There's Humor and Then There's Hugh Moore
by Brandish Yar
The novel Hugh Moore by
Eckhard Gerdes appears, nominally, to be intended to be humorous (i.e.,
Hugh-moore-us), so does it indeed humor us? If so, how? Gerdes, whose work
often seems to strive to be more eutelesteroic than semnoteroic, though
elements of both are visible in all his works, here in Hugh Moore really
tilts the work full force to that
This begins with the pun of the title. Of course, Arthur Schopenhauer, a keen comedic mind himself (for it was he, in his treatise On Women, who said women are best suited for child-rearing because their voices are closer in pitch to the voices of children), would scoff at this title. Puns are, he says, "insipid" and "superficial" and spring "not from the nature of things, but from the accident of nomenclature." It is something that "bad writers of comedy" use.
Albert Rapp agrees. In The Origins of Wit and Humor, he states the pun "is
considered an anti-social weapon, about like a stiletto" and that puns are "distinctly painful to most people." Rapp even goes so far as to say that puns are not forms of humor at all, but are merely forms of "wit." Humor, according to Rapp, is a mixture of "ridicule and affection" which has evolved into something "warm and gracious," whereas "wit" is "cruel, aggressive, and 'rapier-like.”
Schopenhauer, however, asserts that the pun is "a spurious kind of wit," which
suggests that it is not truly wit either. But whether Rapp or Schopenhauer is correct,
both would agree that the pun is not a form of humor, and thus Gerdes's title contradicts itself. Perhaps he should have entitled the work Pun.
Of course, the problem here is that Hugh Moore himself is the central character in this novel. His very name, thus, is problematic. And if the pun itself is an assault on the reader, then this assault goes much deeper than the title—it pervades down to the level of the main character. It is worth noting that Miriam Patchen, Kenneth Patchen's widow, in her foreword to Hugh Moore, refers to the book as a "study with no escape," so the stiletto and rapier stabs come repeatedly throughout the work. A must-read for masochists.
The Shinola  salesman, ostensibly a carny barker, of the novel's prologue, according to Schopenhauer, would be guilty of trying to "mask wit as folly," and thus Gerdes reveals then novel's intended foolishness. That we are in for a foolish and painful ride if we read this novel is what the title and prologue combine to inform us. Only Ms. Patchen's foreword spurs us on, but for what? Centuries after the Bulwer-Lytton ("It was a dark and stormy night") bad-opening-line-for-a-novel competition is forgotten, the Gerdes ("Hugh Moore finally wakes up only to go back to sleep") bad-opening-line competition will continue. But here, at least, there is humor, for here we are watching a buffoon fall down on stage, and we can ridicule him well. As Henri Bergson points out how, when "a man, running along the street, stumbles and falls; the passers-by burst out laughing." Similarly, here we see Gerdes stumbling and falling, and perhaps that is the humor?
Those readers who wish to follow Miriam Patchen's advice and read this novel, will be in for the following follies:
The novel is (very) loosely plotted around a family reunion
on the occasion of the
funeral of old Rose Moore.
Part One is entitled Hugh Moore. Its
first chapter (“In Which We Meet Our Protagonist”) concerns Hugh himself, and he, apparently,
is just waking up (or not) with a hangover. Thus he is barely coherent. The wordplay contained here includes lines like
"Dharma wah-doop had. Chew on a ruin? Turnip grounds and locket watch your dune." The trained ear will recognize in this text the echo of an old Pezband song, "Stop, Wait a
Minute," which contains the lyric, "Don't know what you had you want to ruin./Turn around and look
at what you're doing." As for the couplet, "We're all fishers of meat jelly"
and "We're all fathers of mint jelly," I can only guess that incoherence is intentional, even though the
narrator states, "Not to be confusing, it all makes sense to me." I defy him to explain it then.
