Recently I wrote a profile of writer John Warner, who was on tour promoting The Funny Man, his satirical first novel.
The Funny Man is “a funny novel about a funny man who sticks his whole hand in his mouth in a funny way,” writes Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. “But it's much more than that—a wise, rueful, surprisingly tender book about what happens when we get what we want, and then what happens when we keep on wanting things. A very American novel, in other words, a novel that reminds me of Walker Percy's and Saul Bellow's very American novels.”
Today I’m pleased to bring you an interview with John Warner, my second with him; the first, four years ago, is here.
Welcome back, John. I’ve been meaning for two months to get you here, but I think my differential is filled with bananas. How’s tricks?
My tricks are old and a little tired, my stop at Hinterland next-to-last on my arduous trek around the country flogging my wares. It’s good to be back home even though no one here is asking me to read and the dogs don’t have any special reverence for published authors.
Listen, you’ve got these strange Midwestern notions of modesty, reserve and privacy, so I was blissfully toiling along and this book jumped out from behind the hay bales and flailed me. How’d it come about?
The first words (what ultimately became the second chapter) hit the page sometime in 2002. I’m sure I thought it was a short story at the time since that was the only kind of fiction I was writing, but it managed to grow incrementally over the years as I would periodically get discouraged over its possibilities, put it away, and then, with the passage of time, become re-encouraged as to its possibilities. My method, which is likely madness, is to be simultaneously working on twenty things, each in various stages of incompletion, and periodically picking things up and seeing how much closer I can carry them towards the finish line. At one point, this book was neck-and-neck with two others in terms of word count (about 35k), and I finally got sick of my non-novel-finishing self and declared that I’d complete a manuscript, no matter how crappy, by the end of Summer 2009.
At your reading here you told a story about finding the form that allowed you to finish the book, using alternating first- and third-person narration. Can you repeat that here?
When I made that declaration to myself, I intended to complete another one of the partial manuscripts because I felt permanently stuck when it came to The Funny Man. Everything I’d done up to that time was in third-person, and every time I looked at it, I had that stomach-sick feeling that the whole was decidedly less than the sum of its parts, and that as a novel it simply didn’t work. I needed a solution to the problem of structure and had no ideas of my own, so I pulled a dozen or so of my favorite novels off the shelf and started looking at how they were organized.
One was The Water Method Man, by John Irving, a novel I’ve read at least half a dozen times. It’s episodic, with two overlapping storylines covering the past and present of the protagonist Fred “Bogus” Trumper. The past, written in third-person, tells the sad and hilarious tale of a failed starter marriage that produced an unplanned child and an ABD PhD in Old Low Norse. The present, written in first-person, shows Bogus confronting the dilemma of another unplanned (on his part) pregnancy, this time with his girlfriend Tulpen. He’s at a moment of crisis where we’re going to find out if he makes the same mistakes all over again, even as he’s trying to undo some from the past. I realized that one of the things that makes that novel work is the juxtaposition of past and present, demonstrating how we carry the past with us every moment of the day.
So I stole that. I started conjuring a first-person present for my character, and immediately the shape and events that would fill out the rest of the book came into view—hazy, but definitely not a mirage. I wrote just under half of the book in six weeks that summer, not at all worried if it was any good (which had been holding me back), but just trying to get to this finish line on the horizon. I’ll probably never have so much fun writing again.
There was a middle-aged man in the audience at your reading clutching a sheet of paper with questions scrawled on it, but he deferred to the many students there. I managed to read a question on his sheet. Would you like to answer it now, in case he’s reading?: “Mr. Warner, you seem like a nice man, a gentle man, a genial man; you’re amiable, considerate, cordial, courteous, pleasant, kindly, well-mannered, a likable man, for a tertiary syphilitic. I was wondering why you write about bad, not happy, stuff?”
But my book is a comedy! Ha! Ha! Big laughs, or “laffs” as we now say. Except that even the people who like the book don’t seem to be ROFLMAO.
On the macro level, I have a very low opinion of humanity. We are, I believe, a pestilence, a plague, an unstoppable death-dealing parade of misery and destruction. The historical and contemporary evidence of such is incontrovertible. Crusades, pogroms, genocides, internments, the BCS…etc.
As I write this, the Jerry Sandusky/Penn St. situation remains the rage in the news, and each new story seems to expose more and deeper rot, moral failings upon moral failings. It all seems inexplicable, except that in the larger context, it’s actually pretty common when humans have failed other humans. Sandusky is just this week. Next week it will be the failure of the “Supercommittee” to reach a “compromise” even though our stalled government threatens the national welfare. As an experiment, humankind will only and inevitably end in collapse. Bang, whimper, it won’t really matter. I’m betting on some combination of the two.
