Writer Curtis White’s fiction has been called experimental and avant-garde. But in the following email interview about his new novel Lacking Character (paperback, Kindle), he asserts that maybe it’s not that he’s too weird but that some writers are too normal.
Photo Credit: © Curt White
To start, what is Lacking Characterabout?
Lacking Character is a Menippean satire, a form that is over two thousand years old. The best-known examples are Petronius’ Satyricon — which was made into a movie by Fellini in the ’70s — and Rabelais’s Gargantua And Pantagruel, but there are plenty of modern examples like Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. This sort of satire is usually picaresque — involves a journey, in this case five journeys — and uses parodies, multiple voices, and a lot of silliness. The point of the satire is not to attack a particular person or thing, like Alec Baldwin mocking Donald Trump, but to undermine a culture’s sense of what is normal or customary through laughter, like Monty Python. It’s a high culture version of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
My plot involves two main threads: the journey of Percy, a humanoid invention of the Queen Of Spells, to the American Midwest, and the journey of two human characters, Jake and Rory, on a quest, a job quest. They’re “job seeking.”
Where did you get the original idea for Lacking Character and how different is the finished novel from that initial concept?
The original idea for the story came from reading two things: Denis Diderot’s amazing Jacques The Fatalist from 1796 and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “Mademoiselle de Scuderi” from 1819. Hoffman is best known for the story “The Sandman,” Offenbach’s opera Tales Of Hoffmann, and the ballet Coppélia.I loved the silly comedy of Diderot, and I loved the supernatural suspense of Hoffmann’s stories. I put the two together and just let them roll. My theory was that the work would be good if, as William Carlos Williams put it, “the spirit of change was upon it.” I just played and invented and figured that if I had fun the reader would too.
Now, as someone who plays video games, and writes about them, I have to ask: Why did you decide to make the Marquis a gamer as opposed to an avid reader or a big movie fan or something else?
Ha! That’s a funny question. I’m not a gamer, but I have nothing against video games. It happened that some of my colleagues at one time were playing and talking about Halo and I had no idea what it was. So I had a poet, of all people, give me a tutorial. But my method was basically to put things in the novel if they seemed intuitively promising, take ’em out later if they didn’t work. When I added the surreal detail of the Marquis suddenly killing little black-clad men that readers had just met outside his door, somehow now running around inside of Halo, I knew Halo should be kept in. It helped me to define the Marquis’s “burnt out” mind.
Your novels have been called experimental or avant-garde. Do you think Lacking Characteris either experimental or avant-garde?
Right, no, there is nothing experimental about it. I know what I’m making. The form is thousands of years old. Sure, there are surreal elements in the novel, but even Andre Breton knew that there was nothing new about surrealism. He used his famous Manifesto to tell us just who the surrealists of the past were. It’s not “avant,” it’s just different from the dominant American mode of fiction-making: social/domestic realism. It’s a great pity that our culture allows so little aesthetic diversity for our native fiction writers. We tolerate the surreal or the playful in European fiction, but, you know, they’re Europeans! Our culture is so narrow. Back in the ’60s, through the Beats, psychedelia, and writers like William Burroughs, we claimed a little freedom, but that seemed to end in the early ’80s, except for small presses and indie music.
The back cover of Lacking Characterhas cool quotes from Mark Leyner [My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist], Paul Auster [The Brooklyn Follies], Rikki Ducornet [The Stain], John Barth [Giles Goat Boy], Gilbert Sorrentino [Mulligan Stew], and David Foster Wallace [Infinite Jest]. All of whom are rather unique and distinctive writers. But do you think fans of their novels would appreciate Lacking Character?
Well, if those writers like what I do, I have to hope that their readers will too. I certainly hope so. That’s the function of blurbs, right? And they are good blurbs, aren’t they? They’re lively, and not mere blurbage. I think of this book as my Ode to Joy. My homage to play. People who don’t like to laugh should not read Lacking Character. It might distort their mouths.
Aside from the ones you already mentioned, are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on Lacking Character, but not on your previous novels?
Yes, as I mentioned, the most important influence is Diderot’s Jacques The Fatalist, which I highly recommend to your readers. But I use many others directly or loosely connected to the tradition of satire that Diderot worked out of. In fact, I identify those writers at the head of certain chapters by writing “after Rabelais,” or “after Jonathan Swift”; Gulliver’s Travels is a Menippean satire deeply influenced by Rabelais. I even have one parody of Cormac McCarthy, though he’s more the butt of the humor as the origin. Among the other influences are Byron’s Don Juan, Friedrich Schlegel’s daft philosophy of play in his Atheneum Fragments, The 1001 Nights Of Scheherezade, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, of course, and Flann O’Brien’s dazzlingly silly At Swim-Two-Birds.
What about movies or TV shows; did any of them have a significant impact on either what you wrote in Lacking Characteror how you wrote it?
Of course, my earlier book Memories Of My Father Watching TV is full of television shows. This one is limited to a few allusions to The Lives Of Zorro and Have Gun, Will Travel. There isn’t much music either, which is unusual for me, though the band Of Montreal, a.k.a. Kevin Barnes, is always playing somewhere in my subconscious. I use an epigraph from his desert island rocker “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal,” surely a first for him. Barnes is my kind of artist. If he weren’t so much younger than me, I’d call him an influence. He’s playful, surreal, funny, moving, deep, in love with weird chords and minor keys, and utterly independent. He is the one genius pop musician I know of who could be famous but doesn’t seem to be interested in it.
Speaking of TV shows, has there been any interest in making a movie or maybe a TV show out of Lacking Character?
I can imagine a TV serial, probably BBC, starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, but they’re both dead. Or Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They were in that Tristram Shandy movie, A Cock And Bull Story. Lacking Character could be a sort of Monty Python weekly — And Now For Something Completely Different — with a plot.
I don’t suppose you have connections at the BBC?
Sorry, no. But if they did want to make a TV show out of Lacking Character, who would you want them to cast in the main roles? Y’know, if Coogan and Brydon were unavailable, of course.
A young John Cleese or, better yet, Peter Sellers as the Marquis. Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, one of the great Menippean satires on film, could be a good model. The only American filmmaker I can imagine with the right touch would be Wes Anderson. Something like The Darjeeling Limited without the angst.I think Owen Wilson is clueless enough to play Percy the puppet. He’d be perfect. That’s the role he plays in most of his movies anyway. David Lynch would fuck it up worse than he fucked up Twin Peaks II. Take The Money And Run-era Woody Allen might have been able to pull it off. “You have a gub?” “No, that says gun.” “I’m sure that’s a b.” But he’s yet another fallen idol now, sad to say. The Coen Brothers might get it, in their Burn After Reading mode, but Lacking Character would make a much better movie than that. And I’d love to cast Frances McDormand as the Queen of Spells. Maybe Terry Gilliam could do it now that he’s finished Don Quixoteand has some time on his hands. I’d give Tim Burton a listen. I think Johnny Depp would make a great Rory, but he may be irretrievable now.
Say, this is kind of fun.
Finally, if someone enjoys Lacking Character, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
There is comedy in all of my novels, but most of them are darker, more troubled. My best novel, I think, is Requiem. Memories Of My Father Watching TV is funny, inventive, playful, but dark. I’m working on a novel titled The Terrorist’s Black Paintings, which will be my best novel in another year or two, and, obviously, a return to darker modes. If I can find a publisher bewildered enough to do it.