Momus - Bad jokes, dirty jokes are, to my world, what the force of gravity is to yours. I am a character trapped in a book of dirty jokes

unAmerica
Momus, UnAmerica. Penny-Ante Editions, 2014.
imomus.com/
excerpt
 
God doesn’t love America. Quite the reverse.    
The nation is in the iron claw of capitalism, Christianity’s basic  principles are flouted daily, the South has won the Civil War, slavery is widespread, exploitation rampant, and God—now working as a janitor at Tastee Freez with late-onset Alzheimer’s—is rapidly losing the plot. In an effort to obliterate his botched creation from memory, the fallen divinity recruits retail worker Brad Power to enlist a crew of twelve for a seafaring adventure. The mission? To uninvent America.     
It’s never too late, apparently, for an act of creative destruction.    
A delirious cousin to Kathy Acker’s Pussy, King of the Pirates and reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s Valis and Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, Momus’ new novel UnAmerica remodels a classic, charmingly naive sixth century Christian tale—The Voyage of Saint Brendan—for the twenty-first century. Reworking the Irish monastic Wonder Voyage formula, Momus adds anachronistic brio and slapstick humor to the genre’s wooden-faced didacticism.
 
 
From the very first sentence of UnAmerica, it is plain that we are in another universe ; just how near to our own does not become apparent until later in the paragraph, when the narrator, Brad, makes an illegal U-turn in his Dodge Custer and parks at the Tastee Freez. Brad is on his way to meet God in Summerville, South Carolina. By page 11, it is clear what shape that universe has taken : “ the triumph of the slave-driving South over the Yankees during the Civil War, and the Confederate States of America’s use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in Britain during the Second World War. ”
UnAmerica is the third is a series of explorations of national stereotypes and alterities (The Book of Scotlands, 2009, reviewed here , and The Book of Japans, 2010). Nicholas Currie, who writes and performs as Momus, is past master of the gross-out, the bravo of bestiality, the cantor of incest, and the psychopomp of the obscene. He is able to break strong taboos in a single aside. Even at his most transgressive, the satire gleams pure gold and his tricky prose demonstrates the high level of intellectual agility and engagement. UnAmerica is a genuinely Swiftian satire, obscene, blasphemous, and necessary : a clyster for the republic as vigorous as anything the Lilliputians administered to Gulliver, depicted by William Hogarth (The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver [December 1726] http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/dp/original/DP824954.jpg ). The truly apposite gross-out is another form of the lie that tells the truth. Everything is fair game : art, murder, botany, the seasons, diet, numbers, music, the American legal system, and especially, commerce.
At the meeting in the Tastee Freez, Brad is instructed to make a voyage like Saint Brendan’s : not to reach Tir na nÓg but to undiscover America. The labors of his preparations are a voyage into the darkest corners of the malls of America. With all due apologies to Joaquin Miller and Avram Davidson, to ask if Momus has visited South Carolina is to ask of Dante, “ Say, Bub, has yoouu ever been to Hell ? ” (or perhaps not), but it is to ask the wrong question.
Why don’t I have a car ? It’s a legitimate question for a man living in a nation where a driver’s license is the default ID, and only 30% of the population has a passport.
What is the purpose of a book or a work of art ? Oscar Wilde reminds us that all art is useless, but that does not preclude a meaning or a purpose. What is the purpose of a book or a work of art ? To elicit (or provoke) a response from the participant. To that end, all means are legitimate — trickery, killing off characters, and all forms of play with the medium.
I’m nothing more than an alert and anxious skeleton covered in skin. “ All air and nerve ”, as Robert Lowell once put it. Now, American culture looks down on thin people just as it does on poor people.
Brad overcomes innumerable obstacles to recruit his ill-matched crew. Gulliver is given passing mention — “ Horses are folks who keep to themselves, but they’re at least as intelligent as humans, and in some cases more so. " — but the horses are swiftly killed off. There is a glimpse of Heaven in a religious community outside of Summerville, : a naturist, “ utopian Starbucks. The Starbucks of Things-As-They-Ought-To-Be. It’s how a Starbucks would be in a world in which every applicable rule and regulation were followed. ” But Brad does not get fooled by the doctrine of full compliance. He builds his coracle. “ And Brad takes the twelve with him, and bids farewell to South Carolina. They row out into the great sea of the ocean . . .  ” As in The Odyssey, or The Ship That Sailed to Mars, the adventurers call on many islands, each more beautiful and dangerous than the last : “ an island of sheep, an island of whales, an island of psalm-singing birds, an island of eternally young, bread-eating monks, an island with a well of forgetfulness . . . . ” By the end, Momus turns Genesis upon its head and the beautiful Jacobean cadences accomplish a different order of creation.
That specific aspect of UnAmerica is not quite as ambitious as Ursula K. Le Guin’s “ She Unnames Them ” but the aim of the journey has been achieved. The satire of the early passages of the book is of almost fractal involution, so dense that it almost conceals the most appalling point of all. The terrain of UnAmerica is all too recognizably twenty-first century America : what Momus is telling us is that we are living in a world where the South Won. Not like Winston S. Churchill’s “ If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg ” or Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, but in a manner dark and inescapable utterly insidious for being almost unnoticed.
The physical form of the book must be noted briefly. The book looks and feels distinctively unAmerican, and strongly resembles a small 1970s German paperback (Suhrkamp, from memory). However, the interior typography and legibility is not really up to those retro standards, for the text appears to be set in 6 point type with 8 point leading (or something equally crowded : 38 lines of text, in a live area about 32 picas in height). The East German paperbacks on my shelf are 37 lines of text, about 36 picas in height.
UnAmerica was a lot of fun to read, to pick up the art-historical references and consider the peculiar place of popular music in the events of the novel. And most of all, to watch how my own preconceptions of what is and is not suitable matter for satire were challenged again and again.
- endlessbookshelf.net/unamerica.html

