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Matter-of-fact surrealism

I absolutely loved The People Who Watched Her Pass By, by Scott Bradfield, whose other books I am going to read right quick, and I was trying to figure out exactly why. I kept folding back the corners of pages, marking sections that especially resonated, and “matter-of-fact surrealism” was the phrase that finally came into my head.

Because the premise of this book is that this very brilliant small child, Salome Jensen, is taken from her home by the man who came to fix the water heater, and she accepts her new life without struggle or question, and in fact with great aplomb and sophistication, and the fact that her circumstances fall into the realm of the surreal detracts not in the least from the acute perceptiveness with which Bradfield evokes the way she interacts with the world. Here is a long quote from one of the pages with the turned-down corners (p. 43, for those of you following along at home) — Salome, Sal for short, is at this time in the narrative living in a laundromat:

For the first time in her life, Sal didn’t have to go looking for people, or leave them behind when they grew frivolous. Instead, people were always coming towards her and walking past as if she didn’t register, hefting lumpy pillow-cases packed with soiled linens like shabby Santas, or bearing big wicker baskets overflowing with cottony fabrics, and sloshing around primary-colored tubs of detergent and bleach. They nattered into their cell phones about personal issues or where they put the mayonnaise or when they’d catch the next bus, or peered into the USA Today crossword, or ate packaged meals from fast food restaurants laid out in their laps like road atlases. Meanwhile their anonymous children — wild, half-formed, useless, and deeply inappropriate for every worldly condition — constantly banged things for attention, or stained their faces with purple juice-like substances. They hid under chairs and benches and watched each other like wolves watching mice. But none of them possessed the intensity of wolves, or would know what to do with a mouse if they caught one.

It is that juxtaposition of utterly implausible situation with absolutely real and resonant detail that completely captures my attention and affection. If that sentence reminds you of other books I would love to know about them.


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  • Kevin Moore
    February 15, 2012 at 8:58 am

    I have been to that laundromat. Far too often.

    One reason I remain drawn to the works of Kafka and Bruno Schulz is the very matter-of-fact way they write about surreal and horrifying situations. Kafka, especially; Schulz’ prose is more poetically dream-like. Yet there isn’t a lot of characters freaking out: Gregor Samsa is certainly annoyed by his situation, but he quickly adapts to it – even enjoys it to some extent. Gabriel Garcia-Marquez learned a lot from this technique: ghosts appear in 100 Years of Solitude with little explanation, they’re just part of the story.

    None of that “Scary Door” stuff.