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Buzzed Books #26 by John King

Attempting Normal

Attempting Normal

I am an obsessive fan of things.

Most culture feels blank to me, irrelevant, whether high-, low-, or middle-browed. But when I engage, some lifelong fixation is usually triggered.

To be a fan of Tom Waits, for example, is not merely to have a preference, but rather to be compelled on an odyssey of completion, to track down every maddening recording, every loose song on a compilation, every collaboration, every bootleg I can get my hands on, because the joy of his mind, the instruments of his creativity, are priceless to me, not (to be honest) in every moment, but in enough moments to make such obsession seem viable, and valid, and totally sane, presuming the world is insane, which seems like a safe assumption.

When Tom Waits released Orphans, a three disk compilation of the miscellaneous studio music he’d made that did not already appear on his own albums, I already had about half those songs collected on my own.

Orphans

The downside of obsessively following an artist is not that they will casually and belatedly release an obscure lode of their work I’ve already tracked down.

The downside of obsessively following artists is the risk of noticing that they are not as fertile and creative as your romanticized image of them.

When you note that Dean Martin’s alcoholic banter uses the same exact hiccups and malapropisms in a 1977 set in The Sabre Room in Chicago as in a 1964 set at The Sands in Las Vegas, the drunkenness not only seems less real (a minor distinction), but less impressive as an acting performance, less funny because less original. If only the gaffes were more spontaneously delivered, you would love the later show no matter how closely it clings to the template of the earlier show. Instead, you have to choose which performance you are willing to listen to, because listening to both in your regular listening habits is painful to your sense of art, and let’s face it, your sense of art is connected to your sense of self, your sense of existential meaning. Dean Martin is diminished, and as a fan I have to contain the damage not to be diminished in turn.

1964 at The Sands it is.

Stand up comedy runs into this problem often, in that a comedian’s witty aphorism is likely to be recycled in spontaneous moments or when approaching new, but similar material, which can feel like watching a brilliant artist being plagiarized, and such acts of self-plagiarism make fans feel like they are in a semiotic feedback loop. When a comedian reuses a joke, there is a pang of disappointment, even when the joke is funny and memorable and insightful. I trust artists to be explorers, and staying on safe ground, even for a sentence, can sometimes disappoint me.

So when a comedian who is operating at the top of his craft, as Marc Maron certainly is, and who has a weekly podcast (WTF with Marc Maron) in which he over-shares his personal life with his listeners, and who has an IFC Channel sit-com based on his life, which he has previously mined and revealed in said stand-up and podcast work, the sense of creative overlap is a gigantic risk to precisely those fans that perhaps matter most to Marc Maron, since he himself is an obsessive fan of things. Maron isn’t among the uppermost elite comedians in the country, in terms of sheer popularity, as his comedy is too dark and too idiosyncratically personal, but his following is considerable, and the devotion of his fans is even more considerable precisely because his comedy is so revelatory in its often dark and personal vision of the world.

For the most part, in these various media, Maron manages to present the same narratives of his life with such variations and nuances in each telling that he averts the wearying déjà vu of postmodern exhaustion of significance.

Full disclosure: I am a fan of Marc Maron’s, which means that in 2013, when he released a non-fiction collection of personal essays, Attempting Normal, I was reluctant to read it, out of concern that this fourth creative outlet for his self-narratives would finally sabotage the sense of integrity of his output. At this point, do I have anything left to learn about Marc Maron from Marc Maron that requires a book from him?

Actually, yes.

One thing I learned: Marc Maron is a superb writer.

On the page, he is more ambitious than he is on stage or on the podcast or on television, since his sentences can get longer, and the diction can get more poetic and original, without losing the semblance of a conversational voice, and his thought-process often persists until insights get far more interesting than in his stand-up, podcasting, and television work:

Everyone is a little bitter. We’re born bitter. The personality itself is really just a very complex defense mechanism. A reaction to the first time someone said, “No, you can’t.” That’s the big challenge of life—to chisel disappointment into wisdom so people respect you and you don’t annoy your friends with your whining. You don’t want to be the bitter guy in the group. It’s the difference between “I’ve bee through that and this is what I’ve learned” and “I’m fucked. Everything sucks.” That said, be careful not to medicate bitterness because you’ve mistaken it for depression, because the truth is you’re right: Everything does such most of the time and there’s a fine line between bitterness and astute cultural observation.

