“Pedaling Through the Paleolithic” Podcast Commentary (+ New Links)

Podshow Mp3 podcast link Pedaling Through the Paleolithic. Odeo MP3 podcast link: Pedaling Through the Paleolithic .

This is another story I wrote while suffering from Reality during our slowly evaporating (maybe) era of Unreality. I’m not just being cute about it; I know that I had to see a doctor to address my symptoms (insomnia), and the doctor mentioned the number of patients he was then seeing expressing similar symptoms and causes. Humor does help; a sense of incongruity, omnipresent among many, lends half a joke already. But, an absurd Colossus of Rhodes, our incongruity’s ungainly straddle has its other foot planted in the surreal. Weird times! Weird times.

This story, “Pedaling through the Paleolithic”, took many drafts to write. I was trying to make a magazine deadline, and kept sending drafts to the illustrator, my colleague and friend Neal Skorpen. And then a little later I’d send him a heavily changed draft, saying, “Sorry, bud!” I did this several times, cringing. Finally I just asked him to illustrate the general idea until I figured out how I wanted to treat it.

The story is a few years old. It’s already clearly dated by the reference to canceled TV shows.

One influence on the story is Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. In that story, the narrator learns that people are turning into Rhinos. This surreal story seems to catch at an element theme, as broad and potent as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. However, Ionesco’s work has humor, a big difference. (The movie version is readily available, starring Gene Wilder.) I don’t know that Rhinoceros is ‘about’ anything. A lot of 20th century events could have generally inspired it, such the experience between French citizens in Vichy France. The idea “everyone is changing but me” may attack some kind of primal survival fear. Dream paranoia is a major force behind a lot of surrealism. You can see it quietly suggested in the long shadows of De Chirico‘s paintings. A more direct example of potent surrealist paranoia is the 1955 movie Les Diaboliques. There are a lot of movies with this sort of paranoid transformation, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A version of this is the common paranoid plot “something is happening and I’m the only one who knows”.

In addition to Rhinosaurus, another influence on my “Pedaling/Paleolithic” is the story “Pkhentz” by Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky). Tertz was a Russian fabulist in the tradition going back to ETA Hoffmann. From Hoffmann to Gogol, to Zamyatin, Bulgakov, to Sinyavsky-Tertz, and now, a writer one year older than me, Pelevin. There are others, but these are the ones I think of the most, and influence me. I am not trying to inflate myself by association with these celebrated writers, but to explain my thoughts.

I had trouble drafting my “Pedaling/Paleolithic” story as I tried to find the balance between humorous incongruity and surreal incongruity. Usually I seek the humor and stay away from the surreal. But I wanted this one to be different.

In Zamyatin’s story “Pkhentz”, we slowly learn that the narrator, an ailing, depressed Soviet citizen, is actually an alien who crash-landed in Russia, who adopted rudimentary human disguise to live a dreary Soviet life. The creature is slowly dying, and always afraid of discovery. Soon, exhausted by the dreary, basic efforts to survive, he decides to give up his efforts. I take this as an inspired, albeit depressing, description, of life as an independent-minded literary intellectual . Tertz-Sinyavksy passed samizdat literature to the West, and went to the gulag for it in a landmark case helping mark the close of the Kruschev era’s hints of openness. On they marched toward bold Breshnev stagnation; eventually Tertz survived the gulag and emigrated to France.

It’s quite strange to go through this era of official Unreality, falsehoods defended by power and tribal emotions. This normality is not normal, and we suffer for it in many ways…

It’s a potent subject to examine with art. It’s an opportunity to try to write about using the surreal and humor to record our bizarre bad times and try to keep hold of health and sanity.

If you listen to my podcast, maybe you can tell–I enjoyed my pseudo-Neanderthal grunting, and it comes naturally.

Incidentally, in the late 1980s, maybe 1988, I met a Soviet poet on an official anti-nuke cultural tour of the USA. I found out about it because I was a member of the National Writers’ Union, although certainly its most pathetic and ridiculous member. Anyway, I met her (I don’t recall her name, unfortunately) at a beautiful house facing one of the small lakes in Minneapolis, perhaps it was Lake of the Isles. She spoke some English. It was the amazing era of glosnost… imagine, a totalitarian society opening itself up! I asked this official poet if the Soviet authorities had started publishing Zamyatin yet. She hesitated several times, and answered quite reluctantly, with her mouth close to my ear, in the faintest faintest whisper that was yet comprehensible, “Leetle beet”. I somehow felt it was my duty as a writer to put her on the spot. I figured that her success had some element of toadyism to power. Later, I realized it was cruel. It might have been risky to her health to even whisper “Leetle beet” to me. And it gives me shivers to remember a Soviet citizen touching me with that barely perceptible whisper of her fears.


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