A World That Does Not
by Jeff Goldberg
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England
by Brock Clarke
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England is the marvelously titled story of Sam Pulsifer, a man who spends ten years in jail for accidentally burning down the Emily Dickinson House with two people inside, and upon release is persecuted by the entire world, including the people who supposedly love him. It’s not so much the past catching up with him as it is the novelist catching up with him. Catching up with him and throttling him repeatedly.
It’s hard to classify the genre of the text. Is it satire? Farce? Comedy of errors? Black comedy? I’m not quite sure, because it has elements of all. Despite the excellent title and the clever premise, the novel suffers from two major comedy problems, both of which I associate with partially-watched Ben Stiller movies.
The first half of the book revolves around the time-honored plot-point of “I Am Telling Irrational Lies to Everyone Even Though It’s Incredibly Obvious to the Audience that Telling the Truth Would Be a Lot Less Idiotic.” Otherwise known as Meet The Parents syndrome. Seriously, Ben Stiller. Milking cats? Why didn’t you just tell Robert De Niro that while waiting you picked up a magazine and flipped to a random page? Isn’t that what everyone does while waiting for someone outside of a supermarket? Instead you decide to go with “milking cats”?
“Everything Goes Down” — Kate Tucker & The Sons of Sweden (mp3)
The second half of the book revolves around the time-honored plot-point of “I Am Telling the Truth to My Family and Friends and Yet for Some Reason Everyone Believes a Creepy Stranger Instead of Me.” Otherwise known as Cable Guy syndrome. (While Ben Stiller did not technically appear in this movie, he did direct it.)
How could Matthew Broderick’s parents possibly believe the obviously insane Jim Carrey over their own son? Why does Matthew Broderick never just sit his parents down and say, “Mom and dad, I know this seems crazy, but I really need you to believe me,” instead of babbling incoherently?
Ferris, you can do better than this!
I could not watch either of these movies in their entirety. Halfway through Meet The Parents I began watching it on fast forward, stopping every ten minutes or so to see if Ben Stiller had finally collapsed into a black hole of pointless fibbing. That’s better than Cable Guy, where halfway through I walked out in a cold sweat and called all my loved ones to make them promise that if I ever were to sit them down and say, “I know this seems crazy, but I really need you to believe me,” that they would believe me.
It speaks well of An Arsonist’s Guide that, despite these two major flaws, I read the entire book. In the midst of my extreme annoyance, I still enjoyed the protagonist.
I’m even willing to admit that in the world of the novel it makes sense that the Sam Pulsifer would fear telling the truth about his past: no one in his town, including his parents, have forgiven him for his childhood crime, even after ten years in jail.
“Older Chests” — Benjamin Costello with Leigh Graniello (mp3)
While this yields some psychological validity for the narrator, it also highlights the psychological irrationality of the rest of the world. And so fail all attempts to rationalize the novel: Pulsifer behaves in a psychologically realistic manner, but only because he is responding to a world that does not.
I want to recommend this book but I can’t. Instead I am going to recommend Brock Clarke’s next, unpublished book, which will hopefully have the same deftness of writing but take its comedy cues from a less manic source.
Jeff Goldberg is the senior contributor to This Recording. He lives in Manhattan.
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
James Tate felt better.
Bucking the Vegas odds to find our true calling.
All of our friends are going to be strangers you would think.
3 thoughts on “In Which We Want To Like This Book More Than We Do And We Like This Book More Than We Should”
well put. i use “ben stiller” as an adjective, a verb, and an expletive. also, i usually call that frustrating crap “stop it, Stop it. Stop It! humor.” it is easily my least favorite sort.