Thinking about these things has the potential to make me physically ill, to bring upon a crippling bout of weltschmerz.
So I write about them and try to mine something funny from them, because to do this is to exert some element of control over the uncontrollable. And while I recognize this control is illusory, it’s an illusion I’ve grown comfortable with and therefore cling to.
I’m going to just go ahead and admit that while I have an extremely low opinion of humankind, I firmly believe in the capability of individual humans to express and experience what I like to call “grace” of the non-divine variety. See here for an example.
We live in darkness, and the human experiment will ultimately fail, but life is not without light, and it’s some of those moments that I’m drawn to.
You were a student of Pulitzer-winner Robert Olen Butler’s, I believe. A writer friend, also a former student of Butler’s, stayed with us recently, and we discussed our models for writing and teaching. Can you speak to the relative influence of undergrad and MFA creative writing teachers on your own writing and teaching?
I think any of us is the product of our influences, and I include my undergraduate teachers (most notably your colleague Philip Graham) and graduate teachers (Bob Butler and John Wood) as some of my greatest influences. The biggest influence all three of them had was to demonstrate what writers do, which is to write and read and work, and that these things are not separate but parts of a whole. They demonstrated best practices by exemplifying the work of being a writer. The service they did for me was to demystify that part of the process.
Aesthetically, it’s hard to say how they’ve influenced me, other than I’m sure it’s heavy, but at the same time, to have any success, I had to throw them overboard and find my thing. This isn’t always an easy process. (Notice my shift to present tense.) Bob’s presence loomed very large during my time as an MFA student, partly because he was our only fiction writer on faculty, and partly because his aesthetic is so strong and he’s so good at articulating it. It makes sense. Except that, for me, it didn’t always make sense, or rather there’s huge parts of it that make sense but which I just need to think about in different ways sometimes. That anxiety of influence was paralyzing for a time, but the experience was probably also necessary to come out the other side with something of my own.
As for teaching, since I deal primarily with undergraduates and beginning writers, I try my best to demystify writing as much as possible, that it’s something that you do and work at, as opposed to a gift from above, or something where we just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. At the same time, I try to champion the deep pleasures of writing for its own sake, that the means are indeed the ends.
Your protagonist’s in love with someone like Anna Kournikova, his mugshot looks like Nick Nolte’s, and he’s in an OJ-style trial with nods to those of Michael Jackson, Mel Gibson, Kobe, Rush, Paris Hilton, Lindsay, Gary Coleman, and Martha Stewart. There are many, many other references in the book to pop culture, including Di’s funeral and the Simpson’s “football to the groin” bit (here a Bob Gibson fastball), and the funny man, like Homer, admits, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Pop culture appropriates everything in its path, even itself, and your hero’s comedy act resembles cannibalism, or at least self-consumption.
Do you believe in an inevitable spiraling-down by all this? Is there a bottom to the pit?
Short answer, no, there is no bottom. Periodically, I think we’ve hit bottom and then something happens that disabuses me of that notion, which makes me wonder if we really are looking at some kind of decline.
Realms that used to be at least somewhat removed from popular culture (news, politics, etc.) are now simply part of them. News is news/entertainment, emphasis on the entertainment. In Herman Cain we have a reality show contestant-type personality running competitively for the presidency. He is popular precisely because he is entertaining and doesn’t know much.
ESPN has been covering this Sandusky debacle 24/7 in very serious and sober tones, but it is ESPN which provides the fuel (bottomless amounts of money) that drives the cartel that is big-time intercollegiate athletics that creates the conditions favorable to this kind of institutional corruption.
I say these things not as someone above the fray, but as a participant in it. The problem is that we, or at least I, am pretty fascinated by popular culture. It entertains me. It distracts me. It is what I and many Americans spend most of our time on.
So to ask if there’s a bottom is like asking if we’re going to see a fundamental change in the American psyche. I think probably not.
It’s perfectly appropriate that you invent the narrative equivalent to the kitschy poster that puts James Dean, Marilyn, Bogie and Elvis into Hopper’s Nighthawks. Your version however is both a little dangerous and moving; I’ll always be grateful you’ve given John Lennon an afterlife and permit JFK and John-John their time together. Are you of the camp that believes celebrities are our Greek gods, and while they sometimes behave badly on Earth, that they also recline on eternal Olympus?
