Surrealism, Burroughs and Childhood Ruination: An Interview with Garry Thomas Morse

Vancouver-based writer Garry Thomas Morse’s follow-up to Discovery Passages, a finalist for both the 2011 Governor General’s Award for Poetry and 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, is something completely different. The wild and wonderful Minor Episodes/Major Ruckus (Talonbooks, 2012) is the first in The Chaos! Quincunx series.

These two novellas are strange, surreal and totally entertaining. Fearless readers will be treated to fight scenes, sex scenes, scenes of comedy gold, scenes that make a scene and scenes on a plane. Really.

But don’t listen to me blathering on about it. Garry Thomas Morse and I spent an afternoon at Vancouver’s Railway Club, accompanied by a testosterone-infused classic rock soundtrack. I pressed Garry to talk about his influences and how his childhood was ruined by Hollywood remakes. We discuss Robert Desnos, advertising, William S. Burroughs, reality TV, Face/Off and Jessica Biel (ruiner). Read on!

The book in all its glory.

Do you want to talk about The Chaos! Quincunx novel series a bit? Give some background. Talk about where it’s going.

The first book, Minor Episodes, was based on Robert Desnos’ Liberty or Love! It’s a great surrealist, erotic book from the 1920s. And I wanted to write my own crazy take on it, set in contemporary times.

Things that happen in it are very contemporary.

The character of Minor started with all this stuff about Kierkegaard’s philosophical principle of the musical erotic in Mozart’s operas and then if that were being sold on the stock market instantaneously. And the character embodies that. If you have a precious moment to yourself, a pleasure, it gets taken away from you and at once becomes a commodity.

And advertising. He had a lot of ideas about advertising. Bibendum Michelin, the old Michelin man in France that Desnos found so devilish, used to be a hard-drinking, hard-smoking tough guy. And now he’s this little cartoon character that’s very neutered. This transition says something about the shift in the consumer’s self image and also about how that is represented in advertising.

You have a vast knowledge of pop culture and this book shows that you’re tapped in. Movies play a big role–no one could say this book is boring. It’s action packed like a Michael Bay movie. How did the movie element factor in?

I was thinking about how movies are made today and rather than writing a book to become a movie, I wanted to write a book that’s based more on how movies are made. We watch all kinds of things and absorb them, but what would it be like to read them on the page. I call it a reverse engineered graphic novel where it’s turned back into text. It’s really strange. For example, there’s an action flick chapter, based on many tropes you see in many, many action movies. Also, Minor Episodes has something of the old-timey serial matinee to it, with perpetual cliffhangers—

It’s got all the tropes.

There are people hanging off of planes, preposterous lovemaking scenes, people parachuting through the air using their highly fashionable underwear and catching up to other people.

And people’s identities are messed with.

That’s true. They use Physiognome to disguise their all too familiar body parts.

It’s like Face/Off.

I love Face/Off. I even brought my John Woo pigeons, but I parked them outside.

Where is John Woo? What happened to that guy?

I don’t know, but if someone comes into a room with a flock of rock doves, that moves me.

You bring surrealism into a contemporary context. What’s your relationship with surrealism?

In French surrealism there was this idea of rebelling against authority. At that time, as we also see in Luis Buñuel’s notorious imagery, its target was most often the church. Desnos would portray the sponge that was used on Christ as a contraceptive sponge. A lot of ways to change the symbolism and religious tropes. Advertising icons would represent the devil and the little soap brand baby, Cadum, the Christ child. This was a new way of writing about advertising and branding in the roaring ’20s.

The other thing I learned recently at the Vancouver Art Gallery during the Colour of my Dreams exhibition is that Andre Breton had a Kwakwaka’wakw headdress in his studio, an item that was confiscated from my mother’s people and relations at Alert Bay. Ever since, I’ve been trying to argue for a pre-Canadian surrealism, and for recognition of a First Nations influence on the French and their surrealist movement. The crazed emphasis on Breton and Freud visiting Canada in terms of surrealism is not entirely unlike indicating that Columbus discovered America. Surrealism was already here and in practice, only it took some madcap Parisians to wake up to it later on. For me personally these things all inter-relate. My books and interests relate to them. I’ve been mixing and matching.

I think that suits the way you’ve written the book. Combining all these elements into–I was going to call it a cohesive narrative–but it’s not really.

It’s disjunctive and fragmentary, in a cohesive sort of way.

I think this a great place to transition into Major Ruckus. I know that Williams S. Burroughs is one of your influences. Burroughs’ was the first more speculative fiction that I connected to. He was gross and funny and I loved him because he was getting away from hyperrealism, there was a rejection of that.

