Gordon Lish and the Meeting of Comedy and Contemporary Fiction

gordonlishAfter you read a certain amount of interviews with John Lee and Vernon Chatman, the main writer/directors of PFFR, a certain pattern emerges. Or, not so much a pattern as a shadowy figure, or even mysterious wizard who seems to be pulling the levers. But when you look behind the curtain you will not see a wizard; you will see Gordon Lish, smiling at you and maybe eating some peanut butter cookies, or a pastrami sandwich.

I don’t remember who said this, and I hesitate to mention it because these days you can’t swing a cat without hitting the Andy Kaufman of something (I checked, sorry Sia), but he’s been called the Andy Kaufman of the literary world, or some such thing. As a teacher Lish counted among his students short story writers Amy Hempel and Gary Lutz, and as a fiction editor at Esquire and later Knopf he shaped the styles of countless writers, most notably Raymond Carver. There’s even debate over how much of Carver’s style Lish created by, ironically, carving out everything but the dense, bleak sentences we know him for.

But Lish also had a very original sense of humor. In fact, I’d argue that his sensibility was very ahead of his time and can be felt in much of today’s “anti-humor,” for lack of a less infuriating/irritating non-word.

At the beginning of a 2009 interview in The Believer, Chatman and Lee give us Lish’s list on writing:

  1. Loosened association
  2. Antic behavior
  3. Autism
  4. Morbid ambivalence

Let’s check: can we say that those are true of PFFR’s work? Fairly unquestionably, yes. Can we say they’re true of the short stories of Amy Hempel and Gary Lutz? I think so, yes. Can we say they’re true of any other influential fiction writers of the 1980s/90s (I don’t know that much about fiction, so stay with me here): Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace? Yeah, sure we can. What about other art forms? In his famous Charlie Rose interview (and the David Lynch essay Rose asks about) Wallace talks about what makes something “Lynchian” – a guy who killed his wife and put her head in the freezer was morbid, a guy who killed his wife and put her head in the freezer because she just wouldn’t buy the right brand of peanut butter was Lynchian.

Well it would seem that before it was Lynchian, it was Lishian. I mean, what could be more morbidly ambivalent, autistic, antic, and based on loose associations than focusing on the detail of peanut butter against the backdrop of a horrific crime? Now again, I don’t know where I heard this (John Lee said it on a podcast), but I believe if you pause your TV at juuuuuuuust the right moment, you will see a needlepoint of those very 4 rules on the wall in an episode of The Heart, She Holler.

But nothing embodies this particular Lishticle more than maybe his most well-known and in any case most mentally taxing and unreadable novel, Extravaganza: A Joke Book. He must have gotten tired of editing Raymond Carver’s short stories “with a butcher knife” because this book is the complete opposite. You can almost see someone behind the scenes giving him the universal “stretch it” signal. It’s like he put 30 pages in his typewriter and massaged it and mushed it into 190 pages of very unpure, very cut, sub-premium Columbian (the college) bronze. But of course, you give him the benefit of the doubt, and it pays off.

The conceit is that he’s retelling you the act of two “old” (quotes his) Vaudeville comedians, Smith and Dale, which he sat through as a young boy and can’t claim to remember all too well. The narrative is structured as a series of street jokes that are stretched out to lengths that are by turns puzzling, amusing, infuriating, amusing again, confusing, and then puzzling. It’s like how a thing is funny and then you do it too much, then it’s not funny, then it’s hilarious, then it’s reeaaalllly not funny, THEN you just want to throw the book out the window. For example, the joke:

A golfer keeps losing sight of his ball, so he sends for a caddy. “Make sure he’s not too old. I need him to have GOOD EYES so he can see where my ball goes.” They send him an old caddy. He says “no offense, but I specifically said a YOUNG caddy so he’d have good eyes.” The old caddy says, “not to worry, sir, I have excellent eyes.” The golfer reluctantly agrees and hits his first shot. The caddy says, “Don’t worry, I saw exactly where it went, I followed it the whole way, and I saw EXACTLY where it came down.” The golfer says, “Okay, where’d it land then?” The caddy says, “I forgot.”

Lish stretches this joke out for a full 5 pages. It’s sooooooo annoying. But being annoying it really funny. I mean really Extravaganza is like the literary version of this:

Or this:

Or, god forbid, this:

I dunno, maybe that’s a lot of bullshit. But Extravaganza is a very interesting book for this reason: I think Lish’s project here is to take these common jokes and stretch them as far as they will go to see if they really work, if there’s really anything to the jokes themselves. It’s almost like how they test condoms in the factory by blowing them up really big to see if there are any holes, except Lish keeps twisting them into balloon animals and handing them to you, then by the end you’re so distracted by the balloon animals that it’s hard to notice when Smith or Dale break the fourth wall and refer to how great the book they’re in is, or when one of them goes on a tourette’s-like anti-semitic tirade real quick. But then it’s back to the jokes!

This book is quite a workout, even at 190 pages, because those balloon animals can get heavy! But it’s also a pretty obscure piece of experimental literature (not even a Wikipedia page) that in a very real sense can be seen as a kind of stepping stone between the heavy duty literary aesthetic of the 1970s and the kind of ironic sensibility in Comedy (with a capital C) that’s now kind of seeping back the other way into everything else. In any case, Extravaganza is a good mental exercise and a very odd…thing.

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