Mythical giant vs. the modern world—readers win
Moby-Dick has a white whale. Gravity’s Rainbow has outsized sexual shenanigans. Awesome, by Jack Pendarvis, has both.
The hero of this short, dizzying comic novel is the title character, a massive, handsome, supremely powerful man who strides the earth like nobody’s business. He wears a derby hat. He lives with his robot ward Jimmy, who is Robin to his Batman, and he has a kind of love affair with his downstairs neighbor, Glorious Jones. After his plans to marry her go haywire, Awesome is launched into a series of adventures that find him careering from odd situation to odd situation, applying himself gigantically wherever ?he goes.
Awesome is a huge man with many tiny problems, and this makes him
unreal in many senses and all too real in others. The world he moves
through resembles him in that regard: It is flecked all along the way
with bits of everyone from Elkin to Twain to Mary Shelley, but is
indebted mainly to American tall tales like Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan.
Pendarvis is funny. It is one of his defining characteristics, and no
one will ever dispute it. He is funny the way Awesome is large. But
there is a style in service of this characteristic, a mix of slippery
diction and protracted conceits.
Take this sentence, in which
?Awesome considers his busy days: “My schedule, you see, is a taxing
one. The concentration involved would cause an ordinary person’s brain
to crumble into bits like a Renaissance fresco or a muffin.”
This business with the muffin occurs early in Awesome.
It is not a major plot point. Muffins do not resurface as a leitmotif.
But it is worth pausing to note that in addition to the great delight
an author feels in writing such sentences, there is—or should
be—something at stake in asking others to read them. Delight should be
transmitted to them imperfectly, partially obstructed with unease.
The best comedy in Awesomeoperates this way, like a roman candle that fires off—between brightly
colored pulses—mirrored balls that reflect back both the vivid hues of
the fireworks and the dull and unprofitable reality that surrounds
them. Some of the work, the hard work, of Awesome, happens in
this negative space, elsewhere brought into sharper focus. Awesome, the
giant, is magical. A substance like spun sugar shoots from his
orifices. But at the same time, he speaks of snapping pictures with
iPhones, reading The New York Times’ Escapes section, and
selling things on eBay. It is our world, thuddingly so, and not a world
that Awesome seems particularly pleased with beneath his chipper
?manner. He cannot exactly connect with its other inhabitants. This
outsider’s pain is framed early on, as Awesome considers his derby hat.
“Hey, we live in modern times these days,” he imagines others
complaining. “That derby doesn’t fit into my view of the world.” His
?response? “Exactly.” And yet, he still wants in. Can he make it under
his own power, on his own terms? This is, finally, the tension that
pushes the novel forward: Awesome’s scorn for the world cannot
overwhelm his love for it.
At one point, Awesome is shot in the
navel under circumstances that approach betrayal. He wakes with a pithy
commentary about modern literature: When I woke up, I had developed
amnesia. I recognized the symptoms of this, the most common disease in
the United States of America, from a number of bestselling experimental
novels concerned with the human condition and the limitations of
language itself. Strangely, though I remembered those novels word for
word, I could not remember anything about myself, aside from the vague
notion that I needed to find something.
The amnesia, like
the muffin, does not become a leitmotif. This is an ?entirely isolated
joke, an island on which one man is jabbing himself in the ribs. The
amnesia is quickly forgotten. And yet, in forgetting it, Awesome (man
and novel) locates itself right back in the dead (or dying) center of
that diseased, pretentious, disconnected United States of America.
Jokes, when they are good jokes, fold in on themselves. The question is
how many folds they have, and whether they can be unfolded in time to
save any of us.
On the strength of this vivid, sometimes sadly hilarious evidence, we should be hopeful.