Book: Avoiding Mortimer
Author: J.W. Wargo
Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, novella
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Just take my word for it, it’s odd.
Availability: Published in 2013 by Eraserhead Press, you can get a copy here:
Comments: This subtly weird little book is perhaps my emotional favorite of the bizarros I’ve read for this themed-week. It’s got its gross moments – vomit, biting into insects and earlobes – but even the grossness was sweetly restrained given what I have come to expect from the Bizarros. But it must be said that sweetly restrained bizarro is not going to be awesome in and of itself. No, I’m far too sophisticated to be taken in by sweetness. But I do have to say that it is nice to be able to read a bizarro book that I can describe to my mother without making her cry. (And Mama Oddbooks is no lightweight. She was the chief text editor for Deutschland Erwacht when it was published in the USA in the 70s. She knows some stuff. She’s seen some shit. And I still hesitate to share most bizarro plots with her. In short, most of you are monsters.)
The main reason I like this book so much is because I get Mortimer. I’m an Avoider, though I don’t experience anything close to Mortimer’s level of neurotic and thanatotic depression. I love avoiding people. Not because I’m mean or cruel but because I am introverted on a genetic level. It’s actually considered a psychological disorder on my part but I sort of don’t care, even though I enter therapy for it every few years. I prefer not to leave my house and, interestingly, “I prefer not to” is a perfect way to sort of ground yourself when reading this book. There is something very Bartleby about this novella. Though Mortimer ultimately finds a way to stop preferring not to, at least when it matters, folk who just feel tired and itchy around other folk have a hero in Mortimer, whose essential nature is eventually how he manages to become a hero.
I kind of lost the thread in the plot near the end where the exact mechanics of Wargo’s world were concerned, because there were sort of Kafka-esque layers of bureaucracy that I sort of refused to absorb (and I really hate to use the word Kafka-esque because it’s so woefully misused, but there were definitely elements of Kafka in this book, and now that I think of it, I don’t really like Melville or Kafka so it’s surprising I like this book as much as I do). But the gist of the book is this: Mortimer is born to schizoid parents. His sister is avoidant, and as the most socially normal member of a really abnormal family, Mortimer resists when his family undergoes a process that is sort of a living suicide that puts them in a realm between life and death. He eventually gets a factory job that is sort of gross, he has an ant-farm as a pet, and before long he sees no reason to live on. After he cracks in a magnificent manner, he commits suicide and ends up in a bureaucratic hell-hole of an afterlife. Mortimer finds himself with a job in a factory exactly like the one he had in the living world, down to the same boss. He recognizes a woman in the hereafter whom he saw die in the living world and with her he discovers that all is not right in the hereafter. Ultimately Mortimer stages a confrontation with God himself and helps the woman solve some very troubling problems and he ends up in a sort of heaven of his own, a place wherein his essential nature is loved and embraced.
There were some scratchy places in the plot, as I mentioned. But there was enough silliness, even in this novel of a depressed avoidant who loathes being around others, that I didn’t feel too pressed or upset that at times I had no idea what was going on. For example, before he dies, Mortimer eats his ant farm and then barfs it up. The ant farm puke forms a mutant ant-blob that becomes integral to the plot. Ant farm puke saves the day! When there were not enough strange details to absorb me, I just sort of grooved on Mortimer’s avoidance.
In my honest assessment, I fear I may be turning you bizarro extremists off with my wallow in the mild, so let me share some of the more awesome prose in this book. This is from the first page:
To understand Mortimer’s death, we must first focus on his life.
Simply put, Mortimer’s life was shit. It was pure unadulterated liquid feces in which he swam daily -rarely, if ever, coming up for air.
Whether or not this ocean of excrement came from outside forces or was created by Mortimer himself is a moot point. Rather, it is important to ask why Mortimer so insisted upon drowning in a world of filth when he could have just as easily swam to shore, toweled off, and worked toward removing even the very smell of shit from his life.
It is here that I must mention that being avoidant does not mean my own life is full of shit. Actually, I sort of like being this way. It suits me. But I think Wargo effectively nailed the hell that life can be for depressed introverts in a world wherein introversion is something to be overcome, but at the same time Mortimer also is suicidal and fears all human contact to the point of being practically a psychological case study. I also, as I typed this, noticed that Wargo’s prose, even when gross or funny, is very distant. Even as Mortimer wins, we read of him remotely, being told his story by a third person narrator who is seeing Mortimer’s story almost as a case study he or she is relating to us. We read at a distance the story of Mortimer and that is perfect.
His father, mother, and sister, Irwin, Ethel and Faye respectively, are as bad if not worse than Mortimer and he comes by his avoidance naturally. Still, when he was younger he did his best by his strange family.
Both Ethel and Irwin, Mortimer’s mother and father, were life-o-phobes. They were hopelessly scared, frightened and fearful of anything in life, including themselves.
Ethel walked only toward sources of light and never away from them, as she was deathly afraid of her own shadow. If ever she found herself backlit, she would close her eyes and scream until Mortimer came around to turn the lights off.
Irwin was slightly less in control than his mother. On the days when he could be convinced that leaving his bed wouldn’t result in death, he would hug the walls and slowly work his way toward the bathroom. Getting him to come out of the bathtub and unlock the door would take Mortimer the rest of the day.
Mortimer barely had a younger sister. Faye ignored her parent’s behavior and practices remaining invisible so the family would reciprocate the same ignoring action upon her.
