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Funny Ah! Aah!

Michael Hinds

The Pleasures of Queueing, by Erik Martiny, Mastodon Publishing, 210 pp, $18, ISBN 978-1732009110

Times are tough for writers of comic fiction. The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction was not awarded in 2018, not because the entries were not funny, according to the judges, but because they were not funny in the right way:

Despite the submitted books producing many a wry smile amongst the panel during the judging process, we did not feel that any of the books we read this year incited the level of unanimous laughter we have come to expect. We look forward to awarding a larger rollover prize next year to a hilariously funny book.

This is a complicated statement, its dislike of the “wry” a variation on the anti-intellectual theme which finds many expressions in contemporary culture, and the desire for unanimous laughter therefore has a coercive touch. More broadly, the refusal to award the prize can be seen in the context of the current moment in which comedians are suffering an overload of potential material from the political sphere, even as populist politicians steal tricks from the stand-up playbook. In this great inversion, Trump on the stump is pure Catskills, while Stephen Colbert on The Late Show increasingly plays it straight.

As the intermittently deep-thinking Morrissey once joked, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” If everything is funny, or at least risible, the comic novelist’s task of making particular things or experiences particularly funny is practically impossible. To understand through a comic lens is therefore a strategy of last resort, an expression of the impossibility of maintaining seriousness. To write comic fiction in such a context, to orchestrate chaos in the necessary fashion, you have to be incredibly smart, and in the sense of that term as both verb and adjective. To be smart, your words also have to smart; to give pleasure, you also have to bring the pain.

In The Pleasures of Queuing, Erik Martiny has produced a novel that does both; a Trinity-educated professor of English at the University of Aix-en-Provence, Martiny has generated an account of a roiling freakshow of a Franco-Hibernian family living from the late sixties to the eighties in Cork, where the father was lecturing at UCC. In part a book about a professor written by a professor, inevitably the book pops with the kind of smarts which take the form of allusion. This is a citation-heavy text, even featuring a disclaimer that both summons Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Paul Muldoon’s sonnet of conjectural patrimony “Immrama”: “The characters in this novel are entirely fictitious. Any persons resembling them should consider fleeing to Brazil.” Any book thus revving its knowledge (not to mention its loading of three epigraphs from McGahern, Colette and Wodehouse) before even kickstarting its narrative is running a lot of risks, not least that of trying too hard to impress. At the same time, writing in an antically citational mode is one of the most sheerly pleasurable experiences a reader can enjoy, as long as things remain engagingly in play and they can recognise the quote; the play of allusion is a trusted device of Wodehouse, for example, one of his ways to make a standard educational armoury of rote-learned quotation into something productively laughable:

“There is a fog sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”
“Season of what?”
“Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.”
“Oh? Yes. Yes, I see. Well, be that as it may, get me one of those bracers of yours, will you?”
(The Code of the Woosters)

We are invited to recognise the line, even as Bertie Wooster does not; the pleasure lies in our recognition, and his totally unembarrassed ignorance. The question abides about whether it is worth knowing what Jeeves and the reader know, as Bertie can clearly live without it. Martiny works this seam very hard, and very productively. The book is brilliant, brisk and learned, even as he therefore runs the risk of making his learning too ostentatious; and yet at the same time, there is sufficient trepidation in Martiny’s writing about the pressure of forces beyond the control of the intelligent individual which give the book the necessary tension it needs to breathe.

As a hallucinatory study of a family living under the radical constraints of its parents, The Pleasures of Queueing is reminiscent of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, practically showing how the dimensions of a father and mother’s personalities turn family life into an extraordinarily exhausting yet fulfilling labour. The Montcocq family home is a crowded house, whose population is routinely augmented by a combination of irresistible forces: the thoroughly conventional Catholicism of its Irish mother and the equally relentless and remorseless libido of its French father. By page 113, halfway through the book, there are seventeen kids in the house. It remains unclear as to whether or not any more appear.

