Or, Saving the World, One Personal Demon at a Time
Let’s talk about magic. It’s relevant in this case and inescapable anyway. Magic is the natural byproduct of reality, the dark particle that got away but might yet be coaxed back to make things whole. Magic makes life more interesting, more convenient. It endows its practitioner with some kind of control, and so it thrives among the bored, the weary, and the nervous. The wonderful thing about magic is that it doesn’t exist except in relief against its own nonexistence. Televisions and washing machines serve the same purpose as magic and are at least as consequential, but they can be purchased with common currency; magic is as intimate and exclusive as one’s imagination. It is always out of reach of the unannointed masses and picky about who it chooses to rub the lamp. No surprise, it is everywhere nowadays, a programmable pop culture remote control for a random universe in which full employment and satisfying relationships are inextricable from the continued existence of humankind.
The protagonists in Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Weirdness (2014) and The Insides (2016), both from Melville House, are overtaken by magic not of their seeking. They prefer a world in which hard work and good choices will get you where you want to go. Hard work, though, is, well, hard, and making good choices is sometimes beyond one’s control. Except, not really.
The Weirdness opens like the shaggy dog story of a standup comedian: “Billy Ridgeway walks into a bar.” (Billy himself later attempts to improvise a Moth style routine that opens with an old joke about a man meeting his shoes in Heaven. Only the Devil laughs.) Billy’s slacker life is rambling, unfocused, even pointless, but has more of the shaggy dog in it than he knows. He’s a Hell Hound, and Lucifer has a pressing need for his special abilities. Billy must retrieve a certain waving cat or the world and everything in it will be destroyed by a bored and weary warlock, who, like many people, has spent too much time embracing inertia at Starbucks. As an added incentive, the Devil offers to get Billy’s book published. Billy knows the father of lies shouldn’t be taken at his word, but temptation is not temptation if it isn’t complicated.
Ollie Krueger, in The Insides, is well aware that using magic to get what you want involves Possible Consequences. She abandoned the little magic she knows after “nudging” from the universe all that she really wanted: family. With hard work and good decisions she built a happy life, which she then destroyed with a single bad decision the nature of which she fails to understand. Or, more to the point, she fails to try to understand, working hard not to regret, not to cast or accept blame, not to even feel the absence of her partner and young son. “You can’t fix the past,” she tells herself by way of refusing to address the future. She does not use magic to squash the universe back the way she liked it, perhaps because she has considered the Possible Consequences, perhaps because she has boxed herself into a Limbo of blinkered indecision, not able to move either forward or back.
The fate of the world is a powerful motivator, at least for Bushnell’s villains, and the world in The Insides is threatened by a pig-faced white supremacist called Pig, who is seeking a magic conquering sword, or rather shard, that Ollie’s coworker is using to butcher goats and cows and, ironically, pigs. Her suspicion that her fellow meatcutter is cheating in their friendly competitions trips Ollie into the role of world saving witch, though the importance of the shard is not known to her until fairly late in the game. She flees from her pursuers, fearful only for her life. Unaware that she cannot shake them, she changes course mid-flight from running from danger to running to the comfort of her family. Having gotten a shove from the universe, so to speak, she is at last moving, feeling her way toward fixing whatever can still be fixed. That she asks Lover No. 2 to drive her home to Lover No. 1 is a pretty clear sign that Ollie still doesn’t quite understand the good decision/bad decision thing. But she’s learning.
There is an avocado pit-sized seed of ambiguity in the conclusions of both books. The future, like the creatures that inhabit the backstage of time and space, is slippery. Billy, true to form, through all his encounters with a devil up against a deadline, has failed to make any kind of commitment, but in the end his slacker recalcitrance forces a deal from the Devil. This wolfman is no Christ figure, however; the sacrifice will fall on someone else’s plate, which Billy feels badly about, but he effectively adds it to his list of future catastrophes over which he has no “direct control,” “like global warming, or the world’s collective failure to develop a superpowered laser to blow-up giant earth-threatening asteroids.” But at least, he has taken up his cross, such as it is, and resolved to do something with it. Ollie, on the brink of moving forward, glimpses pieces of her future but is unable to construct a single narrative from the fragments. She knows only that there is a future to be built with hard work and decisions of one kind or another. She is not aware that there is another factor she has allowed to slip beyond her control.
The Inside—the backstage of time and space—is not Hell, but it has its hound. Pig employs Maja, a grim Scandinavian psychic, to track down the shard. “You make an ordinary thing magical just by paying attention to it,” she tells Pig. She has the ability to read the past—that is, the attention paid to—any object, including people. Like Ollie’s future, Pig’s past is fractured, scrambled, impossible to read. Later, Pig tells Maja, “all magic is is just working with energy. Get enough energy and you can arrange it into patterns and then you can do stuff with it….You can punch a hole in the world.” Or disarrange your life so that it makes no sense at all. Maja and Pig are coming at the same thing from different directions. Ollie demonstrates the intersection using magic to close a portal to the Inside with the energy of her mind and heart using a plastic party favor kazoo that reminds her of her son. Among the Possible Consequences, however, is the cost. Ollie immediately recognizes the exchange required to push the universe around as the cherished memento crumbles to dust in her hand. Pig is barely human, an eyeless mask, consumed by boredom and hatred. Maja has become the kind of person she herself finds the most dangerous and repulsive, one “who has done bad things, but who has done them with some degree of discomfort, who has done them knowing that they were wrong, fully anticipating to be troubled by them but electing to do them anyway, in the name of some greater good.” Neither Maja nor Pig seem to be aware that they have paid with their humanity.
