Category Archives: Jack Pendarvis

Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

Advance review copies of Sam Lipsyte‘s forthcoming novel, The Ask, include a letter from Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein pondering the fate of the comic novel:

A generation ago, there was no shame in a book’s being funny. Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, the DeLillo of End Zone, etc., etc.—these titans of the sixties and seventies were unabashedly comic writers. Just because they made you laugh it didn’t mean they weren’t great or serious. On the contrary, they aired the dirty laundry of our minds and it made them heroes. (“The most moral writers, as William Hazlitt wrote in his Lectures on the English Comic Writers, “are those who do not pretend to inculcate any moral.”) By being funny they were able to tell the truth.

From there Stein argues the main reason comic novels have “fallen into a kind of desuetude” is the rise of uncensored stand-up comics, who are now the main purveyors of yuks and snappy social criticism for the mainstream. But no stand-up, Stein argues, can offer the “needed nuance and speed” that comic novels provide to their subjects.

I’m not enough of a cultural historian to dispute Stein’s claim about stand-ups—though I do figure that back in the dark ages it was no harder to find a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor LP than it was a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. But it seems clear to me that the comic novel hasn’t fallen into disuse so much as it doesn’t play the culture-shaping role it once did. As with so many other artistic disciplines in the past decade or so, tastes and interests are now so fractured that nobody collectively agrees on anything, and nothing is harder to get people to agree on in the first place than on what makes you laugh. (Maybe the most successful comic novel today would be funny in the way Friends is “funny.”)

Still, my efforts to completely demolish Stein’s argument by pulling out many examples of contemporary comic novels—ones I actually found funny, anyway—have fallen short. That may largely be a function of my reading habits. (After all, Mr. Stein, my shelves are full of books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) But I could start a list with Lipsyte’s Home Land, a nervy and willfully outrageous portrait of a high-school loser approaching middle age. Jack PendarvisAwesome is a raucous send-up of American folk tales from my pick for the best comic writer going; Matthew Sharpe‘s Jamestown takes a similar approach to the founding of America. Nicholas Kulish found plenty of dark ironies in the relationship between the military and the media in Last One In; Ken Kalfus did much the same for 9/11 in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I don’t think of Adam Langer‘s two excellent Chicago-set novels, Crossing California and The Washington Story, as strictly comic, but they do have plenty of laughs, and a consistently genial, witty tone. After that, I mainly wish that George Saunders would write a novel.

But let’s not romanticize the past too much—I didn’t live through the sixties and seventies as an adult, but I suspect laugh-out-loud literary fiction wasn’t much easier to find back then. Remember, the same Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint also wrote The Great American Novel, a clunker as a comic novel and a baseball novel both. The dearth of contemporary comic novels doesn’t mean it died at the meaty, jewel-encrusted hands of Andrew Dice Clay; it’s just proof that the comic novel has always been among the hard tricks in fiction to pull off.

Links: What’s Good for the Country

Detroit receives little care and attention from anybody, including fiction writers. But Brad Leithauser and Susan Messer both have new historical novels set in the city.

Being a midlist author is no way to make money. (While we’re at it, neither is being a midlist rock band.)

Jack Pendarvis‘ always-entertaining blog advent calendar is up and running.

The Atlantic has assembled its literary interviews—with authors like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, and more—in one handy place.

Mark Twain‘s house smells like a haunted house, according to somebody who claims some expertise in these things.

Maybe the New York Times needs a reviewer dedicated to exclusively covering books from independent presses. Though that would imply that books from small presses are somehow inherently different from mainstream books—pursuing such a strategy would wreck the argument that the best small-press books deserve a seat at the adult table, yes?

In the meantime, the Times keeps on crushing the will of debut novelists.

“If [Walt] Whitman wore jeans, he wore them because they were the clothes of the rebellious, not because they were the affordable uniform of the pretty.”

But whatever. These days nobody knows who the hell Ernest Hemingway was anyhow.

