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eyeballs growing all over me … again

by Tony Rauch

Eraserhead Press

October 2010

$10.95

Perhaps I can explain the draw of Tony Rauch’s new book, eyeballs growing all over me … again, rather quickly through one analogy: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984, Chris Van Allsburg). Harris Burdick was a collection of illustrations by Van Allsburg, each accompanied by a title and a single line of text. The goal, according to elementary school teachers, was to make children think creatively and come up with stories incorporating the text and the picture. “Mr. Linden’s Library,” a picture of a sleeping girl and vines sprouting from the binding of an open book in front of her, sparked a sea of creative juices from excited fifth graders; eyeballs does the same thing for the more mature reader.

Rauch’s eyeballs, the perfect solution to that artistic funk that visits us more often than we would like, is almost as if Tim Burton had injected some of his slightly darker ideas into van Allsburg’s illustrations. But while Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories (1997) was often downright disturbing, eyeballs growing all over me … again carries a stream of strangely cheerful acceptances of the extraordinary goings-on throughout most of these tall tales.

On the surface, the stories — sometimes a few pages long and other times only a few paragraphs long — all seem incredibly far-fetched and ridiculous. But for as many times as Rauch reaches out and explores the exciting other worlds, he clings onto stark reality. “Send krupac through the portal” tells the tale of a young man who decides to journey through parallel universes. His motives, however, are less lofty: The young man’s state of mind is not unlike post-Summer Tom in (500) Days of Summer, and he sojourns in the hopes that somewhere out there, his love interest will reciprocate his feelings. A fleeting sense of foreboding comes from Hinrich, a man who had tried unsuccessfully to gain the affections of his love in life after life: “He has a sad look about him — far-away eyes, furrowed brow, sunken cheeks, as if he has been living with the same uncertain burden hanging over his head for years and years.”

Such lucidity also comes in the form of unlikely characters and situations. There’s the paperboy-spy, a minor with that kind of wisdom and understanding that only children have, who encounters a scientist growing identical humanoids in fish tanks in his basements. (Incidentally, he also makes me want to belt out “Little People” from Les Misérables.) The poor protagonist in “giant chicken menacing from above” brings together comedy and tragic social commentary, bemoaning, “I try everything — poking fun at the inner existentialism of the lonely starkness of the modern design magazines, inciting brawls and rural pancake houses, faking flamboyant panic attacks at solemn basilicas … — hoping to find the secret of life hidden amongst its many layers of meaning.” In “people have been drifting away lately,” Rauch describes a world where “you’ll see someone scattering down the street, flat as can be, caught in the wind like an old newspaper.”

Most unnerving is the nonchalance with which all the characters face the weirdness that they encounter. In “the eyes,” a boy reveals a metallic skeletal structure underneath the skin of his arm, and none of his friends are particularly shocked: “‘Randy, are you a robot?’ Dolly wondered politely, as if concerned.”

The ending to each of these tales is often anti-climactic, and often humorous. Are we ever meant to really know what is going on? Probably not. But in the bizarre situations that Rauch crafts, we often see reality: Somehow those subtle layers of completely implausible situations reopen that door outside the box. It’s an escape from the MIT grindstone — and a way out of the dreaded artistic funk.