In Absurdia opens with a scene from a world in which talking bears dressed in hard hats are busy demolishing the remains of human civilisation. At least that was my interpretation. I was instantly captured and charmed by Crystal Forebear, who operates a demolition team in partnership with Funboy (aka god). A promising start for a narrative that also features a marmot who for some reason is often encountered pushing a shopping cart and various cowboys who lounge into the story as if they owned it.
N. A. Jackson can't tell the difference between fiction and reality these days and can't decide whether to laugh or cry most of the time, can anyone? He spends quite a bit of time looking at small insects with a hand lens. This seems a good way of maintaining a broad view of the world. Sometimes he imagines what it would be like to be a gigantic praying mantis stalking the corridors of power in search of an easy meal.
In Absurdia has not been easy to review partly due to its structural complexity and partly because the characters are not fixed entities. It would obviously be a mistake to attempt to rationalise this complexity or fix the characters in order to make sense of their actions since these elements are what give the work its unique quality of fluidity and urgency. It really does seem to speak directly to our contemporary sense of disconnection from reality. It is a classic exploration of the central theme of absurdism: the human tendency to seek value and meaning in a world of irrationality and chaos.
Whalan's main focus is the search for 'reality' and the interface between reality and appearances. These themes are explored through the idea of a mirror world which functions as a parallel reality and between the two worlds the author is free to play with concepts of time and space. There are points in the narrative where time literally freezes, becomes vitreous. A man walking on a frozen sea finds himself wounded by waves as sharp as glass.
The narrative seemed to me like a river in a perpetual state of freezing and thawing. In Absurdia flows when the characters interact, debate philosophy and play games with each other; when it freezes, time abruptly stops, and all action is suspended as a single character ponders the nature of reality and the meaning of life. At these moments time seems to have been sliced into its component moments. Then the river of the narrative unfreezes and the characters find themselves unceremoniously booted into a new setting, a new form of their reality. If this sounds confusing, it is, but stick with it...
Even if the story is fragmented, the writing is strangely beautiful and carries the reader along. Here is one such transition: "A calm envelopes me. I've nothing to do as the warm mirror holds me inside its embrace. The air becomes liquid and then I'm afloat - I breathe in the shimmer till my image is so everywhere that it vanishes to a point."
The river is formed not by one narrative but many that run parallel or blend carrying the characters along seemingly against their will. And the characters are subject to a constant state of flux: they transform and transmute sometimes becoming each other and even, at one point, consuming each other, coalescing and dividing like single-celled animals.
In Absurdia experiments with concepts of space and time and its characters play with these same elements as if they were placing bets on a gaming table, a table which will decide their fate. As the book reaches its conclusion, the central character of Gonzo Jack lays out the cards of his own destiny and sets about gambling away his future.
The author gradually leads his reader into a fragmented world which at times coheres in vivid moments of narrative following the journey of a young man arriving in Zermatt with his girlfriend, Crystal, where he books into a hotel, makes love in the bedroom, attends a concert in the local church and learns about a fresco that decorates the church ceiling. Attending a concert, he has a religious experience. It is this experience that forms the basis for the metaphysical explorations that dominate the second half of the novel. At times, Crystal is a muse leading him along forest tracks and on wild-camping expeditions. Whether this is the same creature who appears in a bunny girl outfit is unsure. As with all the strange characters in this novel, no form seems to stay fixed for very long. In a further twist, the girl appears in a more vampish role as a siren who leads Jack astray on a yacht as he tries to navigate on a disastrous sea voyage.
Another interesting character is Reinhold, a bear-like hiker (there are a lot of bears in this novel) who accompanies this wanderer in his mountaineering adventures. There's a telling episode where Jack, distracted by ruminating on the nature of reality, allows the stove to burn the tent down. Disaster! Jack is despondent and apologetic but as they face the prospect of spending the night unprotected on a mountainside, it is Reinhold who has a grasp on what is real and meaningful in that moment as they watch the beauty of the setting sun. Reinhold also gets some of most resonant speeches in the novel: "The only reality you'll find here is the reality you find for yourself. The world you consider fake, horrible, or meaningless is perfectly normal to others. And they might think the same about your world. All you can honestly do is to overcome your objections, carve out a niche for yourself, live it, don't compare, be content and don't look back. It's your world, the one you've created, and nobody else's."
In a further development of the idea of the wanderer there are characters who manifest in the shape of a guru, a messianic figure or a televangelist. These morphing and amorphous figures attract multitudes searching for an answer to their problems until their power is suddenly deflated leaving them preaching to an empty auditorium. Whalan also conjures up the spirit of Prince Myshkin, the hopelessly naïve character at the centre of Dostoevsky's novel 'The Idiot' who spent years as an invalid in Switzerland. Whilst he never makes a physical appearance, there's a sense of this 'sane' character standing mutely on the sidelines observing as the characters strive for enlightenment or drown their sorrows.
There's a darkness suffusing the work. Beneath its bright glassy surface there's a profound sense of despair - the despair of those who have gambled away their lives in drink or drugs, invested their whole being in a reality - a raison d'être - which they've been sold by capitalist ideology with its Pleasure Dome, its gambling tables and its lifestyle images. Through his characters' addictions and delusions, their objectification and reification - the compulsive elements that divide heart and mind, mind and body - Whalan explores, in an occasionally horrific way, how people, as individuals and collectively, relinquish their power to change. The entire narrative is framed by a crime scene, the reader is invited to speculate on the nature of the crime and ultimately the whole idea of victimhood. Is this the scene of a suicide or a murder? One can never be quite sure.
Arriving at the end of the novel, the intrepid reader can appreciate the trajectory of this process of discovery for the central 'being' of the novel. 'Being' is an accurate enough description of this collection of identities for there are no fixed characters only mutable entities.
There may not be a forest fire in sight but the world of Whalan's narrative is burning. There's a compelling nowness to the novel in the way Whalan posits the capacity of his characters to examine their own actions and responsibilities - to reimagine a state of freedom.
Whalan takes a brave dive into the unknown with this multi-layered work of absurdist fiction. It is after all, out of the mouths and fools and babes that truth manifests itself. And the truth is never the truth for long. For this reviewer, he succeeds in conveying this - truth is ours to discover and to lose sight of in each moment. But to try to hold on to truth, and therefore meaning, is futile - a truly absurd conclusion.