Intro. The world building in D. Harlan Wilson’s Outré slaps you in the face during its introduction and never shows mercy. Thrusted first upon us is a long cast list featuring fictional actors as well as figures recognizable historically and pop culturally. From there, we’re thrown down a rabbit hole into a dystopian landscape operated by production crews where every aspect of life is run like a movie being made.
Style? Outré is formatted into a three-act structure within which we are presented with several short scenes that read like non sequiturs to one another. This continues for the entire novel. Especially in the first act, the surreal world-building and film production jargon went mostly over my head, though I appreciate the vivid setting Wilson created with the colloquially referred to “schizoverse.” Bizarre dialogue, set pieces, actors, and crew members cycle in and out at the whim of directors, who are themselves removed and replaced rapidly. Characters often react to stimuli in unexpected ways. It’s hard to know what is “real” and what is being done as part of the production. “What the hell is going on here?” I asked myself several times throughout, and practically without fail, I never figured it out.
Ambergris. In a short interlude between acts one and two, we’re given a detailed report of a giant whale who fell from the sky. From then, our main character, who I suppose I can call Donny Ennui (a movie star, naturally), makes it his mission to deliver an outstanding performance in his role as the “skywhale” in order to regain his fading relevance.
Stupefaction. While there is a brilliant plot line to follow, the text is bloated significantly with philosophical musings, pop cultural references, and general rambling. The reading experience is utterly chaotic, as it should be—to mirror the chaos of a world where the line between reality and fiction cannot be discerned, and where artifice is more genuine than truth.
Style! Despite having previously used the word “bloated” to describe the novel, I did not mean it in a negative sense, as I don’t think it would be as effective in creating such a raucous experience for us without the nonsense. Wilson’s writing is unmatched in creativity and wit: he has a knack for dark, crude humor that I’ve never seen before. Confusing? Yes, but my affair with Outré was an undeniably enjoyable romp. Even with its dense prose and penchant for over stimulating us, the book has great guts and is a lot of fun.
Reflection. The absurdity present in the story paints a portrait of contemporary society that closely resembles reality: we’ve submitted to the control of states and corporations who tell us how our bodies should look, what cars to drive, what fast food joint to get your chicken sandwich from, and, most unfortunately, how to think. Capitalism has itemized culture and objectified art to the point where our very souls are expropriated and sold back to the highest bidder. Wilson does an immaculate job at conveying the alienation and anxiety one faces as powerless individuals in such a system, but with levity and comedy when necessary.
Ignorance. Full disclosure: I feel like I am not well-read enough in philosophy—or Moby Dick, for that matter (though included are relevant [and irrelevant] excerpts)—to fully grasp the breadcrumbs Wilson lays out for us. I’m not ashamed to reiterate that a sizable portion of the text flew right over my head like a giant skywhale. All that said—there are plenty of bite-sized chunks of philosophy thrown in that are easily decoded into thoughtful concepts to chew on. Even with whale gore flying high above my understanding, I must recommend this book to anyone interested in surrealism who can tolerate feeling a little bit dumb at times. D. Harlan Wilson is just too smart for us, and he’s proven it with Outré. I can honestly say I’ve never been through a reading experience as unreal and singular as this, and maybe you should try it, too.
Outré, by D. Harlan Wilson. Raw Dog Screaming Press, November 2020. 122 pages. $14.95, paper.
Evan St. Jones (they/them) does non-profit work by day and book stuff by night. They’re a co-creator of Queerport (LGBTQ arts organization), and co-owner of Vessel Vintage, both based in Shreveport, Louisiana. Evan recently started Heads Dance Press to publish weird fiction, and is currently editing Let the Weirdness In: A Tribute to Kate Bush.