Interviewed by Anthony Luebbert
Were you always this funny? What were your earliest comic influences?
Let’s tweak this question a bit so it’s less about me and more about the nature and challenge of comic fiction, which is a subject that is more interesting to me than my stunned introduction to Monty Python in southwestern Virginia, circa 1985. Fiction can be funny in a lot of different ways, and so people often mean many different things when they say a book or a writer is funny. A premise can be comic (as in Donald Barthelme, Donald Antrim, even Kafka); a character can be comic (as in Dickens, Sterne, Lorrie Moore, John Kennedy Toole, Gary Shteyngart); dialogue can be comic (George Saunders, DeLillo in White Noise, Tom Drury); form can be comic (Vonnegut said his short chapters functioned formally as jokes; Nicholson Baker in The Mezzanine, Sam Lipsyte in Homeland); and sentences can be comic. It can be difficult to be funny on paper—a writer, unlike a standup comic, can’t accentuate the line with a face or a gesture or a strange voice. It has to be rhythmically perfect. And often humor at the level of language involves a wicked mix of high and low diction and/or surprising phrasing and/or surprising syntax. Some of my favorite comic writers are writers of comic sentences—Padgett Powell, Barry Hannah, Mary Robison, early Thomas McGuane, Barthelme. These writers are comic stylists, and so whatever they write about they’re going to be funny.
The best and most powerful humor is connected intimately to sorrow, disappointment, grief, loneliness. The human condition. The humor I appreciate most and that I attempt to emulate is the humor that tries to get readers to relax, drop their guard, have a good time so that the writer can then really hit them with the heavy stuff. But that’s actually an imprecise formulation, because it shouldn’t be first one, then the other. The best humor is funny AT THE SAME TIME it is sad. Or even: funny BECAUSE sad. Lewis Nordan is a writer who is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking. The best Vonnegut is like this. Vonnegut called comic writing a “minor art form,” a statement that simultaneously elevates and demeans the enterprise. It is of course an art form, and it is minor (and so readily dispensable) if the writer is trying merely to be funny.
I’ve read a lot of comic fiction and I’ve taken it seriously, tried to learn from it. I’ve tried to write books that are funny at the level of form and premise, but also at the level of the sentence. But I’m not sure you can really deliberately set out to be funny or to be funnier. And I’m not sure you can ever really fully articulate why something is funny. DeLillo has a good line in Americana “Underwear is humorous and only the undemocratic mind interrogates humor.” I have no idea what this means, but I like it.
What were you going for with “Gatsby’s Hydroplane”? It reminds me of Woody Allen’s short pieces for The New Yorker or some of S. J. Perelman’s work. Is that a neglected form?
I recently reread The Great Gatsby and noticed for the first time that Fitzgerald skips over the scene in which Gatsby and Carraway take a ride in the hydroplane. He tells us it’s going to happen, and then later tells us it happened, but we don’t get the scene. That’s interesting, because it would have been a remarkable scene. But perhaps you’re a great writer to the extent that you can omit wonderful material. So I got curious about this gap in the novel and decided to have some fun with it.
“Gatsby’s Hydroplane” is a gimmick story. Gimmick stories begin with concept or premise, rather than character or setting or dramatic action or the human heart in conflict with itself or any of the other things fiction is supposed to concern itself with. The danger of the gimmick story is that it never moves anywhere interesting. Some just feel flat and formulaic. You feel they could almost write themselves. The best gimmick stories exploit the comic potential of the gimmick—wring it dry—then find a way to transcend the premise. The challenge for the gimmick story writer is not to find jokes—jokes are easy to find—but to follow the story to some surprising place and/or to infuse the story with some kind of tonal complexity, something beyond the mere comic or whimsical. Sorrow, tenderness, anger, wonder, etc. Gimmick stories are easy to enter and difficult to exit. They should open up, not close down. Donald Barthelme is the best gimmick story writer in the history of literature. My models are “The School,” “The Baby,” “The Balloon.” Here’s the remarkable end of his story “Porcupines at the University”: “The citizens in their cars looked at the porcupines, thinking: What is wonderful? Are porcupines wonderful? Are they significant? Are they what I need?”
I wasn’t thinking of Barthelme when I wrote “Gatsby’s Hydroplane,” but you can see my characters regarding the hydroplane like Barthelme’s citizens regard the porcupines. Is the hydroplane wonderful? Significant? Is it what they need? “Wonderful” and “need” are two words that fiction writers should take seriously, no matter what kind of fiction they’re attempting.
I’ve read The Great Gatsby twice in the past four months. As an Iowan now living in Florida, I am attracted to its idea of the displaced Westerner. There are so many great things about the book—what draws you to it?
All I know to say about The Great Gatsby is that no other novel exists so fully and vividly in my mind. I seriously walk around thinking about Jordan’s piece of gossip to Nick about the butler who ruined his nose polishing silver. Or Daisy weeping about the pile of Gatsby’s shirts. Or Myrtle’s puppy, whose hard biscuit “decomposed apathetically” in a saucer of milk and who late in the evening could be heard “groaning faintly.” The novel is big and American and full of vital themes and ideas, and yet it is so richly imagined and convincing at the level of scene, sentence, image, and dialogue.
Your novel U.S.! (about an “oft-resurrected and oft-assassinated” Upton Sinclair) came out in 2006, There Will Be Blood—the film based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!—in 2007. What would Upton (reanimated!) think of all this?
Like a lot of reformers and revolutionaries, Sinclair was both idealistic and vain. If I may be so bold to predict, I think he would be gratified by the personal attention and the attention to his causes. He would like to meet Daniel Day-Lewis to discuss Socialism. He would corner Paul Thomas Anderson after a tennis match and try to get him to commit to a ten-movie deal, all adaptations of Sinclair novels. He probably would have been on the set of the movie, getting too involved and making terrible suggestions, objecting to deviations from the book, scolding members of the crew about their drinking and cocaine use. He would write a book about how his book was made into a movie. He would feel strongly that the movie (and the book based on the movie) would start a revolution in the U.S. He would spend all his money on ill-advised, doomed projects. He would object to the dirty parts in my novel. He would be, as ever, irrepressible, heroic, annoying.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a book—let’s call it a novel—that is neither satirical nor gimmicky. This is what happens when you have children.
Chris Bachelder’s story “Near the End of the Symphony Strike” appears in Subtropics 1. His story “Gatsby’s Hydroplane” appears in Subtropics 5.