In an age of corporate omnipotence and adherence to formula, experimental fiction has fallen further into the gaps, obscured by the shadows of genre and ‘safe bets.’ Of the few experimental writers working today, D. Harlan Wilson embraces the shadows, creating works without pretense to genre or formulae.
Wilson eschews orthodoxy in his latest works, Battle Without Honor or Humanity Volumes 1 and 2 (also recently collected in a single volume), and produces a work both maddening and refreshingly different—and new, which is what makes these books so interesting: you’ve not encountered anything like them. As a result, you can’t approach them as traditional novels. If you do, you’ll find the experience of reading these books less than enlightening.
On its surface, Battle Without Honor or Humanity is a collection of short stories. Loosely connected, or not connected at all, they each strive to push the boundaries of fiction while underscoring points about violence, pedagogy, technology. But if you’re searching for conventional short stories, then you should look elsewhere. Wilson has created mosaics and vignettes designed to challenge the nature of algebraic storytelling. Like Naked Lunch, the pieces in these books are scenes, anecdotes, or philosophical snapshots presented, in some cases, without context. The stories are experiential in the sense that they are concerned with pulling and trapping you in specific moments in time.
The comparison to Naked Lunch is arbitrary in the sense that it serves as a useful point of reference to those familiar with William S. Burroughs’s classic book. Although Wilson doesn’t seem to draw inspiration from Burroughs—although I might be wrong—his works here do share a certain kinship, or what Ludwig Wittgenstein would have called a family resemblance. When delving into Naked Lunch, it’s critical not to approach it as a novel; instead, you should treat it as a series of vignettes and vaudeville gags. Sometimes they’re connected thematically or by recurring characters. Sometimes they’re independent; it’s not immediately certain how they fit into the greater scheme. And sometimes you wonder if there is a greater scheme. You should also refrain from reading too much into some sections. Sometimes a piece is more concerned with provoking laughter or a visceral reaction than in articulating a specific weltanschauung. Battle Without Honor or Humanity resembles Naked Lunch in those cases.
When approaching Wilson’s Battle Without Honor or Humanity, it’s important to adopt the strategy you might adopt while reading Naked Lunch. This is not a straightforward, structured narrative. It doesn’t follow the trials and travails of a single character or group of characters. It’s a fragmented journey through meaning and technology, violence and the absurdity of existence. And it’s funny as hell, which is one of the factors that make reading these books so enjoyable. Wilson is, at heart, a satirist who uses humor and his unique perception as razors slice the eyeballs of those too enamored with their perceptions to see things as they are: meaningless, absurd, irreal.
Discussing his writing in an interview with Niteblade in 2010, Wilson said, “Categories aside, I hope my writing does two main things: edify and entertain. I want people to laugh, but I also want them to think about the nature of narrative, reality, language, history and the future. Especially in my novels, where I almost invariably blend the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and film and literary theory. These speculative and critical realms were once perceived as outside the purview of basic human ontology. I believe they are at the center of twenty-first century mediatized life.”
In Battle Without Honor or Humanity, Wilson succeeds in his stated goals. He edifies and entertains. The book—whether you buy the volumes individually or collected—are worth reading twice. Once for the visceral humor, violence, and absurdity. Then re-read it closely and listen to what he’s trying to tell us about ontology and the fleeting, and often illusory, nature of meaning and reality.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.