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He gestured to the fireplace, over which hung a large framed photograph of the billionaire Da Vinci Code author, signed personally to Jean-Noël. “Look at that chin – it is the chin of a genius.” He ran his finger down the cleft of his own and mourned its inadequacy. “Mind you, I thought Digital Fortress was a piece of shit.”
Way back in 2008, when folks asked me why I intended to move to Australia, I would mention an assortment of reasons, such as the good food, sturdy economy, availability of jobs – but also another factor which caused some consternation. Namely Australian television. I am not talking about Neighbours, or Home and Away, but panel shows such as Spicks and Specks, a very funny programme that’s half music trivia quiz, half mad-cap variety hour (half hour!).
It was the good humoured content that surprised me. I grew up with Irish sarcasm and cutting British wit. Satire is the currency of my home’s entertainment, with a fair dollop of black comedy and schadenfreude. Australia seemed to me to have embraced an entirely different comedic ethos, fair dinkum banter and harmless absurdism.
Which was how I first discovered Shaun Micallef. His delivery of lines, whether it be as a comedic player, or host of the show Talking About Your Generation, seems initially quite poised, until you realize he’s speaking utter nonsense. When I discovered he had written a novel, I had to investigate what genteel gonzoism he had served up this time.
So what is the book about? Well our omniscient narrator is attempting to tell us the story of Alexander Pruitt, murdered in 2005, only to be reborn in Cromwellite Britain in 1657. Which, through a series of plot contrivances involving time travel and the etymology of the word ‘twig’, it turns out is the period most suitable to him.
Of course as history itself is warped by the events described, our trusty narrator might not even get to finish the book we are reading, or sell the rights to Hollywood, with the maniacal Tom Cruise playing him in an eventual movie. So we have two races to the finish line here, Alexander Pruitt desperately seeking out the meaning of his existence, while torn between two periods in history (as well as a brief cameo in a third); and our narrator hoping to sell out as quickly as possible before his intellectual property is unwritten.
Throw in some Masonic conspiracies, a nice hefty dig or two at Dan Brown’s expense, badgers and Blade Runner, and we have ourselves a novel. Oh and just to top it off the secret identity of Jack the Ripper is also revealed.
If this book were to suffer the indignity of a high concept, I would describe it as P. G. Wodehouse meets Philip K. Dick. It is fitting that the head of Philip K. Dick has reappeared as an A.I. oracle. Perhaps someone should ask it what it thinks of Micallef’s novel. It is manic, absurdist fare, that doesn’t take itself seriously for even an iota of a second. Conspiracies are revealed to be vapid plots without rhyme, or reason. History itself is a mutable, simultaneous projection without purpose. And Tom Cruise is a very scary individual.
The narrator’s Hollywood adventure feels like a random digression, but by that point you have become used to the editorial spats asterisked at the bottom of pages, as well as parenthetical asides to the reader, assuring them that it will all make sense in the end. I laughed out loud when Cruise himself begins to interrogate the narrator as to his peculiar ‘omniscience’, over the proceedings of the plot. It’s a brilliant moment.
If I go any further I fear this review will collapse into a puddle of sycophantic loquaciousness. Needless to say, I quite liked it.
It was along towards the end though that Grand achieved, in terms of public outrage, his succes d’estime, as some chose to call it, when he put out to sea in his big ship, the S.S. Magic Christian…the ship sometimes later referred to as “The Terrible Trick Ship of Captain Klaus.”
One of my favourite movies is the Peter Sellers/Ringo Starr spectacular The Magic Christian. It’s just as ridiculous as that sounds. Here’s Roman Polanski getting seduced by Yul Brynner in drag.
So I am delighted to finally have the opportunity to read something by Mr Terry Southern, even though it turns out the book itself is quite different.
Firstly of course the story is set in the United States and not the Pythonesque Britain of the Sellers film version. Secondly there is no ‘son’, role, played by Starr in the film (a Beatles connection that also unleashed Paul McCartney’s unremitting soundtrack). Finally Guy Grand in Southern’s novel is a large overweight, red-faced man, with a convincingly sincere smile and not the rakish eccentric played by Sellers.
