If memory serves, it took me a bit longer to take to reading than one might expect of someone who grew up to be an author. By and large I found myself uninterested or unimpressed with the gamut of available material fiction-wise, and there were still a few years to go before I would discover the likes of Stephen King as an adolescent. I dabbled with the Hardy Boys and Laura Ingalls Wilder (who I came to appreciate as an adult), but nothing truly seized me by the collar and hurled me face-first into a nascent love of literature like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I imagine I was seven or eight when I first encountered an old, brittle cloth-bound edition of Lewis Carroll’s book, which I believe belonged to my maternal grandfather when he was a boy in the 1920s. I can’t say whatever happened to that copy, but it was in danger of crumbling in my hands some sixty years after my grandfather first read it, but I read it none-the-less and revealed a wild, imaginative side to fiction of which I was heretofore entirely unaware. The language games, the brazen twisting of logic, the maddest landscape and cast of characters I’d ever seen—and all from the mind of the mathematician (by the real name of Charles Dodgson) who wrote An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations!
I suspect it was largely due to Carroll’s fine understanding of logic that he was so well equipped to subvert it and essentially father what is sometimes called nonsense literature. Meaning is constantly brought into question, as is the nature of reality or unreality, in marvelously funny and alarming ways that opened the door for my love of horror, dark fantasy, and absurdism. In this way of perceiving things, the reader finds equal parts of humor and terror with the sublimely ridiculous, coerced to walk the tightrope between accepted meaning and that which should not be possible, thereby undermining and corrupting so-called “common sense.” And I absolutely love that Alice’s Adventures is ostensibly presented as a story for children, because it challenges otherwise unquestioned perception so early and so raucously! The reader is Alice, confronted with a parade of attacks on her worldview and sense of limits, compelled to re-examine even the simplest concepts of her “truth.” Even when I haven’t willfully evoked these themes, a brief survey of my own work thus far reveals their influence over and over again, particularly in that perpetual struggle to determine some fixed meaning while virtually drowning in absurdity. This is the stuff of self-awareness, of being human in any period and of any age. This is Kant’s manifold undone, the innate lunacy of apparent reason. Because Wonderland, wild and bizarre as it is, is so often our own world, our own lives and experiences.
And indeed our own stories, too. Though our minds are hard-wired to seek definite answers—especially in our fledgling years when we are still encouraged to seek them—we are so often frustrated by the dearth or inadequacy of such answers, or by the changing nature of the questions we ask. This can make life flummoxing, and it can make both storytelling and reading just as bewildering. So I offer instead my favorite lesson from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a riddle and its solution that instruct us in the value of unknowing, of pondering our fascinating ignorance and that typically human insistence upon hard and fast, black and white answers. A question with no definite solution, posed by the Mad Hatter, as written by a mathematician whose job it was to deal in definite solutions.
Ed Kurtz is the author of Nausea, The Rib From Which I Remake the World, and Angel of the Abyss, among other novels and novellas. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies like Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Shotgun Honey, and Psychos: Serial Killers, Depraved Madmen, and the Criminally Insane, and he was selected to appear in The Best American Mystery Stories 2014. Kurtz lives in Minnesota where he is at work on his next project.
The Rib From Which I Remake the World
In a small, rural Arkansas town in the midst of World War II, hotel house detective George “Jojo” Walker wearily maintains the status quo in the wake of personal devastation. That status quo is disrupted when a “hygiene picture” roadshow rolls into town with a controversial program on display and curious motives in mind. What begins with a gruesome and impossible murder soon spirals into hallucinatory waking nightmares for Jojo—nightmares that converge with his reality and dredge up his painful, secret past. Black magic and a terrifying Luciferian carnival boil up to a surreal finale for the town of Litchfield, when truth itself unfurls and Jojo Walker is forced to face his own identity in ways he could never have expected.