The Death of the Absurd?

November 24, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 27 4 min read

coverIn “Where We Must Be,” the first story of Laura van den Berg’s debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a young woman, Jean, is driving north to Washington. After a wasted summer in Los Angeles, during which she failed to find acting work, she passes through one of the redwood forests in Northern California. A sign beside the road advertises, “Actors wanted,” so she leaves the highway and follows a dirt road. Stationed in the cul de sac is a mobile home that functions as an office for a man who arranges “encounters.” Tourists from around the country, Jean discovers, are willing to pay for the opportunity to get chased through the woods by Bigfoot. In a moment of desperation and humiliation, she auditions, stomping around the trailer in costume, “bellowing and shaking [her] arms.” The man hires her immediately.

cover“Where We Must Be,” like most of the stories in this collection, concerns a folkloric animal. The protagonists, or their loved ones, are obsessed with these monsters—the Amazon’s mapinguari, Lake Michigan’s mishegenabeg, the Congo’s mokele-mbebe—but no beasts manifest physically. We see Bigfoot, but only as a costume worn by an actor. Unlike Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, where humans interact with bizarre creatures in an otherwise literary setting, van den Berg’s freshman effort is far from a fantastical work, indexing fabulism without ever adopting its tropes completely. And this peripheral treatment of the absurd may signal a change in contemporary letters.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline arguably borrowed an aesthetic engendered by Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo (or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for that matter), but George Saunders’ 1997 collection repopularized the critical viability of comic fabulism in the 21st Century, setting off a string of imitators. And though there are some young, stalwart realists—Jhumpa Lahiri, and more recently, Josh Weil—for ten years the lion’s share of new books getting buzz in the literary circles have contained something outlandish. Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude has flying children; Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned features vikings.

There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with the fabulist trend. But in practice, a lot of the work that falls into the post-modern, ironic sub-genre lacks real weight. Simply being clever is no doubt easier than balancing ingenuity with pathos. Shakespeare’s jokes released tension, but he didn’t found his plays on them. At her best, Laura van den Berg manages to establish an equilibrium between concept and poignancy. It doesn’t appear she trained to be a realist—there aren’t a lot of camps instructing such writers these days—but she may end up a champion of the movement.

There are certainly times when What the World seems structurally transparent. Van den Berg is a well-disciplined storyteller, but in some of the stories the sum of the parts isn’t much more than the sum of the parts. She always introduces her conflict early, then provides a subplot, an accessible over-arching metaphor, and finally a turn. But in “We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life,” for instance, about a young woman working in a Manhattan mask store and sleeping with her married boss, the various planks get hammered into place but the surface doesn’t feel sanded. There’s something inorganic about the unfolding of the narrative, as if van den Berg were a politician delivering her catch phrases from the stump; she’s on message, but the tenor of the delivery lacks passion.

On the other hand, “The Rain Season,” about a woman who retreats to Africa after her house burns down in Chicago, borders on masterful. “The Rain Season” is one of six stories featuring monsters—in this case mokele-mbebe, the amphibious African jungle reptile descended, as legend has it, from the sauropod family. In the village where the narrator teaches, the monsoon season is impending, and so is civil war. The townspeople spread the rumor that mokele-mbebe has left the forest and killed a farmer, and in deference to tradition, draw the monster’s image in the soil to ward off additional invasions.

coverVan den Berg does nothing specifically to exoticize the setting, but even in a book by a native African, like Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, the sections of the continent ravaged by disease and violence are the ideal breeding grounds for magic. When the hills are full of rebel soldiers who loot, rape, and kill indiscriminately, why shouldn’t the jungle contain a creature with the head of a hippopotamus that devours children? Yet in “The Rain Season,” mokele-mbebe is not a distraction from the human story. Rather the legend is a cultural articulation of fear, and the way van den Berg handles the relationship between fable and fact is pitch perfect. In a collection that can feel at times numbed by grief and loss, “The Rain Season” rises above distress, even approaching sentimentality. Normally I’d be opposed to a story at whose core are piteous children (“The Rain Season” contains a near saccharine scene: a semi-orphaned student gives his teacher a beautiful, handmade object), but as a counterpoint to the tragedy encapsulating the rest of the tale, a little maudlin gauze feels not just permissible, but necessary.