The book is not titled The Inside. To get the sly hint, the reader should look at the cover and go with her gut. Yes, gut. The carcasses that Ollie carves into boutique cuts are hollow. Their insides have been removed. The yawning, cavernous hollowness of the main characters, what’s missing, what remains, what may yet fill it up, is what the book is about. The Inside, like any backstage, provides all kinds of access, including to the inner workings of the people who enter it. To Pig, the Inside is a supply closet; to Ollie, it is a shortcut. To Maja, it is a friend, the conductor through which she hears the voice of the sun and comprehends the magic of ordinary objects. Stepping through it, she is able to return to and reconstruct a fateful day, to take it back and change everything. Maybe, everything.
The current wave—the tsunami—of supernatural themed works is not surprising. Religion used to be the lens and language through which creative types examined and described human experience. Without a common Sunday School education to disseminate it, the language of Christianity has wandered off in the direction of Latin and Hebrew. The Joe DiMaggio of Hemingway and Simon & Garfunkle, for example, was a recognizable Christ figure in his day; the layers of meaning in his literary incarnation didn’t have to be explicated.
The need for a cultural iconography continues, though, and certain handy motifs have been recycled and repackaged. The Devil, especially, continues to fascinate, but not the relatively faceless biblical Satan. Bushnell’s Lucifer is a funny guy. A liar, yes, but everyone in Billy’s universe lies. Deceit and betrayal are commonplace. The Devil is a member of the club rather than its driving force. At least he has the virtue of being dapper. He knows where to get the best coffee, the best pot. He shares, and he is reasonable. Where the Devil is companionable, of course, God remains a mystery. An absence. Even a convenient whipping post. On the other hand, there is room to expand the iconographic pantheon. Bushnell’s deus ex machina descends as Krishna, Billy’s nominally Hindu best friend being the only one with the presence of mind to pray for help. Krishna’s concern, however, is strictly legal and untempered with mercy, sympathy, or a sense of right not specifically outlined in the treaty he keeps in his spiffy briefcase. Of the two supernatural beings in the room, he’s not the one you would invite to a barbecue.
Morality comes deity-free in The Insides, the systems free-standing but wobbly. Ollie, despite her fascination with magic is reluctant to use it because of her deep discomfort with cheating, yet she appropriates a bit of Buddhist wisdom to rationalize her stasis: “You don’t have to want more. You don’t need to want anything at all.” What she tells herself she doesn’t need to want is her son. Maja unambiguously declares that killing people is wrong, then threatens to raise her rates if she is going to be required to disguise her hypocrisy. She clings to a vestigial conscience, her Archive—a memorial zip file containing the package that was her brother, whom she endows with the moral virtues she excludes from her own reasoning.
The dubious names of the anti-black magic Right-Hand Path of the first book and the Righteous Hand father-son genocidal foundation of the second point to the essential nature of real evil, using the ordinary magic of the real world: words. Each group sees itself as the Right Hand of—God?—the greater good for which people imagine they are permitted to do bad things, to unleash their inner wolves? (Even the Devil complains of the sadism of the self-righteous.) They use words to cloak their intentions, to generate confusion. Words can lacerate without the burden of mass; words can heal without pills and bandages. Ollie marvels at how much personal disaster she can shove down inside herself and longs for the non-magical magic of her partner’s words, “the way he could seem to reach into her skull and help her to untangle the snarled emotions she’d jammed away in there.” Like the heroes of many novels, Billy Ridgeway is a writer. He remains vulnerable to the deceits of men and devils, as well as unpublished, until he gains control of his words, asking the questions he means to ask, saying what he thinks, confessing what he feels.
Magic as a literary device has always been more than an adolescent means of fleeing the evil of banality or giving shape to angst. Ovid, for whom Bushnell names a bar, made a lasting career of changing people into trees and birds and spiders, involuntary expressions of their individual natures. Bram Stoker proposed a human shell with an animal nature as the ultimately fearful specter, one anyone might become, if not through bat bite then through accident, disease, senility, or mental disorder. But our perspective, our worldview has changed. Are animal natures really all that bad or even very different from our own? These days, vampires argue with their girlfriends and werewolves play team sports. Billy, almost as inert as a person can be, has a killer wolf alter ego that is neither his fault nor entirely undesirable. Pig, the evilest monster of them all, is a delusional racist, a mutant selfish gene, though his choice of animal nature forecloses any possibility of readers mistaking him for a sexy beast.
Bushnell’s magic is not burdened with the YA earnestness of Pottermania or the giddy false morality of Twilight, but neither is it cynical. His humor is normalizing rather than parodic or farcical, fitting nicely with post-Potter (or more precisely, post-Sean of the Dead) domestic fantasies, such as Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Shmos have been going on magical quests since at least the Faerie Queen, but the trope has been as durable as any in literature—the path to a purposeful life choked with poppies and the miracle that makes it possible to wake up and break free. Bushnell’s heroes don’t need magic or magical universes to know what they want or even to get what they want. As in real life, they are paralyzed by self-doubt, not voodoo. To deliver the kick they need to get moving, Bushnell elevates the very real weirdness of real life with a measure of Pig’s energy. The results are engaging and hilarious but thoughtful explorations of living with one’s choices and the Possible Consequences.