On the Nature of Bizarro, Math and Philosophy in Fiction, a Conversation with Author Pedro Proença
* this beautiful rendition of mestre Pedro's glorious face was drawn by the talented Erik Wilson *
I've reviewed Brazilian author Pedro Proença's debut novella Benjamin a couple weeks ago on this blog and was thoroughly blow away by it. So, I got curious. I've known (and had fun with) Pedro on social media for close to a year now, but I didn't know much about him. Who the hell comes up with sick, morally challenging metafiction and manages to fly under everybody's radar because he's too charismatic for his own work?
I invited Pedro for a chat and he generously obliged. I am posting this on a Saturday because I'm fresh and well rested from a week away from the city and because I have so much good content locked and loaded (about two weeks worth and counting) and it would be less pertinent if posted meanwhile or afterwards. So, sit back, relax and enjoy the conversation!
Ben: Pedrinho, you're one of these people I've solely discussed with on social media, yet I feel oddly close to, like you're my interdimensional twin, only we live in the same dimension. It's probably your academic background (mathematician) and your sick meme game I can only aspire to. I thought we should get to know each other better IN FRONT OF MY AUDIENCE because it's fun. So, let me kick things off: you've written and published in English, making you an English Second Language writer just like me. WHY? Why would you put yourself through this? Are Brazilian people philistines?
Pedro: Hey Ben, thanks for inviting me :))) I chose to write in English because of Bizarro fiction. Before I discovered Bizarro, I used to write some quirky short stories, that couldn't help to have some sort of moral embedded onto them. That's a tradition of Brazilian storytelling (mainstream Brazilian storytelling, I should add). But I when I discovered Bizarro, I realized I could write about anything I wanted, stuff that was already in my head, but that I, for several reasons (let's just say that Brazil is a weirdly conservative country. I know this is not the usual view people have on us, but it's true) thought couldn't be written/no one would read if I did. So English is just the language of Bizarro, for me, a tool that I needed to sharpen in order to get the stories I wanted to write to the people who could appreciate them.
Ben: Interesting. So is it a way to avoid cultural censorship to you? So you can write freely without having to explain your eccentricities to your mother? Because it's totally why I picked up English to write in the first place. Well, it's more complicated than that really, but the main reason is that I don't have anyone to offend in English or should I say anyone meaningful. I see you have a great fondness for Bizarro and have published under New Bizarro Author Series a book which I think is criminally underrated. I get why you're so attached to this genre, but I see your work as being much more literary/avant garde. Benjamin reminded me amongst others of Donald Bartheleme and J.G Ballard. What is it about Bizarro that you identify with so much? Also, how did you explain that purple mohawk to your mom?
Pedro: Not so much cultural censorship. It's just that the things I write (and Bizarro/Weird fiction in general) are not read down here. We're talking about a country which has shown its first gay kiss on a primetime, network television show just within the last five years. Most people here, even hardcore readers, are not down with the weirdness. I've tried introducing several friends of mine to Bizarro, almost none of them shown any interest.
My mom supports my writing completely. She had never read any, because she doesn't know English. And she's really young (she had me when she was 20, now she's 47), so stuff like my purple mohawk don't bother her at all.
And thanks for the compliment! I have yet to read any Bartheleme, but I've read Ballard and I love it. The thing with Bizarro, for me, it's that is the genre of freedom. Within the scope of Bizarro we find books that are really quirky and silly, and books that are downright philosophical, and everything in between. And another thing about Bizarro that I love: The people. Bizarro Con was the best time of my life so far, it was incredible, and mostly because everyone is so cool. The next book I'm working on (slowly, because of school) will be an expansion of the themes I talk about in Benjamin, and I plan on pitching it to a specific Bizarro publisher (I won't name it as to not jinx it!).
Ben: Let's talk about Benjamin because I'm fucking dying to. I did not expect it to be so great. Thought you were quirky and smart on social media. That your meme game is strong. It's compelling and baffling to me that you're a freakin' mathematician, but Jesus. Benjamin punched me in the fucking face, man. I loved the philosophy behind it. The parodying of good vs evil with the predatory toilet monster, the disjointed body and mind that was Benjamin. My brain was in overdrive for the entire eighty-something pages of it. You mentioned to me on Facebook that there was some math thrown in there as well. Color me oblivious if you want but WHAT? WHERE? WHY?
Pedro: Thank you for the compliment, I'm glad you liked it! The Riemann Hypothesis is a real mathematical concept. It's one of math's better known unsolved problems. The Clay Mathematics Institute offers a one million prize to whomever solves it. It's really out of my scope to even try to tackle it (I'm currently studying to get a Master's Degree, this is Post-PhD level stuff), but the concept of it is really interesting, and not so hard to grasp.
Basically, we have this function called the Riemann Zeta Function, right? A function has zeros, numbers that when you feed them into the function, the output is zero. If I call a function F and say that F = x - 1, the zero of this function is 1, because 1-1 = 0. So, the Riemann Hypothesis talks about the properties of the zeros of this Zeta Function.
I tried to add math to the story because I thought that might add some depth to it, because it's something I have some understanding about.