Before the book’s release, Barnes & Noble chose What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us for its “Discover Great New Writers” series. Undoubtedly, this is a boon for Ms. van den Berg. But more importantly, if her collection continues to gain traction, realism and sincerity, like some rough beast borne on slow thighs, may have finally reemerged from the forest. Van den Berg is writing a novel, now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in that book she discards the surreal elements altogether. She doesn’t need them.

is the author of the novel, We're Getting On, and the co-writer of the award-winning true crime podcast, Leonard: Political Prisoner, about the wrongful conviction of Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier.  More at


  1. I don’t want to start an argument about taste – but I think its a little simplistic to group “realism” and “sincerity” the way James does in the final paragraph.

    This is a beautiful written defense of realism in buzzed-about literature, and I’m biased because I enjoy the absurd in my literature, but I think that a book can be sincere while also reveling in absurdity. Atmospheric Disturbances was both sincere and absurd, for example. As was Fortress of Solitude.

    Perhaps Van den Berg doesn’t need absurdity in her own writing – that’s a different matter all together – but that doesn’t mean that Fortress of Solitude suffered as a result of it’s flying children.

    I don’t mean to imply that realism doesn’t have its place (I love Marilynne Robinson, for example) or that it doesn’t deserve a resurgence, I would just rather it come without having to dance on the grave of absurdism.

  2. Catie, I think that fabulism most certainly has a place in contemporary literature. Even if it didn’t sound like it in my review, I love Saunders, and his work influenced me up through grad school. My concern is simply that absurdism has become a trend, and some of the new practitioners are using “the fantastic” as a crutch. It’s difficult, as I’m sure you know, to write a moving story, and I think a lot of young writers are discarding emotion for flair. As I wrote above, it isn’t easy to be clever, but it’s harder to stop a reader’s heart with your prose. If you can do both I think you win the Nobel Prize. Or at least you get into Best American Short Stories.

  3. I thought this was sort of pompous, condescending, and dismissive while trying to seem fairminded and positive. It seems like the review writer has an axe to grind, and he didn’t so much review the book as, well, grind on it. (Is that a felony?)

  4. actually (and i say this fully aware that i am at risk of betraying the tenor of the discussion in place so far) i had similar sentiments to a few of the pieces, including “where we must be.” but, i do think the reviewer’s final statement strikes at the ineffable charm of laura’s writing because there truly is something she’s doing right that is tied to voice and theme and tone that certain other elements of the work often very nearly detract from, but never quite manage to. like that sprig of greens on a plate of food that may or may not be meant as part of the presentation only.

    having said all of that, i find laura’s your work enchanting, solid, engaging, and worth the praise it’s received.

  5. I do hope it didn’t look like I had an axe to grind. I thought the praiseworthy stories in the book far outweighed the ones that didn’t hit home for me. I only had 1,000 words, though, so I had to contextualize, critique, and praise in the allotted space. In a piece twice as long I would’ve discussed “Inverness” and the title story, both of which I really loved.

  6. A cogent, well-argued review, in my opinion. I thought it was clear that Kaelan celebrated the work of Saunders, and that he’s not against the absurd in literature. Thanks for a thoughtful piece!

  7. No doubt it’s difficult to do anything meaningful in 1,000 words. I thought the review was more interested in doing something it’s near-impossible to do in 1,000 words, which is to make a big capital-S statement about the state of short fiction, instead of doing what a review could do in 1,000 words, which is describe what the writer is up to in a particular book, and talk about whether or not the book is up to the task, and whether or not the book succeeds on its own terms. I don’t think a debut book of stories from a small press, even a very good one like Laura’s, qualifies as the bellwether for the forward motion of short fiction and its marketplace reception, and it’s a disservice to such a book to spend limited review space talking about things so far outside the scope of the book itself.

    It’s not that your thesis is indefensible or uninteresting or that there’s not a place for it in the marketplace of ideas. It’s just that you’re shotgunning in a form (the 1,000 word review) that requires a rifleshot singularity.

  8. though you are absolutely right, kyle, that this is discussion that reaches far beyond what could be accomplished in 1000 words, perhaps it does speak to james’s overall feeling for the collection. the fact that he could posit the assumption in the first place i think speaks to something, those who both like and dislike the work, we have all felt that laura, or the thing that laura is doing is somehow tied to the rise of something that we all have been trying to name, in the ever waning postmodern influence in new literature.

  9. Kyle, that’s totally fair. But since it is a new book by a new author from a new press, and potentially a significant debut at that, I wanted to place the book in the larger context of new fiction. You’re right, I could’ve focused on the book without indexing trends, but the thing that struck me about Laura’s book is that it seems to be moving in a new direction from a lot of the fabulist work preceding it. Anyway, I discussed 3 stories specifically. If your objections are to my negative criticism of “Fabulous Life,” then that’s just a matter of taste. I think Laura is at the forefront of a new movement. If that isn’t an endorsement of the book, I don’t know what is.

