03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's the Role of Fiction In a World Gone Completely Berserk?

Let's take a measured step back and check out the off-the-charts Insanity Quotient in just one recent episode of the nightly news.

  • A morbidly obese white entertainer with a palpable terror of black men seeks partial ownership of thirty-five virile, ultra-powerful black men who loathe him.

  • Amid epic battles over the future of America, the entire nation stops dead in its tracks to follow a made-for-cable melodrama -- which unfolds like a mystic parable we cannot understand -- about a six-year-old boy supposedly swept up into the sky inside a tinfoil flying saucer that's powered by "helium and a million volts," according to his father, who then phones the local TV station before the police, while the six-year-old -- who, by the way, is also a self-filming scatological white rapper -- either hides in a playhouse to elude his angry folks, or, possibly, colludes with them in a hoax with no apparent meaning.
  • The TV networks celebrate, with colored zigzag graphs and the ritual chanting of Magick Numbers, as the stock market surges past a completely arbitrary number on steroid-like injections of capital from bailed-out banks -- money essentially stolen from the American taxpayer, who will see virtually no profit at all from the Magic Numbers, no joy from the colored zigzags, and will, in fact, only be crushed deeper into misery by the whole damn thing.
  • In a country whose President is a man of mixed race, a Louisiana Justice of the Peace refuses to marry an inter-racial couple because it would make life impossible for their children;
  • And then -- because it's time to downshift into a commercial break! -- we get the ritual "Human Interest Story" (a phrase that always seems kind of strange; who else but humans would really care?) -- which, tonight, is one of those now-familiar bits of Security-Camera Surrealism, in which a wild deer somewhere in the Northwest leaps through the window of a Burger King, hooves clattering on the Coke-slick floor and trampling on discarded french-fry wrappers, as dazed employees in Burger King drag stare at the creature in idle wonderment.
  • All this before the first station-break ... and we haven't even mentioned Glenn Beck yet!

    How is the writer of fiction -- no matter how daring or wildly conceived -- how is the craziest novelist or screenwriter supposed to compete with the local news nowadays?

    I'm certainly not the first person to pose this question, but it seems more and more of a brain-teaser as we head deeper into the 21st century.

    For one thing, everyone's playing to the camera now. The obese entertainer, the Wall Street three-card-monte dealers, the strange dad with his sadly mundane dreams of a reality show -- man, they're such crappy actors! In the language of the actual craft of acting, they're always "indicating" instead of behaving. It's a daunting challenge to write about these people as if they were solid individuals -- without depicting this second self they all carry around, as if constantly checking their own profiles in the mirror.

    For another thing ... well ... Chuck Grassley.

    Chuck Grassley!

    Chuck Grassley is actually a brilliant piece of performance art conceived and enacted by a post-Andy Kauffman, dope-smoking bohemian playwright from NYU.

    Come on ... It's not that much more unlikely than the rest of the evening news, is it?

    For me, more than ever, the writers who best catch the peculiarly American, corn-fed surrealism that pours out from our TV screens are the great absurdists like Terry Southern, Joseph Heller and Bruce Jay Friedman, who've nailed greed and shame as well as anyone. Mark Twain is still, as they say, "right on time;" so are the bold comedians -- Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Bob and Ray. The power of their crazy vision outlives them. You can go back to the work of these writers and comics today, and in many cases, it's like they're providing a running commentary for the CBS Evening News.

    But is there a budding surrealist out there today -- in high school, maybe, an un-noticed but sharp-eyed girl, or a skinny guy biding his time -- who'll bring a fresh eye and voice to the madness all around them, who'll be the Lenny Bruce and Mark Twain of their just-blooming generation?

    If so: hurry, young writers, hurry. We need you.

    Chuck Grassley doesn't seem to be going away.