A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Something About Commedia does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Paul's debut, The Yid.
Release no. XVII:
Something About Commedia by Paul Goldberg
I admit I was a bit tired when the interview started. Paul insisted I meet him at the Starbucks in Union Square at 7 a.m., and so I forewent my morning cup. Maybe I was a bit too irritable with the guy behind the counter, but if you ask if I want hot or iced coffee in late December, it’s within my rights to give you a thoroughly sarcastic answer. He gave me decaf, I’m sure of it. When I sat down with Paul, he had a YouTube video up of a man being hit in the groin with a football. ‘Funny right?’ he asked. I nodded. He then zoomed in a bit, and replayed, watching my face. I put on a laugh for him, again, and again he zoomed in, and replayed the video, and again and again until the shot was just of the man’s face, a show of pain as clear as any. The man looked especially anguished in slow motion. ‘Is it still funny to you?’ Paul asked. ‘I guess not,’ I said. Paul started to speak but stopped, and instead nodded to himself, knowing, proud. Below is an excerpt of the conversation that followed.
Today I'm in conversation with Paul Goldberg, on the eve of publication of his second novel, Something About Commedia. As the name might suggest, there is humor in the book, yes, but there's a lot more. It's touching, heartfelt...the characters aren't just three-dimensional, they're entrenched in time too, moving through life like we do, encountering obstacles and each other and you know, doing things. Clementine McNabb over at The Washington Post called it "a real novel, from cover to cover there are pages." Mitsuko Vancouver up at the Buffalo Daily News said, "Goldberg's got a real knack for authorship, and I wouldn't put it past him to put pen to paper again!" While your first novel, The Yid, was billed as tragicomic, Something About Commedia is being called a "comedic tragedy". Care to elaborate on the difference?
Thank you for this question. I was hoping someone would pick up on this distinction. I believe it was Tevye the Dairyman who said--and I paraphrase: "A man is like a fireman. A fireman lives and dies. A man also." Let's drill into this revelatory statement for a moment. Its absurdity is its point, and within it lies Tevye's truth and Tevye's tragedy. Separate them, and the point will elude you. It will vanish--disappear. You sit down in anticipation of lightness of commedia, but instead you get a face-full of tragedia. You want a laugh, but instead you get insight. You anticipate one of those whipped coffee-based drinks and a light pastry, but instead you end up with a bowl of borsch and a lump of black bread. Stale. Cheap. Vicious. And the soup isn't wimpy, vegetarian stuff, but the real thing. Ukrainian! With thick pork base. If you don't like beets, go read something else. The expectation of the audience and the manner in which you betray it, toying with it at will, becomes the very point, the quintessence!
And speaking of audience, excuse me, you look like you might be drifting off. I always detect it when interviewers start to drift off--so I will attempt to wake you up. ARE YOU LISTENING?
Here is another way of capturing the difference between straight tragicomedy and commedic tragedy: With commedic tragedy, your audience thinks it's about to get Molière, but gets Dostoyevsky instead. They settle in for some gentle mist, but they get a brick in the face instead. Now you get it? Perhaps at this point you may be able to handle what we writers call a nuance: All commedic tragedy is tragicomedy, while not all tragicomedy is commedic tragedy. Have I answered your question? Honestly, I wasn't trying to evade, having thought about these matters for several decades.
You know, the other day I was at the gym and they have this bowl out front with those little red and white sucky candies, and then the other day, I walk in, and you know, I never take 'em cause I don't go for the sugary stuff, but WHAMO!—now there's those Andes mints instead. Um. I guess I bring it up because what you were saying about the soup just sort of reminded me.
So, when you say you haven't thought about these matters for decades, are you implying this was an old manuscript, unearthed?
Exactly! You are awake after all! It's exactly like unearthing the gold plates of the Book of Mormon. The only distinctions are that I was the author of those gold plates and I was the one who unearthed them! There are similarities as well, and, for the lack of a better word, I have to say MIRACLES were involved. I wrote this novel so long ago that I forgot about it. Indeed, I left it behind in a taxi cab. This was a disaster, because this tragic loss occurred in the era before computers. I blocked it out. And then, last year, I called an Uber. "You look sort of familiar," the driver said to me. "Aren't you the guy who left a manuscript in my taxi in Moscow?" "Do you still have it?" I asked. And the next thing I knew, I had the manuscript. Remember Bulgakov? The Master and Margarita? Do you recall the Devil saying, "Manuscripts don't burn?" (There is no question mark in the novel, of course, but I was forced to use it because of the grammatical constraints I have erected for myself.) I read the novel, of course, and the first words out of my mouth were: "What a toxic piece of dreck!" But then, on a lark, I sent it to the publisher, and they made their own determination. They thought it was insightful, profound, poignant, all that, and who am I to argue?