The philosophy of it, I would say it's basically metafiction. Benjamin may or may not know that he's a character in a book, and that influences his thinking. He finds himself trapped in a quest that, for all he knows, could be without purpose, since his world may or may not be not real. And I really love metafiction in general. That's why I love memes so much, even the ones which are just bad puns. I love them because they are self aware, the feeling I get when I see one (and when I share one, because those feelings are complimentary; I don't think the experience is complete without meaninglessly sharing the meme) is so weird, so...artistic, that I feel like I'm actually participating in the creation of a piece of art, even if it's an ephemeral one.
Ben: I really liked Benjamin's relationship to the Nexus. They don't seem to really exist within the same realm and I believe you've written the least terrifying monster I've ever read, which is really cool. And I count Pixar's monsters in my statement. The Nexus' motivations are very clear and reasonable. He needs to eat. It was probably very unwitting on your part, but I thought it shined a new light on that whole good vs evil boring cliché in literature. I'm not sure you were trying to make a statement on the matter, but tell me, Pedrinho: what do you make of the good vs evil dichotomy? How would you quality or quantify evil for all that matters? Does evil even exists?
Pedro: That's an excellent question. I do believe evil exists, because the way we view the world. We attribute values to stuff, and by doing that, we can measure good and evil by our individual standards. So evil exists because we can attribute the word (and general formalized concept) to actions and facts. We say serial killers do evil things. We say Hitler did evil things, etc etc.
What I was going for in Benjamin was perverting that relationship. One of the most important things I learned from my editor (and I'd say mentor) Garrett Cook, is that, In Bizarro in general, there's a lot of dream causality. We don't always observe the expected consequence of a determined action. Someone may fall down a flight of stairs, and as a result to that, become a flower pot. So I wanted a villain whose motivations are strange and unpredictable. And its personality is also weird, I know. I don't know how to terrify without being sarcastic and trying to be funny. I should really try writing a horror novel in my style. It would probably suck.
Ben: That's interesting. Dreamlike logic is something I always associated with surrealism. Bizarro is something I regard as more of a transgressive movement that includes surrealism, but that focuses more on using shock and sometimes horror in order to create unforgrattable images and get its point across. That's why I thought Benjamin was sitting on the very tip of the genre. I don't find it quite Bizarro and I don't find it quite Avant Garde. I think the goal of perverting the very concept of evil was a success. Why was it important to you to pull morality's pants in front of everybody like this?
Pedro: Oh no, dream causality is very much a Bizarro theme as well, deeply rooted in the genre. But the link with surrealism is real. My personal definition of Bizarro was always surrealism with a plot (I also have a Bizarro catchphrase definition, that my friend and writer Lee Widener likes: Bizarro is like a roadmap drawn by Picasso). We have strange characters doing strange stuff in strange settings, but they (usually) have a purpose, a drive. Just read any Wol-vriey book, they are textbooks on what Bizarro is to me, and what the genre has to offer. And of course, Carlton Mellick III is required reading for any aspiring Bizarro writer.
Answering your question, it wasn't that I was trying hard to do an exposé on morality in any way. What I mostly tried to do with Benjamin was to pervert expectations to generate a feeling of displacement, of weirdness. Pulling morality's pants was just the icing on the cake.
Ben: That's a very Lynchian thing to do, pervert expectations that is. The master built his entire career in bringing you one place and then brutally change his mind :) What other themes would you like to tackle in your writing? I saw you keep a keen eye on the politics of your country. People in the U.S (and Canada, for all that matters) couldn't even name one Brazilian writer because they cannot read anything that's not happening in a country they don't see regularly on television. Do you see your writing become more political?
Pedro: I don't think I'll ever get too political, no. Although one could say that it's impossible to be completely apolitical, because the words being written are produced in our minds, which is shaped in a certain way, and that includes the politics we adhere to. But I don't see myself actively writing anything too political, no.
As of the themes I'd want to write about, I would say anxiety, depression and isolation are themes that I can see myself delving deeper into. This story I'm working on now is precisely about that, about people who are so disconnected from reality, that the world to them is completely Bizarro and weird. The whole 'good versus evil' thing will probably be present too, as well as the self-awareness of some of the characters (I can't resist metaficion, SORRY ABOUT THAT)
Ben: Will there be memes? There's gotta be memes if disconnection is a theme. Your meme game is so strong 1) it's what most people know you for and 2) people will be disappointed if your future literature doesn't have any. Here's the Great Existential Question: why do people make mems, Pedrinho? And why do YOU? What drives you to be the best of the best, you Giant Brazilian Person?
Pedro: HAHAHAHAHA, I don't think there will be memes, no. I can't think of a way to blend memes in my stories, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing.
My drive, I think, is to do something I can look at it and say "Hey...that's pretty good!" (meme reference. Look it up, kids). I just want to prove myself, prove to others than I am actually a writer.
Ben: Aight then! Thank you for doing this, Pedrinho! Before we leave, this is your chance to thank or plug whoever you want, pimp some links, etc. Go to town, man GO TO TOWN!
Pedro: Thanks for having me, Mr. Follies :))
And I just want to say, please, BUY MY BOOK. The Olympics are here, and I fear the wasteland it will leave in its wake, so I need to stock up on essentials RIGHT NOW.
Again, thanks for having me!