One of the most popular but least talked about media phenomena probably stares you in the face each morning as you sip you latte and fumble a piece of crumb cake inward: the comics.
In the one just below, you get a commentary on books, the modern attention span, and – by implication – the ability of visual media to draw us away from the written word.
In the next one, you partake of a commentary on the 21st century's nouveau-riche, on the financial sector's disengagement from the rest of us, and on the sense of self-absorption (read: selfishness) that seems to preoccupy a large portion of society today – but one relieved of its vitriol via a charming baby and his dog pal (Dog Eat Doug).
When we think of social commentary in the comics, we usually think of Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore – the two strips editors usually exile to the editorial pages. But social and political commentary needn't be all that overt, as these two strips show. Humor, well orchestrated, can be as sharp as the sword, as pithy as the pen – but gentle enough to draw us into the lesson is seeks to teach.
For whatever reason, I've kept humor writing at arms length as my chops have developed. So as I near the finish line for a twelve-story series about life and love in and around an Alabama pool hall called Sam's Place, the need for humor came calling.
I knew that one key to humor is in exaggeration – of personalities and situations. Seeking more insight from a trusted source, I called on Ron Hansen's short book, Isn't It Romantic? and there I found one more humor card to play, one that more or less fits my story's situation. In Hansen's book, much of the humor comes from a clash of two cultural groups: a group of French tourists and a midwest U.S. township's denizens. Just hinting at that juxtaposition brings smiles, doesn't it?
In my case, a stuffy Texas bigwig happens on a group of Sam's Place regulars. The group proceeds to attack the Texan's pretentiousness, led by a mischievous drunk intent on pranks. This approach is in the tradition of humor as a social act, i.e., curing a person's social faux pas through humor.
BTW, this post is as much for me as for readers: it helps, once the first draft is complete (it is), to theorize a bit and see if the story as I've constructed it is going to accomplish my intent.
Been Down So Long It
Looks Like Up To Me, by Richard Fariña
Buddhist theory, I’ve heard, proclaims that the human
nervous system’s prime function is to find (create, perhaps) order within
chaos. Fariña’s book, as a prototype for what is popularly known as
postmodern literature, seems to toy with this idea as it expands its reach into
the tumult of the ‘sixties. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I first read this book in, oh, nineteen-seventy, was it? It
was at the time an underground phenomenon, presenting its readers with an
emotional purgative contrived from sex, drugs, jazz, and travel, all amid
college life and politics. Whether the populace of the day approved of such
hedonic pursuits or not, reading about them, in the person this book’s Gnossos
Pappadopoulis, surely moved readers to a feeling of liberation akin to
Kerouac’s On The Road, or perhaps
the Beatles’ movie, “Help!” This book influenced Thomas Pynchon and inspired
his manic literary works. The book remains in print, I think, as a monument to
the anti-establishment posturing of college students of all eras, not to the
social vomiting that seemed necessary in the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties
to allow a truly multicultural U.S. to be born.
Reading the book now, it has the effect of a period piece, and more than
a bit fatuous. Reliving such times via this book seems redundant, more or less
on the order of reenactments of the American Revolution or the U.S.’s Civil
War. Still, there are good things to be said following this my most recent reading
only literary work.
Fariña, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, was clearly a
skilled writer. Perhaps if he’d lived, Pynchon would have been forced to share
credit for the uniqueness of his writing. As averse as I am to
redundancy, let me refer you to this blog’s critique of Pynchon’s Gravity’s
As with most postmodern literature, there’s no structured
plot – more of a series of connected vignettes that go nowhere in a linear
sense, but leave the reader with an understanding of situations or historical
events based in emotion. All that can be said in relation to story here is that
Gnossos ends up where he began, on a college campus – but with fate thrusting this
hapless character into a student demonstration against the college
But how does Fariña put this no-story together? As implied
at the beginning of this post, the author moves from Gnossos’ and his friends’
assault on their nervous systems through sex and drugs to an implied
stirring-of-the-pot of the U.S. (college campus) body politic – all in the hope
of bringing into being a new form of order reflecting new sensibilities and
a new, multicultural national reality.
There’s humor here, but of the sophomoric type – exaggerated
excess, posturing in the face of authority, scatological. But Fariña also manages to interject moments of paranoia,
solitude, whimsy, pathos, crashed-and-burned idealism. But he’s no slouch at
eloquent narrative, either, as this passage suggests:
"He awoke at noon, the sun exploding under the lids of his
eyes like silent-film incendiary bombs; ears ringing with the drip and seethe
of the thaw. Through the slats on his bedside window…he could see the swollen
Swiss drolleries on the porch. The snow had melted and slipped away, saturating
the wood. The fat icicles were gone as well, patches of lawn miraculously green
after months of entombment, walks and porches clear but for the wet; beams and
timbers creaking with the sigh of shrugged-away weight, stretching back into
The passage goes on for another hundred or so words, clearly
pronouncing in well-hewn prose a sense of newness and rebirth. And as the
passage ends, the scene shifts once more to Gnossos:
He bellowed like a Cretan Bull. “Fitzgore! Where the hell
are you? I’m in love!”
