Jason Pettus's Reviews > Blankety Blank

Blankety Blank by D. Harlan Wilson
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May 01, 09

bookshelves: contemporary, weird, hipster
Read in May, 2009

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

Regular readers know that one of the types of literature I try to take on here more than most other review places is so-called "bizarro" fiction (also known sometimes as "surreal," "Weird," and by a whole host of other names); but as you can guess, a big reason why so many review places mostly skip this subgenre is that it's a notoriously difficult one to analytically judge, with sometimes just a sliver-thin line between fantastic and only so-so in such projects, and with it difficult sometimes to even explain the difference to others. Take for example D. Harlan Wilson's Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria, put out by our old friends at Raw Dog Screaming Press, which in most ways resembles almost exactly the same type of book that his bizarro contemporaries put out, but that nonetheless by the end left me mostly shrugging and muttering, "Eh, that was all right." And even searching my mind now, I'm finding it difficult to say why exactly this is, when for example an almost identical book like Andersen Prunty's Zerostrata has received such a better reception here in the past; because like I said, it's just the tiniest shades of certain things that can throw a story off within specialized subgenres like these, and this is just how it is with specialized subgenres, and authors who work in these subgenres for the most part understand this danger before taking on that subgenre in the first place (or at the very least, they quickly learn).

Ostensibly a black comedy about a series of highly dysfunctional suburban families, all living in a deliciously evil planned community on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the actual plotline of Blankety Blank devolves quickly and profoundly, reaching David Lynchian levels just a few pages in and never really letting up. And see, this is a good example of why it's so notoriously tricky sometimes to review such books critically; because in this case the usual wackiness just never really clicked with me, feeling throughout more like a fairytale where nothing is really at stake (indeed, where reality doesn't even work the same way it does in our world), and so makes it a lot more difficult as a reader to connect with either the characters on display or the things that happen to them. But see, with bizarro fiction, this is a big part of the entire point, and there are lots of Weird projects I've loved in the past precisely for this letting-go of reality, that just didn't quite work for me here in this particular case.

And why is that? Oh, I don't know; and that's part of the entire point of being a fan of specialized subgenres, as I've talked about before, because the reactions you have hit you at a very primal, gut level, and are in many ways both critic-proof and bypass rational thought altogether, to hit you in a much more passionate, emotional way. But while that's great when it comes to a project you really click with, it's frustrating when it doesn't, because you're left at the end thinking "meh" but with no good explanation for why that is. And that isn't quite fair to this book's author Wilson, I know, because it isn't like there's something specifically wrong with the book at all; and in fact there were lots of little elements that I really liked, from the pseudo-scientific fake-history digressions to the Mark-Leyneresque dialogue, and just even the whole idea of a suburban ranch-house owner constructing a giant 200-foot glittering silver silo on his property for no particular reason whatsoever (which is where the image on the front cover comes from).

That's why this novel is getting a score in the high 7s today; because it's a fine read for those who are existing fans of bizarro literature, but is going to hold little appeal to those who aren't, not a breakthrough project but one that has to work hard against the subgenre's natural limitations. I don't mind as a critic making these kinds of tough judgment calls (that's my job, after all), which is why I like reviewing Weird fiction to begin with when so many others don't; but I also hate giving the impression that a book is bad when it isn't, simply that by its very nature it's going to appeal to only a small crowd. That said, if you've always wanted to explore bizarro fiction and are in a gambling mood, Blankety Blank is certainly worth taking a chance on.

Out of 10: 7.9
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