Overqualified Joey Comeau. ECW Press. 96 pp, $14.95.
“No tricks,” Raymond Carver famously advised, to which I always wanted to respond, “yes, but . . .”
Tricks in literature have gotten a bad rap. Formal innovation, occasionally snatched from poetry and smuggled into the novel, has always made some readers ill. Call it gimmick fiction. And by gimmick fiction I mean novels which have some organizing aesthetic device though which the story is told. Gimmick fiction is not so much experimental—in the Barthian meta-fictional or Nabokovian epistemological-puzzle sense—as it is resourceful. How to tell a story that feels new and not crippled by its own narrative conventions? One way would be to call attention to those conventions, but another, potentially more interesting way, would be to hijack another form’s conventions and use that form as a vehicle to tell story. The novel began in just such a way as the “epistolary novel,” and Joey Comeau’s newest novel—if we dare call it that—returns us to that form, except here the letters are cover letters, the kind you send when applying for a job.
I can hear you groaning at the screen, but wait. The book consists of 94 pages of cover letters, each only a page or two long, sent to a variety of corporations and organizations. There are letters addressed to Farmers Dairy, IBM, the NYPD, Samsonite, Hallmark, Nintendo, and Absolut Vodka, among many others. The resulting novel is promising, funny, sad, and moving, and yet, ultimately disappointing.
Comeau co-writes a comic strip online called “A Softer World” with Emily Horne, and the book shares the same tone. Call it wacky-tender. Many of the cover letters were actually sent to the companies, in a bit of guerrilla literacy, and some of these have been edited and appear within the book. Others appear on Horne and Comeau’s website. So the book is a sort of remastered greatest hits. Though the resulting reading experience is obviously fragmented, one letter winding down just as soon as another begins, there is a narrative here, with Comeau as our protagonist. I’m not sure how much of what transpires within the letters is fiction or non-, but as the book seems completely uninterested in investigating this boundary—its stuntlyness taking precedence—I am not going to focus on that here either.
Here is the story we get: Comeau is Canadian. His older brother was killed by a drunk driver. He is subject to frequent stabs of deep grief. He lives with his widowed grandmother who speaks Acadian though he doesn’t and she won’t teach it to him. His brother lived for a time with his grandparents. His grandfather once ran over a drunk man walking through the street, an incident Comeau’s brother witnessed. He has a girlfriend named Susan whom he loves but whom he also wants to cheat on frequently. Susan and Comeau break up, leading to despair and living with the grandmother. That is basically it. If it feels telegraphic and disconnected, that’s because it is. I’ve probably asserted too much causality in my summary. Though each letter is its own coherent rant, the shrapnel of stories are embedded within each. The letters swing between being enraged and funny and grief-stricken and simply absurd. At times, it’s quite successful. For example, here is one letter in its entirety:
Dear Bell Canada,
Thank you for taking the time to review my resume. I have to apologize for the bluntness of this cover letter. I need your help. I think the Internet is trying to kill me. It is only through this channel, this job application, that I have any chance of fooling it into letting my message get through.
I spent six hours online this morning, reading job postings and writing terrible cover letters, and having shallow conversations with a dozen of my friends. They kept asking, “How do you feel?” and posting the little hug icon from instant messenger. When was the last time I really paid attention to a conversation? I have all these old emails from my brother, and none of them say anything.
He ended every one with, “Love yah, bro.” I’ve read it so many times today.
I’m multitasking all the time now. I can do a hundred different things at once, and at the end of the day I can’t remember any of them. I honestly can’t remember.
It’s your fault. The Internet has tendrils in millions of homes, all through the country. You feed it. And I understand why you feed it, why you’re doing this. You get thirty dollars a month for every home, for every connection. You’re feeding it, but you’re getting fat, too. Only, it can’t go on. I can’t let you profit from the lives of my friends and family.
You have to tell me where it lives. If I can find the head, the heart, the brain, I can destroy it. I can set everyone free with one small act of violence. I need to burn the Internet to the ground. I need to find out if it has had a chance to lay eggs yet.
