on newly recovered diaries, microfiche, letters, & secret tape recordings” (publisher blurb for Freud); & most over-the-top incredibly, on the cover of Douglass, one reads that “recently recovered on an archeological dig in Ireland, where Douglass lectured extensively in the 1840s, this heretofore ‘lost’ autobiography marks the fourth & final work in the library of his selfhood” (publisher blurb for Douglass).
That all this is a pisstake satirising the publishing industry, media culture, & foregrounding the vagaries of storytelling & truth, becomes clear in the very first chapter of each of the three: “Douglass: The Lost Autobiography, then, is an epistemology of couch-jumping. Originally the book was going to be about Tom Cruise, but there were copyright issues.” (Douglass, 9); “I wrote this biography of Sigmund Freud as fast as I could on the flight home“ (Freud, 8); “I called it Hitler: the terminal biography so you would buy it. Everybody likes to read about Hitler. I won’t mention him again” (Hitler, 3). The last disclaimer is patently false as Hitler is mentioned in a substantial portion of the biography’s total of 77 chapters (just 11 short of the apposite 88), but the main point stands, nonetheless. Figures as unlike each other as Hitler, Freud, Douglass, can be & have been turned into commodities, & the entire objectivist/historicist basis of the biography genre undermined. As the Bookriot reviewer put it, these are not so much biographies as “an exploration of the ideas behind Biography, in the same way being abandoned in the middle of Death Valley without food, water or a map is an exploration of the American Southwest.”
Each “biography” presents a series of vignettes that are part fiction & metafiction, part mock biography & literary autobiography, or in Gabino Iglesias’ more bombastic account for Verbicide, it’s “all about fiction, nonfiction, anti-fiction, outré-fiction, cryo-fiction, & superzero-fiction. Oh, & meta-fiction.” There are cross-references, repetitions, variations & intertextual links galore, as in Chapter 2 of Douglass: “I mentioned the Dark Hypotenuse, my term for the Lacanian Real, at the end of Hitler: The Terminal Biography, and I think I forgot to mention it in Freud: The Penultimate Biography. I should say a few words. Go to chapter three please” (Douglass, 10). Alongside the books’ primary subjects, the cast of characters includes a wide array of other intellectual & literary touchstones (most prominently Jacques Lacan, whose “psychoanalysis is a nice way to enter into a discussion of identity & the politics of subjectivity, but perhaps not the best vehicle to jumpstart any ‘entertaining’ book-length project” ) alongside movie stars like Tom Cruise, sportsmen like Kobe Bryant, & the various permutations of DHW’s own inscrutable ego.
The “Angry Black Author” trilogy, as the central narrator refers to it, is a kind of guide to anti-writing that puts the roles of both author & reader in question while problematising the ways in which we process & make sense of life experience. As the trilogy PR puts it: “how can anybody—alive or dead, famous or infamous or entirely unknown—even approach an accurate representation of the full spectrum of somebody’s identity based upon the fragments of their writing, the record of their exploits, the scraps of their everyday life?” Hitler, Freud, & Douglass recognise the insolubility of this issue while revelling in raising it.
When pausing to remark cynically that “it’s good to be able to make meaning, although it hurts” – just as “truth,” but also “idiocy” (Hitler, 23), DHW is quick to offer a false solace: good news, dear reader, this is literature, so you’re safe from all three! Although repeatedly described as “textbooks for writing,” the biographies end up far more seriously invested in bodybuilding & dietary procedures, since the trilogy is ultimately about DHW’s own life as, ironically, a hard-drinking bodybuilder & English professor. Staying in chiselled shape & productive with the monkey of alcoholism on his back is, after all, far more of a challenge for DHW than performing the work of the writer.
So many of the ridiculously & wastefully short chapters (but the more pages you cover, the better for the biz, right?) of the three biographies are comprised of stuff lifted off Wikipedia, copied-and-pasted from email exchanges with the loved ones, ripped off from workout manuals. “here are your shrivelled desires on a dinnerplate,” DHW informs his readership, here’s capital-L literature pre-packaged & marketed as such, but in the best Lacanian fashion comes also the anti-transferential smack: “I have put the least amount of effort into this book as possible” (Hitler, 32-3). These sentiments again are echoed throughout, with minor variations, as in the opening resolution of Douglass:
I’m going to write this biography slower than the first two. You’ll be able to tell the difference. It’s harder than you think to write fast and not plan or care about anything. I’m already going faster than the concatenations of my desires would have me go. (Douglass, 16)
With a nod to Benjamin, DHW shows how problematic it is, in the age of its digital reproducibility, to still market literature as, in any meaningful sense, “work” or “production” – while perhaps also wondering whether the worthlessness of its writing might be what saves it from the market?
