The Weirdness left me unavoidably torn.
On the one hand, a part of me craves a generation-defining, society-skewering comic novel à la The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or A Confederacy of Dunces, which The Weirdness definitely tries to ape. On the other, the text of this particular book presented some good ideas, lost in a muddle of clichés and hoity-toity potshots. Author Jeremy Bushnell’s story only fitfully engages … but doesn’t entirely discourage.
Thirty-year-old Billy Ridgeway, a frustrated would-be writer slinging sandwiches in Manhattan, begins a strange odyssey one day when he starts to disassociate from things. He annoys his best friend Anil by asking questions about how New Yorkers can have bananas year round when bananas don’t grow anywhere near Manhattan. Anil scoffs and tells his friend, in one of those page-three sentences a little too heavy with foreshadowing, “… the shit that happens to you is not weird.”
It won’t be that way for long. While streaming episodes of a supernatural cop show off the Internet, keeping the peace with his girlfriend Denver and finding excuses to put off doing any writing, Billy mopes his way through life until a jolting encounter with Lucifer Morningstar, the “Judeo-Christian Devil.” One morning this “adversarial manifestation” simply appears in Billy’s apartment and drafts him into a mission to recover an important artifact from a warlock named Timothy Ollard, who resides in an evil magical tower nestled in Brooklyn.
The “contemporary meeting with a modern-day version of Satan” trope feels highly familiar, but Bushnell tries to avoid cliché by presenting this Prince of Darkness as an unassuming bald dude unusually interested in coffee and Powerpoint presentations. (“He’s got probably a day’s worth of stubble but it’s clearly part of his overall look,” the narrator tells us.) All the same, this Devil means business: Ollard needs to be stopped, because his device, which resembles a common Chinese cat figurine, actually houses a source of energy so dangerous it could destroy the world.
To fulfill his destiny, Billy must accomplish the usual laundry list of heroic tasks: Reconcile with girlfriend. Stop bad guy. Thwart evil plot. Recover McGuffin. Scoring a book deal along the way wouldn’t hurt.
Bushnell clearly loves his skewed vision of the world and wants to share it, sort of Harry Potter meets Christopher Moore via The Big Lebowski, a mix of jokes about Proust and Hemingway with urban fantasy sequences involving magical wards, secret occult societies, curses and hell beasts. Cool as all this sounds, we find in it a cast of characters that is just too extensive, with only some that directly contribute to the plot.
One of the most interesting, a wry poet nicknamed The Ghoul, breaks stereotypes by being literary and technologically savvy (a combination we rarely see in any medium). Anil and Billy mostly like The Ghoul, because he’s the most “professional” of the three and grants them access to the fun parts of being a writer (i.e. getting wasted with HarperCollins editors) without having to do any of the work. Too bad he goes missing for most of the book’s second half.
Much of The Weirdness centers on this satirical portrait of the millennial literary scene in New York. (Is it derived from real-life battle scars?) Parts of this send-up, such as the description of the stereotypical, sing-songy “Poetry Voice” or the parody of self-righteous online critics, are true-to-life and quite funny.
But because the book takes the insular world of wannabe writers seriously enough to be worthy of satire in the first place, this material may already read like inside baseball to those who can’t sympathize with the plight of a David Foster Wallace-wannabe getting butterflies before the big coffee house reading. Even in a satirical fantasy, it’s hard to swallow details like a literary blog named Bladed Hyacinth, of which the narrator notes, “… if [it] says you’re over, you’re over.”
All of the wacky characters give the book a little flabbiness, even in a novel shorter than 300 pages. Part of the issue turns out to be Ollard, who, when we finally meet him, simply isn’t compelling as a villain and doesn’t amount to much more than a pile of “I want to watch the world burn” clichés.
Bushnell’s two main female characters pose a larger problem. They fall a little uncomfortably into tired “good girl/bad girl” tropes even while we can feel the author sweating to be more inclusive. (Billy’s sword-wielding medievalist mother sounds awesome, but she’s dead before any of the action takes place.) Despite Bushnell’s best efforts, the character of Denver, Billy’s filmmaker girlfriend, ends up being this story’s version of “the love interest.” She remains ethereal for most of the action, though she does step in at a climactic moment.
At least the “bad girl,” bisexual punk/hipster poet Elisa Mastic, gets more to do. She even calls Billy out on his bullshit in a speech that hammers home the novel’s theme of the badness (or perhaps the “weirdness”) lurking inside seemingly innocent puppy-dog liberal arts kids:
What I’m trying to say, Billy, is you seem like a gentle guy, a peaceful guy, a real nice guy, and I think you’ve worked hard to come across that way, but I think there’s a part of you, and maybe it’s part that you don’t look at that closely, that wants to be powerful and doesn’t give a good goddamn about anything else.
This bit alone suggests that Bushnell has a sense of where the beta males of his stunted generation stand—in denial. This could have been developed more into a welcome critique of male privilege. Instead it’s just there, in-between the magical battles and demonic shenanigans.
Elisa does possess some of the best scenes of the novel, including one haunting monologue about her own dalliance with inner evil. But Bushnell also adds a moment where Billy shamelessly ogles her ass, and it’s played in a depressingly straight “boys will be boys” fashion. That might have worked with a different tone—here it just comes off as creepy.
Reviews like this make me feel a bit like one of the book’s antagonists, the snotty online critic Anton Cirrus. To be fair, The Weirdness’ readability helps grant it some charm, and the flippant, cocksure prose moves quickly once all the characters start bouncing off one another and revealing bizarre things. The contrast between overly specific, verbose language with terse sentences like “They roll up to HQ” provokes a few chuckles. If the jokes were sharper, the pace tighter, the personalities more finely drawn, this might have been a fun, snarky, satirical romp.
We will almost certainly hear more from Bushnell, and not just because he chooses to end the book with an obvious setup for a sequel. It could be a sign of arrogance, but I prefer to think that he leaves himself room to grow.
I just hope he grows less clever and more interesting.
W.A. Hughes is a writer and blogger based in Boston.