One of the conceits of the novel is that fame is the de facto “American Dream,” and following my own logic, the achievement of fame is about the best thing we could ever hope for.
Not to be crass, but part of really lasting fame is a properly timed death. Just today I saw a “news” story about the rented home Michael Jackson died in, and how the owners were going to auction some of the items that Michael used. These things have become relics with both emotional and monetary value to the right people. Michael Jackson’s life, particularly toward the end, was more than a bit of a mess, but those elements have been sandblasted off the statuary. He became famous for his talent, but he’s far more remembered for the fact of his fame, rather than his abilities as a singer/dancer/composer.
The book makes this critique of media: “He started to realize the truth about television, which is that the images on screen were far more real than reality since these were the things everyone could share: Our collective spirit. There was no objective truth outside what some critical mass of people believed.”
Later our hero, trying to have his say online about what he believes is truth, “is beset by savages who can type more quickly than him.” Is reality now whoever has the most bandwidth?
The old saw is that [media executives] are only giving the people what they ask for, but I’m not so sure about this. Maybe if we ask for it, it’s only because we don’t know how to ask for anything else because we’ve been so conditioned to want it.
Clearly, the media has the ability to “drive the narrative.” I don’t want to get all political, but there’s a television network that starts with “Fox” and ends with “News” that successfully disseminates several metric tons of bullshit that is lapped up as though it is ambrosia.
To some degree the Internet could be democratizing in its dissemination of image and information, since in theory there is no gatekeeper, but I think the Internet largely acts as a megaphone for the media narrative. There are of course voices in the wilderness, but they don’t call it the wilderness for nothing.
The novel goes a little meta in places. You write, “The goal, as far as I can see it, is to make the book as true as possible, as faithful to one’s experience as you can get, but I’ve found this often entails straying from the precise way events may have unfolded since the memory falls short of the truth of the matter.”
How’s this work with satire? And how do you out-real the “reality” of digital “irreality,” in order to make a truthful point about about its lies? Wait—where am I?
This is a nod to Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” one of those stories that blew me away when I read it, for its critique of “realism,” and continues to resonate with how I look at the purposes of literature. The line you quote is the funny man realizing that he’s probably not getting his story “right,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t “true.” To me, satire is an impulse towards seeking some kind of “truth” that reality isn’t capable of illuminating. I make no claims to my work doing this, but I can say that it is indeed the goal.
The book says something is “a real catch-22” and has parallels with Heller’s great satirical novel. For example, the funny man tallies what is luck or not luck in much the same manner as Colonel Cathcart itemizes his “black eyes” and “feathers in his cap.” Your funny man gets bored signing memorabilia for fans and begins writing nonsensical messages to them, as Yossarian does when he’s assigned to be a censor for men’s letters home. You’re a Heller fan? Which other comic novelists do you see as influences?
I wish I could say that those moments were so directly inspired by Catch-22, except that none of it was conscious. Though, given that I believe that Catch-22 is the novel of the 20th (and maybe 21st) century(ies), I can’t imagine I would’ve escaped without having some echo of the novel in there. If you’re going to write something that makes claims to satire, you need to grapple with that book.
Do you know what the New York Times reviewer said about Heller’s novel at the time of its release?
Catch-22 has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility. If Catch-22 were intended as a commentary novel, such sideswiping of character and action might be taken care of by thematic control. It fails here because half its incidents are farcical and fantastic.
I love that, partially panned for being too farcical and fantastical when really what it signaled was the ground opening beneath our feet and swallowing us into something new.
As I said, John Irving, particularly early Irving, is hugely influential on me. Francine Prose is one of the best contemporary satirists when she’s working in that mode (Blue Angel, My New American Life), though I don’t know how influential she is other than I strive for the same sharpness of tone.
Elsewhere I wrote about the “White Male Fuck-up Novel” (WMFuN), of which I consider The Funny Man to be one, and which is a genre that holds a lot of my favorite books. A Fan’s Notes may be my favorite out of that bunch. I love books that can do funny/sad, or even funny/hopelessness. That’s just the kind of guy I am.
The funny man has a certain flexibility. Not only can he get his whole fist in his mouth, but in one of the funniest sections in the book he invents a comeback act that consists of dislocating his joints and flailing all the loose parts. His agent tells him it’s grotesque, not funny, but he performs it anyway in a club:
[S]oon there is the sound of glass breaking as the woman in the front row falls into a dead faint and takes out the cocktail table with her. From somewhere in the back a keening wail like a harpooned seal rises in intensity. Other people appear to be fainting as well, or holding back their hurl with hands over mouths…. His last image is of a young couple…the young man has wrapped his arm around the young woman’s shoulder and with his free hand, he covers her face by pulling it to his chest. ‘They’re going to make it,’ the funny man thinks.
