The power of the human imagination lies not in its ability to represent events but in its ability to exaggerate them. Such exaggerations give birth to absurdity, which, when properly executed, reflects culture and the human condition more honestly than mimesis.
In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, Ben Arzate serves us a melange or absurd people and scenarios in fragmented, or cartoonish, plates. When taken together, the sum of absurd representations exceeds the parts.
In this brief collection of short stories, featuring some as short as a few paragraphs or even sentences, Arzate introduces us to gloriously strange and absurd universes. That they reflect our universe might go unnoticed if we focus solely on individual stories.
The psychology of a man refusing to wear anything other than a diving suit, the chance interactions between people and their environments, the anthropomorphic reimagining of inanimate objects—Arzate’s stories create an accumulative effect: they exaggerate our universe and the human condition to underscore the inherent absurdity of existence.
In reading the stories, we can choose to examine the implications of absurdity or we can take each story at face value. The simplicity of the prose—terse, unpolished, colloquial—betrays a subtlety of tone.
Despite the unnatural elements of the stories, each affects a tone reminiscent of naturalist writers. The effect pushes the stories into our psyches, allowing us to consume them as entertainment while acknowledging, or choosing to overlook, absurdities inherent in our world.
Six packs of sodas appear in stores. No one knows who manufactures and distributes them, no one knows how they landed on shelves, and no one can predict the effects of opening a bottle. Some bottles satisfy peoples’ thirst while others prove catastrophic. A family must come to terms with their decrepit house, recently diagnosed with cancer. Alone in a cabin, a war criminal questions his reflection while coming to terms with war crimes he’s committed. Or, we should say, his reflection questions and judges him.
When taken in isolation, the stories convey an idiosyncratic sense of humor and the absurd. Here, Arzate’s imagination excels. His knack for extravagant absurdities, and the strangeness of daily life, rarely fails to entertain.
This books strength, however, lies in the cumulative effects we mentioned above. The pieces stack up into a pyramid of serendipity and bafflement. We’re too often beholden to outside forces or to psychological elements over which we exert little control.
Events we can’t understand, sometimes orchestrated by people we can’t see or don’t know, frequently dictates our behavior. Rules and norms discourage writers from creating characters controlled by events. Instead, we as readers find characters willing to take the initiative to overcome situations as more powerful or endearing.
Yet in our lives, we often succumb to unseen powers pulling our strings. Our resulting actions sometimes confuse even us. The power of absurdity lies not in its creative ingenuity but in its frustration with the psychology of determinism.
Despite our best efforts, and occasional delusions, we’re not always in control of our lives, even when we’re simultaneously fabricating authorship. If pressed, we might find ourselves at a loss to describe something more absurd than existence.
Uncomfortable truths emerge when we take this collection as a whole. Viewing The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye in this light underscores the importance of absurdity in revealing the confusion of the human condition, the world, the universe.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye
Daulton Dickey is a surrealist currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, Bastard Virtues, a novel, Flesh Made World. Contact him at lostitfunhouse [at] gmail [dot] com