The Big Idea: Benjamin Parzybok
Now that the election is over, it’s time to turn to really important things: Like books about couches and maybe saving the world. And you ask: does such a book truly exist? And I say, why, yes, it does, since Couch, by Ben Parzybok, has hit the shelves this very week. This quirky and delightful book features three friends taking a not-necessarily-willing road trip with a big orange couch –like you do — but that’s not what it’s actually about. As for what it’s about, well, this is a Big Idea piece, so I’ll just hand the microphone over to the author, and he can tell you himself.
Couch is not the book I thought I was going to write.
I thought I was writing the story of three outcasts disheartened by the state of the world who come up with the hair-brained notion that civilization has failed. They decide the remedy is to carry civilization back to where it started. Obviously this is impractical – the bridges, the buildings – and so they take up their large, natty, orange couch as a stand-in and begin to carry it to the Middle East.
It was to be a sort of nerdy reverse Westward Expansion, a Quixotic journey of three guys shedding passivity, with a dash of Donner party and Tolkien thrown in.
However, during the writing of the book I moved to South America. The magic of the place was deeply infectious. Walk from your apartment to the grocery store and you’ve tread over a bedrock of forgotten civilizations. The town in which I lived was built on top of an Incan town, the Incans built over the top of the Cañaris, the Cañaris conquered and built over those that had been there before. Who knew how many mysterious layers lay below that?
All of this was lost knowledge. Which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer? Which had surmised the essential building blocks of the universe or spoken in a language that allowed access to an entirely different part of the brain? Have a quick look at the following list of languages:
Aikaná, Andoque, Betoi, Camsá, Canichana, Cayubaba, Cofán, Culle, Gamela, Huamoé, Irantxe, Itonama, Jotí, Karirí, Kawésqar, Kukurá, Mapudungun, Movima, Munichi, Nambiquaran, Natú, Omurano, Otí, Pankararú, Pirahã, Puquina, Sabela, Taushiro, Tequiraca, Ticuna, Tuxá, Warao, Xokó, Xukurú, Yámana, Yuracaré, Yuri, Yurumanguí.
These are all South American languages – most of them extinct – with no connection to any other language (called Language Isolates). They are entirely unique. Imagine making your own language completely from scratch. What did they talk about when the field was plowed? But we know we’ve lost a lot of knowledge, we’re shedding it like bad fashion. We’re homogenizing the planet’s genetic library as fast as we’re able, it seems, we’re sucking the air out of cultures with television and pop culture, and we’ve had huge losses of knowledge throughout history. One could ask: Had the Library of Alexandria – at one time the greatest repository of knowledge the world had ever seen – not been destroyed some 2000 years ago, would we already be living in a science fiction universe with space elevators and disposable bodies?
My research and my characters diverged, and for an uncomfortable week I watched them watching me from up there, in Portland, Oregon, stranded by this new information, until I gave the author’s dog whistle and signaled that, yes, they could come down to South America, if they liked.
What none of us had realized all this time was that the couch they carried was a particularly strange one. It was a willful thing – impossibly heavy unless you carried it in the direction that, presumably, it wanted to go. It caused those who sat on it to fall into a comatose sleep. It floated. So off they set with this naughty couch, slowly understanding that they had something special and dangerous, a relic from another time. Something, perhaps, from a culture that’d gone on developing and evolving untouched by outside influence, lost deep in the Andes, like a parallel universe. And the couch itself contained within it something so powerful and compelling that it had been pursued throughout history.
This was unfamiliar territory for me. I was down in Ecuador and slowly writing my characters toward me in their journey, and growing increasingly aware that I was writing a book that had started in reality which was moving to some sort of extra-reality. I had fancied myself a fellow who enjoys, but generally skirts around the idea of magic in a book. It was during this time that myself and a few friends took a trek deep into the Andes accompanied by a mule to a place the locals warned we’d be killed, a moonshining, smuggler’s village accessible only by a two day journey on foot. There were no roads, no electricity, no cultural invasion, and that separation from ‘civilization’ seemed to enable a special kind of reality there. It was a truly idyllic place, where fish were kept in water holes in your front yard, where weather seemed to crash in in every incarnation, all at once (the village elevation was 12,000 feet), where you kept hundred gallon barrels of moonshine in your bedroom and started off the day siphoning a plug or two. There was a healer. There was a deaf girl who’d invented her own signs to communicate with others in the village. There were sheep in the hills and the men spoke to their horses. Legend and history were inseparable.
It was here that I arrived at another ‘big idea’ – that myth is a word modern society makes up because the reality seems incomprehensible within a western-minded framework of civilization. Modern society essentially negates the possibility of the real story. Through this new lens I began to question all of history and mythology, trying to sort out the what ifs if certain parts were inverted.
It was through all of this that my characters walked, Thom, Tree and Erik. My main character, Thom, is a sensible, reasonable person. A computer programmer who believes in logic, and he chronicles his struggle with this transition from the realistic to the fantastical as they wind their way ever deeper into the mysteries of the couch. Tree is the opposite, a specimen from some other world thrust into a body and time he doesn’t ever quite seem to understand, so dominated by his own dreams they overlap into waking. And Erik, a failed con-man and an impulsive, accident-prone mouth-piece for their journey, has, unbeknownst to him, deep ties to where they’re going.