Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why a Farce? Why Me?



[Parts of this rant appeared in Superstition Review.] 
This is about farce, in particular my very own The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad, which has never found its rightful audience. I mean, it's one thing to be a midlist author with a modest seller, but it's quite another to have a book published by an eminent publisher who then does no publicity for it. None. And at the time it was published I had a full-time job with a 100-mile daily commute and could do little to publicize. The novel lay there, like a beached whale. Such a book dies a slow death, and its fate is the kiss of death for the next one. Amazingly, it's still in print, and I no longer have a job 50 miles away, so there's still hope.

Of course, part of the problem is that it's a farce, and a literary one. What makes it literary? Well, it's "critically acclaimed" and "serious"; in its structure and its language it refers to its own literary predecessors; it contains cultural and artistic allusions; etc. In short, I could hardly have chosen a less marketable niche if I'd tried, but I didn't. As I explain to people who ask me why I don't just knock off a bestseller or two, then go back to my quirky comedies, if I could knock off a bestseller, don't you think I would? Quirky comedies are what I write. Farce is what I do. It's an essential ingredient of literature, specifically comic literature. So I'm also talking about being a comic novelist, about comic novelists, and about being me. I happen to be a comic novelist, so the topics dovetail neatly.

First, about me. (There's a change.) I'm a reasonably patriotic American, but between the ages of six and twenty-eight I only set foot in this country once, for two weeks, long enough to marvel at air conditioning, even in cars, and huge color TV sets, which were scarcer then where I grew up, in Europe. Over the years I lived, first with both my parents, then with just one parent (mom), then alone, in Paris, Geneva, Dublin, Coleraine, Edinburgh, and London. When he was around I accompanied my father on excursions to old churches in Italy, in which he installed electronic carillon bells. One such church was St. Peter's in Rome, where he met and schmoozed with the house priest, a.k.a. St. Pope John XXIII. Another time I remember Dad and me being the only two males in the blacked-out dining hall of a large convent, while a massive thunderstorm raged outside. Power went out just as dinner was beginning. The nuns' faces were zombie-white in the episodic flashes of lightning, as they all sat still pending the pleasure of Providence. Eventually candles were lit and spread their golden glow, as in a painting by Georges de la Tour. The flickering light of the candles and the blanched faces of the nuns created a de la Tour + zombie effect.

It was a peripatetic childhood about which I have no complaints. Another bestseller I missed writing was a memoir detailing gross childhood abuse, because there was none. The memoir I did write, Run Like Blazes, available at your friendly Amazon store, mostly describes the picaresque and feckless life I led, all blame and/or credit accruing to me. There are no painful secrets I've never confronted. I grew up yearning for girls and failing miserably, yelling "I love you" at the desired object while hiding behind garbage cans outside her house, my fat parts plainly visible behind the cans, eliciting hilarity rather than reciprocal passion. I switched my emotional investment to cars, then books. The worst my dad ever did at home when I was bad was snarl quietly, retreat into his den and get drunk and fill the air with blue tobacco smoke, while listening to tapes of the bells he had installed. They were filed under their respective countries: Austria; Belgium; Denmark; France; Germany; Greece; Italy.  I inherited many of them when he died. By far the biggest were those for Germany and Italy.

My mother was a woman of great inner resources; she needed to be to become a pilot in her 20s and fly high-rollers from Miami to the Tropicana and other casinos in Batista's Cuba in the 1950s. Later, she needed the same spine tell the old man to fuck off and go get a job at the U.N. in Geneva, which she did when I was 15 or so and he had been spending an inordinate amount of time in Germany, probably not installing bells (and of course I was far too young to know or guess the proximate cause of their rupture). I went with him once, to Heidelberg, and he introduced me to ladies whose livelihood was on their person. Unless Memory is gilding the lily, we stayed at the Hotel Venus.

So, as a child I lived in beautiful places and learned to speak French fluently and Italian and German passably, with smatterings of Spanish and Russian that, alas, have stayed smatterings. In short, from a happy, blissfully unaware child, I became a cosmopolitan boy-man, a mixed blessing, as it came to mean that I was equally at home nowhere; more importantly, as I realized that I would probably become a writer, I had no homeland to draw upon. So I made up two: the first was Ireland, the land of my ancestors, where I lived with my dad for a year in Dublin, post-expulsion, and later on my own as a student at the University of Ulster and would-be soldier of the IRA. (I took off when the going got tough.) The second homeland was Farce. It seemed an appropriate--indeed, the only appropriate--standpoint from which to observe Life.

One of the advantages of my mongrel upbringing was the enshrinement of a split personality, a great boon to a writer, especially a comic novelist.

I moved from France to New York at the age of 28 to become a writer. First I became a deadbeat, another valuable milestone along the way. Then, inevitably, like father like son, a drinker and a womanizer, although success in the latter pursuit was for the most part more fictitious than the fiction I embarked on. I published my first short story, a close imitation of Frank O'Connor, in The Literary Review in 1987, payment: five free copies of The Literary Review. Gee, thanks, Literary Review! There was, of course, the big payoff, the future prospect of glory. But I've never made much money from my writing. It's scant consolation, but no one does, unless they win a big prize. I've made ends meet in traditional ways, tending bar, teaching, editing, working in a bookstore, driving. These days I'm semi-retired, although not from writing, and living in San Marcos, Texas, where I can be found most days behind the wheel of a bright green taxi.

Anyway, back to Farce. Along the way I've written five novels, three Irish, one European, and one American. Apart from The Adorations, subtitled A Novel in Double Time, they all have subtitles including the word "farce": Killoyle, An Irish Farce; The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad, A Mostly Irish Farce; The Maladjusted Terrorist, An Irish-American Farce; and Ohiowa Impromptu, A Multicultural Farce.

The first has been published in English, German, and Italian; the second in English and German; the third in German only; and the last, in no language yet, but my agent is trying. 

My novels, again with the exception of The Adorations, which is my sole attempt to date to produce a serious, sprawling kind of magnum opus (there's plenty of satire in it, but no farce), are no less farcical, or comic because of serious content like bomb explosions and murder--indeed, slightly more so, because The Olympiad is basically a thriller with comic extrusions. And the focus on terrorism and craziness in it and in The Maladjusted Terrorist heightens rather than detracts from the farcical elements, because extreme situations are always the prime incubators of comedy.

It's important to attend to the details when people fuck up. If you can't get that right, forget about being a comic novelist. If you're too squeamish to enact failure and embarrassment in your characters' lives, forget about being a comic novelist--or even just a novelist. To quote the great Howard Jacobson:

 Art is made by those who consider themselves to have failed at whatever isn’t art. And of course it is loved as consolation, or a call to arms, by those who feel the same. One of the reasons there seem to be fewer readers for literature today than there were yesterday is that the concept of failure has been outlawed. If we are all beautiful, all clever, all happy, all successes in our way, what do we want with the language of the dispossessed? But the nature of failure ensures that writers will go on writing no matter how many readers they have. You have to master the embarrassments and ignominies of life. 


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