The lurid red book cover portraying a sinister, pentagram-wearing maneki neko (the beckoning cat sculpture that welcomes visitors to Japanese shops and restaurants) stood out even among the 650 exhibits at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs book fair.
The book itself, written with the flip tone and random-seeming plot developments of Douglas Adams, takes the debut novel trope of semi-autobiography and turns it on its ear when its protagonist, struggling artist/food service worker Billy Ridgeway, is offered a cup of gourmet coffee and a book deal – by Satan. All he has to do is retrieve the Neko of Infinite Equilibrium, the cat from the book cover, which a warlock has stolen from hell, and return it to Lucifer, thereby saving the world. If the premise makes you roll your eyes, the book probably will too; but if it strikes you as clever and irreverently funny, it is. Devilish deal making aside, the cosmology of the Weirdness has more in common with Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods than it has with Goethe’s Faust.
There is as much silliness as there is weirdness in the Weirdness, but Bushnell hides some ethical vegetables in his literary snack food. He’s particularly interested in questions of power and temptation:
“What I’m trying to say, Billy, is that you seem like a gentle, peaceful guy, a real nice guy, and I think you’ve worked hard to come across that way, but I think there’s a part of you, and maybe it’s a part that you don’t look at all that closely, that wants to be powerful and that doesn’t give a good goddamn about anything else.”
For a story about gods and devils, filled with magical battles, Bushnell mostly focuses on practical questions of power – who is bigger and stronger? Who has the gun? How does one resist the temptation to avoid hard work or to sidestep consent when power makes it easy to do so?
The Weirdness is also about the conflict between the transcendent and mundane. Billy Ridgeway wants to save the world, but he is constantly distracted by the quality of the coffee and the pot, his sandwich shop work schedule, traffic. Even in the direst situations, he is calculating the odds of getting his unfinished book published.
Bushnell, who does not, in fact, work in food service, teaches writing at Northeastern University. In the Weirdness he casually combines slang and academic vocabulary in the conversational voice one imagines of arts graduate students. He describes one character as “mordant” and an “asshole.” In one speech, Billy’s best friend is equally comfortable saying,
“you’re really telling me that you met the Judeo-Christian Devil, with the embedded implication there being that Judeo-Christianity is somehow ontologically more real than the Hindu beliefs of my own tradition,”
“I’m not saying that a billion Hindus can’t be all wrong – I’m pretty sure they all are, in fact – but if they’re all wrong, I guarantee you that the motherfucking Christians aren’t right.”
It’s an unusual style, but surprisingly easy to slip into.
Bushnell’s choice to write in the present tense, which sounds so natural when people sit around drinking beer and telling stories in real life, is a little harder to get used to in print. The present tense is not much of a barrier, though. The Weirdness is the kind of past-paced fun that can be enjoyed in one sitting, with your choice of beer or gourmet coffee.