In other respects, however, the book is quite similar. For one, there is no plot to speak of. Instead Southern introduces a series of anecdotes revolving around Guy Grand and his love of “making it hot for [people]“. He enjoys pricking pomposity and taking advantage of the gullibility of mobs, mainly through bribing officials and hiring actors to create scenes of mass hysteria, or confusion.
In one adventure he offers a man several thousand dollars to eat a parking ticket. In another he bribes two prize fighters to act in an exaggeratedly effeminate manner when in the ring. His idea of safari is dragging bloodthirsty Westerners into the African veldt and then scaring off any animals in the area by randomly firing off a high-powered howitzer.
Guy Grand’s wealth is apparently limitless and his curious sense of humour allows him to amuse himself by exploiting the greed of his fellow man. Bigots, ignoramuses and the nouveau riche are his preferred targets. Southern introduces each chapter with an ongoing dialogue between Grand, his two elderly aunts and a shrieking socialite named Miss Ginger Horton. Unbeknownst to the fourth party, Grand and his aunts are engaged in an absurdist series of exchanges based on a very private sense of humour. Miss Horton, and her wailing dog, are much like everyone else Grand encounters victims of a unintelligible joke.
In a very real sense, Guy Grand has chosen to be living proof that everyone has their price and as the last of the ‘big spenders’, he is fully entitled to buy and sell people as he sees fit.
Southern’s satirical tone is both incisive and completely surreal. The degree of humiliation endured by the people Grand encounters is worryingly believable, even if his limitless wealth stretches credibility at times. Most chapters end with a variation on the same line – ‘it did cost him a good bit to keep his own name clear‘. The refrain becomes as casually absurdist as Kurt Vonnegut‘s ‘so it goes‘.
I imagine this book is not for everyone. For one it does read like a series of short sketches that happen to revolve around one figure. Still I personally found it very amusing, with the climax of the maiden voyage of his luxury liner the S.S. Magic Christian a fitting cap to his adventures investigating the extent of man’s inhumanity to man.
Satirical, humourous and very wicked, I look forward to reading more of Terry Southern’s work.
Perhaps we would be justified by proclaiming that the Centre writes straight on crooked lines, and what it takes away with one hand, it gives with the other, If I remember rightly, that business about crooked lines and writing straight used to be said about God, remarked Cipriano Algo, Nowadays, it comes to pretty much the same thing
I went to a preview of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later at the Dublin Horrorthon, for Halloween 2002. As the producers were trying to build up positive word of mouth for this pseudo-zombie pic – and it is instructive to remember that the current horror glut had not yet washed up on the shores of the mainstream – the screening I attended was followed by a Q&A session featuring the director and stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. One member of the audience commented that the film reminded her of a novel by José Saramago.
I had never heard of the book before, so this proved to be my introduction to the Portuguese author. The novel Blindness does have broad similarities to Boyle’s film. A mysterious ailment causes the collapse of society, although in Saramago’s tale marauding zombies are not the cause, with the entire population of an unnamed country suddenly losing their sight. The novel has a sequel of sorts in Seeing, a political satire that is essential reading and not dependent on the previous book, although it does reveal the fate of the previous book’s protagonists.
Today’s book is once again a satire of sorts predicated on a surreal hook. Cipriano Algo is a potter whose business is dependent on the nearby monolithic Centre, a commercial/residential complex. Living in the shadow of the Centre, not only is Cipriano just barely making enough money from selling clay pottery to its residents, he is legally forbidden from selling his wares to anyone else.
The small business is run by Cipriano and his daughter Marta, whose husband Marçal enjoys an uneasy relationship with his father-in-law. Partly this is due to the young couple intending to move to the Centre, where Marçal works as a security guard. Cipriano resents that his daughter will eventually be pulled away from him by the Centre. Disaster strikes when his goods are finally rejected by the head of the buying department, with insult added to injury by the order to remove the surplus stock of clay crockery from storage.