So, quite appropriately, staring from the cover of the single-tome trilogy edition is DHW’s own face. There is dietary advice, body-building advice, daddy-daughter relationship advice, writing advice, teaching advice, side by side with, of course, explosions galore. For these “advisory” ideas do not come across as didactic, but are often fuelled by raw anger at systems that stifle creativity & human development. DHW is here looking into the mirror & seeing Hitler, Freud & Douglass; or perhaps looking at the three & only seeing himself, for what’s literature but narcissistic navel-gazing? And so, each personality in the trilogy represents an aspect of DHW’s human condition as well as the false promises of present-day literary business: from megalomania (Hitler) to surrogate libidinal compensations (Freud) to imaginary self-congratulatory empowerment (Douglass), & back again.
The failure of DHW’s biographies as literature is not only consequence of careless writing (however purposefully badly they’re written), but of the impoverishment of fiction at the hands of a cultural authoritarianism, & the failure of its conventional genres, which despite much evidence to the contrary continue to be advertised as adequate means of exploring or explaining our present circumstances. Or as The Rumpus reviewer mused, “these titles may not be, strictly, books” but rather “experiments in deconstructing the supposedly cynical matrices of literature in the Internet age…”
And so it doesn’t surprise that the last word, in the entire trilogy, is given over to “Donovan Ogg”, a whacky film director (& one of DHW’s many Twitter aliases), who
had been forsaken, who did not once appear in Douglass: The Lost Autobiography yet established a daunting protagonism in Freud: The Penultimate Biography, even though he died in Freud: The Penultimate Biography. But it’s never too late to make a comeback. What better time to make that comeback than at the bitter end? (Douglass, 145)
When the drinks had been drunk and the conversation had run its course, Donovan retreated to the basement, to his home theater, with a mind to edit his latest masterpiece, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times bestseller Hitler: The Terminal Biography. Nobody ever saw him again. (Douglass, 148)
By so blatantly undermining the genre & so shamelessly exposing the commercial purpose of his writing, DHW demonstrates how wide the chasm yawns between the present moment & the historical avant-garde, between literature’s not so ancient aspirations & its present commodified actuality. DHW’s anti-biographies work against the pull of standardisation while feeding indeterminacy into the otherwise oh so determinate system, rejecting to fall back on “old innovations” for a model of what the “new” could or should be, or to capitalise upon the industry of nostalgia for the “revolutionary moment.”
Which brings us to DHW’s latest offering, Outré (2020), a novel so weird David Agranoff calls on the reader “to accept that you are not on the same plane of existence with the author & just enjoy that you get a glimpse into the strange place between the man’s ears” (Goodreads). Still, Outré is a return to the bizarro Sci-fi of Dr. Identity, while also influenced heavily by the biocritical book DHW recently wrote about J.G. Ballard, and so a familiarity with the DHW canon helps the reader teleport into the DHW “schizoverse” as Outré blends the most successful sci-fi motifs of Dr. Identity with an exploration of the status of subjectivity & celebrity as/in fiction of the anti-biographies (incl. of course featuring the resurrected Donovan Ogg & other DHW staple memorabilia).
The story, set in a clearly Ballardian urban dystopia of Strychnine Heights & in a future where “cinema has usurped reality & there’s nothing special about effects” (publisher blurb), comes divided into 3 sections with 2 intermissions, during the first of which “a whale crashes on the outskirts of a forest [… &] produces a minor earthquake on impact” (29), after which the film industry immediately goes to work on a movie adaptation of the event. In a last-ditch attempt at maintaining fame, the role of the titular whale is taken up by a borderline washed-up actor & the many-named/unnamed narrator of the novel, who starts growing the flesh of an otherworldly kaiju onto his body. As he’s turning into a whale, all of the roles he has played in the past fight it out inside his head & identity. The result? “Alcoholism, ultraviolence, psychosis . . . & the promise of eternal life” (publisher blurb), plus a plethora of digressions, philosophical pondering, meditations on film, reality, & Moby Dick, & humorous routines.
