Pylon – Read a Book

More books from 2011.

You & I by Padgett Powell

The very beginning of this book ran in McSweeney’s issue #15 under the title “Manifesto,” and it was the first thing I ever read by Padgett Powell. “Manifesto” was beyond bizarre: within the first few sentences, the prospect of a lard and hair sandwich is discussed by two unnamed speakers, who seem to both rest comfortably on the border between whimsicality and dementia. You & I is 182 pages of those unnamed speakers talking to each other, taunting each other, comforting each other. The book is beyond funny, somewhat philosophical, occasionally infuriating. One of the most impressive things, to me, about Powell’s writing is the way he slowly turns a topic that is patently absurd or nonsensical into a situation (or, more likely in this book, a discussion of a situation) that is affecting in the extreme. There’s a technique that he uses where he will make a slight, non sequitur mention of something, move on to another topic, and then return full-force to the topic he mentioned, which might seem a little deceptive, but it’s extremely effective and in the service of providing the reader an emotional jolt. One example of this comes pretty early in the book, when one of the two unnamed speakers mentions a child counting to one hundred and then stopping herself to yell out, “I love forty-four.” The speaker who tells the anecdote says, “That was a unique moment in the child’s life, and in mine.” That gets mentioned almost in passing, framed as a throwaway anecdote, and then much later in the book the unnamed speaker talks about one’s own daughter coming to look through his things after he’s died, and for that daughter to see:

our effects, our toys, books, how many or few shoes we had, observe how worn or not worn or how pitiful they are (in my old man’s case it was about nine or seven pairs of Hushpuppies identical except in their pastel colors), put it all in boxes, locate the will, call some people. Feel sad. Go on her way….

You, for example, you even wrote some of the books this daughter will handle. What is she to do with them?

She should put them with the others and be done and they be gone. I was a sad sack, end of chapter. I like that. I’d like a drink

That is moving on its own, but another part of this that’s interesting is that the book itself is dedicated to Powell’s daughter, “who loved forty-four,” and Powell has said in a recent interview, when asked who is doing the narrating or talking in his books, that “c’est moi. It’s always c’est moi.” There are a number of moments like the above throughout You & I, which is filled with expressions of regret, solid and unsentimental thoughts on aging and dying and becoming feeble, and meditations on what it means to be a man, or be seen as a man, and how that has changed a lot in the past thirty or forty years. I’m making it sound like a dour book though, and it’s anything but that–what it is mostly is funny, with at least one or two great jokes on every page. There are many instances of spontaneous creation of new proper nouns and people from thin air–for instance when one speaker states: “Today we are becalmed, as we are daily becalmed,” and from that comes the sentence, “Becalmed is our middle name,” and eventually the creation of an uncle named Studio Becalmed, who becomes a recurring character in the book, a man (Studio) who enjoyed an affair with Jayne Mansfield and owned a dog named Final Alps of Heaven. This book and Tristram Shandy were the funniest things I read this year. You & I, which is out now in the UK, will be released as You & Me in North America some time in the summer of 2012.

You can read a long excerpt from the book in Little Star issue #1 ($4 for the PDF).

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