Thursday, February 22, 2007

In Which I Publish an Excerpt From My Literary Correspondence

Dear School-Chum,
Here is that introduction you requested. Hope the rigors of the literary circuit aren't getting you down, Ha-ha. Best Wishes, D.M.

October 8, 2002 – Tuesday

When my dear old friend Sir Pelham Grenville "Matt" (Matty) Bartmes asked me to write the introduction to the revised edition of his classic novel I Strode Thusly, I was thrilled. Not as thrilled as I would have been if he had requested that I write the introduction to the first edition, but that honor went to Salman Rushdie. I know that Mr. Rushdie is more of a "draw" in the literary world than I, but one cannot help feeling a twinge of pique. Perhaps if the ties of friendship ran deeper than the allure of a juicy quote from some flash-in-the-pan, fatwa-inspiring bearded wonder, the world would be a better place. Perhaps not. I am no literary agent, nor have I been able to get one, but I understand that Mr. Rushdie's benediction may have increased sales of I.S.T.—or "Istrothus" as the critics have taken to calling it—up to 50%. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

Quibbles aside, I feel I am in the position to provide special insight into the work of my old school chum Matty (or Beany as we used to call him, for reasons that elude me at present). He and I shared lodgings through much of our time at university, and I was the inspiration for the character of Reginald in his seminal work Clytemnestra's Weal as well as appearing as a minor character, under my own name, in his latest work Sturm and Drang. (Though I protest the monstrous harelip he provided Reginald in the former, and the portrait of me as a fey, mincing vaudeville entertainer in the latter.) Besides his frequent house calls and our collaboration on a failed modernization of The Great Gatsby, West Egg Blues, he and I have been in semi-weekly correspondence since our commencement, although he insists on sending our communiqués via telegram. Although this leads to a certain terseness of tone, his sterling prose is still very much in evidence. I quote from his latest missive:


He is my best friend in the world, dear reader. And the gout is fine.

* * * *

Beany and I first came to be acquainted in my level one literature class. I, of course, had noticed him before, as he cut a distinctive figure striding across campus in full evening wear, impeccably tailored, smoking a cheroot or occasionally a calabash pipe. Yet it was in his natural habitat, the English department of blessed Old Haverford U. (tucked away in a cozy nook of Lord Sigfried-Tonszon the Third [Esq.] Honorary Mess Hall) where he was impossible to ignore. I was drawn to him instantly, when on the very first day of class he engaged the professor in a heated argument regarding the authorship Shakespeare's plays. The professor believed the dramatist was actually Sir. Francis Bacon, while Beany maintained it was a four-year-old girl from Kent named "Althea." Although Beany's assertion was a marriage of surmise with the sheerest conjecture, I was impressed not only by the intellectual rigor of his argument, but by his shrill, piercing voice. From that moment on we were inseparable.

From the start, I was convinced of Beany's greatness. Certain that the intellectual development of this towering figure would be of great value to future generations, I pledged myself to be Boswell to his Dr. Johnson. Throughout my tenure at university, I kept a journal detailing my experiences with Sir B. Although he would occasionally feign displeasure with my assiduous documentation ("Get out from behind those bushes with that damned notebook" he would screech at me, in his marvelous, joking way), I knew that deep down he appreciated my diligence. I ask that the reader indulge me as I present some of my favorite moments from these memoirs. Perhaps the following anecdotes may help illuminate the machinations of his elegant mind.

ME: Matty, what did you think of the school's production of As You Like It?
SIR MATT: It could hardly have been LONGER though it was quite WIDE enough.

Sir Matt B. and I were strolling through the quad, when we were nearly run over by a cabal of cyclists. Keeping his presence of mind about him, Sir. Matt was at no loss for a droll rejoinder.

When I asked his opinion regarding Kant's postulate of the categorical imperative:
SIR MATT: It is IMPERATIVE that you remove your SLEEVE from my SOUP, right NOW.

I provided him a first draft of my novella, "Christmas Morn, 1903" for his appraisal, in preparation for my Q-Level exams. In true illustration of his generous spirit, he agreed to sit down and critique it with me.
ME: What do you think?
SIR MATT: My dear boy, you will never be a first-rate writer until you learn SHORTHAND.
ME: Is that a euphemism?
SIR MATT: I would be EUPH-ORIC if it was.
ME: I don't understand.
SIR MATT: You don't STAND at ALL.
ME: You didn't read it, did you?

When I tried to engage him on a point of logic one evening while drinking at the pub:
SIR MATT: BLEEECH (various vomiting noises)

Pour over these remarks, my dears, and all the secret songs of the angels will be revealed to you.

* * * *

As to the novel itself, what more can I say? It is what it is. For better or for worse, since it's publication in 1979, "Istrothus" has forever changed the face of American writing. It is a work of fierce originality, except for the first eight chapters, which are cribbed (more or less word-for-word) from Mellville's Moby Dick, and for great portions of the concluding chapter, which are lifted from Tom Brown's School Days with a lot of unnecessary sex scenes added. Thankfully, these portions of the novel are more or less ancillary to the main narrative, which is set in 18th Century France and is the story of a young man's discovery of the world, following his rejection of a well-paying position in his family's petticoat concern.

