In a culture of increasing representation, which can only be a good thing, one of the aspects of humanity rarely noticed are the truly odd. Not the those who are different because of how they vote or what they like to wear or listen to, but the organic oddballs, who are different in the most fundamental of ways – inside the head. Someone representing the weird in current year is R.E. Katz with their novella And Then The Gray Heaven.
Katz’s first work of prose after years as a poet, Heaven breaks a few narrative fiction traditions, while still remaining eminently readable and highly engaging. Split into two, nearly even, past-tense narratives, the narrator Jules Baffa tells first the tale of her long-time lover’s sudden-death and its aftermath, alternating with snippets from her past to explain how she got where she is, the two parts separated by lines in a style similar to a short-story. Direct as they are entertaining, Katz opens with a doozy of pure, dream-logic surrealism: “I married my electric dishwasher. A man with thick armhair like barbed wire came to install it in the kitchen, and I made him stay for the ceremony.” Aside from the lyrical prose, with its near rhymes and repeated vowels making the words flow, it subtly lets us into Jules’s state of mind. She is not thinking straight, her inexplicable actions easily put down to the made-sense-at-the-time logic of grief. As demonstrated by the fact things are a good deal more lucid during what constitute the flashbacks which are odd in their own way. One portion mentions how Jules officially has two official birth certificates, one stating the time as 11:59 and the other as 12:00. Prompting her to observe: “So, of course, I have always been trying to kill one of me.”
Standing out among literary protagonists, aside perhaps from those penned by Albert Camus, Jules’s reaction to life, for all the horrible things that happen to her as a queer kid growing up as a ward of the state in Florida’s Gun-and-Bible-Belt, is remarkably serene. This is partly down to a personal philosophy roughly aligned with Existentialism, in which holds that humans are being born into freedom in a world with no set meaning, any true meaning to be decided for oneself rather than coming from an external authority.
A literalist may be tempted to compare Heaven, particularly the later road trip portions, to On The Road. There are certainly elements in common with Kerouac, as well as with Charles Bukowski, another poet who also worked in prose with little use for mainstream society, but it would be to underestimate a large part of what makes Katz’s writing special. Namely its sense of tragic optimism. Not tragic in the sense of being doomed but its source of origin, Jules often able to find the bright side, and even the divine, in situations that would make most mere mortals cringe or cry. This is because she is weird, not fucked up, a distinction defined by playwright Daniel MacIvor in his one-man show House as: “you’re born weird, you get fucked up.” To be truly, organically, authentically weird, to the point that the presumptions and priorities taken for granted by the straight world – in both senses of the phrase – are at best amusing and at worst baffling to you, is the best way yet found to keep life from truly fucking you up.
Born in the far north, T.S. McNeil was attending art galleries before he could walk. Earning concurrent degrees in Art History and Political Science, he has written on Arts and Culture both in print and online since 2002, starting while still in college. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog, and firmly believes that Marie-Gabrielle Capet was criminally underrated.