Andrew Battershill’s debut novel, Pillow, heeds the advice of its subject matter and enters the realm of the surreal and imagined. Picture the French Surrealists recast as mobsters running a crime ring and you have the premise for Batterhill’s story. It’s not a big jump to make; imagine Andre Breton as Godfather and Artaud as crazy Joey Gallo and you are on your way. Battershill has created a parallel universe where Surrealists channel their energies into the subterfuge of the mob world. The end result is both comedic and sobering. Pillow is an alternative world that works, amusing the reader and perhaps leaving one to wonder, what if? Breton would have been proud. Maybe.
I spoke with Battershill recently in a coffee dive on North High Street in Columbus, Ohio, and followed up by email with more conversation. We discussed the current state of the Union and how surrealism might help us cope in difficult times.
Andrew Battershill, hails from Canada and currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife, the poet Suzannah Showler, whose most recent collection, Thing Is, was published in March 2017.
The Rumpus: You made an interesting marriage for your debut novel, Pillow, mixing a crime genre with the French Surrealists. How did this come to be?
Andrew Battershill: In the first year of my Master’s program I took a really awesome film course about French Surrealism. I became totally fascinated by the Surrealists’ writing, and hilarious, ridiculous biographical details. An especially strange and interesting aspect of the Surrealists is that, at least in the early days, they basically rolled around Paris like a gang; they even had a headquarters.
Meanwhile, as I was in grad school for creative writing, which meant I was at a pretty peak moment of being desperately sick of hard-line literary fiction. Outside of the reading I had to do for school, I was hovering Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, and Joe Lansdale novels straight into my dome, and chain-watching episodes of Law and Order (which was, for but a short glorious winter, available on Canadian Netflix) exclusively.
So, right around this time, I had my first meeting with my soon-to-be thesis advisor, the lovely human genius Pasha Malla. At this meeting, I first listlessly outlined a plan to revise a collection of extremely dull short fiction, and in passing mentioned the idea I’d had that you could write a pretty hilarious crime novel where the main criminal organization was just directly the French Surrealists of the 1920s. And Pasha, in a move that almost certainly saved/started my literary career, was like: “Definitely do that instead of short stories.”
And anyhow, I think there are a lot of resonances that make surrealism and crime fiction a harmonious and loving marriage. Firstly, the surrealists had a real fascination with crime, violence, and depravity, both in art and in their actual lives (they considered Fantomas, an absolutely batshit insane series of French pulp novels that I would highly recommend, seminal Surrealist texts). Secondly, there have actually already been plenty of pretty solid crime novels that have poked their heads in on surrealism, the best example of which is probably Fredric Brown’s Night of the Jabberwock. Finally, a particularly charming element of Surrealist art/thought is that they were super into the idea of just wantonly appropriating figures/writing from anytime in history and using them for whatever purposes they saw fit. There’s a whole chapter of the first Manifesto of Surrealism that just lists a bunch of incongruous figures and the specific way in which they are Surrealist (e.g.: “Swift is Surrealist in malice. Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid. Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere. Nouveau is Surrealist in the kiss.”). So, it seemed pretty appropriate to grab the Surrealists themselves, throw them into a different time and location, and otherwise just grossly use them however I wanted in my own fiction.
Rumpus: For an organization which appeared at least superficially mired in anarchy, the Surrealists had a fairly rigid code of adherence. How did that work with their outside appearance of flippancy?
Battershill: Well, for starters I’d say they had a pretty dominant and kinda harsh centralizing figure in Breton. Breton’s generally domineering style led him to set down a manifesto and set of rules very early. Of course, the manifesto ended up being a pretty fluid document, with several editions following and the rules changing, basically, with Breton’s whims, but still, the setting down of manifesto rules and principles was a central part of the surrealist experience from just about jump street.
But, I think it’s also important to note that flippancy has had different tenors and tones at different times. Coming straight out of World War I, I think the project of rebelling against, or just fucking around with, dominant ideologies and old world structures was, and felt like, a pretty serious political project.
In a lot of ways, I think the basic ontological notion underpinning of Surrealist thought, the idea that every part of your individual perception (including dreams and imagination) is just as important as what has conventionally been referred to as ‘reality,’ is fundamentally a personally empowering one. It seems to me that in 1920s Paris, the idea that there could be this totally off-the-wall way of seeing the world and living in it could feel extremely intense and could, especially if you’re an already intense young French dude, lead you to feel pretty devoted to those ideas and the people from whom they came.