Central to my experience of Momus’ UnAmerica were the intersections of its postmodern imagery with my own life and the world around me. Google had just posted its Rubik’s Cube doodle for the 40th anniversary of the cube’s invention when I read this line:
Too bitter and disappointed to converse with the guests, I take a Rubik’s Cube from my briefcase and hand it back wordlessly.
Peculiar. Another case in point: just after my girlfriend texted me suggesting we go to Portugal in the summer of 2015, citing its low cost of travel among other western European nations (a random enough thought on its own), I read:
Now, this part of the house features Portuguese tiles…I visited Portugal in 2006 and was impressed by the bright, reverberant interiors, beautiful yet easy to clean. I had these tiles shipped in from a ceramics factory in Porto. It was cheaper than buying a job-lot of nothing-tiles at Lowe’s.
Even weirder. Of course, it shouldn’t have surprised me that at least something in UnAmerica would intersect with my own experience. The book is broadly horizontal in its orientation; it describes a great breadth of images while delving deeply into very few of them. The approach is that of a latter-day White Noise; if DeLillo inserted advertising slogans in the middle of the occasional paragraph, UnAmerica is an almost violent collage of very specific ephemera—“a Gockel RB3…a top notch piece of German kit used in wholesale butchery,” “the newsletter of the Dorchester Presbyterian Church,” and “[p]otassium bitartrate (cream of tartar)…a crystalline resin made in wine casks,” to take three completely random examples—screaming for our attention. It is, in other words, like the internet.
This send-up of the oversaturation involved in contemporary capitalist life, I think, accounts for my own desire to seize on those objects (the Rubik’s Cube and, especially, Portugal) that seemed to be of particular importance to me. I wanted badly some guide as to what to pay attention to as UnAmerica’s rapidly shifting storyline barreled on. But that longing is indeed the point: what we are seeing here is America, and the reason for Brad’s God-bidden quest. And it’s not insuperable, the longing isn’t; by the end of the book I had learned to enjoy the rapid passage by of images, and had begun to observe them kind of like you might watch the graffiti on a passing train.
Certainly, for all its broadness, it’s not as if there is nothing binding UnAmerica together. The effects I have been talking about all take place on the canvas of an attempted journey by narrator Brad Power (what an American name! you can hear Momus giggling), who has been called by God (an old man dressed like a janitor, who has late-onset Alzheimer’s) to reverse the apocryphal voyage of St. Brendan in order to undiscover America.
Most of Brad’s journey, unfortunately for him, consists of preparation, which takes place in America itself. His America is one of bizarre economies, in which employees are not paid for their labors but rather compensated with the opportunity to extort unwary customers, and in which months as we know them have given way to a new system of dating, introduced at the beginning of most chapters like this:
It is still Gamelion. The fairy spud extends from the herbaceous border a set of frightening nectariferous claws.
Sure it does. You can’t help but start a dialogue with lines like these, difficult to read and provocative as they are. They make you want to find this Momus man and shake him (this promotional video might be a good start, if you do happen to be looking). But again: this sense of frustration is, in fact, the point. What we are really supposed to be finding and shaking is America. The book’s moral purpose, as close as Momus gets to stating one explicitly, comes about three fourths of the way through, in a letter from (who else?) God. It reads thus:
Why have I commissioned you, Brad, to recreate in reverse the westward Wonder Voyage of Saint Brendan?
The answer is that partly it’s because I am bored, and simply want something interesting to happen in these pages, like someone walking and talking while headless.
But I’m also a moralist, and it really upsets me that America has become a machine for creating unpleasant people. You don’t need me to remind you of the sins of America. The gigantic eco-footprint, the far-flung military bases…
He goes on, then conjuring the thought-experiment our protagonist Brad Power is trying to undertake. The last few chapters, following God’s letter, are narrated in future tense, detailing the adventures Brad and his crew will undergo while at sea, trying to uninvent America. But it is terribly fitting that these adventures seem almost an afterthought, a footnote to the proliferation of images in the first 120 pages, which can’t help but dwarf the imaginative reach of the last, more earnest chapters of UnAmerica.
It couldn’t be any other way, I imagine Momus claiming. You can’t have UnAmerica without America. And as the back cover of this beautiful, almost pocket-sized paperback seems to imply—“God doesn’t love America,” it says, “Quite the reverse”—without America, perhaps you can’t even have God. Nor this book. I suspect that the joke’s on us there, although I’m not sure precisely what it is. It has something to do with the fact that I’m American, and Penny-Ante Editions is American, and Momus is a mischeivous Scot living in Japan.
Then again, I might get on that boat too, if the journey hadn’t already begun. -

Interview by Adam Novy


Momus, The Book of Jokes (The Dalkey Archive, 2009)

«Imagine a universe where every joke you’ve ever heard is solid, real, and occasionally dangerous—and all happening, one after the other, to the same small group of people. Detailing a series of filthy and ludicrous episodes in the life of a single family, saddled with a super-eccentric, sexually rapacious father, The Book of Jokes tells the story of the youth and education of a bland young boy doomed to record—in an incongruously serious, autobiographical mode—all the ridiculous incidents befalling his household. With their lives dictated by set ups and punchlines, the boy’s family quickly becomes luridly dysfunctional, and he realizes that the only way to escape his tragicomic fate is by trying to take control of the joke-telling himself. Channeling the spirits of Chaucer, Rabelais, Flann O’Brien, and Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, the Vatican secretary who compiled the first known book of jokes in 1451, The Book of Jokes is a happy raspberry in the face of life as we know and tell it.»