The absurdist narrative unfolds in a gimmicky structure of brief, kaleidoscopic vignettes, each comprising a single paragraph (some running to 2 pages, some a mere one-liner) with titles like “Singularity” & “Abandon,” some coming in series like “Personal Memory, Vols. 1-6” & “Goodbye, or, History” (1-6). These vignettes are littered with film lingo & pop culture references, again critiquing the idiocy & celebrating the glamour of contemporary media “culture.” This is a world in which “celebrity tears get sold for profit” (31), Melville’s Moby Dick is characterised as “a forgotten novel” (51), & where “people communicate via dumbphones, celebrity graves serve as roadside attractions, & the protagonist […] takes ‘a side gig as the Vice President of the United States’” (Publishers Weekly). In Vincenzo Bilof’s thoughtful exposé, Outré “manages to turn avant-garde, literary fiction into a vision of a dangerous & strange future that seems rather plausible” by linking “personality disorders with the White Whale metaphor” where “Moby Dick’s status is used as both a metaphor & a literal event” (Goodreads).
Apart from mutating into the whale, the protagonist also morphs into the many of his alternative identifies like “Donny Ennui / Gene Pain / Sirius Brain / Curd”, for this is a world in which not only do actors go thru endless iterations of alternative identities, but in accordance with “method acting & directing” real bullets are used to produce real death, after which the actors get resurrected for further re-enactions:
Old Man Sprague snorts awake. He rises from the bed and shuffles out of the room into the courtyard. This is Donny Ennui. His name is Gene Pain. Everybody calls him Sirius Brain. Cocktail waitresses call him Curd. […] Memories of uncompromising vigilantism that might belong to another character play in my neural theater. I see my parents. […] This is what happens. Old age. (73)
There is also, in accordance with DHW’s staple programme of fictional navel-gazing, the duo of characters “D.” & “Harlan”, the latter becoming a victim of the former, at a certain point: “In my last letter to him, I exhibited a rare outburst of emotion. ‘Dear Harlan,’ I wrote, ‘I never try to embody any of my characters based upon the way in which they are written’” (52).
Leaping from different personalities & perspectives, Outré makes a clear link between the evolution of cinema & the disintegration of empathy within the increasingly technologised society. And so interspersed within the major plotlines are staple DHW critical digressions on such disparate topics as the status of sci-fi as genre (“pornography is exactly that which it pretends to be: a science fiction narrative in idle disguise […] the pornographic machine has long been the engine of science fiction” ), evolution & extinction (“every aspect of humanity […] can be meaningfully traced back to that which existed in our absence” ), the illusion of time (“the past & the future are sleights of hand, delusions we conjure to assure ourselves that time possesses shape” ), the narcissism of the celebrity cult-status (“people talking about me is the anti-noose par excellence that keeps me from sprinting to the gallows” ), dreaming (“dreams, for early sapiens, introduced a dynamic that still catalyzes society and culture today” ), & language & technology (“all of us are word-cyborgs – excise the word and the noosphere follows suit” ), the burden of the tradition & predicament of the future (“the weight of the future, the teeth-marks of the past: I can’t decide which does more harm” ).
Still, most of Outré is pure laugh-out-loud slapstick & some of it is staple DHW “anti-writing,” as when DHW spends pages copying various passages from Melville, whose Moby Dick Donny Ennui claims to have read five hundred times in order to get into character:
The most important puzzle piece of all is that I will not become a whale. Rather, I will become a simulacrum of an ethereal creature that looked like a whale but was clearly something else, something other, something outré. The rest of my story, then—like all good stories—will involve efforts to craft destiny from the bread crumbs of impossibility. (56)
If there is a narrative thread within Outré, & it is one of multiplicity of individual perspectival shifts against a backdrop of “collective (un)consciousness”, or to quote Vincenzo Bilof again DHW’s “beautiful & incredible imagery” is here coupled with “the very plausible techno-apocalypse” & both merge with “a collective embrace of apathy while we allow cinema the permission to mass-produce our emotions for us” (Goodreads).
Outré is to Moby Dick what DHW’s project is to “literature”—a simulacrum of that “ethereal creature” but also “something else, something other, something outré.” DHW’s books are marked by a refusal of paradigms, the maintained temper of an open investigation, an experiment in de-institutionalising writing & thought. Encapsulating DHW’s motto is a passage from a long monologue of Donovan Ogg towards the end of Outré: “Art is an artifact, a thing of the past that died with the human intellect, but we do what we can” (105). We do what we can—& DHW does his best through the very ambiguous status of the books he produces: “Nothing incites terror & euphoria like ambiguity” (94). And so, dead & alive, “born a vegetable, become a monkey, died a machine” (107), DHW’s radically subversive fiction walks on. May its undead zombies live long & prosper.
My next instalment, in roughly two weeks’ time, will be devoted to Evan Isoline’s Self-Fuck.
© David Vichnar, 2021