Rumpus: Both dada and surrealism seem born out of trauma. I’m wondering if this “empowerment” of qualifying alternate reality is a form of self-defense. That is to say, going crazy to avoid going crazy. Do you think this is an applicable response in our current political climate?
Battershill: But seriously, I think anytime the world outside the streaked window of your own consciousness is utterly demoralizing and terrifying, looking inward, and placing moral value on that looking inward, is going to be valuable. And especially in a time where the idea of machines controlling our brains and ways of perceiving the world and ourselves is a negligible worry this is extra important.
Also, it’s worth noting that for the Surrealists themselves, the focus on non-linear reality didn’t lead them away from political, and let’s just get out there and say it, Marxist engagement, but rather towards it. A number of the Surrealists were active in the French Resistance during World War II, most notably.
Basically, I think with the current toxic political climate, there’s a really hard balance to be struck between avoiding saturation with the political environment and remaining as politically engaged as everyone who hates fascism absolutely needs to be at this moment in global political history. And I think the kind of serious play you can find in Surrealist thinking is decent approach to striking that balance.
Rumpus: Let’s get specific. What can the practical Surrealist do in these troubled times?
Battershill: The Practical Surrealist’s Guide to Surviving Right Wing Radicalism: One, Physically involve yourself in effective, non-violent forms of political dissent. Marches, opportunities to express your views directly to elected officials, positive social work within your community etc. IRL doing good things. Also, you can never go wrong just being generally kind to the people who cross your path. Two, spiritually disentangle yourself from the anxiety spiral of refreshing social media and rereading apocalyptic articles the content of which you are already terrifyingly aware and allowing fear and rage to overpower your thinking. Three, use your spare brain-space to make art, and more specifically to make art that shows some of the hope and promise of imagination.
At this point, I am extremely disillusioned, borderline nihilistic, about most things in the real world, but I’m also, perhaps somewhat pathetically, optimistic about the force, power, and joy of imagination. It really is, in my opinion, one of the most human faculties (up there and all mixed in with empathy). And remember the best teaching of surrealism: the Imaginary is the Real! This doesn’t mean that facts aren’t facts, or that fantasy should have any place in the way governments are run, but rather that everything you imagine has a validity of its own. Keeping the plane of surreality an open and productive one is a productive way to protect yourself from despair (if you’re into surreality, but whatever floats your boat in that regard).
Four, keep in mind, reading this list of proscriptions, that I am, in fact, Just Some Asshole.
Rumpus: I asked dada expert Andrei Codrescu if Trump was dada and he said no. That dada belongs to the poor. Does this fit in with your definition with surrealism and dada in general?
Batershill: Well, firstly I’d listen Andrei Codrescu’s answer on juuuust about anything before I’d listen to mine, but yes, I’d agree.
More broadly, I’d say that surrealism is a way of thinking and a way of making art, and ways of thinking and the opportunity to make art belong to everyone. Thinking about artistic practice, that’s the thing that worries and upsets me the most: the idea that art-making and appreciating are increasingly becoming exclusive activities of the elite. Dada and surrealists shared work, they were willing to pass along their ideas and to do it without a paywall in front of it.
Also, more fundamentally, there’s a difference between surrealism and straight up nonsense. The absolute fiery hot garbage that spills out of Donald Trump’s rotting pumpkin head is not dada, nor is it surrealist; it’s just actual, existentially meaningless noise.
Rumpus: Pillow is the kind of book which is so innovative that it make me wonder, what is this guy going to do next. Are you sticking to this genre of crime or are you going to go with another wave of surrealism? What’s next?
Battershill: I’m working on edits for a second novel called Marry, Bang, Kill, named after the outrageously fun car game in which one names three people and the other has to decide with whom s/he’d marry, fornicate, or murder. It’s a crime novel about a bungled heist, but most of the action takes place on the idyllic Gulf Islands of British Columbia. I think I’m carrying forward some of my surrealist spirit though! There’s a character named Glass Jar and an instance of a character bonding with a bear by taking a shit together in the woods.
So, short answer: crime novels, but, y’know, whimsical and shit.