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Word Wizard

Michael Griffith’s latest novel employs a dazzling array of stylistic quirks

By Jason Gargano · May 18th, 2011 · Lit

Michael Griffith’s singular new novel, Trophy, opens with this succinct sentence: “Vada Prickett is a corpse.”

What follows is not nearly as blunt or immediately discernible — a wild, meta-licious ride rife with puns, crafty word play, digressions, metaphors, tangents and puzzles, all of which eventually lead back to Vada, a 29-year-old “Hose Associate” at a car wash in South Carolina.

In fact, just one line after that rather ominous opening we learn that our protagonist is actually on the “cusp of corpsedom” due to the fact that he’s being crushed by a giant, stuffed grizzly bear that he has been trying to help move into his best friend’s house. Griffith uses this simple setup as a jumping off point to look back on Vada’s life via 104 mostly brief chapters with esoteric titles like “Piscinity: A Strained Metaphor (Gotta Charge Extra for Artistry)” and an extraordinary barrage of stylistic quirks that are likely to leave readers both enthralled and grasping for footing. The author — whose previous works include Spikes: A Novel (2001) and Bibliophilia: A Novella and Stories (2003) — also laces the proceedings with large doses of humor and wit, not to mention an almost subliminal emotional resonance that sneaks up when one least expects it.

CityBeat recently emailed Griffith, an associate professor of English at UC and fiction editor of The Cincinnati Review, some questions, which he answered with the same distinctive style he employs within his fictional efforts.

CityBeat: What was the thinking behind using a fractured, nonlinear narrative to tell the story of Vada Prickett?

Michael Griffith: There’s a great Brazilian novel from about a century ago called The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado de Assis that’s told by a corpse who dedicates his story to the first worm to penetrate his coffin. In it, the narrator explains, pleads, laments, settles old scores. Death doesn’t erase earthly concerns or make them less urgent, but instead magnifies them. I was thinking about that novel — and also about Nicholson Baker’s experiments in collapsing the timeline in books like The Mezzanine, which takes place in the stretch it takes a man to ride up an escalator on an errand to buy shoelaces.

I’ve always been interested in the idea of digression. The term implies that there’s some proper path or string or plot that you’re departing from, but that’s not the way life feels for us, right? Who knows whether a stint in the Peace Corps — or for that matter a 20-second break to watch some poor schlub fall down while carrying a giant sheet cake on YouTube — is going to turn out to be the start of something new and important for you? Plot’s highly overrated, as far as I’m concerned. I tend to think instead that there’s plot in any moment of any life, provided that moment’s looked at thoroughly enough and empathetically enough. As John Barth put it somewhere, finding story isn’t hard; we live in an ocean of it and no matter where you drop your bucket, you’re going to haul it up full to bursting.

Anyway, I got interested in the idea of a novel set during the instant of a character’s death and in having that character seize his last opportunity to look back over his unpromising, messy life and try to make sense of it. What if the cliché really is true and your life really does flash before your eyes in the moment of your death? If so, then for as long as you can keep shit flashing across the screen, you can’t die; you have a kind of split-second immortality.

That presented a couple of challenges that seemed potentially interesting: a novel made all of so-called digressions, in which the only plot point is given away in the first line; a novel in which the protagonist announces immediately that his intention is to waste as much time as possible so as to keep himself alive and then he asks the reader to pretend, for almost 300 pages, not to see whose time it is that he proposes to waste; a goofily comic novel about dying.

The gist of this, I guess, is that linearity seems to me like a trick imposed from outside. I’m much more interested in the mess of consciousness and in figuring out how much weirdness and so-called digression you can accommodate without giving up on story. I hope this book seems fractured and nonlinear, but I also hope that it has, finally, the shape and the emotional payoff of a traditional novel.

CB: I’m also curious about your use of puns and other stylistic flourishes. Can you talk about balancing style and the book’s often surrealistic tendencies with the need for some sort of conventional narrative?

