Martian Dawn & Other Novels
A not-insignificant proportion of experimental fiction broadcasts itself by breaking boldly with mainstream literary forms in order to serve a recognizably literary function. You can usually identify these books at a glance, by their idiosyncratic typographies and/or self-reflexive narrators. The worst of them transpose formal pyrotechnics for humor and humanity. Michael Friedman’s Martian Dawn & Other Novels, though it’s about as weird a book as books come, does not make this mistake.
Martian Dawn & Other Novels is actually an omnibus edition of three novellas: Martian Dawn, published by Turtle Point Press in 2006; Are We Done Here?, completed in 2009; and On My Way to See You, in 2013. The latter two are published here for the first time. The subjects they tackle, collectively and individually, include: Hollywood stardom, planetary colonization, the film industry, love affairs, holograms, Amazonian missionaries, pop culture, casual Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. On every page there is something funny, sad, weird, or some combination thereof, conjured by Friedman’s deadpan tone, pile-up of cliche and detail, and the placement of quotidian characters into absurd situations (or vice versa).
Let me illustrate by way of example: Martian Dawn concerns a Hollywood power couple, Richard and Julia, who are called back to work to reshoot the botched ending of a science-fiction film called Martian Dawn. The shoot takes place on Mars. Richard is a world-famous actor and a Buddhist dilettante, friendly with the Dalai Lama, who spends his free time following Rinpoche, his Tibetan dharma-to-the-stars, on the international lecture circuit. Until Richard met Julia, she was a hooker at the Baby Doll Lounge, “taking on all comers at $500 a pop.” Now she, too, is a world-famous actress, who spends her free time shopping on Rodeo Drive and reminiscing about her former lover/pimp, Angel. When the novel begins, she’s on location shooting Cat Fight at the OK Corral—“the story of supermodels on the loose in Manhattan.”
Attentive readers will recognize that Richard and Julia are based on Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and the characters each plays in Pretty Woman. This becomes evident in the first chapter. From there, the cast expands to include a Weinstein-esque film producer and his psychotherapist, who’s in love with him; the sequestered inhabitants of a biosphere in Arizona; four cosmonauts orbiting and flirting in space; and a reporter for Whale Quarterly named Cap, who has strong feelings for the solitary blue whale in the biosphere. They eventually all meet up on Mars, which has been colonized. Would you even believe me if I wrote that it all comes together?
Are We Done Here? and On My Way to See You don’t adhere to common sense either. Are We Done Here? pogoes between the Manhattan demimonde, an Amazonian village, and the Betty Ford Clinic, while On My Way to See You is a murder mystery, set in France, concerning a vanished gay writer, his holographic doppelgänger, a drag queen in Nice, and an author named Ben Berkowitz who has a wife and children back in Williamsburg, several girlfriends/lovers on the side, and a list of unfortunate phobias that includes French furniture.
None of these characters is developed much beyond their signifiers. They’re mostly defined by comically outsized self-absorption, but this flimsiness keeps them pliable for Friedman’s screwball plots. He moves them around like board game characters. Their shallowness also makes them easily skewerable as avatars of various pompous delusions: Hollywood arrogance, spiritual empowerment, ego superiority. They speak in banalities and pronouncements that skew just off-course from the patter of recognizable human conversation. They find themselves adrift in situations that veer from real to surreal and back again. In Are We Done Here?, two characters confront their lovers about an affair:
“Don’t be coy,” Lisa insisted. “Let it all hang out. It’ll do you worlds of good. Don’t even think about denying it. How long?”
Thomas did his best to maintain some composure. “Uh…um…not long—”
“Two years,” Harper blurted out.
“Oh my God!” Lisa gasped.
Thomas’s jaw dropped, and he shot Harper a horrified look.
Lisa pulled a Luger out of her handbag.
“Is that a Luger? Amazing. Where did you find it?” Thomas asked.
“eBay. Now up against the wall, motherfuckers!” she shouted, waving the gun around.
“Give me the gun, Lisa,” David instructed.
Or take this exchange, from Martian Dawn, in which Svetlana, a sexy Russian cosmonaut and the author of From Borscht to Crepes Suzette, a cookbook, comes on to her American counterpart in space, a schlub named Walter:
“This is sex module. Do not try to fight it, Walter. Do not make me beg.”
“Phew! Is it hot in here, or is it just me?” Walter asked, pulling at his collar with his index finger.
“You are helpless to resist. You are in my power. You will do as I say,” she cooed.
“Point taken,” he murmured.
Afterward, Walter finds himself wondering:
What had just happened? Was he developing something more than just a passing interest in Svetlana? Were they going to do something—sometime soon? And how was her carbonara sauce?
Friedman, who is also a poet and a commercial law attorney in Denver, is that vanishingly rare combination of “weird and virtuosic,” to quote from Molly Young’s introduction to this volume. Like any good satirist, he distorts his characters in order to reveal something flawed and funny—and human—in them. He’s perverse and weird and yet his work is still inviting—though you can never be entirely sure that he’s not pulling a fast one on you. Phillip Pantuso