I Strode Thusly straddles the divide between Sir Matt's early "immature" work, (including his books Lamb of Plenty, Call to Me; Sunday's the Day for Dyeing; Knavery in the Nave, and the Dickensian serial My Horrid Childhood as well as his play, Lost: One Pound of Flesh) and his later "even more immature" work (such as his towering five-volume epistolary novel, The Irrational History of Wuzwardish M. Gort and his collection of short stories, A Change of Clothes).

It is a coming-of-age tale in the truest sense, the literal one. The novel concludes with Francois coming of the age 18 and inheriting the whole of his family's petticoat monies, wrapped in a lace model HJ5-8.9 (The Parisian Fluffer), in an ironic commentary about the futility of trying to escape the past. I hope I haven't spoiled the ending for anyone. If so, they still have all that pornographic Tom Brown stuff to wade through.

I have not had an opportunity to peruse the revised edition, as Beany's publisher still has it under lock and key, but I certainly hope Sir. Matt has taken this opportunity to omit some of the more "writerly" flourishes that I believe marred the first edition—for one, the overuse of footnotes, ranging from the sublime ("It was on that very thoroughfare that, one summer's morn in late October, the russet-colored wind had swept around me, collecting in limpid pools at my feet, spurring me, once and for all, to entreat absolution from Jessica for the death of her cat.") to the ridiculous ("My bologna has a first name; it's O-S-C-A-R"). If you'll pardon the expression, why should the reader give a good G—damn if the author's luncheon meat has a first name or not (a claim vis-à-vis I have my doubts)? And why footnote it? Especially in a passage concerned, as it is, with the tragic death of one of the main characters. I feel it is a sore miscalculation that I hope he has taken the occasion to correct.

In a like manner, I believe chapters 17-38 to be an abomination before all mankind. In the course of these 234 pages, Beany seems to have decided to open up his Dictionary of Literary Terms and choose one stylistic device to over-use, per each page. For instance, on page 129, apropos of nothing, he practically beats us over the head with alliteration: "Gustave's gustatory gusto was guarded as his guests gulped the gumbo, gurgling with gumption." What purpose could this possibly serve? Likewise, page 177 is dripping with the pathetic fallacy: "Marcel's pants gazed at him from across the room, challenging him to put them on. He threw open the boisterous curtains and gazed down on the lusty road below. The sun shrieked "Get on with it, Marcie!" as the timorous moon set in the north. He looked wistfully back at his angst-ridden bed." I am willing to accept the conceit that pants challenge you to put them on, but how can a road be lusty? And the moon set in the north?!

Also, we can only hope that every occurrence of the adjective "horny" has been stricken from this volume.

Dearest reader, I hope with all my heart that these problems have been addressed, yet I fear the changes focus less on form than on content. Allow me to explain: As the original novel was primarily a work of historical fiction, Beany opened himself up to an unprecedented number of attacks concerning the veracity of the period depicted, and I suspect this latest edition is a futile attempt to correct these inaccuracies.

Some errors:

pg. 3 "He walked into the Guggenheim Museum." The Guggenheim is in New York. Also it did not exist in the 1700s.

Pg. 49 "He licked her eye, as was the custom." It was not the custom.

Pg. 99 "Frenchy Crepes was dancing, while Frenchy Parlez-Vous watched silently from the back." No people by those names ever existed. Ever. Also, French people aren't all named "Frenchy."

And so on. Also, the whole subplot about manufacturing digital watches, which occupies a good part of the latter half of the book is, of course, approximately 200 years premature.

* * * *

What's ahead for Sir Matt? Perhaps we can allow our old friend to rest on his literary laurels for a while, now that he's acquired the knighthood he diligently (some might say "desperately") campaigned for all his life. Originally, Beany was set to be knighted posthumously; but, as our Queen so memorably said, "The little bugger won't die." (Indeed, Your Highness, indeed.) Since his knighthood was eventually bestowed while he still had the vigor to use it to full advantage, he has chosen to do so. In the months since his knighting, he has been using his influence to campaign for the inclusion of land mines in several third world countries. Also he has returned to the stage for a series of one-man shows, titled, I am told, Sir Sing-a-lot! He seems to be enjoying his semi-retirement. Yet when I receive telegrams from the man himself, he wistfully speaks of his one yet-unfinished project, the much-discussed Phantasmeroneroticon (although one must read between the lines to detect any actual mention of the book).

So, dear reader, all that remains is the book itself. If you have read it before, prepare to be delighted all over again. If you've never read it, prepare for rough waters ahead.

Professor Dan (iel) K. McCoy, Esq. Q.C., Ph.D. M.D., B.B.C., Literary Hanger-on

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