McSweeney’s Internet Tendency’s John Warner on the funniest book narrators

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency’s John Warner on the funniest book narrators

With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.

The reader: John Warner is the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a mischievous branch of Dave Eggers’ ever-growing media empire, McSweeney’s Publishing. Known for its biting satire and absurd humor, the website houses some of the best comedy writing on the web. Aside from his work with McSweeney’s, Warner is also a columnist for the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row journal and a blogger for InsideHigherEd.com. To coincide with the release of The Best Of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, we asked Warner for some of his favorite comic narrators in novels.

Lynda Barry, Cruddy
John Warner: As a native Chicagoan, I feel like I get to claim Lynda Barry as one of my own, as her first significant commercial exposure was in the pages of the alternative weekly, the Chicago Reader, which was the original outlet for Ernie Pook’s Comeek. Known mostly as an artist, she’s also author of one of my all-time favorite novels, 1999’s Cruddy.

Cruddy takes the form of an illustrated diary of Roberta Rohbeson, age 16, who has been grounded after being caught taking two hits of acid. The first line of the diary is:

Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.

Roberta is coming from a place of anger and sadness. The anger is of the typical teenage variety over being grounded to her “cruddy top bedroom of a cruddy rental house where a cruddy girl is sitting on a cruddy bed across from her cruddy sister.”

The sadness is in her recognition that she has failed to be protected by the adults in her life. The narrative unspools as two different threads. One concerns Roberta being trapped in her room in the present with her “cruddy” sister Julie who is threatened in all-caps in the text if she so much as breathes on the diary. The other is told in flashback to four years earlier when Roberta went on a cross-country trip with a hippie named Turtle and her friend, Vicky Talluso. There is a mystery to this story and we soon understand that the tension is in whether Roberta is actually going to be able to tell it. She declares at the outset that she wants to “deliver a fantastic message of Truth plus Magical Love equals Freedom,” but she knows that’s not the story she has to tell.

The humor, then, becomes a personal floatation device for both Roberta and the reader. Her mother has broken her nose with a telephone handle, but Roberta shrugs it off with, “A boxer’s nose. One of my many distinctive features.”

If it were published today, Cruddy would be one of those YA crossover books of the John Green variety, but back in 1999, we hadn’t yet decided that novels with teenage protagonists need their own marketing category, it was just a regular-old book. Many of the events are harrowing, as Roberta recounts a life of abuse, but in the very next sentence, it is laugh-out-loud funny. It becomes a survivor’s story, even as you wonder how that was possible.

Barry’s dark and haunting drawings, laced throughout the text, are a bonus.

The A.V. Club: Do you think the drawings in Cruddy underscore the humor?

JW: This is a good question, and I think the answer is “yes” and “no.” One of the interesting things about them is that they’re drawn “in character” in that you understand these are Roberta’s renderings of her life, rather than Barry’s illustrations. The colors are dark and the lines are smeared and blurry. Each drawing has a kind of mirror frame around it, suggestive of fairy tales—Mirror, mirror, on the wall. But what’s reflected back is, objectively, ugly. Mostly, I think the drawings remind us not to be overly charmed by Roberta’s verbal performance. The fact that Roberta can make some horrible event funny in the way she recounts it out runs the risk of turning her into “plucky teen heroine who can overcome anything,” and I think Barry wants to remember that while Roberta has survived, she’s damaged.

John Irving, The Water-Method Man
JW: There used to be a time when publishers would sign up young, promising writers and give them three or four novels to try to find an audience. John Irving was one of those writers, and 1972’s The Water-Method Man is his second novel, one that passed by mostly unnoticed until his fourth, The World According To Garp, announced Irving as a writer whose books we’re going to pay attention to.

For my money, The Water-Method Man is Irving’s best novel, and for sure his funniest. It tells the story of Fred “Bogus” Trumper, who is undergoing the “water method” (drinking lots of water) in order to prevent infection in his unfortunately “long and winding” urethra. The opening scene is Trumper in his office of the great French urologist Dr. Vigneron, being examined in a way that’s so painful, the doctor advises Trumper to bite down on the nipple of a fake breast.

The novel is told in overlapping stories between past and present. Present Trumper works for experimental documentary filmmaker Ralph Packer and lives with his pregnant girlfriend, Tulpen. Past Trumper was an erstwhile graduate student translating a poem in Old Low Norse, “Akthelt And Gunnell,” while trying to be a halfway decent husband to former U.S. skiing star Sue “Biggie” Kunft, and father to Colm.

The humor in TW-MM is a kind of precursor to Garp, but it is even freer and more lunatic. Comic set pieces of Trumper’s past—especially one where he’s reduced to selling football souvenirs at Iowa games and tries to hide his shame from a comely undergrad he has been pursuing (even though he’s married), and another where he’s trying to learn to ski—make me weep with laughter every time I go back to them.

