Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quirks, Quarks, Quacks

A quirk is an individual, notional variation of behavior from an anticipated norm. We classify a person, place, or thing, indeed even a story as quirky if it scoots along the boundaries of convention for a last-minute lunge at whim. It is perhaps more useful and convenient to measure quirkiness in terms of what it does not have, such as gravitas. You would never consider a quirky person to have gravitas; integrity, yes; gravitas, no. Just as the white Russian drinks in The Big Lebowski are divided into floaters and mixers, there are two kinds of stories, the quirky and the mixers, the former leading us along in picaresque misadventure, the latter taking a trait or two with which the protagonist is afflicted, then mixing them with conventional denouement.


Quick quirk quiz: Pick five quirky titles from the current bestseller list.

Ah, you thought so; can't be done, and yet who, for example, would have thought at the time that Lonesome Dove would have reached such memorable heights with such quirky lead characters as McRae and Call. And yet. Year after year, we watch McMurtry, trying his dangdest to get back into that saddle, going after quirk the way the class nerd goes after the high school homecoming queen.

A quark is a basic constituent of matter, so basic in fact that it can't seem to get by on its own, needs one or more others with whom to hook up in order to get by in this roiling universe of quarks, quirky writers, and--well, we'll get to that in a bit. The great resident irony that comes from comparing quirks and quarks in the same essay or paragraph is that the more we become absorbed by our craft to the point of recognizing the importance of individuality, the more we are likely to establish some soft of attraction/repulsion relationship (on the order of the polarity of magnetism) with others of quirky nature or, having considered ourselves burned in previous relations, with persons of a more conventional nature. There is, of course, no simple answer, relationships being what they are, but it relates to quirks as it does to quarks that either connection, two quirks or a quirk and a conventional, will provoke story where story is least expected.

Were you to look beyond the simplistic definition of a quark being a basic element of matter, out on a quantum search for a hook-up, you would quickly discover that there are six known types of quarks with such glorious names as up, down, top, bottom, strange, and colors, each with a particular quality and affinity, making you aware that misadventures of attraction are not only possible in the world of quantum physics, they are likely.

You look about you then, aware that the conventional is only a rendition of some statistical average or mean. If you wait patiently, look with discernment, you will find the quirky story to write, the conventional story to render as quirky, the cosmic equivalent of Shakespeare having written The Big Lebowski. Similarly, if you watch with a discerning eye, you will find yourself, as you have noted for some time, drawn to the person most likely to lead you toward unconventional behavior in the throes of which you will produce behavioral quarks and enhance as muscle memory such quirks as you have gathered along your way.

Quacks also have a duality. The most common association with the word is the individual who is an impostor, a phony, an egregious conflation of self-ascribed gravitas, authenticity, and posturing. You know relatively few of these, one in particular you have come to admire in a grudging sort of way, his relentless quackery serving as a role model for the benefits of persistence. There are times when you are in his presence that you want to do what one of your favored characters in Thorne Smith's Rain in the Doorway did, which is to quack loudly as though in imitation of a duck, a lovely, near-romantic distraction for you because of friendships you cherished in your late teens and early twenties where you and your chums co-opted the very service organization Smith had created, The Kiarians, using the trope of a duck loose in the room as a glorious way to distract yourselves from convention and boredom. At one point, you and your compatriots would seat yourselves in different locales in a movie theater. When the performance reached a dull or overly predictable stasis, one of you would call out, "Is there a duck in the room?" To which from the other side of the theater would come the discovery, "I heard a duck over here." From that point, teen-aged humor hit high gear, a gear you are still ambivalent about having outgrown--a constituent perhaps of your own quirkiness.

When you first discovered Holden Caulfield and his own response to phoniness, you had some faint hope that there would be more, that he would show an understanding or approach that would keep him memorable as a guardian against the tsunami of duality that emerges with the progression of experience. But he was headed toward the kind of breakdown you hoped to avoid. In a sense, quacks have taught you to be wary, first of the quack within you, then the quackery about you.

It may seem to you when you look this essay over for potsherds and artifacts that you considered yourself at this point to have achieved some sort of detachment and/or understanding of The Way Things Work, but this paragraph is intended to remind you that your understanding is still waiting for an explanation. In your took kit, along with the awareness of Quirks, Quarks, and Quacks are the tools of wariness and mischief, which may not quite yet have gotten you into as much trouble as a writer can experience.

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