A Review of: Headless by Benjamin Weissman
There’s a famous old story about a bunch of blindfolded people standing around an elephant. One person, touching the elephant skin, thinks the elephant is one thing; another person, touching the trunk, thinks the elephant is something else. This goes on and on until the people have a bunch of descriptions of an elephant.
To the extent that we’re all blindfolded, and to the extent that the elephant represents something analogous to life, it stands to reason that the more descriptions we have, the greater our understanding of the thing being described.
Benjamin Weissman, like the rest of us, has heard the elephant story. He seems to have walked around the elephant and discovered a particular cavity unexplored by his blindfolded colleagues, and not only does he reach in and feel the contours of this particular cavity, he crawls into this cavity with his whole body. Although the elephant he’s describing is not, as Magritte might say, just an elephant, it does exist. And Weissman, blindfolded or not, has seen something. Whether his characters are making sperm bank deposits or recording the travails of a doofus Der Fuhrer, he’s found a part of the elephant that the rest of the sightless rabble are trying to avoid. Maybe they don’t want to go there, but he does. And with glee. And by doing so, the inappropriate becomes, not just normal, but liberating.
Weissman’s story collection, Headless, leads us into a dank, squishy, sperm- and turd- and blood-filled world that may indeed be something like hell, but it’s hell with a weirdly infectious story titled “The Fecality of It All,” he writes, “the rear end is the devil’s public address system… and it will always steer us into hell.” In “Pink Slip of Wood,” his narrator fires an employee who, because of his “20-plus inches of erectile furor… (his) Salisbury steak battering ram… (his) turbo sperm log,” is causing the narrator’s once-proud member, nicknamed Kafka—as well as the other employees, mostly named Bob—to feel inferior.
Although Weissman’s stories eschew realism, they simultaneously revel in hyper-realistic descriptions of bodily functions in all their unseemly glory. Weissman, apparently an avid skier, litters the slopes of his stories with so many secretory shenanigans that after a while the “rude” and “dirty” and “sick” become normal modes of behavior that may, or may not, elevate and mitigate the pleasure and pain of living. His characters relate in a matter-of-fact way to their sordid goings-on because these things are matters of fact. Boys strangle their moms, the color of snow is yellow, and a quick slice into a jugular vein is part of a precious quotidian existence.
The narrator of “Marnie,” enjoying a moment of unusual probity, turns away from the girl he loves to let her swim, in privacy, naked in a lake. He would like to see her perfect body but he controls himself, and it’s not until she dies that he realizes his misguided striving for normalcy, his vain attempt to repress his obvious urges, was the moment he severed himself, drawing the veil between merely existing in life and actually living that life. If civilization, or whatever it is we call civilization, shields us from our basic urges by making them disgusting, Weissman cracks that shield. Which is why his explorations end up, oddly, near the heart. In a voice both erudite and childlike, he accepts the obvious violence in life because it’s the violence of the child and therefore our violence as well.