  10. Your description of Karen Russell’s work put me in mind of Rebecca Curtis’ Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money. Curtis too invokes fantastical creatures in several stories with otherwise rather mundane settings and situations–“Monsters” and I think another was called “The Wolf at the Door.”

    I am not sure, though, that I think fantasy and the absurd are interchangeable. Beckett, for example, is absurd, but I don’t think anyone would call his work fantasy.

  11. post noted emily. the term absurd does, in it’s origins invoke a specific school, though i think it contemporaneously has more liberal usage and tends to lean toward anything “fantastical.” perhaps kaelan’s use of the word is to speak of a broader, less specific degradation of post modern influences than it is to liken laura to the absurdists specifically. though there is a hint of pirandello in laura’s sentiment toward her characters . . .

  12. I’d have to agree with Edan when she said that the review made me want to pick up van den Berg’s collection.

    I hope you didn’t think I was slamming you James – my only complaint was with that one line in the final paragraph.

    I think that contextualizing a new work in literary movements is possible – I also like that a discussion has started up based on the article. I think that speaks to the quality of the writing. After reading these comments I feel that the message of the piece is a little more flushed out for me – though I still have problems with that one line.

  13. It seems worth pointing out here that Wells Towers’s collection only has one story, his first one published I believe, with vikings or anything similar in it. The bulk of the stories are the kind of the realism that you seem to be looking for. I really don’t think the one story with vikings had anything to do with the buzz around Towers, indeed it was often described as his worst story in reviews (something I disagree with.)

    I don’t want to turn a review of Ms. van der Berg’s collection into a big debate on realism, but I must say I find the idea that realism has been in hiding, relegated to the forest while post-modernism and fabulism run rampant in the literary world to be pretty weird considering realism has always been the dominant trend that gets taught the most, critiqued the most and praised the most in your standard literary circles. You must not read the same publications or hear about the same awards that I do.

    I might also argue it is harder to be truly clever than to be melodramatic, but then it sounds like I’m talking about Laura van der Berg which I am decidedly not. I say hurray for Laura’s book and hurray for absurdism both.

  14. Lincoln, I would agree that realists are, over the wider spectrum of literary fiction, the dominant voice. Fabulists aren’t winning the National Book Award (McCann is a realist, if I’m going to lable him). I’m talking about the new generation of writers, whose first books came out in the 21st Century, or on the cusp of it. Safran Foer might not qualify exactly, but I’d say Lethem and Chabon both do–even if Chabon most recently is a revisionist historian. The “hip” young writers, in my experience, have come of age during the reign of McSweeney’s, and though I love that house, and though I liked the title story from Tower’s collection the best, I think the Teens will be a decade when young writers have fewer flying protagonists. I guess I think that has the potential to be a good thing, but that’s certainly a matter of taste.

  15. Hey James,

    Matters of taste aside, I’m still not sure I’d agree with you.

    Yes, it is true that weirder/fabulist/genreish writing has gotten a boost in literary circles over recent history. But is is still absolutely the minority. Saunders, Chabon and Lethem are the exceptions I think, not the rule. Even with those types of authors, it is often their more realist work that gets lauded or buzz. For example Lethem broke through with Motherless Brooklyn, his sixth book after a bunch of fairly crazy ones. I think if you went around to MFA programs while you would see a lot of Saunders influence the overwhelming trend would be realism (as it always has been) and if you went through all the big literary magazines the same would be true with the possible exception of McSweeney’s. Even there I wonder if you counted up the stories a majority would really be non-realist.

  16. while i don’t agree that absurdism, magical realism, irrealism, or whatever appellation you prefer has been dominating american short fiction, particularly in the past few decades, i do agree that there are a slew of young writers who i feel are using it, the same way one uses violence or overt sexuality, as a crutch. when i’m recommended the books of kevin wilson or michael czyzniejewski because they get compared to the work of donald barthelme, i want to cut my left hand off. for a lot of these new writers absurdism or irrealism is a crutch. if you take that singular element out of their stories, the stories unfold in the same way a realist story would and the overarching plot structure works in that outmoded post-chekhovian, freytag triangle-based way. also, most of the authors aren’t doing the sentence-level work of a barth, barthelme or cortazar. what is most frustrating is that we have such a rich history in american fiction that at one point, we were the dominant, for lack of a better term, experimentalists in fiction. think of barthelme, barth, gaddis, gass, pynchon, coover, etc. their work was based around ideas whereas now when you read about a talking tree it’s most likely a talking tree that could’ve been left on the editing room floor and no one would’ve been the wiser.

