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Spreading The Comic Virus

Author ponders whether irony is overrated



For an incisive, inventive humorist, Jack Pendarvis doesn't talk like a writer in love with the sound of his own voice. Soft-spoken with a faint accent from his hometown in coastal Alabama, he admits to feeling self-conscious when discussing his work, as if it's easier to express thoughts on paper than aloud.

Touch on a topic that he's passionate about, however, and it lights a fire under him. For instance, he objects to the idea that the protagonists of his two short-story collections, 2005's The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure and his new anthology, Your Body Is Changing, are nothing but losers.

"Even good reviews call my characters 'quirky losers.' Those reviewers must be the most mentally healthy people," says Pendarvis. "And is there any such thing as a 'winner'? I'm not sure I can even think of a book that's about a winner. Captain Ahab? He's a loser. Raskolnikov? Loser! The Great Gatsby? He's not so great after all, is he?"

Nevertheless, Your Body Is Changing is primarily populated by folk who could be placed on a spectrum between innocence and ignorance, particularly the clueless, fundamentalist Christian teen who embarks on an absurd quest across the Alabama Bible Belt in the 104-page title novella. Pendarvis sounds protective of his creations, even at their most foolish: "I think my characters to be fairly normal people. We all have problems, right? Maybe I identify with my characters more than I should, but I don't think of my stories as ironic. They need love -- there's nothing ironic about that."

The Pushcart Prize-winning author doesn't think of himself as primarily a comedic author. "To me, the humor is incidental," he says. "I'd hope that humor is not the main driving force, but a side effect."

Pendarvis majored in English at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, yet says he learned a great deal about writing when an entry-level job at Turner brought him to Atlanta in 1993. He started at the bottom, writing promo copy along the lines of, "'Coming up next: Earth is endangered from a giant bird! The Giant Claw on TBS!' I had to squeeze everything into a 30-second spot. It teaches you to cut things mercilessly, which is something I enjoy anyway." By the time he left the broadcast company in 1999, Pendarvis had co-created such shows as Dinner and a Movie and The Rudy and Gogo World Famous Cartoon Show.

While pursuing his literary aspirations, Pendarvis threw out the rules for good writing for his novella The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure, which became the centerpiece of the collection of the same name. "I was frustrated with not getting published, so I decided, for that story, to do everything they say not to do. They say, 'No adverbs' -- I'm going to put adverbs in almost every sentence." He indulged in excessive use of quotation marks and exclamation points, and never used the word "said" when he could come up with a useless alternative like "blurted." He also defied most literary magazines' standard request for "No simultaneous submissions," and started sending out 20 copies of his stories at a time.

And he started getting published.

Pendarvis cites George Saunders, another author of outrageously funny short stories, as a literary kindred spirit who shares his fondness for inarticulate narrators. "I'm interested in the idea that people can't express themselves in a polished way." Your Body Is Changing is filled with examples that can be hilarious and heartbreaking: "What if Henry was a sociopath, like on A&E?" worries one protagonist.

As a sometime contributor to McSweeney's and The Believer, Pendarvis purveys a brand of humor that one hesitates to call hip, but is certainly favored by popular, clever contemporary writers. Collectively, they specialize in folding the language of pop culture back over itself, in the way Pendarvis tweaks critical clichés in his piece for The Believer, "I Review Books Based on a Random Sentence." His story "Courageous Blast" tweaks chewing-gum marketers, while "Final Remarks" finds a kind of Zen emptiness in a politician's pandering speech. Pendarvis cites the idea of the "comic virus" and quotes Saunders' notion that "certain comic attitudes or moves get into the water, so to speak, and then each person develops them in their own aberrant direction."

"To me, these things all go way back," Pendarvis says, citing the inspiration of Woody Allen's comic essays in Without Feathers and tracing the form back to the 1920s. "In my first book, I had a fake contributors section. Not long after it came out, I bought a Robert Benchley book from 1935 that had almost exactly the same idea -- 70 years ago.

"The content was different, but the idea was the same."

Inspiration can strike from street scenes, such as the time he saw a man wearing a derby hat. "I wondered, what can that guy be thinking? 'Man, I look fantastic in this derby!'"

Pendarvis' first novel, Awesome (to be published next year), emerged from that opening sentence. "It's about a giant, a Paul Bunyan-esque guy, who has the personality it would take to wear a derby. I wanted to write from the point of view of a winner, although things start to go wrong for the character."

And though he doesn't want his fiction to rely on irony, he'll admit to employing "the non-ironic appropriation of the trappings of irony." Pendarvis apologizes for the phrase, even though he means it with complete sincerity.

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