All this seems to parallel a pattern we’ve come to expect: Celebrities are provided a certain [moral] flexibility, and when they abuse it, they become publicly alienated from those who nurtured them in the first place. Are we setting those poor people up to fail? Some kind of elemental Killing of the Divine King martyrdom?
Short answer, yes. Short example, Kim Kardashian.
There are lines that we don’t want crossed and the excommunication is often swift (but rarely final). The Kardashian/Humphries wedding/divorce is a current and handy example. Kim Kardashian was first made famous through a “private” sex tape, the origin of which is quite possibly Kamp Kardashian.
Over time that fame morphed this young woman into a brand spokeswoman for—I’m not sure what, but I see her all the time. Her life is now apparently interesting enough to dramatize on television. She is not American royalty per se, but reportedly 8-10 million people watched her wedding. I was among them. As long as we could believe the (apparent) fiction that it was about love, she is an object of fascination and interest. Unfortunately, the divorce exposed the subtext everyone already knew was there, that this union was as much about money as love, and the removal of this scrim of respectability means we must turn on her.
It’s like we knew we were suckers all along, but only when someone makes it public do we get mad about it.
It’s convenient how the entertainment world seems to give up handy examples for me to use just in time to respond to your questions, but truth is, regardless of when we might have this conversation, there some timely thing would fit your question. It’s just how we’re wired these days.
The funny man’s lawyer is named Barry. Like, say, Bob Shapiro, he thrives on the offal created by the culture and becomes a celebrity himself. Barry says he will have a legacy in arguing this case, that:
“[O]thers will come behind me to study what I do…I am creating newer realities that others will live by. I will be one of history’s actor’s.”
“Like Hitler,” I say.
“We’ll see,” Barry replies. “We shall see.”
At one point Barry wants the jury to say to themselves that they would have done “the exact same thing” the funny man did:
“I would have shot that man, disarmed, on his knees, allegedly begging for his life, six times, allegedly.”
“It’ll never work,” the funny man says. “I’m a monster, aren’t I?”
“Barry perches a single buttock on the table and looks both ways even though we both know we are alone and no one can hear us before he leans toward me, so close that our noses almost touch. I can smell his lunch, egg salad. ‘Let me tell you a secret,’ he says.”
“We’re all monsters.”
And while the book is dark enough to suggest that that’s true, do you think the celebrity lawyer’s type—the carrion-eater—is the worst of all?
Barry’s quote about being one of history’s “actors” is inspired by a quote from a Bush Administration official to reporter Ron Suskind:
“Guys like you are ‘in what we call the reality-based community’—people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
I don’t believe there will ever be a purer expression of hubris, and since Barry was constructed as a purely hubristic character, I wanted to give him this quote. When hubris is combined with an absence of scruples, we get a Bush-era Department of Justice official or the celebrity lawyer.
Following Bob Costas’ interview with Jerry Sandusky, the entire world wondered why Sandusky’s lawyer would allow his client to throw the first couple of shovelfuls of his own grave over his shoulder.
The “why” is because Sandusky’s lawyer was sitting next to Bob Costas, being seen by millions of people, and is now on his way to becoming famous himself. Is he worse than a child rapist? I can’t imagine what’s worse than that, but he’s pretty damn bad.
The book has Barry saying:
“I was on a reef dive, really beautiful, like two-hundred-million-year-old coral there, thinking about your case and it came to me, the perfect defense.”
“I thought we already had the perfect defense.”
“We did, but now this one is more perfect…. The old thing was perfect, the new thing is better, therefore, more perfect. The perfect defense…plus…. Not guilty by reason of celebrity.
“Think about it,” Barry says. “Celebrity is just like a disease. You can catch it, so it’s communicable like a disease. It can also be hereditary like a disease. And I know I don’t have to explain to you how it does its damage. The world is fundamentally different for someone with celebrity, and honest-to-god alternate reality. An irreality, even. Also, celebrity is tenacious, incurable. Once it has you in its grasp, it will not let you go. At the very least any celebrity by definition has a prima facie case of diminished capacity.”
That nearly sounds plausible. You been hanging out with lawyers lately?