Links: First Family

The Center for Fiction has announced the finalists for its first novel prize: Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, Patrick Somerville‘s The Cradle, Paul Harding‘s Tinkers, Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, and John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner. I can strongly endorse both The Vagrants and American Rust—more on the latter soon.

Daniel Menaker catalogs the various agonies of working in the publishing business today. “When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public,” he writes, which rankles Michael Orthofer: “Why not give literary discernment a try?” he asks. I suspect the books reflecting literary discernment don’t get financed without the largesse that’s facilitated only when you luck out at making books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like.

Case in point: MacAdam/Cage, a small press that prides itself on publishing fiction of literary discernment, is having financial troubles. Unfortunately, this means a delay for Jack Pendarvis’ upcoming novel, Shut Up, Ugly, but he’s taking it in stride.

On October 13 in New York, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and others will participate in a reading of documents relating to the torture of detainees.

In related DeLillo news, the new cover for the paperback edition of White Noise is both very attractive and uncannily appropriate—something about illustrator Michael Cho’s style slyly echoes the satirical, pop-culture-soaked tone of the novel.

Leonard Gardner recalls his work on Fat City, both the book and the film. Regarding the fact that he never wrote a second novel, he has a stock answer: “Sometimes you only get to win one championship.”

A reminder that John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t admired in all quarters when it was first published.

In 1908 when burglars broke into Mark Twain‘s home in Redding, Connecticut. Twain would quip shortly after the incident: “Now they (the burglars) are in jail, and if they keep on, they will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can never tell where he is going to stop.”

And American Agriculturist would like to call bullshit on people who compare the works of Michael Pollan et al to Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle.

Links: The Secret History

Joyce Carol Oates recalls the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s “unconscionable, despicable, unmanly and inexplicable behaviour” at Chappaquiddick, and questions whether decades of good behavior as a senator atones for it. This is the “WORST THING I HAVE EVER READ” in the eyes of some, but hey, 26 comments.

The great Jack Pendarvis on how Woody Allen shaped his identity—until he discovered Roy Blount Jr.

Jonathan Lethem tells the Jewish Daily Forward that he’s working on a novel set in Queens during the 50s and 60s.

A brief guide to academic revenge novels.

News to me: Steve Albini writes short stories. He certainly knows how to write a strong opening to an article.

Kevin Canty explains why so many of his story titles are taken from songs. “Nothing mysterious about this,” he says. “I just stink at coming up with titles and somebody’s already done the work for you when they write the song. Why work when you can steal?

Colum McCann
is heading off on a European tour to promote his new novel, Let the Great World Spin, along with musician Joe Hurley, who’s written an EP of songs based on characters in the novel.

Nelson Algren‘s first meeting with Simone de Beauvoir.

Lastly, is your last name Portnoy? Do you have a complaint about something Dan Froomkin wrote? Hoo boy, does Froomkin have a comeback for you!

Hanging Out at William Faulkner’s House With Neko Case

This year’s edition of the Oxford American‘s music issue is a monster, with features on artists from the Residents to Arthur Lee to Jerry Lee Lewis and on and on. There’s plenty I need to get to, but I immediately gravitated to the piece on Neko Case by Jack Pendarvis (who wrote one of my favorite novels of the year). Pendarvis hung out with Case and her band for a few days, and though there wasn’t much drama, they did get to hang out at William Faulkner‘s home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Miss., where everybody got excited about Bill’s typewriter:

[Pedal steel guitarist Jon] Rauhouse ran over and started banging on the keys. Banging on them urgently! The hammers sounded like a machine gun. It was the one time I saw [Rowan Oak curator] Bill Griffith get ruffled. He made suffering gestures. He swallowed something. He stepped forward and in the nicest way imaginable, indeed with no discernable effort, sort of willed Rauhouse to stop.

“I should take your picture sitting at the typewriter,” said Neko. She meant me.