Mortimer is the healthiest member of this unit but when they decide to commit their odd suicide wherein they take a place somewhere between life and death so they don’t have to worry about death anymore, he breaks free from them. I found it interesting that being afraid of her own shadow forced Ethel to walk into the light. I tend to think this was a form of foreshadowing of what was to come with Mortimer and his relationship with his family.
But even though Mortimer decides not to enter the half-life with his family, he reenacts such a life, joylessly, on his own.
Mortimer was a stickler for routine. By reducing the necessity of living to a small set of functions, he avoided chance, risk, or life tossing him any curve-balls. It was a simple life with no surprises. He had lived this way since leaving home and he could handle it very easily now. It was the only thing he didn’t avoid. It was all he lived for.
If Mortimer had surrounded himself with books, cats and an amiable husband, he and I would have a lot in common. But Mortimer is Eleanor Rigby, scraping by, lonely, waiting for his sorry end.
In the midst of Mortimer’s bland misery, there are interesting details to his life. Take this scene, as he is leaving his home to go to work.
Mortimer stepped outside his apartment building and anxiety took over. Standing on the sidewalk was a crazy, hopeless, doomsdayer man holding a cardboard sign alerting people that, “GOD IS TOO DRUNK TO FUCK AND YOU ARE HIS HANGOVER.”
Interesting that from Mortimer’s perspective, the man with the sign was hopeless. But as is often the case with the crazy, the man tells the truth and no one pays attention, or in Mortimer’s case, he just doesn’t understand. Won’t share the details because if I do, I may spoil the novel. I wish the religious nutters in my parts had such interesting signs.
And again, more signs that the bizarros have likely, as a group, had some pretty crappy jobs. Mortimer screws up at work and this is what happens:
The manager pulled out a rolled up newspaper and gripped it firmly in his hand. “Bad Worker,” he barked, and whacked Mortimer on the head. “That’s a very bad Worker. You get to work right now!”
Just for the record, Mortimer works in a plant wherein he bites into grubs because their outer shells or skins are used for aglets, the hard bits that are wrapped around the ends of shoelaces.
My only quarrel with this book comes from the scene wherein Mortimer meets a girl called Jacinda at the cafeteria where he works and goes for a drink with her and some coworkers. They bond and Mortimer ruins it, leading to his suicide. I think I would have liked it better had Mortimer never even tried because his suicide is ultimately caused by his failure with Jacinda, meaning that Mortimer is probably less of an introvert than a very odd man and I probably should relate to him less than I do. But then again there had to be some catalyst to force this man to act and his life going on so sadly wouldn’t have done it. Still, I wanted Mortimer and Jacinda to be happy together.
After Mortimer loses it at work, he writes what I think may be the best suicide note ever:
Dear world, he wrote, I have never asked much from you, only that you don’t kill me. Everything I have done, I have done to prolong my life and avoid as many of the possible ways you could off me. It seems you were cleverer than I thought. You found a way to do me in after all, and I am the one doing your dirty work. Screw you. Sincerely, Mortimer.
But being Mortimer, he trashes it. He eats his ant farm so they won’t starve and then kills himself.
In the hereafter, Mortimer is faced with living in a lovely resort or taking a job in a factory. Joy is not an option for Mortimer so he chooses the factory making human bodies until he learns he will essentially be doing his old job. Rather than bite down on slugs, he will be testing earlobes. He decides the resort may be better.
“The system will run a check on your mortal life, taking into account all actions and choices you made, and spit out a figure that amounts to your Life’s Worth. Shouldn’t take too long.”
“Um, but haven’t I already ‘earned’ my eternal peace?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” the caseworker chuckled. “It’s a very expensive operation we’re running up at the Resort. Clients are expected to fund their eternity.”
The computer beeped and a number appeared on the screen.
“Well, it seems you were a pretty worthless human being.”
Don’t pity Mortimer, however. Had he been a worthwhile person, he would have missed his chance to right a great wrong in the world and confront the very maker of us all. Being worthless enabled him to be worthwhile. It’s here that I will stop quoting because as often muddled as the last third of the book was for me in terms of plot, it was still very funny, at times verging on the absurd.
I do need to mention that this book is edited pretty well. So well I can only remember a couple errors, both conversational punctuation gone awry. I may have seen a wrong verb tense being used. The problems were so minor I didn’t bother to make notes. Just being cleanly edited affected how I viewed this book because, as I keep saying, words matter. Grammar and punctuation matter. It’s so nice not to have poor editing distract from the text.
I really enjoyed this book. I didn’t have to worry about when the animals were going to be abused (unless you count the slugs). The murders were not pyrotechnic. The whole of the book was rather subdued. While I like a good wallow in the gore, sometimes it’s nice to have a relatively sweet book to read. This novella was a nice surprise and I recommend having a look. If this review inspires you to buy this book, don’t wait too long. New Bizarro Author Series writers have a limited time frame in which to sell enough copies of their books in order to get a publishing contract. Wargo’s is a voice I definitely want to read again.
Now for business! With all my themed weeks comes a giveaway. This time I am giving away a copy of each book I discuss this week OR I am giving away an Amazon gift card in the amount that the paper versions of these books would cost. All you have to do to enter the drawing is to leave me a comment on this entry. One comment on each discussion is an entry into the drawing. Leave a comment all five days and you will have five entries into the drawing. Only one comment per day counts as an entry but don’t let that prevent you from engaging in conversation about the books. For all the details of this contest, visit this entry. Comment often and with vigor!