Guest Review by Adam Robinson: Playing with The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney by Chris Higgs

21 Dec

Oh wow, opening the cover of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, the first book from newcomer indie Sator Press, invites grand thoughts, like: What Is the Role of Literature? Christopher Higgs’s book toys with all sorts of literary convention. For example, the first title page has the author data crossed out. Then there is a second title page that inverts the title and author information, saying, “The Complete Works of Christopher Higgs//A novel written by Marvin K. Mooney” — then it says “[much better!!!]” It’s courageous to include three exclamation points in such an auspicious place.

There are similar tricks carried out through the rest of the book — scholarly papers, critical reviews within the text, low-res drawings of Mooney, short stories, very short stories, Mooney’s reflections on his work, Mooney’s reflections on critical theory. One could take a class on the book, similar to the courses offered on The Waste Land or Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

What I’m wondering about more immediately is why my first thoughts on the book are directly tied to games, to play. This is more prescient considering the title of the novel — it’s The Collected WORKS, after all. One doesn’t expect this will be a “delightful romp” to read (though it might be just “delightful”), founded as it is on some serious intellectual heft, and I’m certain that the book is the result of some serious labor by Higgs. So, what drives my thinking about play?

A lot of the devices, from the pseudonymity writ large to the sketchy portraits, can be called “literary gags,” a term I’m usually pretty happy with. Andy Kaufmann’s body of work, of which I’m a fan, is largely a gag, for example. He kept his job as a dishwasher while starring in Taxi, in case the acting thing didn’t work out. The disparity between what he actually thought and what he did is the basis for the gag; that is, he didn’t believe the kitchen-work would really help him in terms of what mattered, except as an extension of a larger joke. The essential thing here is that he did something contrary to what he believed, or what’s normal, for a secondary reason. The gag of his pseudo-identity, Tony Clifton, works more superficially, as it hinges on what the audience is willing to believe.

Another good gag of this second sort is Clov’s scoping of the audience in Beckett’s Endgame, when he turns his binoculars to the seats and says, “I see a multitude, in transports of joy.” Here the gag works because it breaks the contract between the audience and the text, defying the audience’s expectation of what is to be believed versus what belief is to remain suspended. (The secondary justification for this must not have been substantive enough for Beckett, though, because he removed the line in his French translation. Perhaps this is a gag in itself.)

In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga shows how play is essential to cultural development: play is necessarily freedom, it is distinct from “real life,” it is done without purpose, it creates new order. Work, on the other hand (and here I am extrapolating from Huizinga’s thesis, which I haven’t read, only Googled), functions in the established order with a purpose of reinforcing that order, which can arguably be viewed as restricting freedom. From this perspective, can Higgs’s book be considered playful? It becomes a question of originality. How much does the book defy the characterization of what a novel is? How novel is it? And in that regard, how does it change our culture?

My thoughts here verge to how cultural shifts occur. It is my opinion that developments begin at an elite level and filter “down” to the masses. (“The masses” is an insufficient term, as it suggests a false dichotomy vis-à-vis the elite, whereas the distinction is mutable. Instead of “masses,” I will use the term “consumers,” as it is meant in reference to people who “buy into” the new theory.) Most people haven’t read Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, but Kierkegaard’s ideas in it are intrinsic to the cultural identity which produced the radically orthodox J-Lo commercial movie, The Wedding Planner. My point is, change happens at a fundamental, consumer-based level of society, but it begins in the arched brows of people who confront tricked-out, esoteric (non)(?) narratives.

(As is frequently pointed out vis-à-vis his writing at HTMLGIANT, Christopher Higgs is not hospitable toward narrative writing. But as I see it, the narratives of commercial art are so recognizable to actually occupy no time — the plot of 90% of sitcoms is immediately recognizable, for example — that these product-objects are the real [or post-real] non-narratives. Savvy audiences have become so talented at recognizing plot that plot is rendered meaningless. Higgs’s play, on the other hand, requires dedicated engagement because the familiar is constantly made strange and the words and their meaning fluctuate in relation to each other. Higgs’s novel is not absent of story, but the narrative happens without that. Subjectivity of experience adopts the experience of grappling with a text as its own story. This is the modern dialectic.)

A diligent reader would do us a service by cataloging the innovations in Higgs’s book. It isn’t the pseudonym. It isn’t the metanarrative. It isn’t the scope or the syntax. These gags have been accomplished and, in a way (I won’t argue this point), have become something of a system of their own, and thereby restrictive, non-play. In art, however, originality is not the pre-eminent consideration. Much more considerable is the experience behind the techniques which convey that selfsame experience. Flipping through The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, I get the sense that Higgs knows what destruction he’s doing, cares, and does it anyway because it is enjoyable.

Enjoyment, that is the pre-eminent goal of art. Enjoyment is pleasure. I’m thinking of Eudaimonia, Aristotelian happiness, play. Sometimes I esteem physicists for the exactitude of their science and the wholeness of their knowledge set, but their ideal pales in comparison to the Higgsian eschaton. At the end of Marvin K. Mooney, whatever that is, there is the most pleasant thing in the world. But this is precisely what cannot be said, because the saying necessarily brings about the end of the world. The goal of the world is its end. To bracket reduction, it is an ontological tautology, as is bracketing reduction. But no one cares because no one knows how to party.

And that’s why Higgs’s book will not have any directly measurable cultural impact, just as neither will my consideration of the book. The consumers, ready or not, have other things to worry about than my report from the storytellers’ quorum. There aren’t enough ropes to create a mesh. Christopher Higgs and his Marvin K. Mooney function in the service of that net, with which the art-Christ will be fished from the other side of the bad book ocean. Someone is coming after Higgs and Mooney, just as they came after Yuriy Tarnawski and Hwbrgdtse. Just as they came after Woolf and Dalloway. And we are coming quickly now. Higgs, in his ivory tower, is applying his muscle to the floodgates.

Pretty soon we’re going to have a really good TV show.

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