I sat down but couldn’t make myself touch the instrument. Everything about it seemed backwards: Neko Case taking my picture, me sitting there. I was having difficulty throwing myself into the experience. I felt like a rubber glove.

Favorite Books of 2008 (With Some Additional Thoughts on Ha Jin’s A Free Life)

Lately I’ve been thinking that Ha Jin‘s A Free Life, my favorite novel of last year, was published a year too early. In 2007, a novel about one immigrant family’s steady, penny-pinching march toward middle-class American attainment struck a lot of critics as tedious. Walter Kirn‘s evisceration of the book in the New York Times Book Review was typical of the complaints: “Jin’s simple sentences, familiar sentiments, and uneventful three- to five-page chapters that typically end with such pulse-suppressing non-cliffhangers as ‘the day before the Wangs returned, the Wus moved out of the bungalow and set up their residence at 568 March Drive,’ appear to derive from a highly refined aesthetic of anti-excitability.” Today, with the markets in the tank, homes devalued, and unemployment on the rise, I suspect that the exploits depicted in A Free Life would now be seen as at least slightly more dramatic and in step with the present times.

Perhaps the novel’s fate would also have improved had it been published at the same time as Jin’s The Writer as Migrant, a new collection of essays about the writer’s identity—its analysis of the lives and works of Joseph Conrad, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, V.S. Naipaul, and others might have challenged critics not to dismiss Jin’s novel as simplistic and naive. Though Jin doesn’t explicitly discuss A Free Life in the book, The Writer as Migrant makes clear that writing the novel represented some serious decisions about his status: “A writer’s first responsibility is to write well…. On several occasions, I said that I would stop writing about contemporary China. People often asked me, ‘Why burn your bridges?’ or ‘Why mess with success?’ I would reply, ‘My heart is no longer there.’ In retrospect, I can see that my decision to leave contemporary China in my writing is a way to negate the role of the spokesmanship I used to envision for myself. I must learn to stand alone, as a writer.”

I bring all this up in a year-in-review post because A Free Life stuck with me through 2008—I spent some time blogging about it, thinking about why I liked it, and figuring out what it meant for me in terms of what I look for in fiction. I believe that A Free Life does what good contemporary fiction ought to do, at least by my reckoning: bring the news that the news doesn’t bring, and essentialize the feelings of displacement and confusion that come along with living in the early part of the 21st century. If that seems like a reductionist way of looking at fiction, all I can say is that the novels I was most drawn to this year strongly spoke to a concern that, right now, the center isn’t holding. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have brought little physical harm to anybody living safely in the United States, but, on the evidence, it’s fucked with our heads something fierce. There’s no better exemplar of that than August Brill, the sleepless hero of Paul Auster‘s Man in the Dark, who can’t resist working through a fantasy where “America is fighting America.” Auster’s approach to the novel’s structure—narratives nested within narratives, worries within worries—is both a fitting story for 2008 and an enduring achievement within Auster’s own body of work, which has been erratic in recent years.

I didn’t go hunting for allegories of war, or even of emotional displacement, in 2008. I took in plenty of satire, historical fiction, and portraits of contemporary domestic life. Still, standard-issue realism doesn’t seem to matter as much to me in this moment, even if there was plenty of fiction in that vein that I admired, among them Ethan Canin‘s America America, Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth, Matt Bondurant‘s The Wettest County in the World, Daniel Wroblewski‘s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Francine Prose‘s Goldengrove, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland. As much as I respected Netherland‘s formal achievements of style and characterization—you don’t realize how hard it is to find a novel that addresses immigrants with respect and dignity until such a book shows up—it still mainly strikes me as a beautifully formed love letter to New York City that’s boxed in by its own formality. (This is, I know, a much shallower analysis than the book deserves; Zadie Smith‘s recent essay in the New York Review of Books does a nice job of articulating some of what I felt reading Netherland.) The only novel on my list that approaches old-fashioned realism is Lush Life, an impressive portrait of the shifting demographics of a single city neighborhood, dressed up in the clothing of a police procedural. Netherland has much to say about what 9/11 did to the middle-upper class in New York, unquestionably. But Lush Life has room for everybody.

