A Paean to Pomo

Andrew Komarnyckyj – Ezra Slef, The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (Tartarus Press)

I started this novel in January thinking it was serendipitous that I had hoovered up Roger Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess over Christmastime. I found the Roger Lewis biography in the organic food co-op (Chorlton of course) on the book swap. I opened and finished it in a few days. It’ll be going back there at some point.

The idea of the biographer going a bit mad, or rogue, or both, and talking more about himself, is the basic premise of this novel. What pulled me through Roger Lewis’s biography was the sheer rush of egotism. The asides about a prediliction for nipples as big as tractor buttons. Yet another scything remark about liver failure. One could conclude that Lewis’s biography of Burgess is simply scandalous. But it is, in its unreliability, in its scaffolding with nothing more than amplified hearsay and plain untruth, in its rudeness, quite ‘of Burgess’.

Komarnyckyj, then, has a fictional biographer break into a fictional writer’s home to be thrown out and told ‘you can write about anything as long as I am not involved.’ The biographer takes this as a massive green light and Komarnyckyj presents it all to us deadpan like a new Confederacy of Dunces for a contemporary neo-Grub Street.

The other subject of the book is postmodernism. Ezra Slef, the fictional writer, is a postmodern author. Him being called Ezra is always already a nod to Pound. In a mediated world – on a planet of representations – meaning’s endgame has always already been played out.

Komarnyckyj claims a love-hate relation with postmodernism. I agree. But then I read Pynchon and realise that the problem is often not with postmodern literary landmarks. It lies in the absolutely thumb-sucking languagescape I try to stay out of. But it’s everywhere, ironic take-downs of next-to-nothing, pouty-faced styles that entertain in order to disguise there is little or no content beneath the tonal posturing.

This novel gets at that uncomfortable truth by presenting the fictional biographer’s material during its in-progress state. It’s often dreadful crap, the disturbing dimension being that it will only take a little buffing for the material to be publishable.

So what marks Komarnyckyj’s take on literary postmodernism out – because that’s what I think this book is – is an understanding that on this litscape where meaning’s endgame is already lost, all that’s left to do is make a satire out of its fundamental literary-philosophical stuffs. And that’s why I think this is a great novel, not a lightweight one.

For example ‘Ezra’ and ‘Senor Humbert’ appear as themselves, but frosted with a little of the literary sugar of Pound and Humbert Humbert. Komarnyckyj then puts them in positions where that light dusting of connotation will do a lot of work. But you need to know your literature for that to happen, and so this is literary fiction, for all its cheeky re-arrangement of museum furniture. There’s a lot of this in the book and to over-discuss it here would ruin the reader’s fun.

When I got to the end of this book I realised its author had actually listed Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess as one of his source documents. Burgess’s Enderby is in there too: Perhaps I was more than accidentally on the right track with my coincidental reading.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson is also listed at the end. As the novel gets crazier and Ezra Slef becomes more a target than a subject, the influence becomes clear. Johnson’s Albert Angelo must be an influence too, as the author of the book, Andrew Komarnyckyj, is clearly in the text to a greater or lesser degree (how could he not be? Andrew Komarnyckyj invented the whole thing).

Stern’s Tristam Shandy is also listed, and I wonder if we might add Voltaire’s Candide as well. There’s a kind of nutcase, duo of journeymen quality to the book, which is very entertaining and a little bit brutal in places. The biographer blags his way into Oxford and then bribes his way into a job with an early folio of Joyce (as a professor of postmodernism, of course). In this there’s Hogarth too, I think, and so of course Smollett and Fielding. This is the very British – actually English – aspect of the book, for all its Pynchonism.

There’s been a lot of talk about exiting postmodernism. But I haven’t seen any convincing examples of form that can claim to be ‘out the other side’. All I see is drably worthy reheated humanism and modernism. A lot of it. I’m so fucking bored of it I can’t tell you. It reflects the last few years of batshit crazy times in no ways whatsoever. It’s just the dour underside of the contemporary cultural coinage. The bright upside is the chattering, giddy childscape of listicles about celebrity pets.

If you’re sick of that, and I am, then this is a damn fine novel to take in while we’re waiting for either The End or Something New.

Steve Hanson

* PS: I’ve never seen a Tartarus book before, they are beautifully made.

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