It’s a balancing act. How do you express yourself within a rich tradition without resorting to cliche? The deeper you go into the tradition, into the familiar, the more blindingly original your own expression really needs to be.
Take, for example, the songs of Will Oldham. A staggeringly good songwriter, his understated records resonate long after the songs end, leaving a kind of haunting humility in their wake. This is music at its freshest. And even when tapping into long-established styles of music, never do you feel that you’re listening to a musical cliche.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Will Oldham lately, wishing that the same sense of freshness and subtlety had been adopted by the otherwise gifted author Wade Rubenstein in his novel Gullboy. I kept wishing that this comic novel simply had more confidence in its own inventiveness, and in its strong central story, often marred by shopworn supporting characters and cameo players straight out of central casting.
At the heart of this story is a bit of magic realism. The conceit is this: Into the Coney Island lives of a good-hearted chef and his not-so-good-hearted stripper wife comes a baby on the doorstep, a child half human and half seagull. And you go along with this flight of fancy in part because the chain-of-events that led to this birth is quite cleverly set-up. Plus, this is a Coney Island it-takes-all-sorts/anything-can-happen carnival ride of a tale.
And for much of the novel it works quite well, largely because the central relationship, the father/son bond, is warm and engaging. A them-against-the-world story.
Well, the “them” part of this was fine. My big problem was with “the world”.
The odd premise and its comical effects and possibilities should have been enough for Rubenstein who indeed writes with enormous energy. It’s a vibrantly told tale, full of bounce. All the more frustrating, then, to encounter supporting characters at virtually every turn who are caricatures. A blinded-by-money doctor, a blinded-by-power cop, shysters and hucksters everywhere you look, and drawn exactly the way they’ve been drawn in countless comic stories and on TV.
Broadly drawn outrageous characters, themselves, aren’t even the problem. One of my all-time favorite comic novels is A Confederacy of Dunces, in which the central character is big, loud and outrageous, but he’s so off-the-charts original that he propels the story, rather than grinding it to a halt. It’s the difference, I suppose, between a comical character and a cartoon character.
A couple of years ago, I read DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little. And while I enjoyed this comic novel tremendously, I found the depicted media circus a bit old. Not that media doesn’t deserve to be the subject of parody, but the joke, along with the one about the egotistical doctor and the parasitic lawyer have been told the same way so many times that, for me, they’ve completely lost their edge.
So, then, is Gullboy good? Well, parts of it are great, and you certainly won’t get bored reading it. But you might become frustrated. Every time I felt that I’d settled into the inventive tale, the genuine comic invention would begin to be weighed down by some heavy-handed parody. Whether you think the author manages to walk the comedy tightrope depends, I suppose, on how much parody you can bear.
For me, this high-concept, over-stuffed comic novel ultimately collapsed beneath the weight of its own brand of humor.