What a riot, to have my preferences, views, and opinions profiled earlier this week at PJMedia. I included a comment that Liberty Island authors may be forming a school of Gargantuan writing and, since then, the phone’s been ringing off the hook–literally, as our VP would say–with people needing to know what I meant by that.
Rabelais records that Gargantua gestated for 11 months and was finally delivered after his mother overindulged on tainted tripe. His father was drinking and joking when "he heard the horrible cry made by his son when he entered the world, and bawled out for ‘Drink! Drink! Drink!’" The father replied, "What a big one you’ve got!’"–ostensibly referring to Gargantua’s appetite for fluid nourishment. So they named him "Gargantua" because it sounds like his father’s first words, in French: "Que grand tu as."
Many callers were also shocked that I said Gargantuan writing is in opposition to the style practiced at The New Yorker. If you’ve ever spent too much time in a doctor’s waiting room, you know that NYer fiction hews to the minimalist end of the spectrum. It tends toward introspection, delicacy, and ambiguity; in contrast, Gargantuan writing is loud, brash, and visceral.
Almost at random, I found a perfect example: Compare Steve Poling’s "Southern Fried Cthulhu" with a NYer piece called "Pending Vegan" by genius-grantee Jonathan Lethem.
"Pending Vegan" recounts the shame and horror experienced by Paul Espeseth when he has to accompany his wife and young daughters to SeaWorld. For Espeseth, the commercial environment including souvenirs and inspirational music is painful. Just looking at flamingoes is "like a casual round of cigarette burns to the rib cage, preceding a waterboarding."
The narrative follows Espeseth’s train of thought at length. He sees military people, "soldiers," with their "unfamiliar" children and "neglected" wives, and notes that "it was as if various civilian bodies had all been poured into the same unforgiving mold." The end point of Espeseth’s train of thought–I won’t say it’s the point of the story, because I’m not sure there is one–is that he thinks he really ought to become a vegan.
"Southern Fried Cthulhu" is 180 degrees different. This is a world where things happen. Instead of sitting on their duffs getting bummed out by performing orcas, the people in Poling’s tale are dealing with the equivalent of Leviathan from the Book of Job. With their town invaded, character is revealed through people’s actions in response to crisis.
It’s a clever bunch of rednecks, who are able to put the tools of their trade–duct tape, moonshine, chainsaws–to unexpected uses. Poling does not resort to stereotypes when talking about the military and does not judge based on body type: "He’d been in the Army and saw some heavy weather overseas that he never talked about. Will’s a big guy who you’d think was fat if you didn’t know better."
And he’s also open-minded about people’s diets. Like Rabelais’ tripe and sausage eaters, you could say that the characters in "Southern Fried Cthulhu" are enthusiastically omnivorous.
By coincidence, similar themes are apparent in several tales currently up at Liberty Island: "On the Trail of the Loathsome Swine," by Mike Baron; "The Son of San Idro" by Keith Korman; "Sacred Cows" by Ken Lizzi; and my own "Better Than Fresh Apricots."
If you like stories with characters who aren’t afraid to act in the eat-or-be-eaten world–which still exists, by the way–then Liberty Island’s the place for you.
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