MG: There’s a chapter in the novel called “In Defense of the Pun.” Lots of people slag puns, say they’re the lowest form of humor. But what I like about puns is that they’re always situational, improvisational — they’re not plotted. You take what the language and what the immediate context give you. You do the best you can with the material you have, no matter how lame. To me, that’s exactly what this book is about. Vada’s doing the best he can with the very sorry materials … he has to work with.

CB: Trophy includes several references to pop-culture figures, many not widely known. For instance, I can’t imagine many people will get the (former NFL player and temporary Wheel of Fortune host) Rolf Benirschke name-check. Can you talk about the use of such figures and how their use can sometimes alienate readers who aren’t familiar with them?

MG: I really love the sort of overstuffed comedy that has a hundred things going on at once — 1930s screwball stuff, Billy Wilder, Arrested Development and on and on. Sure, there’s a lot of ridiculous stuff going on in the novel — name drops, allusions, tricks, puns, puzzles, the quirks and accidents of Vada’s memory. No one could or would want to follow every tangled string to the end. But it seems to me that that’s how life works. We miss a lot, miss far more than we get, most of the time. The idea of perfect, tidy comprehensibility is as much a fiction as the idea that our lives take place along parallel tracks of story. One thing I love about screwball comedy is that it celebrates and honors chaos by finding the thread of story that runs through it.

CB: At one point the narrative addresses the reader directly and talks about “the dwindling thickness at your right hand,” which is a reference to the number of pages still remaining in the actual physical book. With that in mind, how will the rise of e-books impact the reading experience? How do you think it will alter things from the writer’s perspective?

MG: I’m a technological incompetent. I’ve never even seen an e-book. And I do love traditional books, one of the greatest, most useful and versatile technologies ever devised. But clearly we’re headed toward a world of e-books, in which paper books will play a smaller and smaller role, and there’s no point in bitching about it. Some things will be gained by the change; the e-book pioneers are right. Some will be lost; the traditionalists are right.

Technologies evolve, and readers, too. The writer who doesn’t take those changes into account and find the new opportunities inherent in the new format, is doomed. Not that he’s not doomed anyway.

CB: Trophy is something of a social satire. In particular, it tackles the various and distinctive features of Southern culture and Vada’s love/hate relationship to it. Why were you interested in setting the story within that milieu?

MG: Thanks for asking this one — you’re the very first person to mention the setting. The short — and, sorry for this, but rather dull — answer is that I’m a southerner, and specifically a South Carolinian, and after almost 25 years of living elsewhere I’m still trying to sort out my love/hate relationship with home.

CB: Someone referenced the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona when describing Trophy’s comic tone. That struck me as pretty accurate reference. Who would you reference as being influential to your writing style?

MG: I’d take that as flattering. I love the Coens. I’ve mentioned Machado de Assis, Nicholson Baker, Valdimir Nabokov. For this book, I guess I’d say Stanley Elkin, Eudora Welty … I could go on and on, and nobody wants that. 

CB: You’ve been writing fiction for some time now. How has your approach changed over the years? Has it gotten easier?

MG: I once had a friend who said that he’d written six novels and everybody seemed to think that by now he should know how to do it, but in fact what he’d learned, by agonizing trial and error, was how to write exactly six novels, and he’d already written those, and they were absolutely no help with the seventh. I feel that way, too. Writing is humbling every day and sometimes you kind of get sick of the humbling. You want to say, “Hey, I know I suck — I get it, I get it. Don’t I loathe myself enough already?

Basically my approach boils down to this: Updike once wrote of Nabokov that — this is a paraphrase — he writes prose the only way it should be written, ecstatically. That seems to me exactly right, but honest-to-God ecstasy is hard to gin up every day and I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never be prolific and that there will be long stretches of silence. Of course, there’s no guarantee that if you’re taking pleasure in what you do the reader will, too. But it seems to me a dead certainty that if you’re not taking pleasure in what you do, you have no hope of inducing the reader to.

MICHAEL GRIFFITH’s Trophy will be published May 31. The author will read from and discuss the book 7 p.m. June 1 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.



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