Posts Tagged ‘Satire’

LAUGHING UNTIL WE CRY

A recent comic strip in the San Francisco Chroniclerelated to a matter I discussed with a stand-up comic at last Sunday’s annual Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park. Our chat yielded an interesting but dark observation.

Wiley Miller’s “Non Sequitur” panel presents a man in blue overalls, white tee shirt and red baseball cap, which in front might have read Make America Great. He stands, pen in hand, before a large sign: Entrance Exam. Behind it is an angel at a velvet rope. Another—God? St. Peter?—sits at a tall desk and holds a quill pen.

The man must answer a single question to enter heaven: Nazis are (check one) good, bad. The man appears stumped. The seated angel/God/St. Peter asks, “Remember when this was the easiest test in the universe?”

Most readers get Miller’s take on Donald Trump’s comment following the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over a year ago: There were “some very fine people on both sides.”

You may not laugh, but Miller’s humor bites. Satirizing the powerful, especially when they are inane, represents a necessary act of protest. Will Miller’s panel change the outcome of November’s midterm elections? Lead to Trump’s leaving the White House? Likely it will be forgotten—but, added to all the humor out there, could prove the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As to the discussion: Jill Maragos is a stand-up comic who performed at Comedy Day along with dozens of others. As always, I enjoyed her brief set. She’s a funny woman booking gigs around the country.

When I saw her backstage, Trump came up as a subject for stand-up. Jill doesn’t think he’s a good one. I see her point. Not that I couldn’t write material for myself: Have you noticed that Trump’s hair matches the pale yellow sofa in the Oval office? Did the White House order new fabric dyed to match the president’s hair? Or did Trump like the sofa’s color so much, he ordered his stylist to match it?

But including Trump in a stand-up routine performed over time can’t replicate the skewering by late-night TV hosts and Saturday Night Live. They enjoy the advantage of timeliness. A team of writers takes off on some Trumpism that hit the news that day or that week—something specific and fresh in people’s minds.

Generalized material doesn’t work so well. Jill supplied an appropriate (a word missing from Trump’s vocabulary and behavior) reason. Audiences have had enough of him. It’s not that they necessarily stop getting the news. It’s that the situation is so horrific, stand-ups have to pick their spots.

Satiric comic strips and editorial cartoons remain important. Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and SNL also will keep firing away. Trump will express his displeasure. Buffoons and blowhards—one president can be both—hate being laid bare like the emperor in his new “clothes” portrayed in the Hans Christian Andersen story.

Trump’s low approval ratings indicate that more Americans view him not as the king he pretends to be but as the court jester. But unlike as in Shakespeare or Game of Thrones, the audience has discovered that within the ignoble body of this fool lies an ignoble heart. That observation may draw a wry smile but not likely a laugh.

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FACT FOLLOWS FICTION

Is Starbucks ripping me off? Is a giant corporation picking on—or more accurately, picking the brains of—a little guy? Is the announcement made by Starbucks last Tuesday—which turns fiction into fact—just a coincidence?

Fact: Starbucks will launch its first store in Colombia, the South American coffee-growing nation that gave us Juan Valdez. They’ll open in Bogotá in 2014.

Fact: My last novel, San Café, tells the satiric story of a retail coffee giant, Mobys. It’s pure fiction. But what does that mean? Fiction—even fantasy—reflects the world in which we live and particularly human nature. As it happens, Mobys enters its one-hundredth country by opening a store in the Republic of San Cristo, a coffee-dominated nation nicknamed San Café. Moreover, Mobys has major interests in San Cristo, just as Starbucks is involved in Colombia’s coffee industry.

Fact: I was first with the concept of a giant coffee company finally opening a store in a nation, which supplies many of its beans.

Fact: Starbucks’ marketing staff hasn’t thanked me for the inspiration—or even offered a token of its appreciation. Cash would be nice. A gift card would do. Of course, selling San Café in all its stores would really show good faith.