"Momus' book is funny - sometimes laugh-out loud, sometimes wincingly - and the humor is delivered in Joycean puns, dry British parody and spoof..." - Los Angeles Times

"He lists Rabelais and Martial among his songwriting influences (with a side of Matthew Barney and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange), and his music from Brecht to Beck on Moog and simulated harpsichord—is suitably challenging... His songs, by the way, are quite dirty, as might be expected of someone who goes in for the Decameron too." - The New Yorker

«Known primarily for his avant-garde music, Momus (aka Nick Currie) proves that he is no slouch as fiction writer either, easily translating his iconoclastic vision to prose. The novel is a phantasmagorical ride through dirty jokes that, in Momus's twisted alternate reality, dictate the lives of a very unfortunate family. It's all here: bestiality, incest, rape, murder and combinations thereof, as if related in the locker room of a junior high. There is no clear narrative structure; the action meanders through anecdotes told by the narrator-sometimes a young boy, and sometimes his hugely endowed father-who lives in a glass house and is sometimes imprisoned with a pair known only as the Murderer and the Molester. The humor is dark and absurd and genuinely funny (though not for everyone), and the style is reminiscent of Naked Lunch, with puns and coarse jokes instead of caterpillars and otherworldly creatures. This strong and short novel, despite its uncompromising structure and style, is delightfully crude and never ever dull.» - Publishers Weekly

«At the unimagined crossroads of 1,001 Arabian Nights and Truly Tasteless Jokes stands The Book of Jokes, by Scottish songwriter Nick Currie, who goes by the pen-name “Momus.” The speaker of The Book of Jokes, “Sebastian Skeleton,” finds himself in prison, where he’s targeted by a Murderer and a Molester—those are their names—whose dreadful intentions can only be suppressed by Sebastian’s storytelling, which makes him a Scheherazade figure, whose subject is almost exclusively his own family. When Sebastian was a boy, the Skeleton family performed—embodied? experienced?—a particularly gruesome and hilarious array of dirty jokes, as when, for example, Sebastian’s father falls in love with a duck, and then grows jealous of this duck’s duck boyfriend, whose barn he sets on fire, and then parades his mistress duck before his wife, announcing, “This is the pig I’ve been fucking.” And when his wife protests, he says, “I wasn’t speaking to you.”
As Sebastian escapes prison with the Murderer and the Molester, the stories he tells grow complex, self-referential and oblique, and while each one takes the shape of a joke, chapters do not necessarily end there, they press on in unexpected, melancholy forms. Sebastian’s mother, Joan, leaves his father and dates another woman named Joan, while his father subjects him and his sister to escalating abuses I had better not describe, and entertains a priest who tries to exorcise his demons, and who also tells the one about the butcher and the human-eating cat. The Molester and the Murderer confess that they are innocent of their crimes, and later turn out to be lying. Everyone goes chasing their desires and never quite achieves them, and they never really understand themselves, which Momus echoes formally by having the Murderer and the Molester argue throughout the book over whether a man can really be his uncle’s uncle. The Book of Jokes is not a collection of punchlines or tension-building schemes, it’s a flexible and sensitive solution to the problem of how to invigorate conventions like the novel using overlooked materials.
Momus is a slyly articulate stylist with a lovely flair for syntax and the lexical. An example: Sebastian’s mother’s lawyer wears “…a fibule-fastened chiton surmounted by a himation, itself topped off by a jaunty chlamys…” He also has a sensitive instinct for ethics: of Sebastian’s father, he says, “He was consummate hypocrite. Or, as he preferred to put it, a dialectician.” And he finds a way to blend the funny and the horrid into the banal: “My father, meanwhile, spends his time making highly detailed technical drawings with a mechanical pencil. The drawings depict utopian improvements he intends to make to the estate. We know he will never implement these plans, and soon he admits it to himself, turning to his feathered friend instead.” This passage wouldn’t be out of place in Thomas Bernhard; substitute the internet for the duck and you have almost every father in the world.
The Book of Jokes contains scenes of sexual violence that are genuinely shocking, which is Momus’s goal, of course: to transcend every barrier of taste, good and bad. On the other hand, the book offers chances to debate all sorts of questions we don’t usually get to ask, such as, is it worse to describe your father’s coitus with a duck, or your son’s? The Book of Jokes is an absolute gem.» - Adam Novy

