Thursday, March 11, 2010

Can you break up with someone you've never met?

Can a book be both existential and light?

Is the phrase "an existential romp" an oxymoron?
Readers of Martin Page's The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection may be inclined to answer those questions in the affirmative.

Who knew existential ennui could be such riotous good fun?

The premise of Discreet Pleasures is simple and outlandish: Virgil returns home one day from his unfulfilling work at the Svengali Advertising Agency to a message on his answering machine:

Virgil, it's Clara. I'm sorry, but I'd rather stop here. I'm leaving you, Virgil. I'm leaving you.

Etiquette experts argue that one must respect one's partner by breaking up in person, but the method of Clara's breakup is of only minor importance. Because Virgil doesn't know or can't remember who Clara is. In essence, he's been dumped by an apparition.

The incident sets Virgil on a journey of self-discovery (as the blurbists like to put it) in which, at least initially, he does indeed experience the "pleasures" of "rejection." He tells all his friends (exclusively women) that he's yet again been dumped and suddenly he's the center of attention. They dote on him, feed him, pat his back, encourage him, compliment him. This is fun for awhile.

But eventually Virgil begins to ask another question: Why do all my relationships, even the ones I've never got to enjoy, end in sorrow?

Book Serf caught up with Martin Page (via the wonders of the internets) and asked the Parisian satirist (his How I Became Stupid was described as a "modern day Candide") the following questions:

BS: What is the secret, do you think, in getting readers to buy into such a fantasical premise?

MP: The secret? Hmm. Difficult for me to think that there’s a secret.

BS: How does one make believable a character who does things none of us would do?

MP: Well, that’s the kind of thing I do. It's a normal, regular way of thinking for me. So what’s unrealistic for most people is in fact a daily thing for me.

But you are right: there's a challenge in making a bizarre idea realistic. My point was not to write a surrealistic novel, but to write a novel about love. The bizarre beginning is a catch. It's a way to amaze the main character, Virgil, and to create excitement. And the reader of course. And to let me follow my ideas.
BS: Can you talk a little bit about pitch? It seems to me that you -- ie, the narrator -- has to strike just the right tone, a certain dead-pan delivery that makes the farce come alive.

MP: Yes, it's very important for me, that deadpan sense of humor. The more you play it seriously, the more profound and intelligent it is. It's always more intersting when amazing and crazy things are underplayed. Because then we see the farce (and the uncanny) as a part of our lives. It shows the strange unreality of reality.

BS: If you met Virgil in real life, do you think you would like him?

MP: That’s a difficult question, because Virgil is pretty much a self-portrait of me. So if I met myself in real life, there's a chance I would be a little upset, because I would see all my defects.

BS: Your narrator and Virgil both have wide-ranging interests, from the history of advertising in the Western world to the invention of the CAT scan machine and catafalques! Can you talk about the structure of your book and its inclusive, digressive, polymathic (is that even a word?) nature?

MP: I try to write novels that are polysemic. You can read them on different levels. If you want to read this one as a simple bizarre comedy, you can. If you want to read it as a reflection on love, you can. If you want to read that as a reflection on memory, you can.

I like digression. That's why I adore books like Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and Montaigne's essays. Something that seems to be a detour is in fact telling us something about the main subject. A digression is not unbounded, it's not without purpose. It's connected to the subject, it gives it some ornaments (which are great and beautiful things) that mean something (even if you don't notice that at first).

BS: What are the things that you most enjoy about Oscar Wilde? What could contemporary writers learn from him?

MP: Wilde is an underestimated writer. People talk about him mostly as the king of paradox (and of course Chesterton is the prince of paradox). They say he’s very witty, but that he wrote quotes more than works of art. But he's a complex writer. There's a journey between The Picture of Dorian Gray and De Profundis. And I like that journey, the diversity, the variety of work. Most of all, I like him because he's light and profound, sad and full of joy, tragic and comic. It's more than a philosophy of litterature, it's an ethic: to live and to write.

BS: Do you share Virgil's complicated views of Paris ?

MP: Totally. It's my own words. Paris is not an easy city to understand.

BS: My favorite line from Raymond Chandler is from Farewell, My Lovely, where the narrator says, "She was so cold spumoni wouldn't have melted on her." I read an interview in which you identified similarities between The Long Goodbye and your latest novel. Can you elaborate on that? And, what's your favorite Chandler line?

MP: Farewell, My Lovely is a great novel. I like the idea that a novel is an investigation. At the end the hero is not exactly the same — now life may begin. I think noirs and dectective novels give us a very interesting structure on which to build "literary" or "classic" novels. There's a lot to be learned from them. The Long Good-Bye is that kind of quest. And it's a beautiful book about Los Angeles.

BS: What are you working on now?

MP: A graphic novel, a comic book (comic strips in the tradition of Schultz's Peanuts), a novel for teenagers, and an essay about my father.


  1. Thanks for sharring importent information in this blog.
    It was very nice.
    Forum sitesi
    ask flashlari

  2. I found your blog interesting and useful. I added your blog to my favorites and i will come to visit again tomorrow. I have a blog about how to get him back after a break up :)