Note: a slightly longer version of this review originally appeared in my blog, Liquid Ink.
Young students of literature are often stunned to realize just how much anti-realist, absurdist and frivolous writing has been penned over the centuries, stuff that fans of mysteries and romances might consider unreadable. I could begin listing the famous names...Gertrude Stein, William Burroughs, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett...just a few more...Kathy Acker, John Barth, Ben Marcus, Aleksander Kluge, Donald Barthelme, Christian Bök, etc. If you don’t know any of these writers, or if you could never see yourself buying a book outside Walgreen’s, there’s no reason for you to read Eddie Wright’s Broken Bulbs. If, however, you're looking for an adventure, then Eddie Wright’s debut is for you.
This isn't to say that you’re going to love the book the way you loved your bedtime stories. One of the things I admire about Bulbs is how it avoids asking for readers’ love. If Wright’s short novella is asking anything at all, it’s for readers to wonder why the hell they’re reading--why should anybody read anything? This self-deprecating irony is not merely a pomo trick. It gets to the heart of the protagonist’s main problem: in order to create meaning, Frank Fisher’s identity depends on exterior stimuli, primarily from a muse named Bonnie. Addicted to her, Frank has trouble feeling and finding love.
The main mission we discover among Fisher’s many psychological problems is that he wants to complete a screenplay about an alter-ego named Dusty. Dusty’s relationships are all strained; they induce guilt, doubt and confusion. Without giving away a spoiler, Broken Bulbs deals partially with the death of a pet, an animal who is later reincarnated by Fisher’s screenplay to play a darkly-comic, deviously absurd role, easily the most unexpected and charming treat in Wright’s book. The screenplay fades out after this pet’s final act, and Wright’s readers are left with a climax-of-sorts. But then "Broken Bulbs" continues as Fisher seeks more inspiration--he cannot stop his desire to write. Bonnie will continue feeding him inspiration, it seems, until his writing kills him.
Other reviewers have commented on Broken Bulbs as a portrait of an addict. The book is that, complete with all the necessary psychological investigation; as a muse of inspiration, Bonnie is a “dealer” who can manipulate Fisher, even control his thoughts. I feel, however, that it’s a superficial reading to consider Broken Bulbs merely a book about the chaos of addiction. Wright’s greatest triumph is the construction of an allegory about a writer’s conflict: he must write even when his writing is mostly erasing him, simply accelerating his march toward self-destruction. Frank Fisher is aware of this...there is no hint of an audience for his writing. But at the moment when he runs out of ideas, a blessed opportunity to step away and get on with something more practical, he panics and descends into chaos, desperate for the next idea that will send him to attack the keyboard. Why the hell is he doing it? He’s sick and can’t help it.
Eddie Wright is an artist with a vivid imagination, a weird, Pythonesque sense of humor and a daring attitude. Broken Bulbs did not present him with as many technical challenges as, say, "Lost in the Funhouse" presented Barth. Nevertheless, Bulbs was not an easy book to write. Its aesthetic is sterile, often utterly colorless, while its rhythm effectively recalls the repetitive gestures of a lunatic. The book does allude to a number of GenY pop-philosophy films, primarily Donnie Darko, but it does not seem to be the product of a thorough study of literature, something that left me a bit disappointed. At the heart of Broken Bulbs, however, lies a compassion and warmth that glows past the tight chaos and gray haze of Fisher’s mania. It’s that warmth and glow that helps us answer why people write and, more importantly, why we read. Yes, sometimes we just want to pass the time on the beach. But other times we need to wonder why we’re going to the beach if our only goal is to pass away the time.
(reviewed the day of purchase)