This article by Michael Hirschorn from the Atlantic Monthly, entitled Quirked Around, could easily be expanded to be an encyclopedic cultural history of the mid-90s to the present. Quirk. The word makes me shudder. The word has caused me to put down many modern novels after a page and a half. And yet quirk is so well integrated into our contemporary literary, comedic, and cinematic standards, that it’s really impossible to escape. And I’m not totally sure I’d be able to say goodbye. I read the Atlantic article on my laptop while watching Home Movie, a quirky documentary directed by the same guy who made American Movie, the quirky documentary about the sub-par, mid-Western, horror movie director Mark Borchardt. Home Movie is about a handful of eccentric characters across the United States and their bizarre homes. There’s a Louisiana man who lives on a houseboat and sells alligator heads to tourist shops. There’s a flute-playing, drum-circling couple who inhabit an underground missile launch site in Kansas. There’s a former Japanese sitcom star who looks like the Joker and lives in a treehouse in a remote Hawaiian jungle…You get the idea. It’s all very fascinating, to tell you the truth, and there’s a part of me that wishes I had “discovered” these people. I could have stolen them for a book. How could you not fall prey to the quirk, in spite of your best intentions? It reminds me of a conversation I had with my cousin Nick who lives in Brooklyn [most excellent Nick, most excellent Alice, their kickass life together with loaded guns, great captions, & NYU photo school degrees]. We were sitting in a hip neighborhood bar in Red Hook, on a street which was the last street I would expect to find a hip neighborhood bar, on a street where grizzled old men rode bikes with ancient fishing poles strapped to their backs, where the door to the bar looked like it had been built out of weathered sailing ships, and Nick said that there was no such thing as authenticity anymore. It seems like the minute you find a genuine dive bar in Brooklyn, where locals have been drinking beer for decades before the college kids started gentrifying the neighborhood, where the jukebox hasn’t been refurbished to play only Rolling Stones and David Bowie jams, you immediately make the place uncool and inauthentic just by being there. Because you secretly know you don’t belong. You are one of the enemy. The bartender who wears an eye patch because he’s actually missing an eye, and not because he thinks it’s funny to look like a pirate, should refuse you service. You don’t belong because you’re outside looking in. Suddenly you’re peering suspiciously around the bar, judging how “real” everything is, to what extent the regulars lack self-awareness, whether any drink specials involve PBR. You’re judging the other hipsters who walk in two minutes late to the new scene. YOU were there first. You discovered the place.
I’m getting way off track here. Let me try to bring this back around.
I think the problem with quirkiness is the same as the problem with finding a normal bar in Brooklyn. You’re staring too hard. You’re forcing it. You don’t need to watch an eccentric alligator herdsman to feel interested in humanity. Look in the mirror sometime. You’re special too, without having to be obsessed with styrofoam solar system dioramas or owl poop. Your novel doesn’t have to be about the train conductor with a three-legged hamster who sits on his shoulder. Your hipster bar with the hipster tennis shoes dangling from the hipster bar stools is an authentic place too. The people who are just being themselves and having real human emotions and real human lives without any bullshit, contrived quirks, are always going to be better “subjects” than the dime-a-dozen, “I have a thousand cats,” “my back is tattooed with pictures of the Rice Krispies guys,” kind of people. Before you can write great fiction, or be comfortable sitting with your friends at any bar (and I’m a long way from both), you’ve got to accept that you yourself are okay, that you yourself are a real “character,” deserving of the best and the worst beers, without all the witty, quirky accessorizing.