This passage is, in a nutshell, Gnossos, the era, and the
book itself. The ‘sixties, in most any piece of writing you’ll find on the
subject, exemplifies the best and the worst of humanity, as it does here:
idealism, romanticism, daring openness. Chaos, conflict, secrecy. All building,
as poet and rocker Jim Morrison said of this era (I’m paraphrasing liberally here),
toward a new human reality, but born of an ugly face.
My rating: 3-1/2 stars of 5
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon – Part 2
If one with Pynchon’s apocalyptic view of western society
and his desire to write about it were to devise a novel on the subject, what
form would suit his story best? In broadbrush form, it should probably consist
of episodic segments using arcane terms, everything bouncing from place to
place geographically, back and forth in time. Since life on planet earth has
grown absurd, then the story should benefit from wry, edgy humor.
Characterizations would be grossly exaggerated to fit this model of absurdism,
and since these characters personify such absurdity, they would be depicted
with little depth, the author dwelling on the manic, purposeless surface of everyday
life. Occasionally, the insertion of grim, acerbic all-too-real philosophic
passages would render such absurdism most trenchant.
incorporates each of these traits, and I believe that’s why Pynchon chose the
post-modern form. I suspect he didn’t intend to further this form of
literature; rather he appropriated the then-embryonic form to suit his vision
for the novel he chose to write.
As alluded to before, Pynchon apparently had, at least in his early
years, an ability to assimilate both the exotic language of science
and technology and the equally esoteric language of the various schools of
mysticism that have proliferated over the ages. Used in tandem in Gravity’s Rainbow, these have the
effect of padding the terminology of science with that of exotic spirituality.
In his hands, this launches his characters into a story of a humanity
spiritually bent toward excess of all sorts, and death in the form of
“As some secrets were given to the Gypsies to preserve
against centrifugal history, and some to Kabbalists, the Templars, the
Rosicrucians, so have this Secret of the Fearful Assembly, found their ways
inside the weatherless spaces of this or that Ethnic Joke.”
In Pynchon’s hands humor becomes ribald, sophomoric. That shouldn’t
be seen as an impediment in this novel, though; the more inane and childish the
humor, the more his vision of an absurd humanity gains flesh:
“There is some excitement amidships. The Russians have
thrown back a tarp to reveal the chimps, who are covered with vomit, and have
also broken into the vodka…Some of the chimps are docile, others are looking
for a fight.”
“And now, libeling,” Margherita with a rare and somewhat
phony, smile, “let’s hear ‘Animal Crackers in My Soup’!”
“’Super Animals in my Crack,’” hollers a humorist from the
Page after page of this comes to a halt before:
“What the leaflet neglected to mention was that Benjamin
Franklin was also a Mason, and given to cosmic forms of practical joksterism,
of which the United States of America may well have been one.”
Humor, then, counterbalanced by abject reality or depictions
of institutionalized paranoia, allows the ground under our feet to shift, and
we slip into Pynchon’s form of literary chaos.
But any drunk or doped faux-writer could accomplish
something of this sort. Is Pynchon one of these? Hardly. He knows his way
around literary technique. Clearly he knows how to use the post-modern form –
what it can and can’t do. He stretches the form perhaps beyond reasonable
limits; still, he’s consistent in its use, and its effect on this reader’s
sensibilities becomes consistent.
Among other clever uses of language, he compresses dialogue
tags with narrative snippets and stage directions, adding to the book’s
“Well now—“ at which point Närrisch comes walking into them.
“You’re really hot, Rocketman, wow,” Krypton lying in back
offering ankle and taped cocaine bottle go to Shirley with a smile.
This then is Gravity’s
Rainbow in a pair of nutshells. But does it work? Is it literature? Debate
argues the case on both counts, even some thirty years after its publication.
While I have to admire certain aspects of Pynchon’s efforts
here, and while I recognize his ability to make such mental scramble consistent
in its effect, it’s difficult to follow. It’s work, not fun. Consistency is not
coherence, and it seems not to matter if one skips a hundred pages ahead in a
story line that offers a glacial pace and overwhelming, largely senseless
And so we come to the question of accessibility. This work,
along with James Joyce’s and others, will always be lauded by some, simply
because their convolutions are technically well crafted and manage consistency.
Some will also say that art should have no social import; its presence in an artistic form is enough. Regarding Gravity’s Rainbow,
then, I have to ask: If not for a world set on its ear by the stupidity,
depravity, and senselessness of the early twentieth century, why would one
write such a novel?
It’s good (and part of the reason literature exists) to
challenge readers, to confront them with unexpected style and structure, but if
such work is so daunting in its inanity as to put off those who might otherwise
read it, then even its presence as art should be challenged.
That’s why my rating remains: 3.5 of 5 stars.