I have to jump on hyperrealism. At the time when Zola was writing he had a realism movement and he had many followers. All the writers were writing realism. Every book that came out was about the life of a maid or a coachman or factory life, etc. Then Joris-Karl Huysmans came out with his book Against Nature.

It’s this really cool book about this guy who’s hella rich and really decadent and he keeps doing crazy shit in his house. He’s got a turtle and he covers it in diamonds and gold and he has all these fragrances of the world brought to him and they’re all different. It was a truly original kind of book to appear at the time, one that inspired writers such as Oscar Wilde to think about conveying an aesthetic approach to life in his own writings.

I think it’s like that now. A lot of people are writing non-fiction. Or writing novels based on sensational elements in the news. I’m trying to write something different. It’s a weird space, a decadent space. Believe me, I start to feel like a complete loon, but then I read this piece on the Lemon Hound blog by That Shakespearean Rag author Steven W. Beattie, putting me in the company of Barry Webster and Pasha Malla, indicating that our newest books “are not the kinds of books that would appeal to the cozy sensibilities that seem to be driving so much of our literary culture these days.” One is relieved. One is validated. One is suddenly less alone.

The writer as author photo.

Lately, it’s one of the more dominant ideas in publishing. My approach involves genre parody. The Chaos! Quincunx goes through about five cycles, where there’s surrealism, speculative fiction, and each is a form of parody. Rogue Cells is a novel set in the post-apocalyptic state of New Haudenosaunee, about celebrity terrorists who have their own funky religions/cults. Then they fly into buildings with their planes and commit terrorist actions.

Carbon Harbour is about a reverse dystopia where everything is a green economy, but it’s horrible. People can’t get enough to eat because everything is made of bio-matter. And they revel in “pollution fantasies” and überhybridized love scenes involving plant matter and expansive aquaculture. And it’s pretty hot.

The last one is a historical, time-travel novel. And it goes through different ages. The main character is the daughter of Minor, Diminuenda Minor, and she goes to all these different places. Each chapter has a different style. There’s a number of time periods and the narrative shifts each time.

That sounds fantastic. Ok. Back to Burroughs.

He was also interested in advertising. He has this experimental film, Towers Open Fire, it’s all about conditioning through advertising and that’s something he tried to put in his writing style as well. His style of writing is something that really influenced me. He used the fold-in method, like in baking, where he would write a fragment and fold it in.

There’s something Burroughsian in your language, a depraved whimsy. There are a lot of big ideas in your work, but there’s also a reverence and a sick appreciation for the way we interact with advertising and pop culture and movies. Almost every second section in Major Ruckus there’s balls-out funny stuff. How does humour factor into your writing?

It’s a honking spanking part of it. I was inspired by Petronius, who wrote The Satyricon. At the time in Nero’s Rome, everyone was trying to meet the great ideal of the Greeks but they couldn’t. They would totes fail. They’d have a great love scene and it would turn to impotence, and they’d give the character all these treatments and remedies. It’s like today where it’s all Cialis jokes, or remedies for everything. What would it be like today, this decadent end of time. Everyone tries to meet these high ideals, but instead they flop around.

Like people in society, or people on reality shows. There’s a lack of self-awareness.

Everything is either a reality show or being filmed. There’s in fact a scene where Diminuenda and her mother are reunited on a reality show.

People are talking about being filmed, but near the end there’s also this insane fight scene that is full of everything you can imagine.

That’s from watching so many movies where it’s blatently sexualized, but just made even more ridiculous. It describes all the things you’ve seen, but all together. A fight midair in a mystery meats factory, with gravy flowing everywhere, with CGI, with creepy scenes out of Hieronymus Bosch.

It’s like a Big Brother kind of thing, like a reality TV challenge. And so much of the content is so over the top. I thought about Transformers a lot. So much big stuff is happening. There are also censors that are characters and they talk about if there is a plot and does it matter? If people are entertained it doesn’t matter.

The best way to talk about that was I once saw this thing about these Ontario porn censors. They watch everything and check to see if it’s okay for people to watch. There is a cut away during a scene of an erotic episode, brought on by a hallucinogen, where the censors ask whether there’s enough Canadian content. It’s way meta.

They’re actually based on this Ingmar Bergman film, The Rite, and in it there’s this judge and he’s a censor and he judges these three somewhat sensuous acrobats and they soon turn him on and he falls under their spell. It’s all about how he gets drawn into what they’re doing.

