“Something Super Bizarre and Fucked Up”: Literature as Play with Author Michael Farfel


When was the last time you pretended a stick was a sword? For Manfred Bugsbee, a thirty-something ad designer with a life of routine banality, the answer is a long time ago. For Michael Farfel (he/him), author of slacker fantasy The Reluctant Journey of Manfred Bugsbee, the answer is a lot more recent than that.

“[There’s] an ongoing tension inside me [telling me] I need to be writing, to be creative,” says Farfel. This drive to tell stories has long been a part of Farfel, who grew up swinging sticks at imaginary dragons. As Farfel came of age, he entered the Salt Lake punk/hardcore scene and read alt lit like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol. These influences, combined with Farfel’s playfulness, lead him to the conclusion that when it counts, “There are no rules.”

It is this ethos that drives the narrative of Reluctant Journey. Manfred Bugsbee leads a routine life: he wakes up, goes to work, then goes home. Sometimes, he goes out to a bar with a friend, but he’s more likely than not to stay home and make tea. Farfel upends Bugsbee’s mundane existence when a short elfin wizard claims Bugsbee is the chosen one and hauls him into another dimension.

As Manfred traverses the cosmos, Farfel keeps playing. As the Mindiidus( chosen one) Manfred must learn how to use a mystic weapon to defend reality from the death-worshiping Cloud. During Bugsbee’s journey, Farfel continues to introduce and tinker with well-established fantasy tropes like the gathering of a fellowship, creation myths and signature weapons.

When Farfel sat down to write Reluctant Journey, his intention was not to write a fantasy novel. Indeed, Farfel sat down without much intention at all—other than to play. “It came from a lull in creativity,” says Farfel, “[I just] wanted to see if there was something left.” As Farfel hit creative walls, sparks began to fly, which in turn began stoking his creative fires. Early on came Bugsbee, a “humdrum person that’s kinda sad about the world.” As Farfel continued, he returned to the dragons and punk rock of his youth, hunting for the perfect “super bizarre and fucked-up” thing to progress the story.

Despite writing in a genre heavily codified by trope, Farfel’s anarchistic playfulness meant that he was equally as likely to reinvent an idea as to play it straight. Some ideas were fun enough that they did not need much alteration, like a seasoned badass warrior. Others were remixed, such as taking the idea of a singular dragon and turning it into a hive mind of furry, flying, toothy mammals. Bugsbee himself was a perfect antithesis to Aragorn, a fantasy hero who would rather take a nap than rush to draw his sword. 

Of all Farfel’s subversions, the most potent is of the hero’s signature weapon. Initially an out-of-shape and hapless tag-along, Bugsbee is at first unable to wield any of the Relics, the magical bones of his warrior ancestor. However, as he plays in the realm of fantasy, he comes to believe in himself. Using the power of his mind, Bugsbee uses the Relics to manifest magic hammers and swords that he uses to beat back the destruction of the universe.

By believing that the sticks he swings are indeed swords, Bugsbee saves himself and his universe. The people of the world are freed from the tyranny of the Cloud and Bugsbee is able to make genuine connections with his adventure-mates. Through Reluctant Journey, Farfel argues that play is the most potent cure for malaise and that, in creativity, we find freedom.

Farfel’s book is an excellent romp through fantastical worlds. Find a copy at michaelfarfel.com, on Amazon or at your local bookstore. Keep an eye out this summer for his next novel, Glossy-Eyed, Buzzy Fly.

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