As for the the rest of this list, I should say: I missed tons. Forget Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666; I didn’t have a chance to get to (just to pick a few obvious examples) Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy, Aleksandar Hemon‘s The Lazarus Project, Ron Rash‘s Serena, and Louise Erdrich‘s A Plague of Doves. I would’ve happily traded the week I spent with Joyce Carol Oates‘ overcooked JonBenet Ramsey-esque tale, My Sister, My Love, to get to a couple of those (though I thought that Oates’ collection Wild Nights! was a wholly successful attempt at inhabiting the personas of four American writers). So whether or not it reflects the limits of what I could get to, my list gravitates toward books that exemplify the kind of mindfuck the present times create: In Rivka Galchen‘s and Nathaniel Rich‘s novels, it’s a worry about who’s real and trustworthy, and who isn’t; in Paul Beatty‘s and Andrew Sean Greer‘s novels it’s the interior dialogue about racial identity that’s been a tentpole in American fiction for decades if not centuries; in Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s novel it’s the rootlessness that comes with others applying your identity upon you; in Jack Pendarvis‘ satire it’s the creeping sense that old-fashioned American pride does nothing but make you a punch line. And in Tim Lane‘s EC Comics-inspired, almost willfully cliched graphic stories, it’s an argument that the essential American state of being is noirish—black-hearted, ground-down, covetous, just about ready to crater emotionally and financially.

Lane encourages just this sort of interpretation of the American Dream his afterword to the book:

The America I portray in these stories, especially through the drawings, is a surrealistically exaggerated one—sometimes comical, other times nightmarish. Comics are especially conducive to communicating the American Mythological Drama because there’s something fundamentally comic book-like in all things American—by that, I mean exaggerated, idealistic, huge and somewhat disproportionate; beautiful but not necessarily believable, stylized, idealized. Dysfunctional to the point of functional. Surrealistic. Photogenic. Enigmatic. Dreamy.

I imagine, reading this, that Lane and Auster would get along like a house on fire; Jin, if nothing else, would appreciate Lane’s chosen mission. Figuring out how many of these books will endure is a pointless speculative game. All I’m looking for is the news that the news doesn’t bring, and if somebody wants to know what fictions best captured the emotional pitch of living in 2008, here’s what I’d hand over first:

Paul Auster, Man in the Dark (Henry Holt)
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue (Riverhead)
Paul Beatty, Slumberland (Bloomsbury)
Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Richard Price, Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Tim Lane, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics)
Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! (Ecco)
Jack Pendarvis, Awesome (Macadam/Cage)
Rudolph Wurlitzer, The Drop Edge of Yonder (Two Dollar Radio)

Responding to Reviewers

Conventional wisdom has long dictated that writers aren’t supposed to respond to reviewers—except, perhaps, in cases where egregious errors of fact are involved. But Jack Pendarvis addresses a middling review of his debut novel, Awesome, in the New York Times Book Review sensibly. Which is to say he notes the complaints and preserves his sense of humor. Perhaps only satirists should get to do this:

Then the reviewer ends the paragraph like this, as if she were put up to a dare of some sort: “Fee fie foe fun!” (Exclamation point hers.) I will go out on a limb and say that “‘Fee fie foe fun!’ – The New York Times” is going to be plastered all over the cover of the paperback. So be it! The reviewer is less entranced by my “***** jokes” (WARNING: the “link” is full of racy quotations), of which she gives several examples, some of which, truth be told, appear kind of shameful when they’re laid out there cold on the slab like that. As a counterweight, I’d like to “link” here to some kind words from a feminist (she starts out suspicious but I win her over by the last paragraph) who mentioned some of the same ***** jokes and seemed to appreciate what I was “going for” in context. Why do I feel the need for a “counterweight”? It’s untoward! Nobody likes a whiny writer! No book review is ever good enough for a precious, precious writer like myself! The New York Times reviewer did a fine job!