«The cult favorite Scottish musician Nick Currie has taken Momus as his stage name, a reference to the Greek god of satire who was banished from heaven after mocking Zeus, and just about every other god in the pantheon. Naming yourself after the most famous god to joke truth to power tips your hand, of course: It's almost like having a bumper sticker on your car that reads "Jokes Are No Laughing Matter." Humor is famously hard to pull off; it's even harder if you think, even for a minute, that what you're doing isn't, at least to some degree, unserious. It's hard to tell, listening to Momus's music, whether he takes himself very seriously or not at all. It's that contradiction that has caused his work to be greeted with devotion by his fans and shrugs by those who don't get it. And nobody seems really sure whether there actually is anything to get.
It's likely that his debut novel, The Book of Jokes, will be received with the same confused reactions. The book is gleefully postmodern, and only a novel in the most technical sense: it's meta-jest, a long joke about jokes, and it is, by turns, funny and horrifying. It's no surprise that Momus turns out to be a talented writer - his lyrics have always been wholly original and sometimes brilliant, and he's worked previously as a journalist. The surprise is that he comes pretty close to pulling off a nearly 200-page-long joke about jokes without coming off as pretentious, precious, or in love with his own voice. It's not perfect. It's overlong, even given its slim size, and it's so convoluted in parts, it sometimes veers toward incoherence. But it's very funny, and even though his literary influences are sometimes apparent - Genet, Calvino, and (obviously, given the subject matter) Rabelais - it's definitely original.
The two protagonists of the novel are (as near as I can tell; Momus, perhaps deliberately, isn't overly clear on who is speaking when) Sebastian Skeleton, jailed with a murderer and a rapist with designs on him, and Peter Skeleton, his son, who tries to explain the family to the reader. The Skeletons live in a glass house - this is probably significant, but hell if I can figure out why - and they live their lives in what seems to be an alternate reality where jokes control the machinations of the universe. Got it? Of course not. Remember that this novel is itself a joke; the premise doesn't have to make sense, which is good, because at no point does anything in this book come close to making sense.
Chapters alternate between Sebastian and Peter. The former spends his time plotting an escape from prison with the murderer and the rapist; the latter recounts his childhood growing up in a family governed by jokes. Here's Peter trying to explain his situation:
'Call it "joke dharma," if you like. Bad jokes, dirty jokes are, to my world, what the force of gravity is to yours. They shape every event in my life, and in the life of my family. I am not sure why it is so, but that it is, I cannot doubt. As a result, I live in a grim mirror world. I am a character trapped in a book of jokes - jokes, furthermore, which are in very poor taste.'
"Poor taste" is an understatement; it is, in fact, one of the only moments of understatement in this book. The jokes that govern their lives involve rape, incest, pedophilia, bestiality, and death. It's uncomfortable stuff - in parts, Peter performs oral sex on his father after Sebastian has raped Peter's sister, and he's sexually mutilated by his grandfather. These aren't the kind of jokes that you actually, you know, laugh at. But by taking the jokes to their logical conclusion - anyone who's been to college and had at least one friend with an unsettling, sick sense of humor has heard these - Momus forces the hand of the reader, asking him or her to confront why we think some things are funny and some are taboo.
Momus's prose is elegant and practiced; the contrast between his somewhat formal writing style and the startlingly offensive subject matter is effective, and maybe the main reason this book succeeds to the extent that it does. And it is funny, in an unbearably grim way. His funniest moments aren't his forays into black humor, necessarily; he's actually at his best when he's a little restrained. (In one of the book's funniest passages - it's almost a throwaway line - Sebastian describes the weather: "The brilliant afternoon began to cloud over now, and a spring chill spread through the air. April is the cruelest month! And it was only March.")
As the book spirals toward its climax, you begin to wonder whether Momus has concocted nothing more than a shaggy dog tale, the kind of joke with a long, elaborate setup, and a punchline that makes no sense. The last several pages make it seem that way. But Momus ties it together with the last sentence of the book, bringing everything home in a totally unexpected way. It's a little heartbreaking, it's very funny, and it's intensely clever - one sentence that actually redeems, and comes close to explaining, some of the more meandering and inexplicable passages earlier in the book. Momus's novel is a lot like his music: It's an acquired taste that I'm not really sure whether I've acquired. I can't say that I understand this novel; I suspect that understanding, though, wasn't what Momus was going for here. And it is, after all, more of a joke than a novel. I'm not sure I get it. But I'm pretty sure that doesn't matter.» - Michael Schaub

«Jokes are a genre of fiction, but the best way to deliver a zinger is to disguise it as autobiography. Comedians know this and the good ones transform themselves into quasi-fictional subjects, weaving long strings of jokes into anecdotal memoir. "The Book of Jokes," a new book by Momus, marries the self-aware comedian to unreliable narrator, joke to plot and filthy humor to experimental fiction.
Momus (a Scot named Nick Currie) is known as a prolific trickster songwriter of farcical dream-pop and literary bedroom folk. He also works as a journalist covering design and calls himself a "polymath-dabbler." "Pop music," he once said, "was what you could scribble in the margins of literature." For his novels, Currie continues to use his Momus moniker, suggesting that his fiction is not entirely discrete from his songwriting. This year has seen two publications for Momus: "The Book of Scotlands," an amorphous fiction concerning "solutions" for alternative Scotlands (its subtitle is "Every lie creates a parallel world. The world in which it is true."); and "The Book of Jokes," which is somewhat more novelistic and understands its own parallel worlds by way of the old-fashioned joke.
In "The Book of Jokes," a nameless protagonist retells his family saga, in which everything that happens to the family is the premise of a joke. His uncles, for instance, are "[t]he Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman and the Welshman." In the way that Robert Coover and John Barth reinterpreted fairy tales and American urban myths in their fiction, Momus uses the folklore of humor.
Also like Coover and Barth, Momus enjoys his postmodern self-reflexivity. The narrator tells his joke-stories while in prison as a way of postponing his own death at the hands of two inmates named Murderer and Molester, who, he explains, "were hated men, but they hated me more." He compares himself to a modern Scheherazade (recalling Barth's "Chimera"), the type of storyteller who knows that she is using seductive narrative as a tool for deceit. Momus writes that, like a used condom, "a used character from a joke is something pathetic and sad, the kind of thing you find abandoned in a forest whose trees are draped with polyethylene bags."» - Ross Simonini

