For me, 2014 was a year for the riff-based and voice-based, for works that freeze time or otherwise kill that sort-of-ticking narrative clock, bypassing scene- and character-building modes of realism to immerse themselves in the turnings of the brain and the spinning-out of ideas. Within that broad grouping, here are two books and a podcast episode that I especially liked.
Catherine Lacey, Nobody Is Ever Missing (FSG)
A young woman leaves husband and Manhattan for New Zealand, where she hitchhikes and wanders and processes the world with a brain that’s going too fast. Lacey’s debut novel is a smart, cutting exploration of confusion and loss, but it’s also an investigation of just how weird and funny and awful our brains can be with all their runaway connections. The best parts of the book are the time-outs from her journey, where we encounter raw blocks of thought, as in the quote below:
“I walked through a forest near a highway until I found a clump of moss to sleep on and I remembered that Simon said possums were not indigenous to New Zealand, that they had been brought here by somebody a long time ago, some European, and sincere there were no animals here that liked to kill possums, all those unkilled possums had fucked up the whole fucking ecosystem by eating plants, too many plants, by wanting so much, and now there were what?—ten or fifteen possums per person in New Zealand? Something fucked-up like that; and I imagined my dozen fucked-up possums gathered around me, a personal audience, and I wondered which things inside a person might be indigenous or nonindigenous, but it isn’t as easy to trace those kinds of things in a person as it is in a country.”
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf)
Citizen is a chronicle of microaggressions and larger aggressions against the black body and black mind in America and the world. Rankine’s tightly focused sentences and block paragraphs—prose poems, maybe—give shape to moments of casual racism that stop time. Rankine dilates these moments so that we as readers are pulled in, made to experience a body and mind suffering a series of slights connected (in ways that shift and contradict each other) to an overwhelming history of oppression. Such encounters are staged as scenes of direct address: between the book’s black “you” (or often black—the you or “yous” can be complex and, again, shifting) and the white people encountered by this “you.” The dialogues gain force page by page, building a poisonous landscape of quotidian white privilege and white supremacy, split now and again by a piercing lyricism, and by Rankine’s insertion of visual art by various artists. This conceptual heterogeneity—a constant turning—creates an openness that can move from the lives of black artists and athletes to elegiac passages on the deaths of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson.
(To read it as a white person is also to feel a second “you,” a ghost at the margin: the knowledge that that question, that joke, that misidentification, was not taken the way you thought it was taken. Those stuck moments that you batted away or walked off were not the same ones experienced by the person of color who was there with you, not at all. The friendship that you thought you had was not the friendship that was. Although to frame things in this way is to move the story from black experience to white, and is another kind of failure.)
“Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastlightly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”
The body does have a memory, and parts of it long for expression in language, even as others fight it. This is a profound and relentless document, one that I suspect will be talked about for a long time.
Andy Daly, Scott Aukerman, and Jason Mantzoukas, Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast episode #274, “Oh, Golly!” (Earwolf)
(And here’s the reason that this list is unfashionably appearing in 2015, rather than late 2014 when the Vol. 1 eds wanted it: I had a three-paragraph gloss on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast locked and loaded a couple weeks back, but it just wasn’t conveying what I love about the show, and as the holidays passed, my tight little gloss metastasized into a 3,000-word think-piece about personal favorite guests James Adomian and Andy Daly and their very different improvisational styles. But that made for an even more unshapely year-end list than the one you’re reading—so for now I’m pre-plagiarizing just the “Oh, Golly!” section of that longer, notional essay.)
Andy Daly had a big 2014, transitioning from semi-ubiquitous supporting actor to star of one of the year’s best new shows, Comedy Central’s Review. Scott Aukerman and Jason Mantzoukas have also logged top-shelf television moments on the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV show and The League, respectively (and the three periodically guest on each other’s programs, which is a lot of fun). But television just can’t bring us to the far limits of their gifts the way that the CBB podcast does. When you’re working by voice alone—when there’s no visual, except whatever’s going on in the listener’s mind—you can make some pretty startling leaps. Sure, Daly’s character in Review can try on various accents and attitudes to life, but we see him: he doesn’t have the freedom he has in the podcast; he can’t actually be a nonogeneraian and a wingèd demon and a shape-shifting cardboard box and a series of eight or ten characters defenestrating themselves—not without a CGI budget several orders of magnitude higher than Review is working with (for evidence of Review’s effects budget, see their rather touchingly incompetent attempt to create the impression that a car drove off a cliff in the “Road Rage; Orgy” episode).
