Vanilla Bright like Eminem: An exploration of the surreal 0 Comments

Vanilla Bright like Eminem: An exploration of the surreal


It’s no secret that I love a bit of surreal in my writing. A more common term (which I don’t like using as it reminds me of purple stars on bumper stickers) is Magical Realism. However you shod your unicorn, it’s often the case that adding a little dash of non-reality makes your reality all the more interesting and poignant. A perfect example of this is Peter Cary’s short stories, which usually follow a surreal setting through almost incongruously realistic characters. ‘Life and Death in the South Side Pavilion’ for example, where a man worries about his sex life and job security while horses drown in a pool nearby. Or ‘Peeling’, which is quite normal up until, the, uh, human peeling.

A not so perfect example is this collection of short stories by Michel Faber. While Eminem hasn’t really been relevant since this was first published in 2005, I think it’s useful to look at how surreal elements are used in writing, and what the effect is.

There are times in this collection where he gives precedence to the surreal over the plot. This is something we occasionally see in Voiceworks submissions, although Voiceworks writers themselves are better at blending the two (see ‘Tiny Sharks’ in issue #95 for proof).

However it becomes detrimental to the piece when the writer has a really good or original idea and thinks that that alone can drive the narrative. This happens in the very first story in the collection ‘The Safehouse’, which uses the idea of homeless people having tshirts with their life history encoded upon them. At first we are intrigued by what happened to the narrator, how he became homeless, who he really is etc. But while more is revealed about the strange tshirts, we end without knowing anything more about him. This happens again in ‘Explaining Coconuts’ which contains the most absurdly sexual scenes I’ve read in a while:

‘The honey in the male flower,’ she purrs, ‘is secreted by three inter-carpellary or septal glands of the pistillode. In the female flower, the corresponding stigma manifests itself outside the perianth lobes…. Profuse quantities of this fluid pour out through three one-millimetre long orifices or slits.’ And a brief moment later ‘Miss Soedhono’s throat pulsates in satisfaction, whereupon the sixty-six men groan and holler and whimper, each according to his nature.’

But why? What is going on? Are the businessmen in the audience jerking off to the coconut speech, and if so, why? I think this is a fair question and one that isn’t at all answered. Admittedly there’s not many good reasons I can think of to explain sixteen pages of Monocot sex tension, which leads to another idea – maybe surrealism is better left unexplained.

‘The Eyes of the Soul’, a story midway through the collection about magical windows, doesn’t explain anything, but I don’t think it needs to. After setting us up in a realistic public housing estate we are willing to suspend our disbelief when a kind of interactive television is installed in place of the windows in their house. While this surreal element is still the driving force, it’s close enough to reality to not make us question it. In this case, having a mechanical explanation would distract from the story, which is much more about the characters than it is about the windows.

Not all the stories in the collection are surreal, but those that aren’t feel like they’re missing something, or their understanding of the world is a little more uninformed. Magical realism does contribute to Faber’s stories though, and if you use it, or are thinking of doing so, it might be worth considering:

–          Does it add anything to the piece?

–          Does it do so without becoming the sole driving force?

–          Does the reader question the surreal elements?

–          And if so, are those questions answered?


And then go forth and make the magic happen.




Rafael is a pretty dilettante, apocalypse poet and chess fiend. Read more at


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