Sunday, February 15, 2009

Eye M A Detective

With 59 episodes to his credit, John Swartzwelder has written more episodes of The Simpsons than anyone else. Among other episodes, he's the man responsible for Bart Gets and Elephant ("In theory, Communism works. In theory"), Homer's Enemy ("Pigs tend to chew") and Radioactive Man ("Oh my God, you've killed the original Alfalfa!"). If you read about the history of The Simpsons, or listen to the DVD commentary tracks, you've probably heard that Swartzwelder is a recluse -- he doesn't like having his picture taken or taking part in public Simpsons events -- and he left the show in 2003. I don't think it's a coincidence that the quality of the show has been in a pretty steady decline since then (some would say longer, but I happen to think the show's good years lasted longer than most people).

Since 2003, John Swartzwelder has been writing novels. The novels look like this:

There have been five of them so far, they are all as bland looking as this, they're published by some company called Kennydale Books, and they can only be bought on-line. My wife got me the first three -- the title pictured above, Double Wonderful, and How I Conquered Your Planet -- for Valentine's Day (I got her a bunch of grapes), and because the length of these novels appear to top out at around 150 pages, I decided to go right ahead and read the first one.

The first one is The Time Machine Did It, and it tells the story of Frank Burly (real name Edward R. Torgeson, Jr.), a private detective who is, by his own admission, terrible at his job, and prefers to not work that hard at it:

The kind of case I like is where I've just deposited my retainer in the bank and I turn around and there's the missing person I've been hired to find and I say something like 'hey your horseshit wife is looking for you' and he says something like 'No kidding! Thanks for the tip. I'll call her up right now'. And the case is solved. That's the kind of case I like.

The Time Machine Did It is not about one of those cases, however. No, in this instance, Burly's client is Thomas Dewey Mandible III, an apparently homeless man who claims to have been the richest man in town just the night before, but now his entire fortune, including his house, back accounts and stocks have been stolen ("Sounds like a very serious robbery you had there," says Frank). The only thing Mandible wishes to hire Frank to retrieve, though, is a small statue of "Justice Holding the Scales", which he says is a family heirloom. Not sure how this homeless man is going to pay his fee, Frank nevertheless agrees, and the plot is off and running.

But for Swartzwelder, the plot only exists to be made fun of -- in fact, everything in the novel exists only to be made fun of -- so spending any more time on summarizing it would be time wasted. Suffice it to say, the first half of the novel involves Frank using more-or-less traditional methods of detection. For instance, at one point he consults a man who fences stolen goods with whom he has had contact in the past:

The first person I went to see was a fence I knew named Frank. Frank the Fence, we used to call him. Then we'd laugh a little, because there were two 'F's in there.

And so on. Eventually, Burly discovers that the town's criminal element has gotten hold of a time machine, which is shaped like a briefcase and was invented by a local scientist, and used that technology to ruin the Mandible name and fortune before it was even really made, and the reasons for all of this are discovered in the book's second half, which deals with Frank's largely accidental adventures along the space/time continuum His first temporal jaunt takes him to 1941 (he doesn't know it, but that's when all the important parts of the plot actually happened). When he realizes that he has traveled over 60 years backwards through time, he has a very hard time believing it, and goes about seeking proof. First, he buys a calendar off a "calendar boy", whose wares further indicate that he is in 1941. But that's not enough for him:

I walked up to some people who were filming a movie on the street and asked Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart what year it was and they both confirmed the date I had been told before. When I was leaving, shaking my head with amazement, I heard the director say: "Wait, maybe we should leave it in. Maybe it's great." But then some other guy say: "Naw, it stinks." And they started re-shooting the scene.

As I said before, the plot of this novel exists to be mocked, and therefore very little of what transpires in the second half of the novel actually serves to move the narrative forward. It's mostly just jokes -- one absurdist, dead-pan and frequently hilarious joke after another. For instance, after traveling to 1941, Frank managed to lose the time machine, and so, shortly after his encounter with Bogart, he decides to find out if anyone can simply build him a new one. He consults a "likely looking mechanic".

"It's shaped like a briefcase," I told him, "but that's only part of the story. It's also got all sorts of wheels and blinking lights and things inside. As illustrated here. Because it's a time machine as well as a briefcase. It's two things in one."

The mechanic gives building the thing a whirl, but the resulting gizmo only manages to knock Burly unconscious for five hours. Furious, he goes back to confront the mechanic.

"...This is a lemon. I'm not paying you for this. Do they have a Better Business Bureau in this time period?"

[The mechanic] hesitated for a moment, moved sideways to the left to block my view of something, then said, no, there wasn't one. Lucky for him.