Desperate to attempt to stay in business, Cipriano and Marta attempt to innovate by producing clay figurines instead. The Centre agrees to accept an initial order on a provisional basis, with the buying department head secretly enjoying the philosophical badinage he engages in with the quick-witted, but humble potter. Another addition is made to the small family by the arrival of a dog, named Found by Cipriano, who inserts himself into the lives of the struggling artisans. Meanwhile Marçal feels increasingly pressurized to achieve a promotion so he can earn the right to live in the Centre with Marta and Cipriano discovers a second chance at love with the widow Isaura.
Once again Saramago delivers an amazing combination of political satire, absurdism and philosophical inquiry. The callousness of the Centre towards desperate labourers such as Cipriano is masked by false niceties, symbolizing the double-edged sword of consumer culture. Issues of family loyalty are also dealt with, as Marçal finds himself goaded by his resentful father-in-law on one side and then being criticized sharply by his own parents for not agreeing to allow them to live with him in his promised future apartment in the Centre. Saramago also in a wonderful feint introduces us to the thought processes of the dog Found and its gratitude to the Algo family for taking him into their home.
Beneath all of the above, we also have several allusions to Plato’s parable about the Cave and the nature of reality. Saramago, I feel, was one of the most incredible literary stylists of the late twentieth century. Sadly the author passed away recently, but he was always fearless in describing thoughts and ideas that proved too controversial for his Catholic homeland. Reading his pages can sometimes feel like staring at a morass of words, with run-on sentences and absent punctuation increasing the feeling of alientation. Should the reader persevere, however, a natural flow to the language Saramago uses emerges, almost like poetry.
An incredible book, by an incredible literary visionary. Need I say it is strongly recommended? I thought not.
‘I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!’
I think Steve Aylett inoculated me. Like Burroughs, once you read him your brain changes by increments. This is why I always liked Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Actually Daniel Dennett gave it much better expression, describing memes as a host of larvae in your brain that grow and develop into new viral ideas. This astonishingly disgusting image nails the idea behind ‘infectious culture’.
Welcome to my long-winded digression! Aylett infected me and now I am ready for George Saunders’ own invocation of manically surreal humour.
My edition is actually features the title novella, as well as a collection of short stories gathered under the banner In Persuasion.
The initial story describes the rabid assent of the eponymous Phil, a tyrant in waiting whose hatred of the bookish and weak-limbed ‘Inner Hornerites’, leads him to form a border militia of ‘Outer Hornerites’, who enforce an ever shrinking border surrounding their neighbours, demanding more punitive taxes each day. While the number of patriots called to his cause do not outnumber the Inner Hornerites, they are strong and tall, having been raised in the wide open spaces of Outer Horner.
They are also not strictly speaking human. While never fully described the peoples of Inner and Outer Horner are mentioned to have vents, or exhaust shuts, or in the case of the senile President, several moustaches. Phil himself is given to loud, stentorious speeches about patriotism and values and the threat posed by the limp wristed Inner Hornerites, especially when his brain slides down a large rack affixed to his body. What manner of beast is this?
George Saunders is dealing with overt political satire here, but in a refreshingly pretension free, absurdist manner. The story feels like a depressed Terry Gilliam run amok on the Monty Python opening credits. There is anger expressed, but couched in deceptively manic and lurid imagery.
This is a style that Saunders continues to employ in the following short stories in this edition. my flamboyant grandson features an elderly grandfather just trying to give his grandson an entertaining evening on Broadway, but frustrated by run a gauntlet of invasive holographic advertising. I remember Steven Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report featured a similar scene of Tom Cruise finding himself assaulted by images of products and brands. The difference being Spielberg’s depiction seemed almost excited at the prospect of such augmented reality tech. Saunders portrays it as an affliction.
jon also tackles the increasingly dominate role advertising culture plays in our lives, once again depicting a future society ruled by images of comfort and excess. Here two lovers question whether their lives as commercial role models as any future for them as a family, as a part of a system that has no interest in the young life they are hoping to create. brad carrigan, american goes even further again, where television shows feature live action participants, at the mercy of reality altering ‘programmers’.
Throughout the collection there can be found a weary absurdism, a low mocking tone that fails to disguise a growing sense of despair at the future waiting for us.
I recommend a crash course in Burroughs, or Aylett first, however. Make sure you take your memetic shots.