«A few months ago, the editors of this magazine asked if I would be interested in being part of an experiment in criticism. They were curious what would happen if we inverted the standard “anonymous review” formula—if instead of the reviewer having the cloak of anonymity, we were to keep the book under review anonymous from its critic, and thereby shield it from any and all prejudice—whether positive or negative, whether directed at the author, the publishing house, the blurbers, the cover art, etc. I swore several oaths to stay true to the project (Eds.: “No googling”), and soon enough a book arrived at my house. Its covers, front matter, and endpages had all been stripped, and the spine blacked out with a Sharpie. I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it or who was publishing it or when. I didn’t know if it was the author’s first or twenty-first publication. Fiction? Nonfiction? Genre? Self-published? I didn’t know anything (and at this writing, I still don’t) except that it wasn’t poetry. What could I do? I began to read.
'Dad darkens my sister’s doorway, throws his shadow across the fine-haired skin of her white belly. The lamplighters crane to watch. They will report what they’ve seen to the postmen, and the postmen will report it to the teachers, and the teachers—solemnly—to their classes. Then the school bullies will corner me in a piss-stinky lavatory cubicle and tell me.
But I’ll know already. Because of the taste on Dad’s dick.'
So, uh, not nonfiction then? (Please, please, please don’t let this be nonfiction.)
Soon after, the speaker finds himself in that very lavatory, getting bullied just as predicted. “Do you want to die peacefully in your sleep like your grandpa,” the bullies ask him, “or screaming in terror like his passengers?”
Now wait a minute. I reread the sentence to be sure. Was it? Oh yeah. That’s a joke! A joke I’d heard before! Realizing this made me realize that the line about Dad’s dick in the first scene was, in fact, a punch line. The whole scene was a retelling of an old, gross—but hardly unfunny—joke. I read on, and the jokes kept coming.
The book follows two main characters, the priapic Sebastian Skeleton and his perpetually beset son Peter, who switch off chapters as narrator. They—along with Peter’s sister, Luisa, Sebastian’s estranged wife, Joan, Joan’s current lesbian lover (also named Joan), and two felons named the Murderer and the Molester—live in an X-rated cartoon universe the nature of which Peter explains thusly: “Bad jokes, dirty jokes are, to my world, what the force of gravity is to yours... I am a character trapped in a book of jokes—jokes, furthermore, which are in very poor taste.”
By the time I encountered this explanation (it comes about fifty pages in) I was already thinking about a few other books that have attempted conceits like this: Extravaganza by Gordon Lish, Funny by Jennifer Michael Hecht, and (twice-removed, conceit-wise, but still relevant) No Lease on Life by Lynne Tillman. These are the kinds of associations that book jackets typically make for you (“In the tradition of…”; “The best _____ since _____”), so I felt a touch of readerly pride at having earned my reference points unabetted, and this satisfaction was compounded by the knowledge that I had no way to “check” my conclusions.
In a club as small as this one (the joke-book-as-literature), it would be churlish to issue rankings to the membership. This book’s pace is breakneck, and logic holds no sway over the proceedings. Randomness and depravity rule the day, often to great and surprising effect; though occasionally to this reader’s disgust, such as in the scene of the Molester’s great—ahem—triumph. I was sometimes unsure whether the author intended the book as anything other (I hesitate to say “more”) than a joke itself, though this begged the unsettling question of who that joke was on.
As to the sensory-deprivation school of reading, I have to say that it was an enormously disorienting experience. Jacket copy does more than simply entice you to buy. It supplies a framework for one’s experience. It is less a movie trailer than it is a placard on a museum wall, telling you not just how to look at the painting, but what to see there when you do. I found myself freed from the tyranny of the preprogrammed response, set adrift, context-free, at sea with an alien text. Every reviewer—every reader—should hope to be so lucky.» - Justin Taylor

«According to British cultural critic Jonathan Meades, there exists an "Iron Curtain of Irony" in the United Kingdom that charts its course from Liverpool to just south of Grimsby. North of this division, he maintains, the idea of speaking against yourself — of saying the opposite of what you mean — is about as popular as Sydney Cooke. Of course, this statement is but another searing irony. What Meades is describing here (in form and substance) is one of the dominant modes of British humour; his delineation of an imaginary fault line in comic tastes used conversely to describe its shared nature through the deployment of the idiom itself — sarky British patter. Put bluntly, he's just taking the piss, folks, and in time-honoured fashion too.
And Meades makes a good point here, because this fictional division is no more real than the idea that there's a totality of what constitutes humour. We may indeed share certain sensibilities when it comes to having a laugh, but in sharing them such totality becomes impossible, since ownership is never total. This too follows the very trajectory of aural gags; of dirty jokes told by old men in public houses that everyone knows the punchlines to but concede to hearing anew nonetheless. Humour, like fiction, is a landscape wrought by the friction of familiarly imagined subjects and imaginary settings. It may seem plausible, for example, that the chicken crossed the road. But for what purpose? And ultimately, why the fuck is the conclusion funny at all? These things are never fully explained. Comedy therefore occupies a truly opaque space, where its object is revealed at the end but never quite reasoned. It's a territory where delivery and timing rule supreme, and a site that Momus (also known as the Scottish musician Nick Currie) explores in The Book of Jokes, until very little is left uncharted.
Or so it would seem. Confluence and ambiguity are all prevalent in this, Currie's second novel, narrated at turns by a paedophilic father called Sebastian Skeleton and his abused son, Peter. Here, the imaginary and the imagined conspire against the reader through its form, which is essentially a series of standard skits distorted into the original framework of a novel. This too, however becomes uncertain due to the similarity of the father and son's narrative purpose. On the one hand, the former is doomed to retrace his offence by agreeing to escape from prison with two men simply called the Molester and the Murderer, who form a glib pact to enact the crimes that they were incarcerated for, and so vindicate their original prison sentences, of which they believe themselves to be innocent. In the latter, Peter is condemned to recount his father's criminal perversion using jokes, which he explains away as some sort of grim psychiatrist's coping mechanism, based on the spiritual principle of Dharma.
But is that really the purpose of humour? This is the question Momus raises and his answers are stark; or rather, obscene. To take a leaf from the stand up comic's handbook, there exists an unwritten rule in the trade that jokes about kiddy fiddlers are out of bounds. Yet this is exactly what Momus is gunning for here, and social transgression couldn't be further from his game. What this book is satirising is this duplicity of, on the one hand, maintaining that by making light of the world's ills we are able to understand them and find them less terrible and, on the other, telling us that certain things can never be laughed at, no matter how unreal we make them.
But make no mistake — The Book of Jokes is not mere tatty pornography. Its target here is authority, not your own personal sense of decency. It is a piece of moral philosophising that takes aim at hypocrisy and fires at will with the deftness of Flann O'Brien's tongue and B.S. Johnson's imagination. In his 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog essentially suggested that the powerful should not avert their gaze, and Currie certainly does nothing of the sort here. If that upsets you, then you should probably avoid reading this tome and take to living underneath a rock.» - Huw Nesbitt

