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A Review of Wilson’s Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria (2008)
By Jason Jordan, Jul 08, 2008

With several books to his name already, Bizarro author D. Harlan Wilson returns via Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2008). Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, protagonist Rutger Van Trout (paging Dr. Vonnegut) begins transforming his cookie cutter suburban home into a farm while an outspoken serial killer known only as Mr. Blankety Blank ravages the neighborhood. As a result of said book’s outlandish nature, predictability is mostly left by the wayside since there’s little room to make conjectures about what’s going to happen next aside from habits (Van Trout will continue to renovate his house, Mr. Blankety Blank will continue killing, etc.), which is mostly a positive characteristic. Conversely, Blankety Blank contains a significant amount of material that could be considered secondary to the plot, if not downright filler, but that depends on who’s reading and how willing they are to indulge in tangent after tangent. Like the Bizarro subgenre to those who aren’t rabid fans, Wilson’s latest is also divisive.

Concerning organization, the full-length is easy to follow. While the Wilson (pictured right?) novel has chapters, each usually contains a variety of short, informational installments such as short histories (“A Short History of the Silo” [11]), quotes (“‘I didn’t want to hurt them. I only wanted to kill them’ – David Berkowitz, Serial Killer” [72]), definitions, statistics, and more. Though they are intriguing, some may argue that many seem unnecessary, but it’s also fair to assert that they further describe the setting and characterize by proxy. Serial killers are often grouped together by similar traits, and because time is spent surveying them, it heightens the threat that is Mr. Blankety Blank. Still, the tension suffers when few of the characters take him seriously. Even so, a saving grace is the humor within Blankety Blank: “The crane operator rolled down the window and leaned his elbow out. ‘Got a tetanus shot lately? My little girl died of a tetanus shot. Rusty syringe’” (9), among several others. Unfortunately, even at the close of the book, I found myself still wondering about the reasoning behind many of the characters’ actions—mainly those of Mr. Van Trout and Mr. Blankety Blank.

Nonetheless, Blankety Blank is an entertaining read despite the many, curious decisions that Wilson made regarding the material that appears, the things left unsaid, and the untraditional, ostensibly random arrangement. Perhaps it boils down to whether this futuristic, Bizarro angle is your proverbial cup of tea. It’s evidently not mine, but remains worth a look every now and again.

An Interview with D. Harlan Wilson

decomP: How would you say the writing process differed, if at all, during the writing of Blankety Blank versus your previous books?

D. Harlan Wilson: Not much, if at all. I write just about every day, preferably in the morning, but usually I squeeze my writing between the cracks of my routine, whenever I can, 30 minutes here, 15 minutes there.

In addition to teaching, watching TV, and spending time with my family, I’ve taken up bodybuilding pretty seriously in the last year. Otherwise I write. My wife and I teach English at a small regional college in Ohio. Nothing else to do here but stare at cornfields and pump iron.

As for the composition of Blankety Blank, I did more research for it than other projects, studying Ripperology and the history of the city in which the novel is set, Grand Rapids, Michigan, my hometown.

d: The book’s subtitle is A Memoir of Vulgaria. According to the Blankety Blank’s MySpace page: “I call myself a memoir. But I’m really a work of fiction. Aren’t all memoirs really works of fiction? Isn’t everything a work of fiction?” This is an argument heard before, but how do you support these claims?

DHW: I’m a proponent of stereotypical Baudrillardian ethics, i.e., we live in an imploded, mediatized, hyperreal world where reality and fantasy have collapsed into one another. The news is a perfect example. “Reality” TV’s even better. They boast the real, but they only proffer a cross-section of the real, and most of what they proffer is horseshit.

