Don’t Try This at Home
George Singleton’s Novel tests the boundaries of fiction
by Jeanne McDonald
If you’re a rational person, you’d assume that Novel, by George Singleton (Harcourt, Inc., $24) is a work of fiction, like all other novels. But here’s where the confusion comes in. Although Novel is the title of Singleton’s book, it’s also the name of the narrator, so it’s difficult to determine whether Novel refers to the narrator or the novel itself, generically speaking. To make things even more complicated, Novel the narrator is supposedly writing a novel, and although he thinks about writing a lot, any literary fragments he comes up with remain mostly in limbo, probably because he spends most of his time in an alcoholic stupor and depression over his failed marriage.
Perhaps, however, we are better off without Novel’s novel, especially when the best he can come up with is, for example, “My memoir Novel could begin: Since pickling is a preservative, the townspeople of Gruel and I attempted to can our brains forever.” Or, “I thought to myself, Do not forget to call your memoir Aping the Fancy Metronome .”
And after Novel the narrator has failed at every other enterprise–holding onto his wife, Bekah, opening the Gruel Sneeze ’n’ Trim weight loss enterprise in an abandoned motel, driving the Viper Mobile to schools and retirement homes, writing inappropriate speeches for the lieutenant governor of South Carolina, and with fake credentials, launching the Gruel Inn Writers Retreat—all he has left is writing a novel, which should, by all reasonable measures, be called an autobiography. But nothing about Novel Akers is reasonable, not even halfway. Except–wait!–the Gruel Sneeze ’n’ Trim weight loss program is sort of successful, until the hefty women flocking to Gruel begin to weigh on Novel’s nerves. This undertaking involves piping sneeze-inducing odors like White Linen perfume, sweatsock-potpourri-1950, or library-book/ammonia-filled-catlitter into the women’s motel rooms until they begin to sneeze so forcefully that the pounds begin to melt. And guess what? Business even increases when the ladies discover that excessive sneezing induces an overwhelming orgasmic reaction, a side effect that keeps the motel rooms filled for months.
All this is weird enough, but then there’s Novel’s name. Before he was born, his parents adopted two children, supposedly Irish. They named them James and Joyce, so it seems almost prophetic, doesn’t it, that when another boy came along, they called him Novel. Get it? James Joyce Novel. And years later, when his parents went outside to call their children in for dinner—”James! Joyce! Novel!”—the neighbors began to yell in response “ Ulysses !” or “ Finnegans Wake !” But what else can you expect from two people who pour all their money into a project injecting crayfish with beef flavoring for people who don’t like seafood?
I’m not saying that Novel Akers is the only crazy person in Gruel, S.C., not by a long shot. There’s Maura Lee Snipes, who comes for the Sneeze ’n’ Slim program, gets skinny and opens a bakery whose specialty is Jesus Crust, bread injected with lamb’s blood; Larry and Barry, the art forgers; bar owner Jeff Downer, whose philosophies are almost as off-the-wall as Novel’s; and countless others. And if things aren’t bizarre enough, Novel discovers that for years, the townspeople have been hiding a deep, dark secret from him. Even his skill at deductive reasoning, gleaned from a graduate school course called “When Statesmen Refuse What Seems to Be Apparent, and How” can’t help him figure out the puzzle.
So, is George Singleton, the author of Novel , schizophrenic? Possibly. Is he a madman or an alien? It would seem so. For starters, look at the cover of this book, which features a jackalope perched on the letters V and E of the title type on a background field stained with the rings of coffee cups. And what about his previous books–The Half-Mammals of Dixie, and Why Dogs Chase Cars: Tales of a Beleaguered Boyhood . He reads like a surrealistic Roy Blount but with more literary allusions and deeper introspection. Really. And he has a vast vocabulary, including an enormous store of vulgarities and obscene expressions. But there is no doubt that George Singleton is a very funny man and that Novel is a very funny book. Toward the end, though, such weird things happen that we begin to wonder whether Mr. Singleton has been into some of that stuff that Novel Akers is addicted to, but that doesn’t stop us from going along for the ride.
Whoever wrote the publicity synopsis for Novel says it best: “There’s a novel somewhere inside Novel , but it’s buried under the gags, many of which are just about irresistible.”
George Singleton will read from his book on Aug. 28, 2 p.m. at Carpe Librum Bookstore.