Did the taxi driver read it? Why else would he carry it around with him after all these years? Did you discuss the ongoing labor dispute and classifications of the sharing economy?
Let's talk the grit of the book, the down and dirty, the filth and...Okay, the novel centers on a clown, but of course this clown isn't funny, or at least not funny in the way that...You know, why don't you put it into your own words?
Yes, Volodya, did read it. Of course. This novel was finished and lost in the late 1980s, during the time knows as the Weimar Russia. At that time, taxi drivers were unable to accept hard currency (dollars are hard currency, though sometimes I wonder), but were unwilling to accept rubles, because they were completely devalued. So, American cigarettes became the currency of choice. To get a cab to stop, you had to brandish a pack of Marlboros. Volodya was no ordinary driver. He was a disgraced professor of literature, had a candidate's degree in foreign literature. He knew immediately that the manuscript had value and he took it with him in his subsequent travels, which ended with him combining the Uber gig with stints as an adjunct professor of Russian literature. Unfortunately, my pack of Marlboros set him on the self-destructive path of smoking, which is why he is no longer with us. My novel--and the character of the sad, evil clown, planted the seed of Volodya's destruction. His kindness toward me was severely punished.
Do you still want me to talk about the clown? I see your eyes are glazing over again. Hello? Anybody there? Is it still my turn to talk?
Yes, yes, sorry, right. Vodka. The clown. Go.
Glad you are still among the living. What did you want to known about the clown again?
Well, you know, this is an interview about the book. And I'm not so sure I have a grasp on the whole commedia/tragedia dichotomy. So, in your own words—is the path of the clown tragic or comedic?
Really? You need to make some choices. Do you want an interview, or do you want a nap? You seem to be trending toward the latter. So, what I am about to say will test your ability to stay awake: My work is totally and completely derivative and exploitative.
I start with derivative. It may seem like there is originality in Sashok (the clown, as you call him), but there is none. As I may have said in my prior interviews, every story worth telling has been told before. Sashok is a thinly veiled derivative of Aleksandr Vertinsky. Look him up. There are pictures and songs, etc. on You Tube. This is all Russian cabaret. I made up nothing. It all seemed trite and was dismissed as such by the real intellectuals (as opposed to the intelligentsia, which also dismissed him for the same reasons.) So imagine the Commedia Dell'Arte character Pierrot, wearing black and singing of heartbreak. That's Vertinski, whom I didn't make up.
Instead, I made up Sashok, the angry, dark clown, who sings of heartbreak. he is becoming quite famous in Moscow and worldwide. It's all good, except--and here I make some shameful choices--I give my sad clown an ax. Suddenly, ax murders are being reported in Moscow, Paris, London, even New York. See what I am doing? Totally derivative: Pierrot Meets Raskolnikov. This is where I cross from derivative to exploitative, and THE JOKE IS ON YOU!!!!
Yes, our Pierrot is an ax murderer, an international ax murderer! He is able to transport an ax on international tours! The idiots think he needs it for his act. AND HE DOES!!!!! That's the joke!
And so the public cannot stop the violence, because it might take away their laughter. I must say this is a metaphor that's all too relevant today. Amazing to have written something so germane to 2015 while Reagan was still in office. Are you prescient, or lucky?
No, just opportunistic. Among us humorwrights there are wimps. (I think this neologism is of my coinage, but how can I be sure?) As a human being, I am not devoid of compassion. But as a humorwright, I wring that which needs to be wrought. Or that which CAN be wrought.
Aha! So when you were reunited with the manuscript, it wasn't on a "lark" you sent it to publishers. You thought, this work is metaphor I can transplant to present day (and monetize). Well, it worked.
We're nearly out of time, so I'll see you out with one last question. What, if anything, do you think the public can get out of your work, whether or not it was written for a public that didn't know even know what AOL was?
Of course, this book benefits from being seen through the lens of today! The imposition of historical context, albeit irrelevant and unanticipated by the author at the time of composition, imbues this otherwise derivative, exploitative and trite manuscript with the illusion of depth. Can anyone claim that illusory wisdom is illegitimate wisdom?
Of course not, Paul, of course not. Thanks for your time, and, of course, your words.