Arnon Grunberg

Writing a Farce

4/8/2008, from: Adam Mansbach To: Arnon Grunberg Re: Buy You A Drink?


Striking up a conversation with a writer you’ve never met is a little like approaching a stranger in a bar, so I’ve been drinking heavily and wondering what the best vector of approach might be. There’s a lot in your novel that has stayed with me, but the words ‘grotesque farce’ keep asserting themselves in my mind. They don’t appear in The Jewish Messiah, but on it — as a jacket-flap description of the book. I wonder about both these words: the literary trajectories behind them, their implications, and ultimately, whether you’d consider either one applicable.

If The Jewish Messiah is grotesque, is it because people suffer degradations of the flesh, carry their amputated testicles around in jars, pleasure themselves with kitchen knives, victimize each other in ways that blur the line between violence and salvation, suffering and ecstasy? Is it the detail with which some of these scenes are rendered that makes them grotesque? Their relentless frequency? Or is it the authorial intention behind them — the act of creating a world in which lives always seems to turn on such acts, a world in which individual bodies are the symbolic battlegrounds on which all wars are fought?

‘Grotesque’ and ‘farce’ are often pejorative terms, and both, I think, share the implication that things have been taken too far, that precision and wit have given way to broad strokes and fart jokes. A failed satire often gets labeled a farce, for instance — the worst review I got of my last novel, which was a satire, called it a farce. (I ended up killing that reviewer in a fairly grotesque manner, but that’s another story). The notion of satire versus farce interests me because we’re living in a world so absurd in its own right that the job of the satirist has become difficult — there’s very little space left on the margins to veer toward, so perhaps farce becomes inevitable. Satire also requires a certain kind of interpretive impulse on the audience’s part, and maybe it’s not there a lot of the time in this country.

Let me know what you think about any of this. Or feel free to just throw a drink in my face.

Best, Adam

4/8/2008, from: Arnon Grunberg To: Adam Mansbach Re: Grotesqueries


Let me reassure you: I can be approached without heavy drinking. Actually I can be approached without drinking at all.

The nice thing about the text on a jacket-flap is that the text wasn't written by the author of the book. At least in most cases. In the Netherlands I have written the text on the jacket-flap a few times myself, mostly to avoid misunderstandings about my own novel. So I don't think The Jewish Messiah is a grotesque farce. But had my novel been called a highly realistic drama I would have had problems subscribing to that theory as well. In general I would say it's hard and probably unpleasant for a writer to categorize his own work or to agree with other people's categorizations.

The word 'grotesque' implies that part of reality has been distorted. In the context of a novel, or, to be more precise, in the context of the jacket, or a review, it's probably meant to comfort the reader, to reassure him that it might look grim in the novel but don't worry, it's a distortion. I would say that most of reality is worse than any novel, when it comes to degradations of the flesh for example, but probably for pragmatic reasons I didn't have many problems with reassuring the reader on the jacket. After having read your email I realized that I should have been more careful.

The thin line between ecstasy and suffering is widespread, at least since Christianity. But I guess this does exist in other cultures as well. And even in Judaism you can find a tendency to blur this line. It's telling that in the context of a novel blurring this line leads to the descriptions "grotesque" and "farce" whereas the same thing in a religious context might lead to a thing called epiphany.

I wonder why you prefer satire to farce. A satire seems to me heavily dependent on an audience that is very much aware of specific reality, and laugh about your attempts to poke fun at certain people or institutions.

A novelist strives to reveal certain truths with all means possible. In an attempt to disguise the unpleasant truth he or she is revealing, society might react by calling it a farce, a satire, slapstick (nothing wrong with good slapstick by the way), or a grotesque farce.

Or do you think this is too much honor for the novelist? Or is it little bit heavy-handed? That's the risk you face while speaking about farces and satire.

I haven't read any of your books yet, but why do you insist in calling your last novel a satire?

Throwing a drink in my face might be a good idea, but we can continue without. What do you prefer?

Best, Arnon

4/9/2008, from: Adam To: Arnon Re: Lazy Motherfuckers


Too much honor for the novelist? Impossible, man. What we sacrifice in job security and health insurance, we’ve gotta recoup somehow.

Certainly the only thing more frustrating than being asked to categorize your work is watching someone else miscategorize it. Categories and neat descriptive phrases are hopelessly reductive. Any great novel is probably many contradictory things at once: satirical and earnest, sweeping and intimate, realistic and wildly imaginative. I’ve always been proactive in the crafting of my jacket copy and press materials because you end up having to answer for whatever the book is described as: Lazy motherfuckers invite you onto their radio shows and while you’re sitting there with the headphones on, they flip the book over, scan it for the first time, and say, “our guest, Arnon Grunberg, is the author of a grotesque farce…”

I found your definition of ‘grotesque’ as a distortion of reality interesting. Maybe I’m reading too much into the word as it pertains to novels; I think of books like Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan or John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces as being grotesques — books in which the characterization of the protagonist is heavily dependent on extreme bodily distress. Shteyngart’s character, like yours, is a victim of a botched circumcision, and his obesity and general discomfort with himself are central to the book and the comedy it attempts. O’Toole’s protagonist, also a big fat disgusting guy, is blinded by a self-importance almost as offensive as his constant, epic flatulence. So I guess I was wondering whether you saw The Jewish Messiah as engaging with some kind of tradition of the grotesque, if there is one.

