“Here on the chipped wall is the five-fingered shrapnel imprint made of bits of human brain.” – Vladimir Mayakovsky, “We, Too, Want Meat” (1914)
“Art is a pharmaceutical product for imbeciles.” – Francis Picabia, “Dada Manifesto” (1920)
Natural Complexions by D. Harlan Wilson is either a collection of microfictions or a fragmentary novel. A critique of media as fever dream, complete with boldface names a la People or other supermarket check-out schlock. First, some preliminaries, to contextualize this high-concept literary experiment: D. Harlan Wilson has written an academic analysis of John Carpenter’s cult classic They Live; D. Harlan Wilson is one of the co-founders of the bizarro literature movement; D. Harlan Wilson is the Professor of English and Unit Head for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lake Campus of Wright State University. Wright State University is an institution of higher learning in Ohio. Also from Ohio: Devo, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Doris Day.
In one particularly meta microfiction, BRIAN GONKA has a dispute with his publisher Omar Sabat over the title of his trilogy of one-acts entitled Oneiricana. The dispute ends up with GONKA’s rampage and suicide. But even with this notoriety, “it boosted sales […] but not enough for the publisher to retrieve funds allocated to the book’s production and distribution, let alone generate a profit, despite considerable expenses for advertising that capitalized on the way in which BRIAN GONKA committed suicide and the ensuing spectacle of loathing and grief that swept across the nation.”
Natural Complexions is full of these miniature gems. Cynical, mostly violent, and rife with gallows humor for an age where a racist game show host can become president of the United States and mass shootings occur with a ghoulish regularity. The constant refrain of “thoughts and prayers” from legislators only proving, with unequivocal accuracy, the emptiness of the former and the uselessness of the latter. Besides, why pray when those phat NRA campaign checks keep rollin’ in? Mammon and Moloch are the real gods of the American republic. Or as A. Bauer says in the Disclaimer: “Most instances of gun violence have been omitted from the following document in an effort to approach something like diversity. Herein lies the fictional element of my project.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit to reading Natural Complexions as a novel. Wikipedia classifies the book as a “Fiction Collection,” although Wilson’s own website doesn’t address the taxonomic ambiguity directly. The only hint is his comparing the book to JG Ballard’s Atrocity Exibition. In Natural Complexions, the only through-line is a the character BRIAN GONKA (written in all-caps but never boldfaced). He turns up in all sorts of places, like participating in sex tapes and appearing as a ghost. Like Elvis, he has been in “sightings” from beyond the grave.
Another vignette involves a woman taking selfies in front of a burning house, who herself becomes a burn victim. Many of these stories, recycled or refashioned media events, and “other scraps of disposable infotainment,” reveal the strange crevices in our perception of reality. As another Wilson, Robert Anton, said: “‘Reality’ is what you get away with.” Natural Complexions is a book that illuminates our addiction to social media, news cycles replete with violence and scandal (not to inform, but to accrue advertising dollars), and the farcical idiocies of modern celebrities.
A cult leader whose message is that everyone should own a pet, himself has no pets except worms and fleas.
A letter to Anthony involving B.G.’s “need to assassinate the emotional chromosomes that usurp the inequities of crazy GQ men. […] Now the monkeys glint in the Xanax twilight.”
“Dominus Bauer is rebooted as an IRS law enforcement investigator. Dominus Bauer is rebooted as an Assistant Professor of Art History. Dominus Bauer is rebooted as a reality show cook.” Reminiscent of The Good Place and its 800+ reboots. Even the ones where Jason (the fake Buddhist monk, DJ, and criminal) “got it.”
Like flipping through TV channels or scrolling through a social media feed, Natural Complexions is a collage of atrocities, hilarity, and satire. Tonal whiplash and surrealist visions collide with tabloid garishness and perception drift.
“Are we having fun yet?” – Zippy the Pinhead