“[Ezra] Pound loved cars, women, and pit bulls. He preferred the first fast, the second fly, and the third ‘monter-maulin’ and mean.’ To a London critic’s claim (in the Transatlantic Review) that the poet must serve the spiritual needs of society above all else, Pound responded with a scorn in his widely quoted essay, ‘The Lyric Impulse/ X-ta-see and Po-a-tree.”(83)
Whenever asked to recommend a writer, I feel the struggle that no doubt many writers face: Just one? How can I impress on a prospective reader years and years’ worth of reading by condensing it down to a singular writer, let alone a singular book? Do I recommend Woody Allen’s The Insanity Defense? What about Social Studies by Fran Lebowitz? Or anything by Charles Bukowski? I could go on, and on, and on.
Over the past few years, however, I have found myself recommending, praising, and pouring over one writer more often than any other: Ian Frazier. A long-time staff writer for The New Yorker, Frazier is the author of eleven books: four book-length works of nonfiction, three collections of essays, one novel, and three collections of humorous/satirical essays. Of all his books, it is his three collections of humor I return to the most (and by most, I mean on a near daily basis). More specifically still, I read and reread his third collection, published in 2008, Lamentations of the Father.
Recipient of the James Thurber Prize for American Humor, Lamentations of the Father is a collection of 36 essays that is not only brilliantly funny, but also a collection that utilizes diverse points of view and a plethora of structural forms that expands, challenges, and reshapes the reader’s understanding of what an essay is and what an essay can do.
I first discovered Frazier’s work in the pages of The New Yorker and in an anthology of humorous prose previously published in TNY. This was during my second year of undergraduate studies, a couple years after finding the rich rewards to be had by reading Woody Allen, Dorothy Parker, David Sedaris, and others. What distinguished Frazier’s essays most distinctly for me was his implementation of preexisting or “found” texts, forms of nonfiction that already exist in the world, and repurposing them for both humorous and astute purposes. In Lamentations of the Father, Frazier adapts the following forms to essay, to reference just a few:
- Court cases
- Hotel notices
- Health insurance documents/surveys
- Literary criticism
In one of my favorite essays, “The New Poetry” (from which the opening quote is taken), Frazier assumes the role of literary and social critic and sets out to contextualize the lives and works of some of the twentieth century’s most important poets. He opens his essay rather straight forwardly, proclaiming the significance of Thomas Hardy’s work as the marker for the new poetry, and “cites” a stanza from one of Hardy’s poems:
The land’s sharp features seem’d to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
That booty-licious booty there,
Show ‘em what you’re workin’ with!
Wait, what? Thomas Hardy and booty-licious? Wasn’t that Destiny’s Child?
The essay (in fact, all of the essays in the collection) operates as an extended joke: tension and release. Frazier establishes tension by writing from the authority of the point of view and/or form and keeps a controlled tone by adhering to all the expectations the voice/form carries, and then releases by introducing the absurd or the frivolous. This process is repeated throughout each essay. Frazier juxtaposes form and content as well as high culture and pop culture, subverting expectations. In this case, it is the serious task of literary criticism juxtaposed with a content parodying contemporary pop and hip-hop culture, all the while maintaining the constraint of treating the subject near-straight. Frazier’s essays are like the straight man reading the comedian’s lines.
This constraint, Frazier’s dry and often subtle humor, is what separates his work from other humorists/satirists/essays such as Robert Benchley (who often used asides such as this to say something silly) and Woody Allen’s absurd and surreal non sequiturs. Through his use of preexisting texts and juxtaposition of form and content, Frazer is capable of writing light satires (think more Alexander Pope, less Jonathan Swift) while simultaneously challenging the expectations of the essay. Is “The New Poetry” fiction or nonfiction? Both. Can an essay utilize or rely on conceits and rhetorical fictions? Yes, it absolutely can. If the goal of an essay is “to attempt, to try” as a means of exploring an idea, Frazier’s essays do exactly that by gathering bits and pieces of reality and appropriating nonfiction forms and imposing his imagination onto them, resulting in humorous, intelligent, and profound writing. His essays straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction, imagination and reality, as the best satires do.
So, you know, you should read Lamenations of the Father. While you’re at it, read Dating Your Mom and Coyote v. ACME too. You’re going to like what you read. I guarantee it.