As a self-involved, anxiety-ridden, acerbic person, such self-awareness is refreshing, and allows his self-involved, anxiety-ridden acerbic readers to identify with what he is saying rather than tune out what could, with a lazier writer and thinker, be boring narcissism. But this passage reminds me that what Maron has done in writing Attempting Normal was to fit his needs to the form of a book rather than dashing off stand-up, adding some filler, and calling it a book. The turns of his thoughts, and the after-turns of thought are wonderful, and sometimes manifest themselves in the titles of chapters; chapter 22 is called “Xenophobia, Autoerotic Asphyxiation, and the History of Irish Poetry.” And the content of that chapter lives up to that title.

Besides his self-awareness of his acute self-involvement, Marc Maron’s total willingness to throw himself under the bus also endears the reader, especially since that bus seems to be entering some tunnel of the psychic underworld, as the tragic purchase of a mid-century chair from a second hand furniture vendor reveals:

It seemed he really wanted his artifacts to be with the right people. I might have underestimated him at the time. He might have had a deeper understanding of the relationship between people and objects than the rest of us to. An odd pairing between a chair and a couple might disrupt the trajectory of the lives of the people and the chair. Of course, anything can be backloaded with meaning. That’s how we explain things away when we don’t want to take full responsibility for actions that are frightening and disastrous. It’s the core of mysticism.

Of course, he has self-awareness when he throws himself (and mysticism) under the bus, too. It’s almost a semiotic feedback loop, except it returns us to his narratives with additional, manic thrust, like a streamlined Proust.

I think of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech for Kenyon’s graduating class of 2003, which (the speech, not the class) has been named “This is Water,” in which Wallace argues that the great thing about a liberal arts education is that it encourages people not just how to think, but how to create meaning by considering the larger question of choosing what to think about. As someone who is self-obsessed, Marc Maron is wonderful in the way he expresses the act of choosing, and how in retrospect he can choose perhaps better remembering back on the experiences in which he looked at things in only one way:

            I read a short story in high school once about a hot-pepper-eating contest. I remember liking it. I don’t remember much of what I was assigned to read in high school. I did a lot of sleeping in English class and my teacher was a mean old drunk woman who looked like she was balancing a pile of hair on her shaking head.

            It was the descriptions of the peppers and the experience of eating them that sticks in my mind all these years later. I couldn’t remember the name of the story so I googled it. It was actually hard to find. I found someone had scanned the story and put it on their personal Flickr page. Obviously, someone else at some point thought, “What was that pepper story I read in high school?”

            So I reread “The Grains of Paradise,” by James Street. The story turns out to be about an American man on an agricultural research mission to Mexico to learn about corn. The story culminates in a pepper-eating challenge with a local landowner and grower of peppers. The story is really about class, caste, honor, country, competition, business, and politics. I assume that’s why they put the story in the book: so we could learn the power of literature to elevate and integrate layered themes into a narrative. I got none of that and I’m sure the shaking wig at the front of the class didn’t illuminate any of that, but to be fair I don’t remember either way. The point is, I thought it was a story about eating really hot peppers. As you get older and wiser everything becomes a bit more loaded with meaning and/or completely drained of it. It sort of happens simultaneously.

A lot of heartfelt care went into this book. I’ve emphasized Maron’s self-absorption, but as writers, aren’t we all self-absorbed, and isn’t that self-absorption what we are trying to escape—to escape from our personality, as Eliot says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”?

We are trying to escape ourselves in order to enlarge ourselves. That is why we write, and that is why we read. Or maybe it’s just me.

Attempting Normal gives you a large dose of the essence of Marc Maron’s sensibilities. Considering all of the levels of difficulty for this book to be any serious addition to his output, and how masterfully it succeeds, this book might be the best thing he has done in a long, and by this point accomplished, career.

Pair with: Just Coffee Co-op, WTF Blend (natch)

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

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