Sunday, November 09, 2003


Got a hold of the new Martin Amis novel, Yellow Dog. Haven't finished it yet, so I'll forestall my comments until then, but reading it did bring to mind a piece I wrote (for the presumably disinterested readership of Lollipop magazine) a few years ago. As literary parody, it's probably lacking: in fact, it's probably one of the least successful things I've ever attempted (there have been worse, oh lawdy yes, but unlike most of those pieces, I had a very clear goal in mind and fell well short of the mark, owing to deadline pressure, general fatigue, and the toxins in my editor-in-chief's breath. Oh, and lack of talent, too; musn't forget that). Still, I have a strange affection for this Thalidomide babe o' mine, and I really need new content for this damned page, so here 'tis:

Vanity, Thy Name is Lucre

Editor's Note: The writer usually held responsible for this feature remains incapacitated with a number of purely literary ailments - a dermatologically rambling outbreak of Kerouacne, several drawn-out and convoluted Pynchon nerves, and a mock-epic bout of Tennyson elbow - therefore, the column will continue to be assigned to a panoply of guest writers until he either recovers or lapses into a delirium so entertaining that simply watching him try to work the keys of his Power VIC-20 with his earlobes will prove funnier than anything he's contributed to these pages in several years. This month's feature comes to us from Merkin Aimless, noted second-generation British satirical novelist and author of such best-lenders as The Lode of Auld Wanque and Spent Advances.

Writing short comic essays is, on the whole, difficult, isn't it. Isn't it. Words tremble out, don't they, thick with time-bloat and city-belch, scalloped with celestial seasonings, the pre-prandial paprika of night: the sky with its abscessed swells, its baked-on calculus, its periodontal table of the elements. One wouldn't blame the long-suffering essayist, would one, if he refused to assay the essay, to uproot his gingivitic muse in an attempt to straighten her orthodontal embrace (and they're always "her"s, aren't they. The muses, I mean. I think. I mean to say, I think, that I don't know. About the muses. I mean, they are, aren't they, always "her"s. Aren't they. Or aren't they).

I've been assigned a 1000-word comic essay. I have. If anyone were to ask me what I were doing, right now, at my award-winning word processor whereupon all my words are, after a fashion, processed, with the dolorous clouds of the London dusk as swollen and disproportionate as the cheques I receive from my British bullybag of a literary agent or the checks my American advance-attaché posts me in the post, this is what I'd say: I've been assigned a 1000-word comic essay. I have. On what subject, they did not specify. This is what they said (they did): "A comic essay. Yes. That would be the done thing to do." That sounds a bit awkward, doesn't it. Doesn't it. It does. But that is how Americans, that is how they talk. This I know because I've been to America, as everyone must. I've been to America, that land of nuke-lag and sack-hacks, of hard-ups and soft-ons, of pain-gloat and slip-ache... what was I writing about? Oh, yes, America. I've been there. I've heard how Americans talk. And Americans talk like that. As Americans must. And I know Americans, know Americans as only an outsider can. This is the thing: I am an outsider. Weaned on pub-grub and sick from ale-ail. I am not, you can tell, an American. Look at my pall-pallor, my sodden street-terror, my eructated erudition, my well-thumbed copy of the OED. Above all (above all), look at my teeth. Look at my teeth. The crumbled queue of decayed dentrifice, the rot-ridden rank of insipid incisors, the faux-feral file of unenamored enamel. Those... those are my teeth. My teeth. They are. These are teeth that have been to America.

Short comic essays, you may notice, have gone the way of the universe. They've gone that way because I just said they have. You remember. Three sentences ago. They've gone that way as the universe has: haemorraging astral hours without hope, without hope of space-clot or cosmo-stanch. The life, the life is bleeding out of it. And I'm the same way: I'm bleeding out of it. Could be the draught-draft, the glacial gust that wafts through the door, the d'or, of the pub where I spend my hours doing research for my latest novel, which itself has gone, not so much the way of the universe, more the way of America. Or my teeth. I can't tell: I'm bleeding out of it. Just like the universe. Except with italics. I go to the pub to seek, to seek, to seek the yeasty waft of pie-sloth and the inverted motor-smog of fag smoke, and also to listen for new low-life slang I can place in the scorched mouths of the dart-slags and bollock-bashers that form the supporting cast, the supporting caste, of my novels. "Don't cock me under, mate. Don't cock me under, right?" That's one I just heard. In the pub. At least I think that's what I heard: I can't be sure because I didn't dare (I didn't) bring my Oxford-educated second-generation novelist form too close to them to hear them right, lest I get a right nosing from them. That's another one, another bit of yob-slang I overheard: "Don't cock me under, mate, or I'll give you a right nosing, right?" Put that in the mouth of a quim-quaffing Cockney layabout, give him a dingy white van and a name like Kif or Biro or Shizz, and I've got a character. A walking metaphor to counterbalance the protagonist, who himself is a walking metaphor. Don't tell anyone (don't tell anyone), but he's me. He's me. A writer obsessed with the universe, America, and his teeth, except he's not me, or he seems not to be me, although I'll give him a name like Nigel Scribe or Denis Me, because I'll have him meet up (in the pub, I reckon. In the pub) with a recurring character called Merkin Aimless, who himself is a writer, and they can have conversations like this:

"So, you're a writer as well, are you?"

"That I am. That... I am."

"What are you writing now, then?"

"I'm into short comic essays. Right up to here."

"Ah. Ah. What's your subject?"

"They're Americans. They didn't specify."

"That must make it difficult, then."

"Not really. Not, not really. I've found, from writing critically-acclaimed novels these many years, that once you find your voice and become recognized for it, that you can pretty much slather any sort of blather onto the page, so long as you give the vague impression of significance, cosmic metaphor and sociological commentary and the like, and get away with it."

"I see. See: I see."

"Add a little post-modernism, like casting an idealized version of yourself in it somewhere, and you'll be set. Lauded worldwide. Get steady income. Enough to pay for a new set of teeth. They don't even have to be funny."

"The teeth?"

"The essays."

"Sounds brilliant. But there's one more thing: one more thing to ask. What if you do all that and you still don't have enough to fill the space?"

"Simple - just use a lot of repetition.

"Yes, that's it.

"Just use a lot of repetition."

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