  17. To Jude and Lincoln, I think Jude encapsulates my point well in her comment. Certainly realism is the dominant mode, but to take an example from another medium, just because a lot of movies aren’t based on comic books these days doesn’t mean a slew of studios haven’t put out comic book-derived films. Like comic book pictures, a horde of burgeoning writers have embraced absurdism/fabulism/surrealism. Such experimental works might make up 10% of the books published (an absolutely random guess), but their influence seems disproportional. As an editor of a publishing company, I see a lot of fabulist submissions. Accordingly, I’ve published a lot of fabulism, much of which I think is very good. But the absurdist work I haven’t accepted relies on smoke and mirrors–as Jude pointed out–to achieve a false emotional impact, or worse yet, no emotional impact whatsoever. My hope is that Laura’s collection signals a move away from insincere fantasy that parades itself as clever literature. The ability to write successful experimental fiction is something an author earns later in a career, after he or she has mastered the traditional form. It’s hard to write a classically structured, realistic story that surprises and cripples a reader. Cheever did write “The Enormous Radio” early in his career, and it’s a grand story, but it doesn’t beat “Goodbye, My Brother” or “O Youth and Beauty!” in my book.

    Cheever didn’t experiment with reality again until “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.” That story was pseudo-Borgesian (think “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) and largely a failure on both a conceptual and emotional level. Only “The Swimmer” both breaks down the walls of realism and hits the reader over the head with authentic dread and loss. The young Cheever couldn’t have written “The Swimmer,” I’d venture to say. “The Enormous Radio,” as impactful as it is, doesn’t demonstrate the same complexity of feeling as that late masterpiece in which Ned Merrill swims across the county.

    I’m not saying that new writers shouldn’t read experimental work–far from it–but emulating it too early, without understanding the foundation of good fiction, leads to insincerity.

  18. Hi James,

    I like this conversation, I think it is an important one to have these days, though I guess this page will disappear from the front of The Millions soon. And I like what you guys do at Flatmancrooked, so I hope I don’t sound like a grump here. I just really tend to disagree with most of what you are saying and find the conversation worthwhile.

    I do think that non-realism has been a bit more popular recently, I guess what I was objecting to was your claim that the “lion’s share of of new books getting buzz” has been non-realism. I don’t think that as true, as stated.

    I certainly agree that most non-realism is contrived and achieves at best a false emotional impact and normally no impact. I also think the same is true of most realism. Most work out there isn’t that great. Personally, as a reader and editor, I haven’t noticed realism or non-realism standing out as particularly more prone to a lack of impact (emotional or otherwise) but that is just me.

    Perhaps we are just coming from totally different points of view though, as I don’t get the idea that “realism” is “the traditional form” of fiction. To me, that seems like calling impressionism the traditional form of painting or the heavy metal ballad the traditional form of rock music. Our early forms of literature seem like mythologies and fairy tales. I wouldn’t call Shakespeare realism. Early milestone novels like Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost and so on are not realism. What we think of realism is really a pretty recent trend, and even since it came about there have been plenty of equally popular styles that were not realism.

    What I truly don’t understand is the idea that experimenting with reality is not something one should do until later in the career or that experimental or non-real fiction is never successful until late in a career. I can’t say I see any evidence of this at all. Calvino wrote fables and experiments from the very start, and much of his early work is fantastic. Kafka, David Foster Wallace, Marquez, Barthelme, George Saunders… one could go on and on. These authors did not wait until late in their career to do something other than realism and thank god, we would have missed out on some great work! Maybe those authors got better with time, but ditto for most realist writers.

    Yes it is hard to cripple a reader with weak surrealism or weak magical realism or what not, but isn’t it equally hard to cripple a reader with weak realism?

  19. yes, i don’t agree with the idea that one must wait until later in his or her career to “experiment” with new forms or concepts. rather, i was trying to get at the idea that unlike someone like cheever who was trying to experiment in a style outside of his own, there are people who can only write in a surrealist/irrealist/fabulist way. it’s not a matter of trying something out, it’s simply their perspective. when it becomes weak and silly, it’s usually because someone is “trying something new” whereas those who must write that way imbue the work with a sense that if you were to take those non-realist elements out, the work would crumble. it’s not a crutch, it’s a backbone. ben marcus, cortazar, barthelme, etc. to say dfw is fantastic is misleading, but you get the idea.

  20. I didn’t say DFW was fantastic, I meant he was “experimental,” a term James used. DFW as not really a realist and he was certainly experimental. Not someone who spent his early lfie mastering the Chekov-Carver classic domestic realist story then later in life started experimenting, right?

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