The Talkative Corpse: A Love Letter
Chicago: Hopeless Books, 2014
Grim Reaper: “Shut up, you American. You Americans, all you do is talk, and talk, and say “let me tell you something” and “I just wanna say.” Well, you’re dead now, so shut up.”
Having already said, in my review of Ann Sterzinger’s Girl Detectives, that I looked forward to reading her subsequent books, which I had been told were even better, I suppose I have only myself to blame for finding her sophomore effort, The Talkative Corpse, to be a disappointing follow-up.
The Talkative Corpse gives us a record of a few months in the life of one “Johnny Jaggo” — a pseudonym, he helpfully and characteristically informs us, based on “what my time has made of me”: a ‘jagoff’ being “Chicago dialect for ‘a lump loved by himself alone.’” Johnny in short is a loser, but of a peculiarly Millenial sort, being, as they say, overeducated for his work, and overworked for his education.
Specifically, he has a “bachelor’s degree in history — with a minor in archeology and a certificate in accounting — from a shitty public college;” while his job, though it involves what used to be called “manning” the phones at a pizza joint, makes him one of the staff contingent known as “the phone girls.”
Perhaps inspired by his archeological interests, Jaggo has decided to accomplish at least one thing before his sinks into oblivion: he will leave a record, wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer, for what will turn out to be future scholars of “pre-Blast” North America.
The faux-future commentary on a manuscript from our time device seemed promising, for either social commentary or academic spoofing, but it’s soon abandoned, by both fictional narrator and author, except for a few moments when they seemingly remember it and make a few limp gestures towards speaking to “the future” or vainly footnoting the unintelligible present/past. An author with a serious interest in ideas, rather than in documenting contemporary character types merely because they exist, as well as a feeling for the way the past remains present and recoverable, such as Colin Wilson, can not only maintain the “future past” illusion with a few deft touches here and there, but also make it a theme of the work itself, such as his novels The Mind Parasites or The Philosopher’s Stone.
Soon after the whole writing to the future gambit fades out, however, things get interesting again when Jaggo drunkenly invokes an elemental spirit — a sort of combination of Harvey the Pookah, Ratso Rizzo, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink — named Bertram.
Apparently, “petty little fuckers” like our boy Jaggo don’t get to summon proper demons; those of little soul get little elementals, “manifestations” called Animani, just powerful enough to fulfill
“The usual little-shit request. ‘REVENGE, you skronked, just after stumbling through an incantation and just before falling over like a sequoia, dressed just as you are,” He yanked on the sleeve of my dirty white “pirate” shirt. “[T]hen I don’t have to live in this shithole apartment with you anymore or look at your face, with which I am already frankly sick to my already-tricky bowels.” Bertram grimaced; a long dollop of wax drooped from his ear canal to the rest on his cheek.
Here we go, I thought, more of that wonderful wackiness, part Wodehouse, part Marquez, that I had found here and there in The Girl Detectives. For example, here’s Bertram’s exit, stage left even:
He gave me a last look, broke into a grin. Then a salute, of all things, his floppy paw cocked jauntily alongside his obscene antennae. And then he turned into a burning whirlwind again and went racing for the stairwell, shrieking faintly: “Thanks for all the beer, pal!”
Of course, we already know Jaggo has a plethora of candidates for fatal payback for his shitty life, so this would seem to be a pretty good deal that he’s “drunk-[inter]netted” his way into, but Jaggo being Jaggo, there’s a catch; even the Animani have a “code of honor” and “sacred vows to the Universe” which require that
“[W]e find somebody you love, and we kill them too. Kinda . . . payment. Yin and Yang, give and take . . . but all in all you lose, you stupid Goth!”
So from here on in it’s a matter of how Jaggo can deal with new hates — his new economic exploiters, The Prick and the She-Beast — and an unexpected new love — the equally hapless “personal assistant” May — without too many of the wrong people dying in a fiery cataclysm that seems to prefigure the Big Blast that comes between Jaggo and his future scholars.
Although Jaggo’s plight — modern society has precious little use for talented outsiders in the best of times, and in the New Normal, the Greater Depression, their lot is worse than serfdom — has a certain ripped from the headlines intensity, and even bears, I admit, a close resemblance to my own, Sterzinger doesn’t really have any new insights to offer here, and the fault may lie with the Jaggos themselves:
Although I’m irrationally excited about this project, I don’t feel like I have that much to say right now. Goddammit, I don’t want to just talk about my own sad dull existence. You’re not going to learn much, Future, from the time-traveling memoir of a hopeless man; hopelessness is timeless, and boring by definition . . . .
I would beseech Ms. Sterzinger, in all seriousness — and in hope of not being viewed by my own future scholars as a brother to those critics who told Melville to “keep writing those sea yarns and leave off the metaphysics” — to leave off her pursuit of the “serious” novel, and indulge that Wodehousian vein we know she wants to indulge and does so well. It sure didn’t hurt Wodehouse’s reputation. And after all, that is what we, the Jaggos of the world, need right now.
1. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
2. I’m fascinated by how when Casino is broadcast on “basic cable” the word jaggoff, itself a euphemism, is nevertheless censored. It’s an instance of the process where a euphemism becomes useless because everyone knows what you mean anyway — like “challenged” for “crippled,” or the way “homosexual” becomes “gay” and then “gay” becoming an insult — much to the consternation of Liberals, whose modus operandi is to change reality by changing words..
3. More fun with euphemisms!
4. Since her publisher’s saw a Wodehousian spirit in her first book, is this the only explicit Wodehouse reference yet? If so, I suppose we may take “Jaggo” to be the modern Jeeves, with the roles ironically reversed, Bertram being the literally preternaturally competent servant, “Jaggo” the useless twit. It could also be a commentary on “Jaggo’s” economic uselessness and unrecognized wisdom (to hear him tell it); to be a “manservant” might seem degrading to today’s hipsters, but the vibrant economy of pre-War England provided plenty of such hands-on jobs and stable social status, allowing commoners who were “clever-worthy” (as the future scholars call it) to thrive, unlike today’s every man for himself Randianism..
5. Continuing the Wodehousing wordplay: MANifestation, AniMANi; men of Jeeves’ generation would be MANservants MANning the phones, while today’s economy makes “phone girls” out of Jaggos.
6. It’s true, we have the power to do this! But that would directly oppose the law of the universe! The law of the galaxy!” — MST3k, Episode 820, Space Mutiny.
7. That even a certificate in accounting is useless today is both characteristic of the New Normal and comforting to the likes of Your Reviewer who didn’t even have the gumption to get one.