Related to reviewers and reviewing: I have a post up on the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, about writing about books for alternative weeklies. The timing is a bit awkward: I wrote the piece a couple of weeks back, and if I knew then what I know now, perhaps I would have changed a few things. But I do think that the basic point of making oneself flexible as a writer—yes, fine, “media producer”—still stands. If anything, that point is more critical than ever.

Giant Steps

The L Magazine speaks with Jack Pendarvis about his new novel, Awesome, a story about a ridiculously egotistical giant stomping across America in an effort to regain the affections of his lady love. (A review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is forthcoming now online; I was very smitten with his 2007 story collection, Your Body Is Changing.) I think the new novel is more of a cultural satire than Pendarvis is willing to confess, and that his characters are less well-adjusted than he’ll say—but that’s part of the fun. Pendarvis tells the magazine:

In retrospect I saw that there might be a few political or cultural applications of the character of Awesome. And I suppose the impulse to create the character was cultural in a small way: I had noticed that lots of reviewers referred to my characters as “losers.” Whether I got a bad review or a wonderful review, people used that word. I thought, you know, “Reviewers must be the most mentally healthy and successful people on the planet,” because my characters are just — or so I thought — people with problems, and we all have problems. I thought, “What’s a winner? Should I write about a winner? Has there ever been a book about a winner? Is a winner somebody with no problems… a sexy, rich, handsome, giant with zero self-doubt?”

Roundup: Great Plains Drifter

  • Laurie Muchnick, writing at Bloomberg News, has a guide to some recent Brooklyn lit.
  • Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff nicely ties–coils, even–together the multiple authors who’ve obsessed over Nikola Tesla.
  • Kent Haruf (Plainsong) and photographer Peter Brown discuss their book about the Great Plains, West of Last Chance, at the Rocky Mountain News. (The Photo-Eye Web site has some sample images, which call to mind Richard Misrach‘s dusty western landscapes, though Brown’s photos of people are compelling as well.)
  • If you’re in Mississippi next weekend, the Oxford Conference for the Book has an interesting lineup of readings. The conference theme is the work of Zora Neale Hurston, though the schedule looks to be wide-ranging–the Jack Pendarvis-Susan Choi reading in particular looks like fun.
  • Michael Cunningham isn’t interested in what Michiko Kakutani has to say: “I don’t read that shit. Any of it. The good reviews or the bad,” he told an audience at Boston’s Northeastern University. “The bad ones feel like they’re true and the good ones feel like you just fooled that one reviewer.” (Kakutani said that Cunningham’s 2005 novella collection, Specimen Days, “reads like a clunky and precious literary exercise….nothing but gratuitous and pretentious blather.”)

The Southern Thing

The Mobile Press-Register has a profile of publisher MacAdam/Cage, which has used the financial boost it received from Audrey Niffenegger‘s The Time-Traveler’s Wife a few years back to launch a cottage industry supporting Gulf Coast writers. The breadth of the Southern fixation is news to me, though I liked Jack Pendarvis‘ 2007 story collection, Your Body Is Changing, which MacAdam/Cage published. (Before that, I just thought of it as the house that published Stephen Elliott.) From the piece:

“There’s a complete disconnect between literature and corporate culture,” says [publisher David] Poindexter. “Corporations need a short-term payoff. They have to make shareholders happy by increasing profits every quarter. So corporate publishers need books that will make money this quarter.” These books are rarely great works of literature. “Literature takes a long time to develop,” explains Poindexter. “It’s like growing trees instead of corn.” In every way, he has positioned his own company so he can grow those trees. “After all,” he observes, “what props up the New York houses are their backlists of great titles from the past, which were generated by the business model they’ve now discarded.” Poindexter is attempting to put that model back into play.

(Via)