«"I think it took me a while to realize that novels could be low and disreputable," said Momus when I e-mailed him last week, explaining why he'd finally sat down and written a book. As is fitting for a 49-year-old man whose nom de guerre is taken from that of the Greek god of mockery, The Book of Jokes is more or less what it promises to be. The title and some of the gags are lifted from a book of the same name by the 15th-century Italian humorist Poggio Bracciolini. The plot, a complicated allegory of incest, bestiality, and an improbably large penis, mostly takes place in the "intellectual Sodom" of a Scottish farmhouse. The Salzkammergut municipality of the Austrian Alps, Bell's Hinge-Backed Tortoise, and a book of poetry titled Copulating Gorillas at Longinch feature heavily. Some characters disintegrate mid-narrative; others address us directly.
Momus—whose work as a Genet-checking, electro-pop cabaret songwriter was the logical preamble to the book he ended up writing—is, in a way, fulfilling a certain kind of art-rock destiny. Highly literate pop, from the Decemberists to Mission of Burma to Talking Heads, has been something like its own genre for approaching five decades now. The only real surprise is that more musicians from this scene haven't written fiction. "I was always basically a cantautore, a singing author," Momus says.» - Zach Baron

«In a black-and-white snapshot taken at the Canongate Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh in 1980, the shamanic German artist Joseph Beuys delivers a lecture-cum-performance entitled "The Jimmy Boyle Days" to an audience of local artists, students and art teachers. Some are rapt, a few suspicious, others flagrantly bored. Most still sport the hair and fashions of the decade just gone by. But one figure stands out in the front row: a fair-haired youth of fey but awkward mien, in austere spectacles, heavy sweater and Doc Martens. He is Nick Currie, a 20-year-old Bowie-obsessed virgin and aspirant fop, a literature student with art-school envy and an urge to ingratiate himself into Scotland's post-punk scene. Within a few years, he will have reinvented himself as the louche and erudite singer Momus, and begun to describe an eccentric orbit of the pop world.
Currie's career – if that is what it is – surely ranks among the oddest in pop; the Beuys photograph neatly captures his Zelig-like presence at the edge (or is it the heart?) of the culture. The suspiciously fragile and well-read singer-songwriter of the mid 1980s – schooled on Bowie, Brecht and Brel – was rapidly emboldened, and his lyrics frankly empurpled, by the influence of Serge Gainsbourg. In the 1990s, while others essayed unsubtle variations on his sound and sense, Currie almost gave up poised and sibilant perversion for a brief but lucrative tenure as songwriter to one of Japan's most successful pop stars, Kahimi Karie. His own records subsequently leaped from homemade techno-melancholia to trickster raids on folk, glitch-pop and synthesised "analogue baroque". Somewhere in the hall of mirrors of his current activities – Currie is also an art and design critic, blogger, lecturer, performance artist and, most recently, a novelist – there lounges one of pop's most scurrilous and brittle lyricists, still capable of raising blushes and laughter in the same breath.
In a sense, the persona Currie contrived on his early records was born out of exactly the milieu pictured in that 1980 photograph: a self-conscious amalgam of a very British pop-lust, dreams of the continental avant-garde and the new, grey dawn of post-punk. If his records sometimes sounded like the Pet Shop Boys trying to describe Leonard Cohen, the Momus character (as also the fact of Currie's self-invention) was curiously indebted to the bruised and sly romantics of post-punk: Howard Devoto of Magazine, Billy Mackenzie of the Associates, Bid from the Monochrome Set. His first solo album (after a short stint as singer with the Happy Family) was released in 1986 on the impossibly arch and elegantly art-directed label El Records. Circus Maximus is for the most part a skewed reading of certain classical and biblical themes. The urgent, whispering Currie professes himself a masochistic St Sebastian ("preferring the ache to the aspirin") and sings of "The Rape of Lucretia" like a Morrissey who had not stopped at an enthusiasm for Oscar Wilde but mined the whole decadent tradition: Pater, Swinburne, Huysmans.
Circus Maximus is an audacious debut, but still somehow a projection of the scholarly, retiring Nick Currie rather than the divinely scornful monster that is Momus. (The name is not only derived from the Greek god of satire and censure; there is also a Herr Momus in Kafka's The Castle.) An EP followed, on which the spirit of Brel pressed harder on Currie's delivery and lyrics. In "Three Wars", he recasts adolescence, middle age and decrepitude as scenes from the 20th century's great wars: "The first war begins with the testicles descending, / And desire assassinating the child that you once were." A second album, The Poison Boyfriend, was released in 1987. In "Flame Into Being", Currie flaunts his reading (in this case, John Berger and DH Lawrence) in a hymn to radical self-invention: "I'm in love with everyone who knows it's hard to build a way of seeing, / Who knows that nevertheless that's the only way to flame into being."
It was on his 1988 album Tender Pervert, however, that Currie put the finishing touches to the Momus mask. A sort of ravaged innocence is the theme of several of its songs, their images shamelessly compiled from fragments of The Picture of Dorian Gray, André Gide's The Immoralist and Ian Buruma's A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture. But even the least worldly of his characters evince a strain of gleeful cruelty, while icy parodies of contemporary chart pop (Prince, Pet Shop Boys) threaten to overwhelm the album's more delicate acoustic arrangements.
Lyrically, Tender Pervert is conjured out of a world that is part fin-de-siècle exquisite, part 1980s mundane. As a satirist, Momus skewers precisely the Britain of the Thatcher years, with its Aids-panicked homophobia and left-wing musicians' feeble stabs at a cultural alternative. "Love on Ice" reimagines Torvill and Dean as gay martyrs. "I Was a Maoist Intellectual in the Music Industry" is the doleful memoir of a failed musical revolutionary: "My downfall came from being three things the working classes hated: / Agitated, organised and over-educated."
