I think I am a strange person. There’s no one thing or anecdote to point to that definitely confirms it. Perhaps talking on national television about my commitment to take pictures of myself frowning in front of world monuments adds to the overall collage of oddity. The time I snuck into a bar underage in order to enter their Simpsons trivia contest (all the while praying that I wouldn’t win the grand prize of a jug of beer) also does a lot to summarise the way my mind works. So does my penchant for naming inanimate objects.
I don’t really feel strange within myself. When you spend enough time within a structure (whether its an organisation, an institution, or simply oneself), the internal logic seems flawless. An outsider might call it strange, and I’ve always been aware of the fact that an outsider could call me strange, but it is also simultaneously natural.
The doubleness, the feeling of simply being your regular self and also seeing yourself through the eyes of others, can be troubling. I’ve tended to address it by hiding the true extent of my thoughts and inclinations until I can trust that I won’t be ostracised.
But lately, I’ve been reading the inner thoughts of some very strange characters. Regardless of what happens plot-wise, I feel gleeful doing so. It’s refreshing to see the world in non-conventional ways. I’m finally ready to fully embrace the strange.
Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island has provided the world with a strange narrator and in doing so has earned itself a Man Booker prize nomination. The protagonist, U, is a corporate anthropologist tasked with the vague role of working on projects and piecing together and all-important report.
U doesn’t take his work so seriously, and likes to prepare dossiers on random subjects that interest him, like oil spills and suspicious deaths by parachute. He sees the hidden linkages between everything so strongly anyway, that it may well be that some of these dossiers will come in handy professionally too. He has grand views of what he can accomplish in between reading papers and sticking up pictures of oil-covered animals on his office wall. ‘I understood the end-result to be not simply better-tasting cereal or bigger profits for the manufacturer, but rather meaning, amplified and sharpened, for the millions of risers lifting cereal boxes over breakfast.’
This quest toward meaning is a common but never-ending quest to accomplish something much bigger than oneself. U, however, believes himself to have already transcended the quest. ‘The world functioned, each day, because I put meaning back the day before. You didn’t notice that I put it there because it was there; but if I stopped you would have noticed.’
Satin Island is packed with streams of consciousness, musings that invoke anthropology (particularly his favourite anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss) and philosophy. As a reader, I experience some difficulty in trying to determine if the insights are genius, or mad, or possibly both?
When his friend, Petr becomes gravely ill and dies in the hospital, he censors his grieving thoughts for their unoriginality, they ‘seemed so crass that I didn’t even bother to think them.’ Instead, he muses on the nature of the text message that was sent to him, from Petr’s phone but composed and sent by Petr’s ex-wife. U wonders if, in essence, it means that Petr himself sent it. It is from his phone, the phone company would have recorded the message as actually being from Petr, if the number continues to be used under his name, then in effect he would continue to live. He notes to self, ‘key to immortality: text messaging.’
I took from Satin Island the sense that there are people (of which I am probably one), who never quite turn off from the world’s constant hum. Everything has the potential for philosophising, and can then connect to something unexpected. It winds up in a heady mix of both exhaustion and delight. It can be a part of myself to embrace, part of my complex (odd) story.
In a similar vein, Miranda July’s The First Bad Man is a bizarre story of Cheryl, a woman in her 40s, and her unlikely journey toward motherhood. The book’s plot is twisting. What preoccupies Cheryl in the beginning is far away from what preoccupies her by the end.
While Satin Island depicts strange intellectualisation, The First Bad Man focuses more on the neurotic conceptualisations that develop over a lifetime of always being in your own head. For instance, she has a ‘system’ whereby (among other things) she doesn’t eat from dishes so that they don’t pile up in the sink and when reading books she keeps her finger in the gap in the bookshelf they came from.
Later, “Kooks” by David Bowie comes to be a magical song which heightens her persuasive powers when sung. Crazy yes, but it actually works at one point, so…
I finished reading The First Bad Man in one sitting. I found it funny and easy-to-read, but mostly I found myself able to breathe properly for maybe the first time ever. I don’t have a system quite like Cheryl’s, I’m strange in my own special way. But because I understand my internal life as being strange, and here was July affirming that the oddity can be embraced as the stuff of art, I felt relief. Relief and inspiration to be realer and kookier with others (and, where appropriate, in my writing).
Essentially, hopefully, it’s okay to be strange.