More specifically to memoir, though—this form of narrative requires that you write largely by reclamation of memory, an unreliable source, to say the least. Nothing happens just as we remember it, even if we write it down, even if we record it on video. Nuances are lost. And the further we move away from an event or experience, the more we lose it. There’s also subjectivity to account for. Different people perceive things in different ways. Our multiperspectivalism inevitably undermines any effort to produce an objective “true story.” Objectivity is a myth in this respect. It’s absurd to write a memoir and call it nonfiction. It is, appropriately, the stuff of Vulgaria. Then again, usually people say their memoirs are “true stories” in order to sell them. Over 80% of books sold are nonfiction and readers want the truth even if the truth isn’t truthful. I’d say they want the truth especially when it isn’t truthful. Nature of the technocapitalist beast.

d: I found everything in the book interesting, but it does seem that the organization is kind of random. Plus, certain sections don’t seem as necessary to the plot as they could or should be, even if they do further characterize. Do you agree with these statements? If not, why?

DHW: Sure, I agree. I stylize much of my writing in a fractal, schizophrenic way. I do this partly to reflect the mental, social, ideological, metaphysical, ontological and phenomenological texture of the science fictionalized human condition. But I also do it because conventional writing formulas bore me. I’m not interested in producing nicely packaged plots with clear beginnings, middles and ends. I don’t like seamlessly round characters. I’m an experimentalist and I try to push the limits of my imagination with each new writing project.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like to tell stories. Far from it. Additionally, going back to your last question, I think the randomness of my writing approaches truthfulness more than traditional narratives, at least in terms of how the mind works. We don’t think in straight lines, after all. We think all over the place.

d: I’m fine with ambiguity, but I don’t feel I understood the reasons behind Mr. Van Trout changing his home into a farm and Mr. Blankety Blank’s serial killing, if there were concrete reasons for one, the other, or both. There certainly needn’t be as sometimes we do things for little or no reasons. Do you think this is an accurate assessment, or is it a fault in my reading?

DHW: I purposely tried to create a strong sense of ambiguity, as I do in many of my stories. At the same time, I want that ambiguity to be palpable, to be something that, while offsetting, affects readers emotionally and/or intellectually and makes them think about what they’re reading on a deeper, interpretive level.

You’re absolutely right that we do things for insignificant reasons. Aggravating minutia undoubtedly compel Rutger Van Trout. Basically he experiences a midlife crisis in which he becomes fed up with the technology of hyperbourgeois life and decides to make a literal and metaphorical shift to a more “natural” life—hence the farm, i.e., hence the replacement of hyperbourgeois space with pastoral space.

Mr. Blankety Blank, on the other hand, is not a man or a robot. He is an allegory of violence, i.e., the history of violence that over centuries has produced a cultural pathology. I imagine him as an unbound instance of the Lacanian Real, that nether-space of (non)existence that we can’t touch or obtain, but that makes the world turn. Mr. Blankety Blank is what happens when the Real (the Impossible) leaks into the real (reality).

d: What do you think is the biggest hurdle you’ve faced as a Bizarro author? Do you foresee Bizarro writing increasing in popularity—both the readership and authorship—or do you believe it will remain a small niche as it currently appears to be?

DHW: The biggest hurdle for me is empathizing with readers who have difficulty getting past the strangeness of my writing and think it’s weird for weird’s sake when it’s often ancillary to textual and thematic issues or character development. But this is my problem—compared to other fictions, readers have every right to think my shtick is peculiar.

As for the future of Bizarro, I couldn’t say. I hope it increases in popularity. Its fan base and authorship certainly seems to be growing. In the end, though, everything’s ephemeral.

d: How do you describe your writing to people who are unfamiliar with you and the genres to which you are tied?

DHW: Typically I just say I write “offbeat” fiction. I don’t try to explain irrealism or Bizarro or avant-garde or postcyperpunk or postmodern theory or meta-pulp science fiction or avant-pop or pop philosophy, all categories that my work might fall into. I tell them that they probably won’t like my writing, too, but that they should buy my books, because they have neat covers and will look good on their mantelpieces! I’m actually very proud of my book covers. I worked closely with all of the artists who illustrated them. In fact, I like my book covers better than my own writing.

decomP Editor-in-Chief Jason Jordan is a writer from New Albany, Indiana, who always says he's from Louisville, Kentucky, because people actually know where that is. His fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, VerbSap, Word Riot, and many other publications. He is currently in the MFA program at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he is working on his first novel. You can visit him at his blog.