Insane-O-Tron by Nick Alverson is a collection of stories that lives up to its title: Insane. Here we find a universe where the most absurd television show imaginable becomes a number one hit (in which a man has affections for a bed of mashed potatoes), the most sterling haircut in history becomes sentient and leads an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt, an earwig named Ernie, and other wildly ridiculous tales. It’s a page turner by virtue that you’ll be wondering just what Alverson comes up with next. There’s no possible way to guess what’s going to happen, you’ll just have to sit back for the ride.
This is absurdist comedy at its best. The first story veers a bit towards satire, in which an out of work comedy writer is tasked with resurrecting the ratings of a milquetoast family drama (see the mashed potato reference above). One could think that Alverson is lampooning the state of TV and this is where we’re headed – a world where “Ow, My Balls!” is the top rated show (an “Idiocracy” reference, if you haven’t seen it). The difference is that the show the writer creates actually sounds a whole lot more entertaining than the show he’s fixing. So it’s less a satire of where we’re heading and more a question of: what if imagination was able to run wild and there was no longer any filter? The results aren’t offensive, they’re just…weird.
And that’s why these stories are so entertaining. Alverson could have gone down a more common route: becoming more degraded and revolting. What’s refreshing about Insane-O-Tron is that the absurdity is actually kind of innocent – even the guy with the mashed potatoes. The scenarios are too silly to make you feel gross. More, these stories open you up to the possibilities of imagination, in which anything is possible. There should be more books like Insane-O-Tron.
There’s a review posted about this book that says it’s “too random.” That’s sort of like saying Salvador Dali is “too surreal.” Not putting Alverson on the level of Dali (not yet!) but it’s surreal randomnness is what makes this book so fantastically entertaining. Insane-O-Tron is beyond dreamlike into a world of pure imagination. The closest equivalent would be Bizarro horror fiction, but Bizarro tends to try to out-horror and out-shock with each new absurdity.
Yet at the same time the stories are not so surreal to lose any sense of reality. Alverson has created a world in which the absurd becomes familiar. Obviously, a talking haircut is “unrealistic,” but in Alverson’s universe, these things happen regularly and no one really bats an eyelid – and that makes it funnier.
The weakest part of the book is the cover, and that’s a shame. It speaks more of a graphic novel, and though these stories would do very well to be illustrated, they’re not, and the artistry of the prose is better than the artistry of the cover.
Overall, it’s a boldly inventive trip through one writer’s uniquely twisted mind. You’ll never read another book like Insane-O-Tron and there may be no higher praise.