All this week on Weird Fiction Review, we have something special planned: we are featuring and examining the work of Eric Basso, an innovator and great writer and artist.
Readers of the anthology that inspired this site, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, will recall Basso’s story from that collection, “The Beak Doctor.” It is a masterpiece of a story, but it is not the extent of Basso’s literary output. He has a novel, a drama trilogy, a complete collection of his short plays, another longer play, a book of short fiction, and seven different collections of poetry, as well as a collection of critical writing and a dream journal. His work has appeared in journals and publications such as the Chicago Review, Bakunin, Fiction International, Exquisite Corpse, Collages & Bricolages, and many others.
Basso’s achievements are impressive in all regards. He has produced significant work in every possible genre I can think of (nonfiction, fiction, drama, poetry) and some I don’t see often enough to think of regularly (a book of dreams). As a writer myself, I’m staggered (and a bit intimidated) by what he’s done! It’s even more staggering when I do the math: it is currently 2012; Basso’s published literary work technically dates back to 1966, counting the start date of Revagations, the first volume of his dream journal. For 46 years, Basso has been producing some of the most challenging, innovative writing in the literary world. This is all the more noteworthy considering that Basso is a self-trained writer, as voracious in his reading as he is varied and impressive in his creative output.
And yet, Basso has not reached a level of exposure befitting a writer of his talent, a huge reason why we wanted to have a week devoted to his work in the first place.
Many of you reading this right now may well be Basso neophytes, or soon-to-be neophytes (I certainly hope for the latter). I was a Basso neophyte until recently myself; I discovered him through his story included in ODD? Volume 1, “Logues,” before acquiring a copy of his fiction collection, The Beak Doctor. In the spirit of luring more of you toward his work, I’ll offer a few of my own impressions.
His writing is disorienting; it constantly challenges the solidity of the ground on which I stand while I read it. It limits and calls into question my perception of the world around me, both figuratively and literally. I’m reminded of “The Beak Doctor” here, and how the deep fog that fills the nameless city limits the good doctor of the title to a viewing field of not even a few feet in front of his face, forcing him to rely on a mental map to navigate the city. Sometimes, that map fails him, suggesting a changed landscape he may never get to fully verify. This is a potent reminder that we constantly negotiate the essence of the world around us through our perceptions, and when those perceptions are thrown askew, as Basso ably demonstrates, the world becomes very Weird indeed.
His writing is marked by a quality I would label as simultaneity. Oftentimes within even the same paragraph, there are details and cues suggesting actions taking places at different levels of action, possibly even in different locations. It is left up to the reader to try and maintain the order of events while they read his writing. More often than not, typical conceptions of time and causality cannot be taken as givens. His stories sometimes feature fragmented or multiple perspectives, not so much competing with each other as overlapping each other with jigsawed edges. These perspectives are often presented on equal grounds, with no inherent supremacy given to any of them, so they must be taken in full, alongside each other.
It is easy to detect within Basso’s writing touches of the surreal, the gothic, the Weird (of course), and the visionary. I see within little moments like “The Rhomb,” a vignette within “Logues,” a probing of reality: a man holds a rhombus in his hand; he is told that if he turns it over, it will disappear; he fears this, but he has to know if it is true anyway. That possibly self-annihilating curiosity with reality lurks at the heart of much that Basso writes, as those who read his essay “Annihilation” (to be posted later this week) will find out.
Last but not least, Eric Basso made me a better reader for having encountered his work, spurring me toward an evolution in my reading methodology. I haven’t felt this changed by reading something in a long time. My interactions with other stories will now be influenced by my reading of “The Beak Doctor” and what else I have read of Basso’s work.
I’m excited about what’s to come this week. We have a little bit of everything: some of his fiction, one of his most noted essays, a selection of his poetry, an interview with the man himself, and some excellent essays providing close readings of his material. And, when the week is said and done, hopefully you’ll go out to pursue your own copies of some of his works and conduct some readings of your own.