Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Unexamined British Influences on the Work of Gary Sullivan

Gary Sullivan isn’t afraid to poke a little fun at writers who become too obsessed with their own lineages of influence. Gary's contribution to Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, his cartoon “America, A Lineage,” shows a writer desperately trying to define himself by knowing which writers have influenced his own work.

So Gary is a perfect writer with whom to play “False Lineage: A Game,” one of my favorite literary pastimes.

The game works like this: find writers that you are almost certain did not influence a certain writer, but yet somehow or other, in the unhinged alternative universe that you live in, they really were an influence.

Not every writer likes this game, I’ve seen first hand. Tell someone that his writing reminds you more than a little of Alfred Lord Tennyson and watch what happens. Between you and me, there are maybe a few too many Alfred Lord Tennysons around these days (and I might even be one of them, damnit) but that’s a story for another time.

But Gary is the kind of writer who hopefully won’t mind a few false lineages, so here goes.

In reading Gary Sullivan’s recently published PPL In A Depot, I saw that I’d never realized how deeply Sullivan had been influenced by the work of P.G Wodehouse, Ronald Firbank, and Eveyln Waugh. Sullivan’s thorough reading of these pre- and post-WWI and II British fiction writers, silly, whimsical and satirical in various degrees, has greatly informed the sensibility of his new book. The absurdist plays in PPL In A Depot pick apart the contemporary world of New York City, showing us a society full of lunatic antics and overwrought social maneuvering. Sullivan’s work splits the difference nicely between Wodehouse’s kindly oblivious humor, Firbank’s campy excess, and Waugh’s harsher yet often hilarious skewering of social mores.

Writing this kind of work needs more than an eye for satire though. It also requires a specific kind of social context.

First, it needs a world of nuanced, labyrinthine and finally absurd social networking, in which every moment of conversation has become so burdened by innuendo and implication that it becomes impossible to breathe, leading the satirist to try to blow some fresh air into people’s stuffed shirts (I could be dirtier here, but you see what I mean). How close, it turns out, are the maneuvers of the decaying British aristocracy of the earlier 20th century to the inbred compactness of contemporary New York City life and its desire to escape from itself into miracles:

PPL, page 75:
David Moorehead [Thinking aloud]: OMG, I am totally falling in love with Brooke. How can I tell her that I killed her daughter?

Shirley Wood [Shaking her head at the book in her hands]: You have to be in the mood for some death-defying Orwellian back-flips to read “Poems From Guantanamo.”

Daivd Moorehead: I am such a tard when it comes to Brooke! It’s because I respect her values too much {To Barista} Hey, is my iced frappuccino and my muffin ready yet?

PPL, page 64:
Dewey: Why do educated people believe in demons? I can’t fathom this. I have no idea why you would believe in demons.”

Jenny: Well, I think because it’s fashionable, it’s crazy, and you have to let your hair down sometimes.

Second, it must be the kind of environment that breeds saturation with art, one in which the constant claims for the seriousness of art and literature have become stifling. Not another serious poet looking for fame please. Not another novelist telling the truth for our times. If anyone else at this party gets even a little more self-important, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read again. We have turned the details of art over and over again in our minds until it’s our minds that are turning:

PPL, page 68:

Joel: I always tell the Karaoke Queen that Elton John was the death of rock and roll. His emphasis on Las Vegas style shows with a gay edge effectively ended the great era of rock and roll. Rock was, and should be, a macho phenomenon. The gayification of rock seemed like fun, but it was fatal.

Gina: Donald, your story is somewhat similar to mine. I enjoyed pop music a lot in the early to mid 70s. In 76, the year I graduated from high school, I noticed that there weren’t as many “really great” songs as there had been in the few previous years. I remember my friends and I talking about this.

It’s in this context of social and artistic saturation that the writing of Wodehouse, Firbank, Waugh and Sullivan becomes a necessary antidote. Yet this fact raises an issue that’s relevant to all these writers: the farther removed one is from this kind of world, the less one might feel able to share in laughing at it from the inside. If the foibles of the British aristocracy or the life of contemporary New Yorkers don’t interest you, you may not find this work for you.

Where Sullivan’s work departs from his predecessors, and may also have more staying power as literature, is in its relation to politics. Wodehouse remained throughout his life notoriously naive, never seeming to understand the seriousness of the wars and social conflicts he lived through, even though while living in France in 1940 he became a prisoner of the Germans and was later accused of collaboration with the Nazis for a series of radio satires he made in Germany while still a prisoner. George Orwell famously said of Evelyn Waugh that he was “about as good as a novelist can be while holding untenable opinions.”

Sullivan, however, no matter how absurd many moments in his plays are, keeps bringing his readers back to contemporary political conditions from a leftist perspective:

PPL, page 35:

Brad: Here’s a list of the countries that the U.S. bombed from the end of World War II until the end of the 20th century, compiled by historian William Blum...

And then, despite interruptions, Brad lists them. The result is that, within the flippancy and rejection of the tone of serious art, a serious understanding of the world remains, although it’s handled more than a little bit more lightly.

I have to admit that I wouldn’t want to read the work of any of these satirists every day. Yet at those times when I do read it, it often comes as a relief, not to mention a source of much-needed laughter. It turns out, finally, that it’s in the most complexly developed social environments that a great dumb joke is often most necessary.

You can catch Gary Sullivan and his compatriots in absurdity this week at the 2008 Flarf Festival, the Holistic Expo and Peace Conference version.


Stan Apps said...

This is funny. I would expand on your statement that "it’s in the most complexly developed social environments that a great dumb joke is often most necessary" by suggesting that it's the most complexly developed social environments that produce the best dumb jokes.

Your comment about contemporary Tennysons is funny too. I actually like Tennyson a lot, because of the way he's simultaneously so manly and so pretty and tinkly. . . There's a real charm to macho tinkliness. I don't really have that Tennysonian quality myself though (at least I don't think so)--I'm too homespun.

mark wallace said...

Tennyson is a touchstone for the New Sincerity, I think.

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

Gary Sullivan : Fabio Grosso : Gabby Gabby Hey : Robert Mitchum : Norm / Nammie : Everywhere Baltimore Scottish Kilt Dude : Everywhere Baltimore Bicycle Hold the Door Dude. Isn't the progression, like, obvious?

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to lock wits with The Man Himself last summer, I believe, at Drink & Walk, and if I battled The Man Himself to a draw, then I am a lucky dude, indeed. Gary Sullivan! Rock on!