I’m not saying that I’ll sue. But the parallels are, shall we say, interesting. As of 2012, Starbucks had 18,000 locations worldwide with 200,000-plus employees. Revenues totaled $13.3 billion. Mobys? I quote San Café: “Mobys’ operations, even after a modest restructuring, included 15,000 owned or licensed stores, kiosks and in-home dispensaries. If [Chairman Whitman] Scharq was proud of anything, it was soccer moms, stay-home dads and stuck-in-the-job-search unemployed of all demographics hustling a little extra cash by selling coffee out of their garages and living rooms.”

Alas, I’m not at liberty to reveal Mobys’ number of employees, revenues or the status of its Yo Mobys! and ¡Mobys Aquí! handcarts promoting capitalism in the nation’s ghettos and barrios. Even fictional corporations have their secrets.

Fact: Starbucks sells a variety of products and owns Tazo Tea, Seattle’s Best Coffee and the La Boulange bakery chain. Mobys licenses logo-imprinted jewelry, school supplies, underwear, children’s toys and auto accessories. It also offers religious items to mega-church gift shops.

But wait. This Mobys information isn’t fact. It’s fiction. It just feels like fact. Because fact and fiction tend to merge—in either direction.

So maybe I’m being a little dramatic. Maybe Starbucks’ Chairman Howard Schultz bears no resemblance to Whitman “The Great Whit” Scharq. Maybe Starbucks doesn’t run the government of Colombia. Maybe no bodies will show up in and around Bogotá as a response to Starbucks’ looming presence.

But, if Starbucks sends a retired Special Forces officer to honcho the security of the new store… if a leftist revolutionary who loves gourmet cooking announces he’s seeking the nation’s presidency… if Starbucks is cooking up an alternative energy source based on coffee… and if Schultz announces that the Pope will cut the ribbon at the Bogotá grand opening… the graffiti is on the wall. That’s my story.

And I’m sticking to it.

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To all of you observing the Jewish High Holy Days, I wish you a New Year (5774) of health, fulfillment and peace.

Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com. 

TWO HUNDRED PAGES

Nothing turns a writer’s thoughts to what constitutes a good novel than launching a new novel of his own. This weekend I’m launching San Café—about revolution, murder, betrayal and a great cup of coffee. As to how novels are judged—and misjudged—a recent conversation proved revealing.

A friend, who knows literature well, showed me a novel she was reading. It had achieved critical success and doubtless earned the author reasonable financial reward. So I was surprised when my friend revealed, “It took me two hundred pages to get into it. But that’s just me. I have a friend who only needed a hundred pages.”

How, I asked myself, can novelists and publishers succeed when they often dare their readers to become engaged? The literary marketplace seems continually to be flooded with critically acclaimed books that leave me wondering about an “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome. Over the last several months, three novels had me wondering indeed.

A woman long deemed one of America’s great contemporary writers authored the first. My wife liked it, although she said it took a long time to get into it. I failed to take the hint. I started reading. Great opening—for four or five pages. After that, nothing much happened. The story petered out. After slogging through fifty pages, I put it away.

I started another novel, this by a woman hailed as one of today’s great young American writers. The book was nominated for prestigious awards and made the New York Times bestseller list. I began with high hopes. I discovered a distinctive voice, clever language and quirky characters. But where was the conflict? After sixty pages waiting for something to actually happen, I abandoned ship. (My wife didn’t get as far as I did.)

So I started a novel by a man with a solid literary reputation built over more than three decades. Terrific opening. And then…

Aristotle wrote, “Plot is character revealed by action.” Scott Fitzgerald followed up with, “Character is plot, plot is character.” They got it. So, by the way, did Karl Marlantes, author of the justifiably acclaimed Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, which I mentioned last week in “Snake Eyes.”

I hope that with San Café I got it, too. I write satire—San Café is geopolitical satire set in Central America—because I love humor and puncturing pretentions. I also love quirky characters. But most of all, I love telling stories. So I filled San Café, like Slick! before it (same protagonist but set in the Persian Gulf) with interesting twists and turns and lots of surprises.

I invite you to read the first three chapters of San Café at davidperlstein.com. It’s free. Should you want your very own soft-cover or digital copy—this is my blog; I can flog my books all I want—just go to iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com. You can even see me.

This I promise. You won’t need two hundred pages to get into San Café. And you’ll only have to read 252 pages to get out.

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