April 2014

Will George


The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell

"My name is Lucifer Morningstar," trumpets a character in Jeremy P. Bushnell's The Weirdness. Pleased to meet you. That's the Lucifer, the Devil himself, who materializes in a cramped Brooklyn apartment to bargain with its dopehead tenant: the struggling writer and self-styled "coward and fuck-up" Billy Ridgeway. Billy is about to be offered the deal of a lifetime -- but not quite the soul-swapping deal the Devil usually offers.

Incredibly, the Prince of Darkness needs Billy's help. Seems that an interloping warlock stole the Devil's favorite cat statue out of Hell. Lucifer can't find it, so he enjoins Billy to recover the statue. Otherwise Earth will be destroyed. You'd think this incentive enough, but there's the added sweetener: should Billy prevail, the Devil will publish his first book. Can Billy defeat the warlock and become not just a global hero but also a moderately successful author?

This is the first novel by Bushnell, a fiction editor for Longform.org and teacher at Northeastern University. One part literary satire, three parts supernatural adventure, The Weirdness is a high-concept fantasy story flavored with pleasantly bitter laughs. Weighing the diabolical proposal, Billy asks which of his writings the Devil will handle. "There are people I can get to publish the novel," Lucifier hedges. Short stories, though -- that's a tough sell." Doubly tough given Billy's shoddy output: "Nothing he has written in the last decade is good enough to justify the personality flaws that he'd been justifying by telling everyone that he was a writer."

But soon this comedic retelling of the Faust legend, with the Devil as literary agent, yields to a freeform yarn of the occult. That statue-thieving warlock has entranced a block of Lower West Side Manhattan. A secret war rages between his witchy minions and a host of other unconventional entities. Forget about the book deal: suddenly Billy must wrestle with covens, charms, seals, magic spells, mass illusions, astral gates, and unforeseeable transformations. The Weirdness is an apt title for this otherworldly exhibition of folklore and horror film material.

By a systematic fluke, nearly everyone in Billy's life has a surreptitious role in the hocus-pocus: his roommate, Jørgen; love interest, Elisa Mastic; and even his father emerge as players in the apocalyptic scheme hidden from Billy for thirty years. Chalk up these coincidences to narrator's licence. The appeal of this conveniently plotted tale -- besides the humor -- lies in its exuberant description:

The air in the hallway is split. A great seam open in space, spilling incandescent torrents of light out over them. It gives off a low sound that's half children's choir and half roaring vacuum cleaner. Little sussurrating vortices spume off of its edges... Elisa, Jørgen, and Billy all stop in their tracks... transfixed like deer on a rural road, deer who are about to be plowed into by some sports-utility vehicle.

Bushnell's description is at its most enthusiastic in a number of graphically violent action sequences, a type of horror-comedy writing that recalls David Wong's John Dies at the End. A fight between two werewolves, for example, begins with a promise of situational gross-out humor and ends with gore:

Something is happening to his [Billy's] face. That's no good. He kind of likes his face, his boyish good looks. And then he vomits, a hot torrent of slime ejecting out of him. He experiences one acute moment of embarrassment, at having thrown up in front of Elisa, who he thinks is probably not going to want to fuck him now, but then the embarrassment is erased, wiped away, replaced by pain, the pain of his bones beginning to change shape...

...Now Billy's on top and he bites down into his enemy's face. The first time Billy lunges in, the white wolf jerks away just in time and Billy gnashes air. The second time he gets that son of a bitch's ear in his teeth and he locks down onto it like a rawhide strip and jerks it hard. Just jerks the fuck out of it. He wants to feel it detach from the other wolf's skull. He wants blood in his mouth.

That easy move from comedy to horror should be familiar from cinema (John Landis's American Werewolf in London; Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy). Bushnell's schtick, like David Wong's, is to narrate such quasi-filmic sequences blow by gory blow. Generally the action overpowers the humor in The Weirdness, which is a shame, since the literary-satirical aspects are much more finely drawn than the tornado of magic and blood.

Take Bushnell's deliberate underwriting, even deliberately bad writing, appropriate here since the hero is himself a lousy writer. Billy speaks and thinks inarticulately, indulging expletives ("like," "you know"), idle questions ("Um... I still kind of feel like I should call 911?"), and agonizing clichés ("That's what I'm talking about," "I just died a little inside," "You have got to be fucking kidding me"). A typical passage narrated from Billy's overly casual point of view:

Billy steps back, bumps into the wall of bookshelves, and gets the bright idea... to grab one of the bookshelves and topple it... It would just look so cool. He turns, gets a pretty good grip on two shelves, and pulls, but it turns out the thing is maybe bolted to the wall or something? Or maybe the shelves in here were just built into the wall directly?

Uh, maybe? By contrast, a critic named Anton Cirrus writes like this:

Recently at the offices we received notice of an approaching reading... The invite promised an evening of "the best innovative new writing," and we confess to having felt a momentary stirring of hope... We sat down, braced for amazement. Sadly, our optimism was unfounded. Our research revealed that [Elisa] Mastic and [Billy] Ridgeway do not, in fact, represent a new guard of innovative writing, but are merely the latest pair to stumble, wide-eyed, into the ravaged storehouse of tired forms and stale devices.

So from trite to turgid, The Weirdness holds up -- at an ironic distance -- two kinds of desperately bad writing. (Except of course for "the ravaged storehouse of tired forms and stale devices," the book's most memorable phrase.) It might have been a better choice to expand the literary satire rather than daydream about a werewolf ripping another werewolf's ear off. But that's just a matter of personal preference.

Entertaining as The Weirdness is, and despite its barrage of plot-defying supernatural surprises, a demanding reader may find it hard to get past the unoriginality of the premise. Unless the book aims at a young audience -- and in places the action does turn Harry Potteresque -- invoking the Faustian myth risks a wail of "Not this again." Still, Bushnell works hard to refresh the devilry with some undeniably cool touches. When the Prince of Darkness breaks into your apartment, makes you coffee, hands you his calling card, and shows you a PowerPoint presentation on his laptop, might as well sit back and share a bowl:

"Before this conversation continues," Billy says, glumly, "I would like to get high."

"That's reasonable," says Lucifer.

The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell
Melville House
ISBN: 978-1612193151
288 pages