There is a very special, very wild chemistry among the three men—Aukerman and Mantzoukas kick things off, playing versions of themselves that are sometimes feuding, sometimes BFFs (and encumbered with the weight of whatever preposterous storyline zigs and zags from the previous ep had now become canonical); then, twenty minutes or so in, Daly shows up in the guise of a generally earnest and often ingratiating weirdo. And then shit goes bad. They’ve made classic episodes before, but the three have never been better than in “Oh, Golly!,” which creates in its 76 minutes running time a new mythology for—to borrow from True Detective (I’ll add that True Detective is also on my year-end list, but only those who read this Easter egg parenthetical will know it…)—the secret fate of all life.
“Oh, Golly!” unifies the stories of several years’ worth of Daly characters—cowboy poet Dalton Wilcox, theatrical producer and sociopathic lech Don DiMello, demonic former children’s gameshow host and candidate for honorary mayor of Hollywood Chip Gardner—along with the evolving narrative of Aukerman and Mantzoukas’s dark childhoods. All of this is accomplished in an episode that begins with Daly as a pair of rather unassuming new guests: upbeat, hapless, homeless entertainer Gil, and his ventriloquist’s dummy, Golly. From there, through an unbroken line of conversation, we learn of a sketchy booking agent, a murder club on international waters, the identity of Satan’s Supreme Commander, and also the identity of the Supreme Commander’s Supreme Commander, the source—in perpetuity!—of all evil in in the known and unknown universes.
I’ve listened to the episode probably a dozen times, pressed it on friends, even forced my brother listen to it all the way through starting at 2 AM one morning when I was in my cups. And even now, listening to it again, I am losing it at the sheer relish of Daly’s performance as the progressively menacing Golly. (A sampling of lines: “Sure I remember when we first met—it was a great time!” “Yep, It was far enough out where there was no jurisdiction.” “A boat full of guys who were suckered out onto what was supposed to be a whale watching expedition but turned out to be a MURDER CONTEST!” “I was a fish and I beckoned you into the waaater.”)
The episode ends on a cliff-hanger (OK, I’m going to paste in a bit more dialog, but you really need to hear Golly and company deliver it: Golly: “There is a great battle commencing between good and evil, it is not yet determined where the dead will go, to Heaven or to Hell!” Aukerman: “Wait, it’s almost as if Heaven and Hell are closed?” Golly: “Heaven and Hell are [stammers] currently temporarily closed!”). The sequel (“Oh, Golly! You Devil”), recorded several months later, is also wonderful, though now rather than building out a deranged universe, Daly is mostly playing defense and trying to impose some order out of the previous chaos—it’s essentially a showpiece for his improv and voice skills as Aukerman and Mantzoukas force him to cycle back and forth between fourteen characters who somehow, miraculously, tie up all, or most all, of the loose ends created in the previous episode, in an epic (sort of—you have to listen) battle between good and evil.
As a writer and editor who knows well the years that go into a book, it’s boggling to see the trio spin out in an hour or two enough good ideas to power entire (very strange, admittedly) novels. It can almost seem like a trick, except it’s too funny, too singular, to encompassing to be a trick.
Is “Oh, Golly!” the best podcast episode ever? The Andy Daly CBB episodes, considered as a whole, are as good as art gets, period. These guys are creators and destroyers of worlds, in real time, with Aukerman and Mantzoukas throwing conceptual obstacles and booby traps at Daly like sadistic Gamemakers fucking with Katniss, and Daly in turn diving into utterly bizarre premises and performing the wildest acrobatics and dodges, all the while assembling, like a magpie mad scientist, all that he can into a vast, death-haunted, baroque cartoon structure that casts its weird shadow over all the many divergent (yet side-by-side) worlds of the larger CBB-verse.
So those are three (four, wink) things I dug in 2014, and I’ll give the final word to Citizen, with a closing question for the new year (a question asked in other ways by Nobody Is Ever Missing and “Oh, Golly!”):
to surrender, dusk in dawn, held open, then closing, then opening, a red-tailed hawk, dusk at dawn, taking over blue, surveying movement , against the calm, red sky at morning,
whose are you?
Mark Doten is the author of the novel The Infernal, forthcoming from Graywolf Press. He wrote the libretto for The Source, an opera about Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, appearing on the New York Times list of best classical vocal performances of the year and Broadway World’s top 10 theatrical experiences of the year. He is senior editor at Soho Press, and he and author Adam Wilson are starting a literary podcast very soon. markdoten.com