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By Eddie Wright
'86 Newman / myspace.com/brokenbulbs86
As regular readers know, one of the often overlooked forms of literature I like to cover here in depth is that of experimental and cutting-edge stories, even though it's difficult to analytically critique such books, also for reasons I've gone into before. Take for example a great little novella that recently came my way, Broken Bulbs by first-time author Eddie Wright, which is an almost textbook example of what I'm talking about: that since its entire aim is to tell a dense, layered story in a poetic, often confusing way, it's both redundant and unfair to then criticize it for being confusing and pretentiously poetic. Better instead, I think, to simply acknowledge that this is what a book like this is going for in the first place, recognize that prose like this is meant to either immediately appeal to a reader or immediately not on a deeply subconscious level, and understand that even the author knows he is deliberately shutting out a certain portion of his potential audience by doing so. Once you acknowledge all this, then, it's easier to simply concentrate on how the book tries to accomplish these things and what other experimental projects it's most like, instead of the rather impossible summation of whether it's any "good" or not.
Because make no mistake, this slim volume is the bastard child of Memento and William S Burroughs, absolutely not for the faint of heart nor for anyone seeking a nice, simple beach read. It's fundamentally the story of one Frank Fisher, who seems at first to be the addicted druggie victim of a beautiful pusher named Bonnie; and like the best of so-called "body horror" (see David Cronenberg for more), the drug Frank is addicted to seems to be administered through violent injections straight into the brain, which has left the deliberately overdosing Frank's scalp a bloody, pus-filled, bandage-covered mess. Yeah, had enough already? Then by all means you should skip Broken Bulbs altogether, which takes such an image as the start of the story and then just keeps getting weirder and more disgusting from there. Because, see, the drug Bonnie keeps administering to Frank seems to be some sort of "chemical muse," an artificial substance that promotes creativity and inspires new thought; and that has Frank feverishly writing an absurdist screenplay whenever he's on the drug, the adventures of a sad-sack junkie named Dusty who seems to share a series of curiously similar yet magically-real coincidences with Frank's own life. And so does the slight plot keep moving forward, with Bonnie entwined in this real/unreal universe in a more complicated way than we realized at first, and with her obviously having her own agenda regarding Frank's drug abuse and resulting metaphorical fever-dream script.
What all of this does, then, is bring up an intriguing question from real life, just as all of the best experimental literature does: of how much this supposed chemical muse really is inspiring our hero, and how much of it is the insipid ramblings of a self-deluded addict? Take the real drug crystal meth, for example, which produces as a side effect so-called "tweaking" behavior, how an addict under such circumstances can be fascinated for hours on end by such mindless repetitive behavior as tearing paper or stacking blocks. Or take the more mundane example of smoking pot; of just how many supposed brilliant insights one has while high turn out to be rambling horsesh-t when considered soberly in the light of day. Wright plays with this idea here to great effect, by creating a drug in an alternate reality that supposedly really does produce a burst of legitimate creativity and insight whenever taken; but by relaying this information to us through the person actually on the drug, it makes us wonder if this is indeed the truth, or whether all of this (plus the massive paranoia that follows) is all a product of the drug itself.
Now, for sure there are weaknesses to this particular manuscript, apart from whether or not you enjoy experimental work in general: for example, Wright takes on an unfocused stream-of-consciousness voice much too often, and is only mediocre at it to begin with, leading to large sections of overwritten text throughout; plus existing heavy readers of experimental work will find this book awfully derivative at points, more a collection of Wright's favorite Philip K Dick moments than anything truly original. But there are also flashes of brilliance shown in this first book of his as well, comforting signs that Wright not only has lots more work still in him but that it's bound to just keep getting better and better; just to cite one good example, he has a natural mastery over dark witty dialogue, and I couldn't help but to laugh out loud at Frank's irrationally angry postal carrier who at one point menacingly declares, "You know, just cuz I'm a mailman, doesn't mean you can f-ck with me!"
This is for sure a literary debut, containing most of the problems inherent in that situation; but I also found it a better debut than most of the others I usually read, the sign of a writer who I think will be going in very interesting directions with future, more mature projects. Wright is ready to take on even more startling visions than the ones seen here; but for those simply looking for a well-done Beat-style experimental story, one that can be started and finished in a single day, Broken Bulbs will be right up your alley.
Out of 10: 8.2
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