The Short Version: The funny man is in trouble. He goes from being a struggling standup comedian to superstar in the blink of an eye after he adds a little ‘thing’ to his routine: sticking his whole hand inside his mouth. But superstardom isn’t quite what he’d hoped it would be – and his life spirals into what you might call madness, culminating in a trial for manslaughter. Then things take a strange turn.
The Review: Hmm. I’ll say right off the bat that this was not, at all, what I expected. Despite the fact that I know John from (importantly) his work at McSweeney’s and (more importantly, to me) his work as commentator for the Tournament of Books and (most importantly, to me) his work as Biblioracle, I think I was expecting something more… straightforward. I went into this novel as blind as I could: I knew the basic premise (funny man, on trial, his story) and I had heard John read two short excerpts from the book at the release party in Brooklyn a few months ago (where he signed it, saying “I recommend this.” – hence why I qualify this as a Biblioracle recommendation. get it?!) but that was really about it. I didn’t even read the inside flap. I wanted to just… experience this book on my own.
And I had the strange experience of expecting something from a book even though I had built up no expectations for it. This is not to say that I was let down or turned off by the book – in fact, I really quite enjoyed it. But had you told me that I was in for a crazy mash of Glamorama and Fight Club and the real life of my old roommate (now a burgeoning stand-up comic in LA)… well, I would’ve stopped you at Glamorama and said “wait, what?”
I reference that divisive Ellis novel because the way that novel goes from the world of models down a strange dark rabbit hole before you even realize it, even though it’s hard not to realize it because weird shit starts happening, is similar to the way that this novel suddenly spins down a rabbit hole you never anticipated. It becomes something vaguely akin to that Strong Bad Email with the virus, where everything just goes fucking weird. Everything is normal and then suddenly SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
the funny man is whisked away to some secluded island retreat where famous people go to get truly cleaned up (not just drugs but mentally, physically, emotionally) and where, EVEN MORE SPOILERS, on the far corner of the island, all of your favorite famous people who ‘died young’ are hanging out, looking just as they did at their death. Seriously. Anyone you wish you could hang out with is there. It’s like that Stephen King story (I think it’s King, anyway) where there’s that town in the Rockies where every night the greatest musicians who ever died show up and rock out. Except it’s film stars and comedians and Princesses and whatnot. If you’re thinking “whoa” then you’re having the same reaction I did.
The rest of the novel gets colored by this surreal sequence and so I can’t think about the rest of it without thinking about this part of it. The rest of the novel is really terrific – an excellent look at the realities of the comedy world, not glamorizing it but also not making it seem too horrible. There’s something that struck me, too, about the idea of the funny man not being anything extraordinary. When, backstage, everyone engages in posturing over who has the most fucked-up life, he fakes it in order to fit in but wonders if he’s missing something because he’s actually pretty happy. It’s a valid question not just in comedy but in most artistic endeavors: are tortured artists somehow more of an artist than the rest of us?
I find myself now, having let the book digest, questioning a lot of it. Not in a “was it good?” way but in a “can I trust it?” way. It’s clear, to me anyway, that the funny man is in fact psychologically disturbed. Drugs, some mental destabilization, something else I can’t even describe – he’s definitely messed up. And so now you have to wonder: how much of the story is truth? It would seem that the sections narrated in third person are true. But there’s also something about the way that they’re written that leads you to believe they’re a narration of the funny man’s thoughts and if his thoughts are compromised, could the story itself be compromised? It’s a fantastic conundrum to deal with and I love the fact that you don’t realize he’s unreliable as a narrator until near the end – at which point you’re suddenly forced to reflect on the novel-to-date and things take on a very different cast. That’s fun, for me.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I really enjoyed this book. I really enjoyed it, more than I even thought I would. It’s always nerve-wracking when you read a first novel by someone who you ‘know’ – and I think I can say I know John, at least in the literary realm. I know he drops by this blog now and then (and that he’ll likely get a Google Alert about this post since I tagged him and the book) and so I was nervous, you know? I was worried that I wouldn’t like it and that’d be disappointing. But instead, I had fun with this book. It’s very witty and very smart – I believe people say things like “remarkably assured” for a first-timer. I had a few issues with certain moments, I thought that there could’ve been a bit more precision at times… but even in those moments, there was something humorous that kept my enjoyment constant. I’m happy John ‘recommended’ this one and I look forward to whatever comes out of him next. He should be on your radar, for sure.