The story within the story of “Akthelt And Gunnell” is perhaps the oddest feature of the novel. It features frequent beheadings, after which the severed heads are stuffed with eels. My favorite part is when Akthelt and his faithful bodyguard/companion/pet Sprog get drunk and have a contest to see who can uproot the biggest tree. When Akthelt loses, to salve his wounded pride, he suggests to Sprog that perhaps he [Akthelt] should sleep with Sprog’s new wife, Fluvia. As Akthelt stumbles toward Fluvia in the dark, she is frightened because a drunk Sprog is likely to break her spine, so she is relieved when she discovers it is Lord Akthelt.

Unfortunately, Sprog believes Akthelt has given him permission to lay with the fair Gunnell, which leads to him being “de-balled with an ax” and “exiled to the coast of his native Scwhud.”

AVC: Trumper’s commentary on “Akthelt And Gunnell” is a notable part of Water-Method. Is part of its charm the interplay between the poem and its translator?

JW: Trumper is nicknamed “Bogus” because he is an incorrigible liar, not a malicious one, but the types that he believes are going to spare feelings, frequently his own. His dissertation serves as a foil to the life he’s lived. At his lowest, Trumper also falls into his pattern of untruths and begins to wing it on the translation, making things up as they get too hard to figure out.

I don’t want to give away too much plot, but the tale of Akthelt and Sprog bears an obvious resemblance to Trumper’s own life, though the de-balling is metaphorical, rather than literal.

Sam Lipsyte, Home Land
JW: Lipsyte reportedly had a hard time getting this novel published, and if you read it, you can see why, given it’s narrated in the form of updates to his high school alumni newsletter (the Eastern Valley High School Catamounts), 10 years after graduation by Lewis “Teabag” Miner who earned his nickname when he was humiliated in the way you’re imagining by one of the school bullies.

As Lewis says of his life, “I did not pan out.”

While the post-high school years have not been as kind to Lewis as his “well-rounded to the point of spherical” classmates, as a narrator he is never self-pitying. The plot is negligible, but it doesn’t matter because Lewis is the funniest and sharpest observer of humanity you could imagine and makes a wonderful companion on a cross-country flight like the one on which I read the book. I laughed so loud and so long that I feared being taken into custody by an air marshal.

While Lewis is a “loser” and knows it, for all his tales of woe, he is not quite self-pitying. There is a kind of pride in his decision to at least hypothetically update his former classmates on his current station, as though he revels in having become exactly what they imagined for him, desperate, alone, searching the Internet for legwarmer kink. He does not love being known as “teabag,” but he embraces it because at least it is an identity.

Like Lynda Barry’s Roberta, Lewis Miner is a survivor by virtue of his ability to sling the verbal arrows at his tormentors. No one is listening to him, but he still has something to say.

AVC: Does the newsletter conceit in Home Land get old to you?

JW: It really should, right? Except that in the midst of Lewis’ tales you tend to forget about the conceit until there’s an explicit address to Lewis’ fellow Catamounts or “Ostrokitties.” As you might imagine, there isn’t a whole lot of plot, but it’s not something that never bothered me because it leaves plenty of room for Lipsyte’s comic riffs. It almost reads like a late night DJ free-associating, one thought to the next, which is its own kind of tension.

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven
JW: Noted “Nixonologist” Harold Silver is the narrator of the novel, and in the first 40 pages he sleeps with his sister-in-law, who is then murdered by his brother, which leaves Harry in charge of his niece and nephew, Nathaniel, who’s 12, and Ashley, who’s 11.

Hilarious, right? Except this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in the last five or six years.

The hardcover version is 480 pages of deadpan, one impossible event after another, including cameos by Don DeLillo (White Noise being an obvious inspiration for Harold’s work), and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. I couldn’t tell you if the novel is farce or satire or meant to be taken 100 percent seriously, but somehow it is all these things simultaneously. While the strangeness swirls around Harold, he narrates his own life as a kind of spectator. I think this bothers some readers who expect him to react to all the oddness, but Homes’ genius is in these juxtapositions, a calm center (at least on the surface) as chaos surrounds him. It’s a novel, ultimately, of acceptance. Harold does not put up a fight because the fight is futile. The world will do what it wants with us.

Homes has taken the miniaturism of postmodernists like Donald Barthelme and maximized it, and I think this book is one that future generations are going to look back on as an emblem of our times.

AVC: How does the deadpan narration in May We Be Forgiven contrast to a more reactive narrator?

JW: I love it. I likened Homes to Barthelme, and I’m thinking specifically of a story of his called “The School” which is a kind of monologue from the point of view of a grade school teacher recounting all the things that have died that year: the trees the kids planted, the snakes, the herb gardens, the tropical fish—“you just look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface”—the puppy, the Korean orphan from the Help The Children program, etc. On the one hand, it’s completely absurd. On the other, it’s totally believable. There’s a real dignity to not even trying to explain the unexplainable.

I like weirdness in novels, and I have a kind of inherent suspicion of fiction that is too “well made,” if you will, those gorgeous sentences lapping at my brain, lulling me, sometimes to sleep. I think of the deadpan as a particularly American vernacular, the only sensible response to the horrors around us.

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