The following is excerpted from Manifesto: Maximalist Expressionism, or “Shut/-/Up(!) Fiction”.
Always With a Bit of Laughter
If there’s one thing I’ve taken from works of the authors I admire it’s the role humor and high-spiritedness can play in making fiction come alive. It seems to me fiction should bring to bear the full spectrum of human experience, but that it too often neglects fun and games, play, the belly laugh. Such things, it seems to me, engage the reader and are necessary to balance out and contrast against both the novel’s more serious moments and the degree of seriousness with which both writer and audience approach the work. I don’t know, maybe such a way of looking at things results from the species of postmodernism to which I subscribe, one that would hold as suspect any work that doesn’t mitigate against its own self-importance or seriousness. No matter how well intentioned, the Albert Camuses of the world are really only inches away from the Adolf Hitlers. (Perhaps not the most politically correct observation to make, but nonetheless one in which I happen to believe.) Shakespeare, after all, broke the tension with a little silliness and slapstick now and then. Some writers just can’t (or won’t) do it (Anaïs Nin comes to mind), and their prose, it seems to me, seems flawed by self-importance.
Having said this, two satirists come to mind: William Burroughs and Evelyn Waugh. Take the following passage from Burroughs’ novel The Place of Dead Roads in which one of the major themes involves a quest for immortality (talk about your themes of self importance!). Here he talks about the limits of mummification as a means for achieving immortality:
“Might as well face facts … my mummy is going downhill. Cheap job to begin with … gawd, maggots is crawling all over it … the way that demon guard sniffed at me this morning ….” Transient hotels …
And here you are in your luxury condo, deep in the Western Lands … you got no security. Some disgruntled former employee sneaks into your tomb and throws acid on your mummy. Or sloshes gasoline all over it and burns the shit out of it. “OH … someone is fucking with my mummy ….”
To my mind an absolutely hysterical passage, it seems to me a case could be made that what writers, after all, are doing is mummifying their consciousness in prose. But, no matter how good, no matter how much the writer believes in it, there’s always going to be someone, at some time, ready to “fuck with your mummy.” Or at least re-inscribe it in ways you never would have dreamed of. Seems to me a good sense of humor can help a writer come to terms with this fact and the same time ally himself with his reader: “We’re all in this together. I’d like to be the one to show you the way, but I’m not sure of it myself. And even if I was some careerist would come along and burn the map.” Even Beckett was not without a sense of humor in his work, and he’s depicted an image that seems applicable to those writers who are: a palace guard, wanting to adjust the tassel atop his busby, finds he can’t reach up that high. So, he gets himself a step-ladder, climbs up on it, and tries again.
I would imagine every writer is taken with the urge to comment on the social ills she sees about her, and Evelyn Waugh certainly had an enormous target in taking on the English school system in Decline and Fall. In this work, however, Waugh skillfully and wisely avoids the trap of falling into some strident diatribe. His novel painlessly foregrounds the brutality and emptiness of the English “public” school system with prose that jabs the reader’s face into a sustained and bemused smirk from which every other page or so bursts a guffaw. Using the “high tone” of Brit aristocracy, Waugh explodes it in a way at once uproarious and politically charged. Never, however, does it lapse into the irritating realm of the holier-than-thou.
Along with humor should come as sense of play. And what better way to play than with words. Naturally, Joyce springs readily to mind. Take any random sample from Ulysses:
I t had better be stated here and now at the outset that the perverted transcendentalism to which Mr. S. Dedalus’ (Div. Scep.) contentions would appear to prove him pretty badly addicted runs directly counter to accepted scientific methods.
Joyce knew well all manner of prose and speech rhythms and deploys them in the dense play of his novel. Truly a novel of the word, it works for me to restore a delight in language even as it deploys its various abuses, debasements and exhaustions.
A contemporary writer excellent at this sort of recuperative play is Mark Leyner. Leyner can begin a sentence in a massage parlor in Hoboken and end it on the rings of Saturn and, in so doing, delight a reader grateful for having had the trip of that sentence, a sentence that focuses the reader’s attention back to the building blocks of language: words. Hopefully, the reader will leave the book with a heightened awareness of language and its potential. This from the chapter “Colonoscope Night” in his novel My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist:
bathed in the cobalt radioluminescence of 10,000 ufo surveillance beams, aloisio de oliveira, rio de janeiro’s most celebrated gastroenterologist/playboy languorously nuzzles the damp spicy baudelairean armpits of his 14-year-old lover arleen portada lead singer for brazil’s most notoriously nihilistic samba band the nice maclords splayed hairlessly at the foot of a graffiti-splattered sliding pond her bra is made out of french-fried potatoes with lacquered daubs of sweet brazilian ketchup at each nipple it sells for well over 10,000 brazilian yen at rio’s most fashionable boutiques
A kind of recombinant dna of prose, Leyner’s style wrenches together the rhythms of advertising, science, the corporate world, teen slang, war room jargon, you-name-it—all those ways in which, as Barth observed, language becomes exhausted by society—and (re)presents it in an outlandish, hysterical, and fresh, format. Is it a “true” novel, I doubt it. But Leyner’s example has encouraged me to “pump up” the language in passages of my work, stretch it, play with it, see what it can do. There’s work to be done in this sort of play, and the work is that of doing what you can to keep the language fresh. I’ll leave off with a passage from my novel Flicker in the Porthole Glass in which I engage in this sort of play, a passage that certainly would not have informed my work, would not have saved it from its tone of self-importance, had I not read the work of folks like Joyce and Leyner:
Frank Lloyd Wright most certainly did not erect a prairie home in suburban Philadelphia. That’s what the wife told me. She said it and I believed her. Frank Lloyd Wright, I said, took American and made it into a house. She looked me squarely in the eye and told me that she’d had just about enough of my Madison Avenue heteroglossia and that if I couldn’t extract the vitamins D, B12, and A—not to mention the zinc, beta carotene, and YooHoo chocolate soda—out of my increasingly homogenized, soulless life I could just pack it in and lay my head on the hardest pillow in the darkest corner on a bed crawling with bedbugs and flied lice in that hospice for the terminally market-defined in East Parma, Ohio. Get thee there, she said by way of emphasis … I held up my putter and, using the plumb-bob method, gauged the break of my wife. She breaks a bit to the left, I thought. I fell in love with her priestly smirk and suddenly the room was filled with our laughter. You are my rotten emu egg, she cooed. I’ll drag your intestines through the rose bushes, I gushed.