bizarro fiction

Die Empty

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 9.20.47 AMHard as it may be to believe, Die Empty by Kirk Jones is kind of dark. The novel centers on an overweight insurance broker named Lance whose recent acquisition of the entire Masters of the Universe toy line has failed to brighten the onset of middle age or his sneaking and well-founded suspicion that his wife is having affair with his best friend and next-door neighbor, Dave. Complicating matters is the fact that Death — dressed in his traditional dark hood — has entered Lance’s life and offered him a deal he can’t refuse: a guarantee of forty more years in exchange for a lifetime of imagining creative new ways to help Death increase his body count. And, it turns out, the job is fraught with complications.

The humor throughout Die Empty is extremely dry, and the narrative arc follows a weirdness curve that can only be described as exponential. Things don’t just get curiouser and curiouser. They go bat-shit crazy in a David Lynch kind of way. Indeed, Jones’s blending of the mundane and the bizarre gives Die Empty the feeling of a cross between a film like Blue Velvet and a George Saunders story. That Jones narrates the story in second-person adds a layer of creepy intimacy to the proceedings. Imagine, for example, being told that you’re not only working for death and passively plotting to kill your wife, but also that you’re into a category of entertainment labeled “nun porn” and that a man with no pants named Gerald (who happens to be leading you to an abandoned cabin in the woods) may or may not be your father, and you’ll get a sense of the position Jones is putting you in when you sit down to read this novel.

As strange as it is, Die Empty is extremely accessible — particularly in comparison to  Jones’s 2011 novella, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, which is a fascinating if slightly bizarre read about a man who falls into a wood chipper and is reincarnated as a man-shaped mass of tears. Clearly Jones is an author with a vivid imagination and a penchant for oddness. With Die Empty, he uses those gifts to explore the meaning and potential meaningless of life in a world that often seems designed with only death in mind.

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Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals

The first thing that will strike the casual reader upon perusing Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals is that the term “bizarro fiction” suits this debut novella perfectly. In the space of a few pages, the hero of the piece loses and arm, a leg, and an eye in a series of unfortunate events that peak with his falling into a wood chipper and being reincarnated as a humanoid mass of tears. From here, things go from bizarre to bizarrer — an especially impressive feat on the part of author Kirk Jones, given that “bizarrer” isn’t even a word — when the man made of tears is put in charge of a circus filled with inanimate objects that have come to life and subsequently grown incredibly fond of copulating. To put all of this as bluntly as possible, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals earns its bizarro stripes on every page of this trim, offbeat saga.

In addition to being bizarre, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals also offers a fascinating critique of American consumer culture. The carnival, after all, is owned by a self-proclaimed mirage named Uncle Sam, who happens to be the son of Capitalism. What’s more, when the so-called “inanimals” that populate his carnival begin to copulate, the ultimate end is not more quasi-sentient furniture but the opposite; only one inanimal, it turns out, ever survives a sexual encounter, leaving the other a shattered husk.

Needless to say, it would be easy to dismiss the sexual proclivities of the inanimals as weird for the sake of weird. As arguably distasteful as the notion of sexually active and sadomasochistic furniture might be to some readers, however, the destructive orgies over which the man made of tears presides are nothing compared to the real-world horrors that many laborers in developing nations endure so that we can accumulate vast quantities of merchandise at low prices. What’s more, the very concept of inanimals calls to mind the work of the late Jean Baudrillard, the French social theorist who, among other things, speculated that humanity’s relationship with inanimate objects has devolved to the point where there’s no difference between us and the objects we possess. In this respect, Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals falls in line (thematically, at least, albeit incongruously so) with works by Don DeLillo and the Wachowski brothers.

All of this is to say that while Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals is admittedly and purposely weird, it offers the reader much to think about, especially with respect to humanity’s relationship with inanimate objects. More significantly, it raises the immortal question: Have you hugged your futon today?