But obvious satire was only one of the strings to Momus's faux-gilt bow; the more beguiling songs were those that conjured a world of decadence and near-depravity in which his frail protagonists were at once victims and perpetrators. The narrator of "In the Sanatorium" keeps his beloved institutionalised and enfeebled: "Half in love with easeful death / I cloud the mirror with your breath / Half in love with this disease / That keeps you close to me." "The Homosexual", meanwhile, concerns a heterosexual serial seducer who pretends that he is harmlessly gay: "I love women, but I take them by surprise / Pretending absolute indifference to their breasts and thighs."
None of which should suggest that the early Momus records are merely eloquent and ironical, though a deliberate slightness and detachment is assuredly as much part of their allure as Currie's lyrical deviousness. At the same time, he clearly craved mainstream success, and for a time seemed as though he might achieve it with a series of singles – notably "The Hairstyle of the Devil", a radio hit in 1989 – that set his dandified wordplay against dance beats modelled on (or even sampled from) the Pet Shop Boys. Indeed, for a time Momus seemed to become a sort of para-Pet Shop Boys, replacing Neil Tennant's deadpan narratives of love and loss with lurid fantasias based on JG Ballard's Crash and paintings by Balthus.
Momus records of the late 1980s and early 1990s sound as though they might have been huge hits, catapulting Currie from relative obscurity to the kind of outright adoration that, among the indie icons of that era, only Morrissey attracted. In truth, though, Momus was the anti-Morrissey. They may have shared some literary tastes and a morbid aggrandising of their own animosities towards the cultural mainstream, but Currie could never perform outright sincerity in the way that Morrissey could; in the end, he was too smart and too ambiguous. Still, by the mid-1990s, it seemed that Currie's faith in his own inauthenticity might have paid off, at least in terms of influence. Acts such as the Divine Comedy, Babybird and Belle and Sebastian all owed him much, though they rarely attained his metaphysical wit or risked his psychosexual complexity. Only Pulp, in the svelte, imperial phase that surrounded their 1995 album Different Class, came close.
By that time, Currie had more or less abandoned the pose of haggard and lustful aesthete for a no less self-conscious (but lyrically much simpler) sci-fi aesthetic. Albums such as Voyager and Timelord saw him contriving a homemade digital sound that matched his tales of extraterrestrial ennui: the dandy Des Esseintes stranded at Tranquility Base. He himself seemed happily adrift under the new 1990s micromarketing regime, content to treat his cult status as a digital cottage industry. (He wrote rather presciently in 1991 that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 people.) By the end of the decade he had left London for Paris, then Tokyo and New York, before settling in recent years in Berlin. He has never stopped recording and performing – a new album, Joemus, a collaboration with the young Scottish musician Joe Howe, was released late last year – though lately his extra-musical activities have been more visible than his albums.
For more than a decade, Momus has been a tireless and provocative presence on the internet; he was one of the first pop performers to blog with anything like articulacy, never mind elegance and wit. His essays and blog posts, which now appear daily, have covered everything from his own medical catastrophe (he lost the sight in one eye in the late 1990s) to the cultural motif of the Pierrot, the end of postmodernism to the aesthetics of tiling in Athens. If he tends (and intends) to infuriate with his consistent cultural opportunism – a long-standing erotic fascination with Japan invariably angers interlocutors on his blog – he is also a commentator of rare imagination and insight, even when one suspects his opinions are as changeable as his eccentric attire.
For some time, his eyepatch and charity-shop get-up have been a familiar sight at the edges of the art world: he writes for several art magazines and has performed the role of "unreliable tour guide" at the Whitney Museum and elsewhere. What Currie has not been until now is a writer of books; his first, The Book of Scotlands, was published this summer. It's a typically playful volume: a numbered list of possible parallel nations, devised, he has said, in the hope of influencing the culture of a future independent Scotland. There is Scotland 166: "The Scotland in which four hundred years of profound influence from Calvin is replaced by four hundred years of profound influence from Calvino". And Scotland 870: "The Scotland in which every schoolchild can recite by heart the tabletalk of RD Laing". There is the Scotland (689) to which Alan Lomax and Alfred Kinsey travelled in 1954, intending "to compile data on Scottish masturbation". If The Book of Scotlands reads at times like a knowing amalgam of Calvino, Donald Barthelme and Georges Perec, it is also not wholly removed from the whimsical world of Ivor Cutler; one can quite imagine a future in which Momus grows older and odder and more essential in the same way.
The second Momus book The Book of Jokes is notionally a novel, in which one Sebastian Skeleton is forced to tell stories to a murderer and a molester who will otherwise set upon him. This Arabian Nights structure soon ramifies into a pattern of overlapping and invariably obscene tales: there is much violence, blasphemy and sex with innocent fowl. The Book of Jokes is perhaps not what enthusiasts of Tender Pervert might have imagined the neurasthenic troubadour might produce as he neared the age of 50: his youthful persona presaged either a turn to more rarefied literary pursuits or a slow and lurid decline in the Gainsbourg manner. But Currie's has so far been both a more mercurial and less evanescent career than one could have predicted. Having escaped fame on others' terms more than once, he seems singularly well placed to bend the mainstream to his frail, lewd, egomaniacal and tender visions.» - Brian Dillon