The line after that, "Even an interregent feels the need to be the court fool" confirms
our suspicions about the element of buffoonery here, but also takes us out of the text entirely and into
one of Gerdes's previous novels, Aspic Interregencies, a singularly unfunny book that has been circulating in
samizdat form for several years and is reportedly slated for publication by
Canadian publisher Enigmatic Ink as one of the titular Three Psychedelic Novels. What Gerdes seems to be implying is that,
to maintain some sort of psychic equilibrium, and because that novel was so
dour (it was supposedly written immediately prior to Hugh Moore), this one is being played for yucks. "Goobydoobyfluffy, "
as he says. The foolishness continues when Gerdes retexts that foolish BeatIe
song, "I Am the Walrus": "I was hers, you were his, he was hers,
she was his, and we are all together. Dmess jujube. Sudow von Bulow fly-paper
picture, this sky with a gaberdine suit [borrowed from another song, Simon & Garfunkel's "America"] in his eye—how
gone. How gone. Carmelita Pope with a cardboard candy stand. See how she fries
without dicing the guys arm wrestling." In this case, though, the
reference is not hidden like the Pezband one. The BeatIe song is clearly being
parodied. Parody is, according to Douglas Colin Muecke, an "exaggerated
imitation of a style in order to satirize or ridicule the stylistic mannerisms
or mannered ways of thought or both," and it is this
element of ridicule that relates parody to humor. According to James Hugunin of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who has written on Gerdes before, the notion of parody is important in an historical overview leading to an explanation of humor.
The buffoonery returns
later in the chapter: "I think I'm falling in—fuck it—who's the
bozo here?" Bozo, of course, is a famous clown, and the "falling" metaphor for the initial
feelings of attraction to someone works together with the clown name to reemphasize the
humor of the stumbling man.
Later in that first chapter, after smoking a cigarette, which loosens his sphincter, Hugh goes into a portable toilet and is surprised that the toilet paper has a dark brown floral pattern. Conrad Hyers, in The Spirituality of Comedy, posits that "the archaic staples of comedy are thus the earthen trinity of sex, food, and body wastes," so here Gerdes is reverting to this archaic humor.
Another form of ridicule enters the chapter near its end when Hugh goes into a bar and engages in form of conversation known as "duelogue," or verbal sparring, with a character named Bill. Bill and Hugh are laughing because one of them has just suggested that a friend of theirs, Molly, who has not been having luck with men, should try lesbianism instead. Molly comes over to find out why they are laughing. Bill says that Hugh just told him the size of "his thing." Hugh says that Bill wasn't laughing at it—he was crying. Bill says that's because he's been peeling onions. Hugh says Bill's been pulling his onion. Bill says at least he has one to pull. Even when Hugh first comes into the bar, Bill confronts him with an aggressive pun—"Fuck Hugh," he says. This verbal duelogue is similar to the African-
American game of dozens, which Chester Himes and Richard Wright have both written about.After the first chapter about Hugh, we get chapters about other family members, all of
whom are also expected at the funeral. All of their names are also puns. Chapter Two focuses on three brothers who are burglars. Their names, of course, are Jimi, Nick, and Rob Moore. This section also contains wordplay. In robbing a house, they find a book about s, "Stake a word, amy word, and fill it fulla stuffing, add it to a Liszt and play it on pianer." Jackson's book deals with liberation from linguistic prisons and is filled with puns like the Liszt one above.
Chapter Three is about two alcoholics who decide to get drunk before heading out for the funeral. They go to a bar and literally drink themselves sick. Their names? Ralph andChuck Moore, of course. Ralph is Hugh's brother. Ralph tells a very long and humorous story about a bad trip to Lake Superior he had, a trip that involved drinking, a car accident, getting sick (a habit for the guy), lying to the police, etc.
Chapter Four is from the perspective of the dead woman.
Since she is writing this
from beyond, it is appropriate that she is named Rose Moore. She's left behind an incontinent widower, John Moore. Her pall bearers are Barry and Carrie Moore. The undertaker is Doug Moore. Some base archaic humor returns in this section when, in a piece of writing she had produced a while before, written from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy going into the hospital for hernia surgery, Rose states, "It looked like I had three balls."
