Have you ever read Thomas Wiloch? If not, maybe you should. Don’t just take my word for it. Thomas Ligotti says Wiloch is writing “what deserve to be included among the best prose poems ever written in any language.” And like Ligotti, Wiloch has been quietly working away in relative obscurity in his own “niche” for two decades, developing a one-of-a-kind approach to a form he almost entirely owns. Wiloch writes surrealist short-short pieces, often no longer than a page long, that are as philosophical as they are whimsical, as clever as they are poetic, and as disturbing as they are intelligent — easy to read prose-poems and vignettes that pull language together as tight as a pirate’s knot on an iron anchor.
We don’t see books by Thomas Wiloch very often, but his latest book, Screaming in Code, is a great introduction to what he’s all about, enhanced with whimsical photocollages generously contributed by the author himself on virtually every page. It’s a slim chapbook, 58 pages perfect bound, printed nicely with a glossy color cover (whose only flaw, perhaps, is the thin paper stock used for the book cover). If you’re a fan of flash fiction, short-shorts, or prose poems, you’ll like what Wiloch is screaming (though often with a tongue in cheek or with a gentle whisper).
Screaming in Code assembles 35 new pieces by Wiloch, launching off with the clever instructional guide, “How to Read this Book” — a brief and comedic introduction which parodies the label commonly found on those little brown medicine bottles. Its warning (“Do not exceed 8 prose poems in 24 hours or read for more than 10 days”) suggests that these capsules of fiction are not to be popped like pills, but savored like everlasting hard candies. If not, Wiloch writes, then “In case of accidental overdose, take a warm TV show to induce vomiting.” Writers often take easy jabs at television, but this playful short parody (whose ending I’ve unfortunately given away) makes a poignant meta-comment about how Wiloch sees his art, pulling in big topics like education, mass culture and media literacy along the way, all in less than seventy-five words. This clever opener both acknowledges and dispenses with any notion that these stories are designed for “short attention span” reading; they are deceptively easy to consume, and sadly, we do need to be taught how to read work like this because they’ve become so unfamiliar to today’s media saturated audiences.
If I’m reading too much into this one piece, it’s because many of the stories in Screaming in Code seem only to be whimsically humorous musings upon first read, but upon re-reading, their deeper existential messages and subversive literary meanings creep up on you. In my favorite in the book, “Tell Me I’m Wrong,” we listen to a narrator making an argument that gets more and more disturbing (and yet funny) as it develops, beginning with a very scientific hypothesis (that the human body is not composed mostly of water, but of atoms and orbiting particles…in other words, mostly nothing)…and then precedes to use this logic to plead his innocence in a crime. I don’t want to say more, because I’d give the whole thing away, but it’s a brilliant twist of logic and language that made me laugh, made me nod, and made me wish I’d written such an ingenious little story. Most of the stories in Screaming in Code got the same reaction out of me. And the ideas stuck with me for so long after I’d read them that days later I’d return to the book and read them again, encountering nuances I hadn’t realized were there lurking in the writing all along.
In “The Performers,” we’re told about all the strange plans a performance artist has for a bowl of blood, only to learn about another artist’s even darker intentions. In “The Corpse Who Went for a Walk,” we get a little anecdote about a dead body who cavalierly pays a visit to a convenience store to get “some air freshener…maybe a couple of magazines” only to have the tables turned on him. In “Tiny White Skulls” we’re given a catalog of all the fun uses that human bone can be put to. These are horror stories as much as they are absurdist parables. All of them are no longer than they need to be. All of them are brilliant.
The title, Screaming in Code, suggests that the book might be a work of cyberpunk, but it’s probably more accurate to say this book is about existential horror: the title is a statement about the limits of language, and how we struggle to connect and communicate in a world where, really, the only thing that passes between us is letters, digits, symbols, and code. Writers like Wiloch don’t just scream in code — they bathe in it like a performance artist with a peculiar bowl of blood — and if they seem to be screaming, it’s no so much in caution as it is so that you’ll pay more attention to the meanings it harbors and the mysteries it holds.
Maybe we should be paying more attention to Thomas Wiloch, too. Because he is certainly paying attention to us.