The idea of such overpopulation is felt in this book with peculiar intimacy, and it is supplemented by the other ways in which the world of the book jostles with action and reaction, the work of bodies going about their business. In the middle of this teeming mess of people, things go unremarked and things get left to the narrator-protagonist, the oldest child, Olaf Montcocq, to sort out. This includes the discovery of sibling incest between his eleven-year-old twin brother and sister, Siobhan and Soren (“We know what incest is, Olaf. It’s only a word.”), and him being given responsibility for instructing his younger brothers in the art of training their foreskins to retract by subordinating them to a regime of relevant tugging. As might be inferred from the last few details, there are considerable debts to Joyce and Roth in Martiny’s vision, and one of the more thorough pleasures of the book is his unflinching appetite for the rigorously carnivalesque ‑ not just its light uproar, but the whole blood-and-shit cartoon chaos that is manifest in that mode when performed properly.

So we get spectacular episodes of in-school diarrhoea; inventories of inventive onanism when undersexed teenage Olaf suddenly crashes into puberty (“I try masturbating with cutlery”), and riffs on the sandpaperish torments of medicated toilet paper contend with quizzical reflections on the design history of Citroen. The father of the family, Martin Montcocq, is really at the heart of all of this, at times a comic miser, elsewhere imagined as Bartleby reborn; but what Martin really represents is a muse: “talking to my father is a bit like reading Alice in Wondeland”. He inspires Olaf (via Martiny) into some remarkably inventive flows of digressionary writing, and it is the theme of writing which ultimately provides a path out of both the Montcocq house and the book which has been built out of it. “I realize that in creatively inspirational terms, the next best thing to an unhappy childhood is an eccentric one,” advances Olaf; yet in a way it is something of a letdown as he has to grow out of the role of housebrother into writer. Some of the delicious chaos of the home is left behind, as he goes to UCC, then Paris, and begins to build a more singular narrative about his own amatory conquests and calamities, ending up in a polysexual daisy-chain beneath the Berlin wall just before its fall (one of the many explanations for the title).

Towards its end, the book begins to read a little more like memoir (but only a little), and loses the fascination of the incredible social complex of the family. There is yet more weirdness, to be sure, but it is getting exhausting, and solitary. At its end, the book returns to the literary conceits which introduced it, with a Ship of Fools scenario in which Olaf takes the boat to Paris via Roscoff and encounters the shades of Hemingway, Joyce et les autres. Resolving itself as a sort of bildungsroman is a neat enough framing device, but it makes you pine for the far more unruly and hybrid life of the Cork Montcocqs, a place where things felt much less safe and decided.

At times, the idea of a Knausgaardian My Struggle seems in play here, but only as a focus for mockery, given the splendidly disgusting violence of what is being perpetrated at times. The brilliance and hilarity of The Pleasures of Queueing rests in this, notably in some of its moments of French-Irish interface; anyone who has ever had to go to a French GP will recognise the following scenario. Olaf suffers from haemorrhoids both in Cork and when visiting family in the South of France. In Ireland, the “GP is a thick-set man with a massive skull”, he asks a question and prescribes some ointment; in France “I’m given to experience the comforts provided by a latex-gloved, petroleum-jellied hand rummaging around in my rear … The doctor is stretching my sphincter and colon way past their elastic limits. He even starts humming a tune as if he has forgotten what he is looking for, daydreaming about God knows what in the circumstances. Cheerfully, he ferrets and forages his way up my gut, giving me the distinct felling he is fumbling around for car keys in his wife’s handbag.” Then he prescribes some ointment.

Martiny uses both methods; on the one hand, he is happy enough at times to just observe a situation and deploys restraining irony as a form of palliative care, but he also shows a Rabelaisian aptitude for driving his hand right up into the fundament of being, entre les reins, as Gainsbourg and Birkin had it. These two modes are managed with remarkable equipoise, not least because Martiny has such a wonderfully funny feel for language. He does make mistakes, like writing “I return to Cork in an Aer Lingus 747”. From France? No way. This small discrepancy might invite us to think generously about what a writer like Martiny takes on in such an exaggerated mode; however; the problem with creating fictions about families that behave unbelievably has to be that this might test believability too much. Yet this is exactly what great comic writing overcomes, as with John Kennedy Toole or the sainted Wodehouse, overcoming incredulity by securing its vision within stylistically assured worlds of their own making, sealed from the pressure of banal reality with all of its plausibilities and physics.

This is a seriously hilarious book, maybe not enough to win the champagne and prize pig that go with the Wodehouse award, but it will certainly do for the rest of us.

1/1/2019

Michael Hinds is an associate professor in the School of English at Dublin City University.

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