The censors are really secretly fascinated by what they’re supposed to be censoring.  They’re obsessed with it and they’re even more inundated with it than other people. So they have their own erotic hallucinations. Then they get advertising spots that are overtly erotic and even dangerous until they are helplessly consumed by them.

You have some strong feelings about certain people and things in the pop culture world. Detail the pop culture ruination of your childhood.

Well, it all began with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It could be almost any ’70s movie. The movie has some sort of gritty reality, it’s beautiful. The terror. An eyeball full of fear. The meat. They show you the whole cattle thing and there’s this fear about the industry. Oh, and a backward Faulkneresque family. Then they remake it and everyone looks really artificial and phoney, especially Jessica Biel. Then she was in the A-Team. One of my favourite things growing up, it made me feel good inside. They were welding, there was a song, they were trying to escape some military guy. Then they make a terrible movie and Jessica Biel is in it. And Total Recall. Everybody knows that’s been ruined. The original movie was fun, it was hilarious and it had humour and now they make a “super serious” movie. But of course, as you know, all of this is covered in my extensive treatise Entartete Kunst der Biel.

Essentially you could say that my book is the precursor to that kind of battle, or that was the precursor to my book, the sort of can’t tell them apart Jessica Biel-Kate Beckinsale battle. In the book there’s the great gravy battle scene, with two women not entirely unlike Beckinsale and Biel. So yeah, Jessica Biel ruins my life continuously by contributing with abominable vehemence and I daresay more than a hint of malice to these terrible remakes. She must wake up every morning and think how can I royally **** over Morse today?

But Kate Beckinsale didn’t really ruin your life?

Beckinsale ruined herself with surgery.

You don’t talk too much about surgery.

There is a doctor in the series, based on Burroughs’ Dr. Benway. And throughout The Chaos! Quincunx he is more or less immortal and appears all the time. He does the hallucinogens, he does he breast resets, and all kinds of enlargements, reductions, a lot of surgeries. He’s a charming fellow.

We were going to talk about RectAll.

There’s a William Gaddis novel, The Recognitions. There’s this crazy artist who forges masterpieces, and there’s a rich dude who funds all this. And he is also thinking of starting a novel factory where focus groups design the best sellers. His name is Recktall Brown. So I took that name. RectAll Unlimited is in the next book. And I wanted to create a preview.

The writer as crafter/collage artist.

You created an art piece to accompany this interview. A photograph, a collage. “Total RectAll.”

We’ll call it that. I made a helmet. And as you can see, I went over budget. So, kids, you can go to the dollar store and grab things from any section and glue or duct tape them together and make your very own Total RectAll helmet with the most tubular pancho. This brought me back to my childhood before Biel ruined it. I was a creative child.

Tell me about this.

We had no money so I would have to make my own toys. Sometimes kids at school would even buy them from me. I would build these huge superstructures. That’s the origin of Major Ruckus. I made trapdoors and dungeons.

You were telling stories in a crafty way.

Yeah, in a way, with these largegantic things I built.

Crafting is a huge culture.

Yeah, now it’s a huge market.

And your inspiration for this work also came partially from visual art?

Maybe. Though I’m more aural than visual. Voices, voices. I also owe a huge shoutout to Robert Anton Wilson, the great and ticklish thinker behind The Illuminatus! Trilogy and The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy. Also, people used to read Playboy for his articles. He passed away in 2007, but I like to imagine he would have got a giggle or two out of this series.

Who do you want to star in the movie of your series The Chaos! Quincunx?

Parker Posey. She can play all the roles. She needs a good star vehicle.

Who would make it?

I was thinking David Cronenberg, but maybe Brandon Cronenberg could do it. He made Antiviral about celebrities and viruses. I need him to make it and Parker Posey can star in it. Or Wong Kar Wai. 2046, the final installment in his filmic trilogy, is extraordinary. A guy in China in the 1960s is writing a futuristic graphic novel while attempting to recreate his true love through characters and other people around him, in Proustian fashion. Amazing!

Who’s your back-up director?

Sarah Polley. She’s a great director.

How should we end this?

We haven’t talked about Chaos!tology.

Tell me about Chaos!tology.

It’s a new way of living your life through my experimental fiction. For a nominal fee you achieve high levels of success and recognition.

That sounds exactly like Scientology.

I don’t know what you’re talking about. This interview is over.

You can follow Garry on Twitter. Minor Episodes/Major Ruckus launches September 27, at Cafe Montmartre. The book is available now. You can buy it! He has lots of other books that can/should read. C’mon. 

 

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