About two thirds of the way through Andersen Prunty‘s The Beard, protagonist David Glum watches helplessly as the arm of a man who may or may not be his father (but probably is) turns without cause or provocation into a two-by-four. This, however, is par for the course for the beleaguered Glum. In the opening chapters of the novel, he sees a herd of elephants abduct his grandfather, tries and fails to publish a novel, eats a psychotropic sandwich, rides a bus driven by a silent figure whose head resembles an onion, and decides to return home to Ohio to grow a beard (though not necessarily in that order). Things, however, start to get strange when Glum’s mother dies and he discovers that his family has been hiding the sacred eternal flame of a (possibly imaginary, definitely angry) tribe of (not-quite) Pacific Islanders in their attic. To say that Prunty is a shining star of the Bizarro movement would, at this point, be redundant, but I’ll say it anyway: Andersen Prunty is a shining star of the Bizarro movement.
Throughout The Beard, Prunty proves himself a natural at creating mind-bending landscapes that operate according to a warped brand of dream logic that’s especially effective in his treatment of characters. As in a dream, his protagonist is at the mercy of forces that are both far beyond his control and, paradoxically, frequently of his own unconscious making. Likewise, the notion of identity is highly fluid throughout the novel. Glum’s father, for example, is initially described as an overweight, malicious bore but, in the blink of an eye, becomes (or, depending on how you look at it, is replaced by) a skinny, relatively friendly gentleman who turns out to be the kind of father that Glum always wanted. Within the framework of traditional storytelling, such sudden transformations might be decried as inconsistencies, but in the bizarro realm, they’re the whole point of the story. To put it in another way, Prunty is playing games with the conventions of storytelling–and cackling like a madman as he plays havoc with his reader’s expectations.
Among the more egregious “violations” of the rules of traditional storytelling is Prunty’s fondness for deus ex machina — as when the arm of Glum’s father turns into the aforementioned two-by-four, or when a team of semi-invisible bodyguards semi-appears to defend Glum from sniper fire. Yet as these examples suggest, Prunty elevates deus ex machina to an art form by making each occurrence more outlandish — and therefore entertaining — than the last. Indeed, half the fun of reading The Beard is turning the page to see what Prunty will do next as the god of his fantastically twisted realm. My sense, moreover, is that Prunty and writers like him aren’t playing with the conventions of traditional storytelling just for the sake of zaniness. Rather, they’re drawing attention to the artificiality of all stories by heightening our awareness of those elements that are most contrived. Glum’s quest to return the sacred flame to its rightful owners, for example, mirrors the plot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy almost perfectly, but the execution of the details reminds us that both stories are, in the end, stories. In so doing, The Beard also (and appropriately, given the double entendre inherent in the title) gives the lie to all efforts at storytelling. To wit, it’s all artificial, so we might as well go wild and have fun with it.
Of course, Prunty’s work, like bizarro fiction itself, is an acquired taste. Perhaps this is why he offers The Beard as a free download at Smashwords. My advice for the uninitiated is to check it out, kick the tires, and, if you like what you read, then buy the book–or any of Prunty’s seven other books that are either currently available or on their way. If weird is your cup of tea, then Prunty is your man.