This is easily one of the most ridiculous books I've ever read. I'm not even sure it counts as an actual novel. It's roughly a novel in length, and everything in it is made up, thereby qualifying it as a work of fiction, but there aren't any genuine characters as you and I understand such things to exist and function in works of art, or a story that follows any kind of logic, or anything. It's actually just a bunch of jokes. Really, really funny jokes. From where I stand, jokes seem to be getting much less funny these days, so the idea that there's a guy like Swartzwelder out there, who wants only to make you laugh, and is able to do so without making endless pop culture references or playing for applause milked from his audience and their political philosophies, is a very rare and welcome thing.


Ed Howard said...

I've never heard of these before, but they sound great to me, Bill. From your descriptions, it sounds a bit like Douglas Adams' hilarious Dirk Gently books (Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul), which are also about a detective whose methods of investigation are fairly blase.

bill r. said...

Ed, there is a tiny bit of Dirk Gently in here, but just a bit. Adams was about jokes and idea, but Swartzwelder is just about jokes. And blase as Gently was, he was stills mart. Burly's an idiot.

bill r. said...

By the way, I've now proofred this post, several hours after originally writing it, and hopefully all -- but more likely only "most" -- of the redundancies and typos and flat-out bad writing have been removed or re-written. Thank you all for not making fun of me.

Greg said...

Not all typos. There's "lenght" instead of "length" and the title is alternately The Time Machine Did it or The Time Machine Exploded.

I want to do an Invisible Edge novel like these. I'm contacting Kennydale books tomorrow.

bill r. said...

Man, when I don't feel like posting, I don't proofread at all. Oh well. Anyway, fixed!

Jonathan, I think you might enjoy these books (or this one, anyway). I think it might be your kind of humor, what with you being such a Simpsons fan, and all.

Fox said...

" 'Do they have a Better Business Bureau in this time period?'

HAHA... love that. This book seems like the perfect palette cleanser for any era where - you're right - jokes seem less funny.

Fox said...

Is Lapper TKOFYH's official ombudsman?

bill r. said...

Fox, they are a good pallette cleanser, especially if you're reading a lot of Philip Roth at the moment, as I am. I wanted to read something funny, and Swartzwelder certainly did the trick. You can get these books on Amazon, by the way, if anyone's interested.

I don't mind Jonathan pointing out the typos, because I find them embarrassing, and it gives me a chance to fix them.

Speaking of Lapper, was he serious about contacting Kennydale books? I wonder...

Fox said...

I don't know... but the style of The Invisible Edge sure does seem to fit with that style.

I hope he thanks us in the acknowledgements section.

John Self said...

Hey! Philip Roth is funny. The Anatomy Lesson was a laugh riot. In a sense.

Interesting that Ed made the Douglas Adams connection, as I thought of him too when you mentioned how it was all jokes. Adams at times dismissed the early Hitchhikers books as "just jokes" which to be honest I broadly agree with. He's much better in his prose and in his ideas in the Dirk Gently books.

bill r. said...

John - Yes, Roth is funny, but sometimes I prefer my humor to be just a little less despairing and cynical than the kind that Roth is willing or able to provide.

I agree with your take on Adams, though I would just add that, counter-intuitively, the better writer he becamse, the less funny he also became. Although it's been a long time since I've read anything by him at all, so maybe I'm being not only unfair, but also wrong. I would actually really like to go back to his Dirk Gently books, because if I were coming to Adams for the first time now, those would be the ones I'd naturally drift towards first.

Greg said...

Speaking of Lapper, was he serious about contacting Kennydale books? I wonder...

If only somebody really would pay me to publish.

I hope he thanks us in the acknowledgements section.

I'd never forget you guys ever. When I make it big you're all coming with me. That's the kind of big promise you can make when you know you're never going to actually make it big.

Ed Howard said...

I really like all of Adams' books, including the whole Hitchhiker series -- they got less funny as they went along, but I found that the increasing poignancy and depth of the story compensated for the decreased humor. It was pretty bleak by the end, which makes it very interesting to read the whole thing as a continuous work: it goes from madcap humor to a sad, apocalyptic finale.

That said, the Dirk Gently books are probably his best work, especially Teatime of the Soul, which as a kid I always loved because I was kind of a dork who was obsessed with Norse mythology to begin with, and I loved all the references packed into that book.

And I would totally buy an Invisible Edge book; that'd be great. In all seriousness you should pursue something like that, Jonathan. You have a real gift for satirical and comedic writing.

Greg said...

Thanks Ed, I'm flattered. I'm also blushing right now and pulling up my virtual skirt over my head like an embarrassed little girl.

PIPER said...


I've never heard of these either. I'm going to have to check them out.

More often than not, I'm taken with the story behind the book than the story in the book.

Besides, I need some more "can" material. And that's not an insult to the book.

bill r. said...

Ed - I really need to go back to the Gently books. I remember reading some of the unfinished third Gently book in the posthumous collection/tribute Salmon of Doubt and thinking, "Man, this was probably going to be really good. I wish he hadn't died."

Piper - It's a great "can" book. That's not an insult at all.

Jonathan - Put your skirt back down, goddamnit!