Absurdity is My Friend

Cover of "How to Keep Your Family Together and Still Have Fun" by Marion Leach Jacobsen.
Cover of "How to Keep Your Family Together and Still Have Fun" by Marion Leach Jacobsen.

Static is not, in the traditional sense, realistic. There are paranormal doings, absurd situations. The novel portrays a world in which it is largely taken as a given that the dead can phone the living, and in which the afterlife consists of dead souls shopping for eternity in a vast superstore filled with obsolete or otherwise discontinued items from centuries past. Clearly, I wasn’t trying to render, via prose, the world in which I live. However, I very much intended Static’s paranormal, absurd situations to give way to genuine emotional responses in the main characters—particularly in Curtis, the narrator, and in his deceased brother Wilt.

Why did I choose this method? I think it chose me. Every day I meet absurdity—on the news, in the grocery store, on YouTube, at a four-way traffic stop. I’m tempted to say that absurdity is too mundane, in fact, to be called absurd. I believe that humans are themselves absurd—sometimes lovably so, but too often, not so lovably (I find bigotry absurd, as well as the lengths people go to justify it). In Static, I tweaked the absurdity that I see daily as a way of diminishing those aspects of it that I find irksome—deflating what is anger-inducing, frustrating so as to lessen its power, render it laughable.

The best example of this might be the tertiary plot line that centers around what Curtis calls his “pseudo-siblings”—would-be adoptees his mother brings home in a misguided attempt to fill the absence left by her dead son. I got the idea from a book called How to Keep Your Family Together and Still Have Fun, published in 1972. The book is referred to in Static; Curtis’s mom consults it in the weeks following Wilt’s death. She doesn’t follow the suggestions in the actual book; she enacts a tweaked version of one. In keeping with the modus of Static, I took a suggestion from the actual book and turned up the dial on the absurd-o-meter. Here’s the text from How to Keep Your Family Together and Still Have Fun that inspired the pseudo-siblings plot line:

“Another shared project that may not properly be called a hobby but provides long-range family interest and activity is the adoption of a war orphan in Korea, Greece, or any other area where such arrangement is available. Actually this is an adoption by mail involving the sending of support money ($10-12 a month) for the care of such a child. We have thoroughly enjoyed our little Korean Boys.[…] It’s a good idea to ask for a child of the age and sex suitable for your family, and it’s more interesting if the orphan is old enough to write, provided you want to correspond. […] The orphan will treasure pictures of the sponsoring family, but it is wise to avoid telling him by picture or letter about our more elaborate way of life—house, cars, and other seeming luxuries. He will feel more at home with his adopted family if he doesn’t realize the great disparity between our way of life and his.”*

The author seems presumptuous, tone-deaf, ethnically challenged if not racist, revealing nothing so much as her condescending privilege, and reducing the horrific problem of war orphans to a pastime to be selfishly enjoyed by first-world families for their own benefit.

Curtis’s mom goes further than How to Keep Your Family Together and Still Have Fun: she literally “collects” children and brings them home. Why? Because she is that clueless about how to deal with her grief and because she is insensitive to the pain that her effort to assuage her own grief causes Curtis (to say nothing of the pseudo-siblings themselves). Curtis finds his mother’s actions ridiculous. He responds with anger toward her and yet does his compromised best to treat his new “brothers” and “sister” with the respect that all (okay, most, or at least some) people deserve.

I once considered cutting the pseudo-siblings altogether but found that without them I couldn’t get Curtis and his mother to the emotional impasse I needed them to reach: something like a misguided attempt to fill Wilt’s absence had to come between them in order for me to bring them around to a better understanding of each other.

* Jacobsen, Marion Leach. How to Keep Your Family Together and Still Have Fun (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972) 51-52.