A Suitable case for treatment

Certifiable

By Andrew Steinmetz

Published on April 1, 2005

Certifiable
David Mc Gimpsey

Insomniac Press
$21.95
paper
167pp
1-894663705

McGimpsey’s file already includes three collections of poetry – Lardcake, Dogboy, and Hamburger Valley, California – and Imagining Baseball, a critical study on the place of the sport in popular culture. The titles alone indicate that this is not an ordinary poet/academic. Now close your eyes and add certifiable, an enjoyably odd collection of short fictions.

From Page One, certifiable makes the point that there is no business like funny business. The facetious foreword begins, “You might be asking, why did I come out of my 18-year retirement to write this book? I’ll tell you, it wasn’t for the sweet punch my agent serves at his so-called ‘80s Night’ parties.” Just a couple of non-sequiturs later, we’re told, “You are looking at the next Oprah book.”

McGimpsey’s anything-goes etiquette toward form and content, attitude and perspective, marks every page. Despite this, he leverages a certain amount of sobriety and gravitas, for when it comes to the grab of his sympathetic intellect it seems that nothing is beneath his contempt or outside his interest.

In the first piece, “B.G.U” (Big Guy University), the speaker describes his “transition from aspiring writer to full-time hack,” a sorry route that retraces the Hollywood optioning of his “stinky manuscript” and his stay at a “pricey workshop” in Vermont. Throughout this memoir, the unsung speaker spices things up by throwing jibes and keeping a rivalry going with “pathetic Steve,” the protagonist of his third unpublished novel.

“English 318/Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson” uses the dry declarative style of the university calendar course description to parody ivory tower self-seriousness. In McGimpsey’s world, the university professor is both medium and message:

 

This course is a critical introduction to Nineteenth Century Poetry as well as a primer in the terminology concerning ‘mood swings,’ particularly the instructor’s. Students will be familiarized with moments when the instructor will be wild-eyed and intent, like a rogue cop who’s come face to face with the kind of punk who ruined his faith in America…

 

The fragmentary “Presley Agonistes” is comprised of a series of lecture notes for a proposed course on the body of literature about Elvis:

 

‘Has anybody been more publicly ridiculed than Elvis Presley?’ my lecture notes begin. ‘Is he not the most dependable synecdoche the intellectual has for his or her superiority to popular culture?’

 

The piece is replete with one-liners (“O the fried banana sandwich!”) and a personal reminiscence about “a more undergraduate-orientated football school.”

McGimpsey lends the piece a counterweight by keying in on the confessional spirit of the speaker, who, despite spurning the academy, can’t hide his own embarrassment about one day achieving the bittersweet status of the “Elvis guy” on campus.

Most of these stories, like film shorts, are less than feature length. Some really are experimental material, rough cuts. “Life with Neal” and “Road Porn” are exceptions – they’re more ambitious, and the results are satisfying. “Road Porn” is especially good. McGimpsey collides with David Sedaris, taking on family relationships, a road trip across America, porn, and redemption.

If there is a method to the madness, it is that McGimpsey loves nothing so much as pairing a bizarre premise with a straight face, and then moving forward, letting things get ugly. Or not.

“I actually had a dream where Dr. Phil kept yelling at a pork chop that was sitting in his chair.”

This is a direct quote from an item called “from The Secret Correspondence between Fonzie’s Jacket and Christina Aguilera.” In this brief epistolary gag, McGimpsey has Fonzie’s jacket and Aguilera see eye-to-eye on TV trivia while they become a mutual admiration club. Linking them as pen pals, McGimpsey joins two generations by their pop-cult straps.

For McGimpsey, the Smithsonian Institute – the actual place to find Fonzie’s jacket and Archie Bunker’s chair – is a kind of American version of Plato’s World of the Forms. Art, Plato argued (long ago, it must be said), is twice removed from reality. To the philosopher of the Republic, an art object is nothing but a copy of a copy of the original, or ideal, form.

Now we’re in the twenty-first century, and all our favourite things seem to thrive on that thrice-removed quality that – make no hallucination – doctors up McGimpsey’s own best material.

Andrew Steinmetz talks to David McGimpsey.

Your story “Bosola” begins, “Yesterday, I cut off my ear and sent it to Cher.” Like some others, the story reads like a game response to some initial provocation, be it a bizarre scenario or a premise set down by the author. What is the mechanism here? Are you making yourself run a creative gauntlet?

The odd concept is often where I start. “What if Secretariat smoked cigarettes? What if Minnesota was renamed Boogieland?” It is a challenge in a way but, more importantly to me, a quick spur to my own imagination. Other fiction gambits like “Ted woke up in the morning to the sound of lawn mowers and a radio disc jockey promising an hour-long tribute to Willie Nelson” tend to not get me going. “Willie Nelson woke up and thought about mowing his favourite deejay’s lawn” – that’s something else.

It seems a semi-unified persona lurks behind most of these stories, a speaker who is somewhat a failure at what he does professionally but remains a true observer of life. Is this a conscious pose? What is its purpose?

It is conscious. I want the speaker to have a place in the world where he must be the observer because he can’t be the observed. That is where the jokes are but it is also where, I think, the heartache is. He’s not Gatsby, he’s Nick, but with a more tragic knowledge of Partridge Family trivia.

“Road Porn” is by far the longest piece. I thought it was also the most well-rounded and satisfying. Being the last story in the collection, does it signify a new direction for you?

Maybe insofar as it is increasingly dedicated to fiction itself and alludes to the capacities of “The Novel.” Some of the other pieces do not take on the task of character growth per se as they are more briefly set around the humour of a situation and are not really conceived as short stories in a New Yorker way. They are more likely comedy bits, but with a twisty pop-literary sensibility.

David Sedaris went from writing ‘stories’ to recounting ‘true stories.’ What does the genre division between fiction and non-fiction mean to a humour writer like yourself?

Comedy tends to like the illusion that it is all real, and I think that’s part of why you see fictional sitcom characters named “Jerry Seinfeld” or “Drew Carey.” Maybe this goes back to your previous question about unified voice which is part of the process of developing the character of a dependable joke-teller. In comedy you work hard to be true to that character and make it sound true and easy – “Aw, that’s just you being you” – but it’s all acting and fiction anyway. When a comedian begins a bit by saying “This is a true story,” as they often do, I wouldn’t bet it all happened the way he or she says it did. Maybe this relates to why Jerry Lewis said it’s easier for comedians to become actors than it is for actors to become comedians.

Why do you think writers dance around genre differentiation? Is genre actually a bookstore question, or is it a psychological question for the writer?

No, genre is a real literary thing too, one which I think of quite seriously. Poetry is my first love and something I am proud to be studied in. I am also studied in other genres and I’d like to think of dancing around those genre differentiations as trying to be a versatile artist. I may have started with poetry, but not every literary thought I have needs to be, or should be, squeezed through the poetry tube. For example, a few of the bits in certifiable started from monologues I gave as an emcee or had told on the radio, so to put them into prose as they were conceived was a natural progression. mRb

Andrew Steinmetz is Vehicule's Fiction Editor and a poet.

Comments

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

More Interviews

Rawi Hage on Stray Dogs

Rawi Hage on Stray Dogs

Photography is a prominent organizing principle of Rawi Hage’s new collection of short stories, Stray Dogs.

By H Felix Chau Bradley