This is one of the handful of moments of on-the-spot inspiration in the book. For the most part, as you’ve experienced yourself, the creation of a novel is a bit of a slog, things coming into focus very slowly over time. In this case, I remember writing the scene and just letting Barry go on a bit and the “not guilty by reason of celebrity” notion popped into my head and I knew that it fit instantly. The world of the celebrity is not the same as ours. They are often damaged by celebrity and certainly run the risk of the loss of their humanity (at least as I understand the word). This had definitely happened to my character, so it really seemed to fit. It’s one of those things I decided not to look at too hard, gift horses and all that business.
The book points continuously to delusion, whether it’s from hope, fantasy, the cult of celebrity, media distortion, mental illness, or even the American Dream: “Isn’t most everyone’s life the product of delusion, a delusion that things are progressing, that they are prospering, or if not prospering presently, will be prosperous in the future?”
The funny man finds himself on the cover of a magazine, looking awful, and the headline reads: “WHEN WILL HE STOP FALLING?” In my profile of your visit I already pointed out the echo I hear in The Funny Man and the “Falling Man” I guess maybe it goes too far to say this is your 9-11 novel, but how consciously is this book about the fall of American life? And is that apparent decline fated or willed in your opinion?
You’re getting all of my most embarrassing admissions out of me, Churm. The file with the first words that ultimately wound up in the finished manuscript is called “An American Saga,” which was some part of my lizard brain saying that what I was writing about had something to do with the American condition, as much or more than one specific character’s life, that somehow this individual experience was meant to emblemize something larger. Eve ate the apple, which sucked for her and Adam for sure, but it managed to visit a whole lot of bad shit on the rest of us.
Despite all my kvetching above, I’m actually sort of hesitant to call what’s happening to the culture “decline,” since I think it’s more a matter of changing into something different, as opposed to objectively “worse.” We see it as decline because of our particular historical vantage point, but someone with a longer view would probably already think we’ve hit bottom and we’re in the midst of our dead cat bounce. That said, our ultimate un-pretty end is fated. What could be the alternative? Do we honestly believe that we’re heading towards some kind of endless cultural flourishing?
The world loves to hate the funny man, when fate’s script turns the page for him. Protestors outside his place hold up a bedsheet with letters in black spray paint: “DO THE WORLD A FAVOR AND JUM! [sic]” I think of the telegram to a widow in Chekhov’s “The Darling”: “IVAN PETROVITCH DIED SUDDENLY TO-DAY. AWAITING IMMATE [sic] INSTRUCTIONS FUFUNERAL [sic] TUESDAY,” that mysterious and paranoiac sense the universe is sending messages.
The funny man thinks messages from his (imaginary?) girlfriend “continue to arrive disguised in more and more elaborate ways. Yesterday it was in a news story about her preparations for the upcoming major season. The first letter of each word in her quote, removed, arranged into thinking of you.” What hazards do you see in looking for meaning in a nonsensical world? Are you Vonnegutian? Beckettian? The world merely a bad joke at best or an existential nothing?
Since I’m pretending it’s just you and me talking here, old Churm, and there isn’t anyone listening in or reading…
How’d you know, Estragon?
…I’ll reiterate my earlier hopefulness in the possibility of grace for the individual. I believe this makes me firmly more Vonnegutian than Beckettian. The scene in Slaughterhouse Five where they are being transported in the cattle car, and food and water is passed through the slats, and we are told that they “shared,” makes tears well in my eyes.
Despite some truly heinous behavior by the funny man, we come to like and care for him, in large part due to his (sometimes) tenderness toward and genuine affection for his wife and child. He’s not really a cynic or manipulator as much as he is an innocent abroad in his own country. Even his reasons for performing are sort of lovely, almost like what we might get from teaching: “He loved the proximity to the audience, seeing the jokes land and their faces open up with surprise.”
The book ends, again in the spirit of Catch-22, with the funny man’s active choice to have life on his own terms. “Everyone’s got a story and the best ones are those we tell ourselves,” he concludes. “I imagined it and then after the imagining it had come true. It is not a perfect substitute for what I had [in my previous life], but it will have to do.” Is this a happy ending you’ve written us?
I hope so, “hope” being the key word, because my aim is for it to be a hopeful end. Let’s face it, he’s pretty doomed and on some level he knows it, but he’s choosing to take a shot at a life that he thinks is going to be worth living. That’s about the best any of us can do.
You’re newly on the move from Clemson, finished with the public success of a book tour. What’s next in your own story, my friend?
I have dreams, but I try not to put too much stock in them. More books, I hope. I’m writing them, and it’s an open question whether or not someone will want to publish them. Only the writing-them aspect is in my control, so I’m trying to concentrate on that.
My thanks to guest John Warner. Buy his novel, The Funny Man, here or at your favorite bookseller.