I like setting myself rules when I write to prevent myself from being conventional. I like to be surprised, challenged, cross genres, get lost in a complex web of interlocking meanings and then dig my way out or just lie there exhausted. One of my most frequent games is Subtle Sci-fi where I write a rule or premise that limits the story world in one way or another. And for a time this was running pretty smoothly, doing what it should be doing, which is getting me thinking. However, the latest premise, “Every Divorce is Celebrated like a Wedding” has pushed me – at present – into writing some kind of weird comic opera about a wedding *vomit*. Having already published Part 1, I’m now locked into a champagne fuelled ride through one of the most sentimental, moralistic genres going! Hold on tight, you know it’s going to be rough…
Jonathan Coe’s recent article on the Comic Novel is very timely for me. He outlines the general format of the comic novel taking Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim” to be a kind of epitome:
To start with, we have a protagonist (male) whose morality, intellect or value system brings him into conflict with the world around him. This conflict expresses itself in a series of episodes that create frustration and embarrassment, but nothing worse: in this instance our hero, Jim Dixon, has to attend a farcically awful artistic weekend organised by his boss, accidentally burns a hole in his host’s bedclothes with a cigarette and, in the book’s celebrated climax, goes on to make a mess of an important lecture by turning up drunk.
Ok, so my next story has a female protagonist, Emma Harrison. Emma is a friend of the bride/ x-bride. But in many ways she confirms to the genre type outlined by Coe: she has a strong opinionated view of the world, is critical of all around her and is led forward by headstrong beliefs in to many uncomfortable situations. But, she suffers nothing more – so far – than embarrassment. As someone with a fairly strong sense of critical integrity there is something kind of awkward and twee about the comic story that’s gets to me (Emma is a feminist, but she’s otherwise a very conventional character in a world of caricatures). Coe seems to share my deep reservations, but actually concludes his article by praising – to his own surprise – the writing of P G Wodehouse. He writes:
I realised the pure, unpolluted humour of which [Wodehouse] was possessed was the greatest possible gift he could have offered to the world: the same thing, I suppose, that Italo Calvino had in mind when he extolled the virtues of “thoughtful lightness”, or “comedy that has lost its bodily weight. More and more I feel that, just as all art aspires to the condition of music, all humour should really aspire to the condition of Wodehouse.
And it’s here perhaps I move away from Coe’s opinion. I enjoy Woedehouse, sure, but with one foot in art history when I say this I do not find any rest in the idea that art aspires to the condition of music. The most interesting art moved away from what that notion implied. It’s probably a pedantic point to make, but let me iron it out. Artist’s like Kandinsky pursued an art that was like music. In other words a ‘pure’ art that referred to nothing other than itself. At the same time however, Marcel Duchamp was exploring a very different sense of musicality in an art that was ‘ready-made’, radically impure and ‘unoriginal’. So, mistreating Coe’s article as a kind of guide for how to write good [sic] I can’t bring myself to resolve my wedding-farse farse by trying to refine it to the point of being a ‘pure comic art’ (should I even have the skill in the first place)… it’s not in my nature. So what will I do?
Firstly I started reading other things, things radically far from where I was with the story, almost at random: the introduction to Slavoj Zizek’s “The Indivisible Remainder”; Ballard’s “High Rise”; Hunter S. Thompson’s “Songs of the Doomed”. I’ve also been watching a lot of videos by the artist Pipilotti Rist.
So what is the result? Well, reading Zizek I got that vision of power that I think Mark Fisher borrows later in his work of Capatalist Realism. So, people at this divorce party perhaps mock and joke about the traumatic things that happened during the wedding while consciously re-enacting them. Emma finds herself facing a strange double bind, the divorce is hideous because it is repeating all that was hideous about the wedding, yet to break from the wedding and server its hold over the present she must go though – with the coterie of guests – the divorce. From High Rise perhaps I’ll take the power of the architectural environment. Ballard’s tower block is a miasma of middle class pretensions, hiding a latent misanthropic hatred. I need to figure out the potency of the church and then the hotel where the reception takes place. Hunter S. Thompson? To be honest I picked that idly off the shelf just now, it was on hand and Dr Gonzo always seems like a bad (read good) idea. Let’s open it at a page now. Page 136: “Never Apologise, Never Explain”. So this is a 2 page piece written in 1990 where Thompson looks back to the moment before he wrote his breakthrough piece on the Derby. He thought he was finished as a writer before that. Mmm… not much here to go on but a nice short description of Gonzo: “a whole new style of journalism which now passes for whatever Gonzo is… accident and desperation”. I’ve been thinking that perhaps Emma gets spiked somehow, enters a surreal world of colours and terminal thoughts. Perhaps Thompson becomes her guiding voice in this void, the rhythm to which her breathless thoughts fit a beat? And Pipilotti Rist of course provides the visual images I’d be trying to capture. You can only ever think between things, and now this is making some kind of sense. This isn’t going to be what I expected at all. Of course I think the course of the comic that Coe wrote about so eloquently will still stick to what I’m doing, but now I know I’ve got what I need to twist it to breaking point. Cue Rabbit hole.
The story will be out in full soon. The read the first part CLICK HERE.
- What’s so funny about comic novels? (theguardian.com)
- The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse (readingtothemax.wordpress.com)
- Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis, Introduction by David Lodge – SGD10 (tankq6.wordpress.com)
- One Topic, Three Takes: Weddings – Daily Post