As far as why I call my last novel, Angry Black White Boy, a satire—well, I had specific intentions in writing it, and they line up with what I think of as the rules or parameters of satire. To me, the cast of a satire is divided into two groups: the primary characters, who have to be fully-realized, imbued with as vibrant a humanity as possible, and the secondary characters, who can be absurd representative stereotypes. A lot of the fun comes in allowing the primary characters to romp through a world that is recognizably our own, yet populated by figures a shade more extreme, more amusing, more horrifying, than we’re used to. A lot of satires, I think, also involve an unlikely, meteoric rise to prominence, a character whose sphere of influence expands exponentially throughout the course of the story as the world rises to meet his or her outsized-ness. Certainly your book does that when time speeds up dramatically and Xavier becomes Prime Minister of Israel. I also think a satire often has other texts in mind—books, people, and ideas it’s playing off, remixing, riffing on. For me, that was primarily the American ‘race novel’ from The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man to Flight To Canada.

There are actually a lot of parallels between The Jewish Messiah and Angry Black White Boy. Your protagonist, Xavier Radek, is a middle-class Swiss kid whose grandfather was an SS soldier; he decides he is going to become the ‘comforter of the Jews’ and, with the son a of a Rabbi at his side, he begins a long, weird journey toward infamy, with an interlude at an art school in Amsterdam, a prolonged attempt to translate Mein Kampf into Yiddish, and the moral support of his own amputated testicle, King David, who the people of Israel largely accept as The Messiah. My protagonist, Macon Detornay, is a middle-class American white kid whose great-grandfather was Cap Anson, a famously racist (real-life) baseball player, responsible in part for the segregation of the game. Politicized by hip hop culture, Macon develops a seething anger toward white people, begins committing racially-motivated crimes against the white passengers who step into his taxi, becomes a celebrity, and uses his fame to call for a (disastrous) National Day of Apology, on which whites are supposed to make amends for 400 years of slavery — all this with the aid of his college roommate, a black kid whose great-grandfather Anson drove out of baseball and almost got killed.

So obviously, among other things, we both seem to be interested in personal familial guilt that provides motivation for the perhaps absurd crusades of our characters. I’m curious about why you decided to build that in. I also want to ask you about the level of self-awareness you allow your characters, or deny them. I think one of the most important decisions a writer makes when creating as freewheeling and wild a story as yours is how much you permit your characters to be in on the jokes. The characters in Angry White Black Boy derive great pleasure from their ability to see themselves as characters in a kind of post-modern race novel; they’re conversant with a lot of the music and fiction that relates to their predicaments, and they play off of it. I see Xavier as much less in on a lot of the jokes.

As for the whole throwing of drinks thing, I’ll settle for buying you one next time I’m in New York.

4/9/2008, from: Arnon To: Adam Re: Knuckle Sandwich


I had to smile when you were describing the reasons for crafting your own jacket copy. When my novel Silent Extras was published in the US, my agent advised me to hire an outside publicist who sent me to a media trainer to get me prepared for exactly the kind of radio interview you were speaking about. The media trainer was great, as a source of inspiration. I didn't end up doing much radio, alas.

Only a few years later a different publisher for a different book organized for me this thing that fifteen different radio stations would call me within ten days. I'm not eager to describe something as a nightmare. But this experience came close to it. Angry men would shout at me at 6:30 AM (for some reasons these radio stations love to call authors at 6 AM or 6:30 AM): "I called you two minutes ago, you were not there. Now I don't have time for you." Others hung op on me mid-sentence. One interrupted me with the words: "You have to stop, I can no longer torment my listeners with your accent."

I think as an author you should get ready to be humiliated any time of the day. It's a small sacrifice for which authors get many things back.

Your definition of satire is interesting, and broad also. Based on what you wrote I would say that even Madame Bovary could be called a satire. I haven't read Absurdistan nor A Confederacy of Dunces. I'll put them on my list. That's not to say that I would deny that The Jewish Messiah is part of a tradition. I think this tradition goes back to Rabelais, but also to Don Quixote. And of course a novel can be part of a tradition, and "speak" with books the author has not read.

Which brings me to your question about the self-consciousness of characters in a novel. I would argue that too much self-consciousness is bad for the character. The fact that the author knows more and sees more than his characters does not mean that he belittles them. The distance allows you to see more than your characters. As in reality, it’s easier to give advice to a stranger than to yourself. Of course, when I'm listening to a host of a radio show shouting at me, I'm at least partly in on the joke. But as soon as I get a knuckle sandwich or my character gets a knuckle sandwich the joke is over.

Even if you look at Chaplin the violence is often part of the joke, but its impact is never really denied. And for this reason—at least for one person involved—it's the end of the joke, temporarily. It's very well possible to laugh afterwards, but it takes time to recover and certain people never recover completely. Parents often pass their wounds to their children. What children do with these wounds differs from case to case. As you’ve already pointed out. And one more word about the self-consciousness of characters. Blindness is a survival technique. And as most survival techniques, this one can be counterproductive.

The idea that you are a character in a novel is a luxury, it's tempting to think this way but at the end it is a misunderstanding. Sometimes I hear people talk and I think: These people talk as if they are on a television show. Of course this observation is hardly new. But whenever I see real people behaving and talking like bad actors I wonder if this is the result of too much or too little self-consciousness.

The process of translation is utterly dependent on the translator.

Mein Kampf did by the way get translated into Yiddish. You raised the question earlier: How can you show the farce that reality often is?

Yours, Arnon