Genre fiction, academic discourse, and a strip of celluloid packed with hyperviolence walk into a bar. Academic discourse tries to dominate the conversation but fails because genre fiction is screaming lewd jokes and grabbing its crotch. The strip of celluloid drinks in a corner, promises many violent deaths, and plays with a lighter between tequila shots. Finally, a retired 1980s action movie star no one recognizes any more walks into the bar with a bomb taped to his sagging pectorals and a large chunk of uranium in each hand. The resulting explosion leaves only a dark, smoking hole on the ground. Out of it, roaring like a wounded beast, emerges a three-headed monster looking for fun. That monster is D. Harlan Wilson’s writing.
If the above description is too much to handle, here’s a shorter, easier to understand description: Wilson’s work is like a movie directed by the love child of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jacques Lacan if he grew up on a steady diet of action movies, bodybuilding shows, and dense philosophical texts. In Battle Without Honor or Humanity: Volume 1, Wilson sets out to explore the limits of language and short narratives, and the result is a wildly entertaining collection that’s as smart as anything else he has written and that somehow manages to tread territory he hadn’t pioneered yet.
From a monkey successfully directing a film to a murderous bodybuilding politician, there is, as always, a plethora of new, bizarre ground (dis)covered. That being said, Battle Without Honor or Humanity: Volume 1 ultimately emerges as a superb introduction to those who haven’t read Wilson’s work because some of the sine qua non elements of his short fiction, namely identity, masculinity, an obsession with film aesthetics, and violence, come together here as elements of cohesion and give the collection a sense of unity despite the multiplicity of themes and rhythms:
“We discussed the past in animated tones. On several occasions my friend teetered on the knifepoint of epiphany only to backslide into worn and fabled doldrums. I took advantage of the conversation’s peripetia and faked a Charlie horse. He hailed and EMT and I pushed him out of the ambulance en route to the hospital. Mnemonic footage of him rolling across the asphalt like a kicked spintop will haunt me forever.”
As with every work of fiction, debating authorial intent is tricky business. In the case of this collection, tricky only begins to describe what it would mean. Wilson is a mater storyteller, but one who now resides in a place beyond all storytelling rules. The stories in this book are about Wilson and his ideas, but they are presented as a maelstrom of concepts, strange dialogue, impossible actions that dip their toes into the surreal, and bizarre mayhem that’s been filtered through a dangerously intelligent mind. Strangely enough, amidst all that chaos, there are moments of clarity that as wrapped in deep thoughts and tinged with nihilism as the rest of the book:
“I want to believe in God, but I don’t. I believe in the extinguishment of consciousness. Oblivion. Nothingness. I have episodes in which I race to the conclusion of my life, the tail-end of my spacetime worm, and realize, hopelessly, palpably, that I, like everyone and everything that has ever lived, will fucking die!”
Battle Without Honor or Humanity: Volume 1 is at once unique and a project that fits perfectly with the rest of Wilson’s oeuvre; an uncanny, brilliant, borderline inexplicable collection of stories that break every rule in the book and shine while doing so. Fans of great (meta)fiction should pick this one immediately because the next one is almost here, and their brains will need some time to mend after the pleasurable pummeling this one delivers.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of Zero Saints, Gutmouth, Hungry Darkness, and a few other things no one will ever read. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.