Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Human Fish by Benjamin DeVos. (Eraserhead Press)
The thing about the bizarro genre that I love is how everything is so matter of fact. Why wouldn’t there be a planet full of depressed pickle people and one with a joyous pancake species (The Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island by Cameron Pierce)? Of course, there is a fascist group of lobster people fusing a lobster face to a samurai as punishment (Jimbo Yojimbo by David W. Barbee). From my experience (which I am constantly trying to expand) with the genre, there isn’t any question or explanation behind the surreal choices, and I love that.
When I began Human Fish by Benjamin DeVos, it wasn’t shocking that the main character is literally half human and half fish—mom’s a trout and dad’s a deadbeat human. This is revealed in the first two pages and then we quickly move on. There isn’t a long, drawn out section where DeVos feels the need to defend his choice. The facts are stated and then we’re on to the story. This is what’s so damn invigorating about bizarro: authors write for themselves without worrying they might lose a few readers. And so, I dove all the way into Human Fish.
Following our half-fish/half-human hero, aptly named Human Fish, we go on land after his turtle friend/drug-dealing partner dies from an overdose. It’s the wakeup call Human Fish needs to escape the underwater life he’s unsatisfied with. He never knew his dad and wonders if exploring land will help him find the answers to why this absence gnawed at him. Because of his experience, or innate state of being, he gets a job as a trainer at a water park (akin to SeaWorld), but soon falls back into his self-destructive ways. He begins drinking too much and hanging around degenerates. This leads him to going home with a stripper and getting roped into being an accidental cross-country drug runner.
Human Fish was such a fun and quick read that I was smitten with it. I didn’t think I’d find myself empathizing with a fish man, but here I am wanting more of him.
The bizarro I’ve read tends to revolve around a journey that is far more mundane than any of the fantastical creatures involved. You’d think a story about a human fish would prompt the wackiest of adventures (like, say, Sonic the Hedgehog hitting the road with James Marsden), but in these books, and specifically Human Fish, we’re presented with magical creatures who exist in their world just like we do in ours. They’re extraordinary individuals in ordinary lives. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we look like or what our lives entail—most of us are struggling with the same stuff on a day-to-day basis.
Ready yourself for a dad joke: this is a real fish-out-of-water story. But, for real. Like I said before, Human Fish is working to find his identity. He’s doing all sorts of things to try and balance his life, but nothing’s cutting it. His failure to find harmony is what prompts his corrosive behavior.
Because this is a road trip story, we’re presented with easily digestible sections within an A to B to C plot. There isn’t a lot of complexity in the storytelling and, while that’s not inherently a problem, there were times when I wished DeVos would have lingered a little more on Human Fish and what this all meant to him. There’s a lot of forward action (which makes the reading fly by), but not a ton of introspection coming from our titular character. Am I asking too much of the fish man? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Hit me with the weird and the complex.
Human Fish is a slim novel, coming in at just over a hundred pages. While there are moments I wish would have matured more, over all, Human Fish was such a fun and quick read that I was smitten with it. I didn’t think I’d find myself empathizing with a fish man, but here I am wanting more of him. I want to spend a few more (or, hell, a hundred) pages experiencing the world through his perspective.
And if I haven’t been obvious enough, Benjamin, please write a sequel. Thanks, love you.