Have you had trouble breathing lately? When was your last x-ray? There could be eggs anywhere in your body. I have to tear out its backbone. I have to clean your server rooms with fire. If I am in the computers as an employee, it won’t see me coming, gasoline can in hand.
This one is fairly representative and contains all the major elements: the absurd premise, the contemporary ranting, the brisk allusion to background tragedy, the fantastic extrapolation, etc. (There’s one very funny letter where Comeau applies to Easy Rider Tours to be a bicycle tour guide and imagines taking tourists to all the houses of his ex-girlfriends.) When the book is working best, it feels like a sustained bit of stand-up comedy, the letters not congealing so much into a narrative but bouncing along as collected riffs, collected variations on the same riff.
But this is also simultaneously the book greatest weakness; it falters along its own formal lines. Because though it takes the risk of being a formal experiment, it’s not strict enough. These cover letters aren’t really cover letters. They don’t behave like cover letters. True, that’s the point, the friction that sets the joke in motion. But the letters don’t mimic enough their formal source before breaking free with their own variations. Their only claim to real cover letter-ness is the address line and perhaps the first sentence. Everything else moves through association or anecdote. This seems like a loss for the book because though the conceit is good, there is a wealth of despair still left to be mined in such a scheme—the true pathos of writing cover letters. Our real cover letters contain so much tainted metal: the argument on one’s behalf that must appear like neutral information; the coded, demure self-aggrandizement; the ungraspable perfect tone, winning yet respectful; the unknowable reader, out in to the world, stuck at a desk, deluged by paper, bitter with mail; the fear that they are not read at all, or if they are that they are read by machine—a joke which Comeau wittily toys with; and the subsequent desire to say anything, to tell one’s real life story. There is a wonderful novelistic lode here, but it’s as if Comeau jumps from winning concept to fragmented self-disclosure without letting the formal prison of the letter convention work its form-making magic. For example, here is the beginning of the letter to Greenpeace:
I have been thinking about sex. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s almost September, and soon fall will be here. I don’t know what you’re doing today, but maybe you would rather be thinking about sex, too. This morning I woke up and remembered an embarrassing sex story. Everyone has embarrassing sex stories, I hope.
The tensile strength of the conceit quickly deteriorates. It leads the formal device to feel like a shoddy aluminum roof over the fiction rather than the steel I-beam girder that it should be. The recipient and the façade of application should be crucial to the novel and instead it feels simply occasional; in short, the gimmick feels like just a gimmick.
Another problem is how the book is better in short bursts than it is over the long haul. Indeed it feels like a comic strip in its pacing—brilliant in brief lunges but too much blurs your eyes. One can see how this project would be perfect for the web, but by virtue of these letters being collected and bound, the reader brings warranted preconceptions about what the book will do. Its physical form and its narrative pieces invite one to assemble a puzzle. And instead it’s more like a collection of knock-knock jokes, funny on its own limited terms but built for perusal. An example of a book that manages to succeed despite a similar formal difficulty might be Michael Martone by Michael Martone, a collection of fictional contributor’s notes originally published in the backends of various magazines. The notes themselves are discrete little stories, but in their accumulation they paint a broader picture of the writer-protagonist, despite the fact that the autobiographical information about Martone is often wildly contradictory.
But my grander narrative hopes for the book aside, Comeau sustains a great jaunt. And he makes me wish more writers would follow his lead. It’s a shame that in our current historical predicament of textual overflow—do I really need to provide examples?—that authors haven’t hijacked these forms for their own novelistic ends. A story told in status updates? A story in the form of text messages? A story playing out in the comments of some blog post? It happens everyday in what is called “real-time,” our new designation for what was previously denominated “reality.” These forms feel ripe for parody, and it seems like the way to revive experimentation is not to pile in already worn out and wheel-less forms (the sonnet?) but to seize the forms that everyone uses for other types of communication, to pull up their hoods and rip open their casings and show the stories running around inside like oil—in short, to make these machines mean.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His fiction appears, most recently, in Arkansas Review, and an essay of his is forthcoming in Colorado Review. His personal website is available here.
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