Monday, March 16, 2009

The pleasurable act of imagining

Another Southern collaboration, with Mason Hoffenberg, produced the novel Candy, in which Voltaire’s iconic innocent Candide is reconceived as a dim but preternaturally sexy small town girl who travels far (and wide) and finds her ultimate happiness in a very preverse manner. On his own, Terry Southern is perhaps best known for the novel The Magic Christian, a less transcendent but intermittently brilliant lampoon of human greed. Both of these stories became not-so-great movies, their wild imaginativeness stunted by a medium that Southern may have had too much confidence in, after experiencing it at its best with Kubrick. Later interviews with him indicate that he saw the medium to which he’d hitched his fortunes with a very jaded eye.

That’s why you need to read the stories. Southern’s short stories, both satirical and “serious,” are distinguished by prose mastery, subtlety and a truly mind-blowing range of genre and subject matter, possibly unique in U.S. fiction, from the magic realism avant la lettre of a Texas dirt farmer battling a mythical sea-monster in his melon patch, through the minutely examined lives of tragically hip expatriates in Paris, and insider views of the French working class, to the anomie and casual sadism of disaffected young boys. Whether the boys in these stories are in south Texas (where Southern grew up) or New York City, the dialogue is always pitch perfect and the milieu is coolly exact.

...Southern, somewhat like his contemporary Lenny Bruce, was fascinated with our night-selves, the unexpurgated utterers of all that language that narrow-minded ideologues of all stripes tend to fear and despise. This marks him as a spirit impossibly out of synch with our times, but quintessential in his own. The stuff he dredged up out of the mid-20th century psyche has all seen the light of day many times over now; concupiscence among the powerful and repressed no longer has the power to shock most of us. Incest, necrophilia, coprophagy, whatever: it’s a commonplace of 24-7 news feeds. And yet, in some way because the times demanded it, Terry Southern made his own uniquely delicious froth out of it all, that’s still tasty today. And still radical, even if it doesn’t shock. (The two qualities are often confused.) Why? Because he forces us to permit ourselves to imagine anything, and his wild and generous humor shows us what a pleasurable act such imagining can be.

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