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I mean, I’m just tired of being wrong all the time just because I’m a guy. I mean, how many times can everybody tell you that you’re the oppressive, prejudiced enemy before you give up and become the enemy. I mean, a male chauvinist pig isn’t born, he’s made, and more and more of them are being made by women.
See when the Late Review panel were discussing Fight Club and getting a bug up their nose about the fascist implications of the film, or the mocking tone with regard to therapy groups, I remember watching them fret, kvetch, moan and gibber, thinking to myself ‘they’ve missed the bloody point’ Palahniuk is writing comedy. This stuff is funny. Offensive, shocking and controversial – but funny none the less.
At least I hope he’s being funny.
Victor Mancini is a failed medical student, historical re-enactment performer, conman and sex addict. He schemes and plots to fund his mother’s medical bills, which involves faking choking on a mouthful of steak in restaurants and then hitting up his would-be rescuers for cheques to support him in his hour of need. It’s a decent scam, allowing him to spend his days dressing up in period costumes with his best friend Denny and teaching obnoxious school kids trivia about life in 1734. His sex life is conducted with fellow addicts at their weekly support group. Victor narrates to us his past with his mentally disturbed mother, who kidnapped him on at least several occasions from new sets of foster parents, all in the name of ‘rescuing him from a conventional life’.
Victor’s life is certainly not conventional. Problem is he’s not a nice man.
Unfortunately conning innocents out of their savings can’t pay all of his mother’s medical bills and as her condition deteriorates he is made an outrageous offer by Doctor Paige Marshall. But is she for real, or is Victor himself the victim of a long con?
Palahniuk enjoys drawing out the grottiness of his character’s failed lives. Over and over he insists that we have to stop reading this book, that it’s only going to get worse. Sex addicts are everywhere rutting in public toilets, looking nondescript in their everyday disguises. Victor’s narration introduced me to a new euphemism for the penis, as well as warning of the dangers of mislaying an anal bead. He also speaks in a parody of a medical dictionary, obsessively diagnosing syndromes and cancerous growths, proving that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. His extreme loathing for the boy he was, unknowingly swept up by his mother’s psychosis, seems to lie behind all his failed attempts to be a better man, or a doctor, friend who is needed, perhaps even the second coming of Christ!
Palahniuk’s humour mocks the pretentions of nihilism, its self-pity and refusal to take responsibility. When Victor is having sex a nymphomaniac in a toilet stall with his dog not for one moment does he consider what he is actually doing. His behavior is caused by addiction. He cons people to save his dying mother, whom he secretly hopes will never recover. He adopts different personas when he visits her, as she is too deluded to recognize her own son and spends most of his days pretending to live in 1734.
For this generation of men the greatest failure is to ejaculate prematurely (or in Victor’s words ‘trigger’). Sobriety and self-control are too much to ask of them. Everywhere they see the threat of increasingly dominant women and a mother’s love is never sufficient. Palahniuk is no prophet of doom, however, he’s just offering to smack modern man upside the head shouting wake the hell up!
What’s this!? A comic strip! Pish, posh, we’ll have not of that vulgar fare here. This is a literary blog, not playtime at kindergarten… Well sorry to disappoint you folks, but I reads what I wants and seeing as my local library happened to have a copy of Matt Groening’s classic strip, I felt I had to have a go. Anyone looking for a debate as to the comparative merits of the ‘fourth art’ versus literature, you’re in the wrong gaff.
So a quick history lesson. The legend goes that Groening was to attend a meeting with James L. Brooks in 1985, who wanted to develop his underground comic Life in Hell into a cartoon and include it as a recurring feature in The Tracey Ullman Show for the Fox Network. Instead, when Groening arrived, he pitched The Simpsons, which he had furiously scribbled down in order to avoid losing creative control over his strip. Life in Hell had been running in one form or another since 1977 and had become something of a shibboleth for cool connoisseurs of underground culture. Brooks had been gunning for it since he received a copy of the comic in 1982. Groening’s desire to protect the strip has since been described as another example of his rebellious nature and need to buck authority.
Your mileage may vary on this point and if you’re curious to hear more about the origins of The Simpsons and Groening’s rise to cultural icon, I would recommend John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored , Unauthorised History.
Love is Hell is a collection of individual ‘Hell’, strips relating to relationships, marriage and childbirth. Its central character is a rabbit named Binky, who stands, lives and dies from one strip to the next. There is no ongoing storyline, this is more a series of comedic sketches, notable for their sarcastic humour and careful insistence on liberal values. Any sexism is self-aware, ironic sexism, which is ok! I took the book to be a more cuddly, American take on the ‘alternative comedy’ trend that was all the rage in the UK during the same period.
The art is simplistic and sketchy, but the Groening blueprint that would later be seen in shows like The Simpsons and Futurama is present and accounted for. Female characters are denoted by bows in their hair and pearl necklaces. Large male characters have a simian lower jaw, while everyone has bauble-like eyes. There’s even a one-eared rabbit character who may have inspired Bart Simpson (I swear to god I didn’t do it). However, the comic’s success is down to Groening’s sly wit. Scribbled into the margins are knowing comments and asides. Binky’s dour, grumpy nature is depicted with a winning degree of self-awareness. Popular notions of love and marital bliss are tackled to the ground before getting a firm kicking. The sarcasm does not overwhelm the material and Groening’s cute drawings sweeten the acidity of his barbs.
In short, it’s pretty damn funny. The Simpsons has moved on from these simple origins and largely abandoned the broad strokes and quixotic realism of Groening for more timely satire (which as the years pass, becomes more dated). Life in Hell may not be as memorable as Calvin and Hobbes, but deserves attention for being more than just a footnote in the development of The Simpsons media behemoth.
Just remember –
Love is a perky elf dancing a merry little jig and then suddenly he turns on you with a miniature machine – gun.