"In 1957, Roth v. United States brought a ruling that obscenity had to be »utterly without redeeming social importance«, thus rewriting America’s notion of censorship. Formerly banned works, such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, would suddenly enjoy circulation. Moral turpitude ceased to be an issue, so long as redeeming social value were identifiable in a work.
Momus’ first novel, The Book of Jokes, jauntily weaves through a universe opaque with bestiality, incest, rape, and murder, all in the context of the Ineluctable Joke. The premeditated rape and murder of a young girl is a breezy affair, when contrasted to the novel’s insurmountable adversary — Jokes, with their »punch lines« hovering like death. Momus’ delivery is gentle yet with a note of urgency obviating clear narrative structure – »a gripped kind of note, like the sound of someone playing a cheap rubber clarinet while wearing a high-quality pair of welding gloves«, as the Murderer, one of the book’s characters remarks.
Jovial narrator/protagonist Peter Skeleton ushers us through unrepentantly ribald family anecdotes. He lives in a glasshouse with his well-endowed father, named Sebastian, and his tetchy sister Luisa. Life’s unfolding must adhere to Jokes, with which all thoughts and utterances pullulate. In earlier times, when the family lived on a farm, his mother Joan, »a woman as well-endowed with intelligence as with beauty«, left his father for a secret look-alike lover also named Joan, after his father confessed to an affair with a goose. It is monotony that prompts young Skeleton to stonewall and prevaricate, hoping to short-circuit Jokes. For reasons that do not become apparent, Sebastian Skeleton is imprisoned. He and his two cellmates, the Murderer and the Molester, are innocent. Together they escape so that each may carry out his alleged crime, thereby conferring honor on their respective sentences, and justly return to the cell. When the trio bands together as fugitives, the reader is toured through Skeleton’s life –dreamily, in the manner of Annie Hall, where Alvy brings Annie not only to his childhood home but to dramatic childhood scenes therein.
Chapter 33 examines an owl joke told by a country lady serving apple pie to the Skeletons. The three Skeletons’ interruptions, probing the joke’s cumbersome details, transform the rustic scene into a productive Rorschach.
»There were three mes,« she said, »on an expedition in search of the source of the Lumbeezee River, deep in the jungle.« »Three yous?« echoed my father, puzzled, waving aside clouds of cream steam. »Yes,« said the lady. »The over me, the me, and the under me.« Luisa blushed slightly as the lady pronounced the words ›under me‹. It was an odd story, but the lady continued it, placing three hot bowls of sweet white food in front of us. »Suddenly the three mes were surrounded by an owl.« »Surrounded by an owl?« asked my father, his consternation growing. »How so?« »Have you never been surrounded by an owl, when there are three of you?« asked the lady. »No,« said my father …
Jokes needn’t be dogmatic. We live within the psychosexual framework of Jokes, and they needn’t be repeated verbatim. Jokes may be dismantled, thus augmenting our breadth of experience. Peter’s father, Sebastian, carries on a lengthy secret affair with his ex-wife’s lover, Joan.
Joan (my mother) was wearing a diplax hymation and powder-blue mantile in Thracian style. Joan (her lover) had on a double-girded pink chiton, kilted at the knee.
We find Momus heroically drawing ponderous chapters to a sensible close, his insights creatively captivating and intellectually challenging. The Book of Jokes, in examining tufts of familial discord, heuristically moves the reader to cheat Eternal Recurrence through
exemplary aleatory revisions of the Joke." - David Woodard




Momus, The Book of Scotlands, Sternberg Press, 2009.

In the spirit of Italo Calvino, Bruno Schulz, and French animation series Les Shadoks (using any language, that is, except the “wooden tongue” of official discourse), The Book of Scotlands will outline, in a numerical sequence, one hundred and fifty-six Scotlands which currently do not exist anywhere. At a time when functional independence seems to be a real possibility for Scotland—and yet no one is quite sure what that means—a delirium of visions, realistic and absurd, is necessary.
Published in the Solution series edited by Ingo Niermann, The Book of Scotlands will provide one answer—and a few more—to this appeal for focused dreaming about potential parallel world Scotlands. The author, Momus, is a Scottish artist who has lived in Paris, New York, Tokyo and now Berlin. Paradoxically, of course, there is nothing more Scottish than leaving Scotland. And the further a Scot travels from Scotland, the more vivid and lurid his “inner Scotlands” become—and the more tellingly they differ from the real place. 2009 will also see the publication of Momus’ first novel, The Book of Jokes.






 



Momus, The Book of Japans, Sternberg Press, 2011.

      Following the success of The Book of Scotlands (shortlisted for the Scottish Arts Council’s First Book prize), Momus has been commissioned to write another book as part of Ingo Niermann’s Solution Series. Solution Japan, or The Book of Japans, makes a case for the rehabilitation of the idea of the “far.” We live in a time when difference and distance have been eroded and eradicated by globalization, the Internet, and cheap jet travel. The Book of Japans restores a sense of wonder—along with a plethora of imagination-triggering inaccuracies—by taking the reader on a trip not just through space but also time.



 

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