Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Conversation w/ Jack Pendarvis

Interview by Chad Radford. Photo by Charles G. Steffen

Atlanta author and McSweeney’s regular Jack Pendarvis is a man of singular wit. His self-effacing sense of humor pushes the boundaries of social and moral perceptions and behaviors in his second book, Your Body is Changing. I recently spoke with Jack about the art of laughing at one’s self and others, and what it means to be a “Southern writer.”

In Your Body is Changing characters grapple with political correctness and being honest with each other. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about sincerity and semantics?

Instead of saying, “I want to be a jerk,” people say, “Now this might not be politically correct, but...” and then they can feel brave and proud for saying some common, snotty remark. You never hear someone say, “I’m politically correct!” Yet somehow people who brag about being “politically incorrect” seem to imply that they are facing down a mighty army of enemies. But weirdly, every single person on Earth, including me and you, let’s face it, seems to pride him or herself on NOT being “politically correct.” So what are we so puffed up about? What have we accomplished? The war is over, and I guess jerkiness won. Does that make us happy? Does this answer your question? Probably not!

How much are your characters based on people that you’ve encountered in your day-to-day life?

Some of all of them and a lot of none of them. Untangle that fragment and you’ll have the secret.

Much of your strongest material is also your funniest material. Is it important for you to get your sense of humor across?

I don’t think about it much, honestly. I heard George Saunders say something once about “giving yourself permission” to be funny as a writer. I think that’s the biggest hurdle: to allow your natural inclinations to bear some kind of fruit. In my case, there happens to be some humor involved.

Humor in “Southern” fiction is often tangled around sad and awkward characters and situations, which I find in a lot of your stories. Do you ever consider what it means to be a “Southern” writer?

Any kind of label (Southern or humorist or whatever) can be an excuse to fall into bad habits so I try to be as careful as I can. I once heard George Singleton speaking on a panel, and he was asked to name his favorite Southern writer. He said Gogol. That’s a much briefer and sharper answer to what you’re asking, I think, and it has the advantage of working like a Zen koan.

Your Body is Changing is your second collection of short stories. Do you have plans to write a longer work and could you tell me about what you have in mind?

My novel (titled AWESOME) is coming out in 2008. It’s about a happy, rich, handsome giant of the Paul Bunyan variety. I started out worrying about the perception that I write about “losers.” I thought, “What’s a winner? Can you really write about a winner? Is there a good novel about a winner? I mean, Captain Ahab is a ‘loser,’ right? Quentin Compson is a ‘loser.’ Madame Bovary is a ‘loser.’ Prince Mishkin is a ‘loser,’ Hazel Motes is a ‘loser,’ Jay Gatsby is a ‘loser’...” Whoa! Let me make it clear I’m not comparing myself to Melville, Flaubert, and those others. In any case, the dramatic impulse kicked in and fairly early in the novel the giant runs into some major problems... that’s the way fiction works, it turns out. It was impossible to write about a “winner.”


Manhattan Tuesday: Afternoon of Insensitivity
Corwood Industries

Manhattan Tuesday is the first live Jandek album to embrace the muffled spaciousness of a live recording. This double-disc sounds like a bootleg, and in light of the ghostly pace of the performance, the hazy low-end feels like a deliberate, aesthetic choice. Slow motion waves of funeral drones ebb and flow in the foggy fidelity, shrouding bursts of drum rolls and rattles under layers of echoing resonance.

The lyrical content of each song is a survey of social anxiety and existential jitters. The Representative from Corwood hovers behind a Korg synthesizer, howling away over plodding organ sounds. His voice whines and weaves a chain of dark philosophical inquiries. Song lengths range from seven to 20 minutes, and no one track is any more or less hypnotic than the others. These seven numbers, recorded at the Anthology Film Archives in September 2005 are appendages of a larger composition, titled Afternoon of Insensitivity, (but Afternoon of Insecurity would be a more appropriate title).

This is also the first Jandek recording where the fingerprint of another, recognizable musician, guitarist Loren Connors, effects the overall compositions so profoundly. Manhattan Tuesday takes shape as a collaboration that gives direction to Connors' drifting washes of sound, while bringing Jandek’s obtuse ways to a discernible point. Matt Heyner (bass) and Chris Corsano (drums) lay down a slow, rhythmic foundation, but their contributions are only the frame around the haunting merger of Connors and the Rep’s respective takes on abstract musical expressionism.

--Chad Radford


Quannum Projects

Truly great songwriting can transcend gimmickry, but for Portland, OR hip-hop trio Lifesavas, great songwriting fleshes out some substantive musical qualities while exposing a few weaknesses. The group’s second release, Gutterfly is a "concept" album that resurrects the funk of ‘70s Blaxploitation; but the narrative tale, chronicling characters with names like Bumpy Johnson and Sleepy Floyd, is weak at best. Songs like “No Surprise” and “A Serpent’s Love” are rife with intelligent lyrics, raw deliveries and beats that shine with a cool but charged vibe in the traditions of Gift of Gab's 4th Dimensional Rocketships or A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory. But the vague conceptual interludes draw attention away from the album’s brightest moments. The Fishbone cameo in “Dead Ones” pulls you right out of the moment, as do appearances from George Clinton, Vernon Reid and the likes. Each of these songs stand on their own merits, but the distractions and extraneous material clip the wings off of what is an otherwise excellent album.

--Chad Radford