Chapter Five is set in the law offices of, you guessed it,
Will Moore (whom John
Moore calls Bill Moore). Will is Rose's attorney. There is a wonderful exchange between
them when Will says, "Here's the bill, John," and John replies, "Where's the john, Bill?"
punning with scatology, and thus does extra service for humor. One
wishes Gerdes would do that sort of thing more often. A phone call from a relative interrupts them—minimalist artist Les Moore. Les' sons are also painters: Art Moore, a neo-abstract expressionist, and Mark Moore, a graffiti artist who runs around with his doped-up cousin Phil Moore following their aunt Carol Moore's band. Will's son is Harry Moore. Will's wife, Sue Moore, is also an attorney. John's close with a distant relative who has survived several husbands, Mary Moore.
Chapter Six is the sex chapter and features Dick Moore, Fanny Moore, and the woman they both love, Perry Moore. Jackson returns briefly, wondering if he's a lesbian trapped in a man's body.
Chapter Seven is about Dick's sister, Grace, who lives
according to the rules of
etiquette. She has a second cousin who is a sea lore poet named Seaglass Moore, which is not only a pun on J.D. Salinger's character Seymour Glass, but raises the head of parody again (note that Gerdes quotes from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters later in the book. He has stated that Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, particularly "Seymour: An Introduction," is his favorite of Salinger's works).
Henri Bergson discusses a process called inversion as it is employed in humor and suggests that during this process situations are reversed and roles are reversed, resulting, in short, in "topsyturveydom."
This is well illustrated in this chapter, where Grace, so proper, has a cognac, and then her thoughts begin cascading backwards on themselves. This is marked by a reverse arrow as punctuation between phrases and clauses, so that each following clause or phrase seems to be informing the preceding one:
Thank you ← looks weird ← looks weirder ← my eyes are crossed ← no, I’m not Catholic ← stop looking at me creep ← men in this town ← I don’t know ← I think it’s disgusting ← standing on a streetcorner with his pants dropped ← his beer on the mailbox ← how they drink that I’ll never know ← no class ← of course they’re all crass ← nothing like kissing someone with cigarette and beer breath ← gross (97)
This paragraph ridicules
and mocks traditional fiction writing style, a mockery that
seems to be a recurring motif, if not a central theme, in Hugh Moore (cf. Hoy tomb mutilate
the English lingo and the nearly blank pages in Chapter Three and Chapter
Eight). Indeed, Rose herself states that:
most [writers] have
limited their freedom in exchange for a guarantee of steady
financial income. In other words, they've modified their artistic stances to
accommodate the wishes of the holder of the bankroll; the department of English;
Strunk and White; the dictates of Science Fiction, Mystery, Romance in their stricter
forms; the desire for popularity among students, particularly of the opposite gender;
the President; the Board; current fashion; artistic convention; historical progression;
the failure of the individual to assert his individuality except in forms accepted by the
group, which tricks him into abandoning that essential individuality and dividing the
artist from his self.
Invertebrates who need an exoskeleton to cling to. (57)
So, much of the humor in Hugh
Moore, is indeed ridicule, though perhaps without
much affection. The objects of ridicule are the objects of writing itself.
Chapter Eight focuses on Carol and her entourage, including Phil Moore, Mark Moore and Carol's sound man, Mike Moore. This chapter also marks the first appearance of a recurring Country & Western song Gerdes uses in his novels (cf. Cistern Tawdry): "I'm in the Drinking Car of My Train of Thought," which is itself parodic of standard country music themes.
Chapter Nine continues the story of Carol, who is backstage before a gig and is with her little son, Pat Moore, who is giving her a backrub. Another parodic country music title appears in this chapter: "Just Don't Sit in the Shitbox." Hugh reappears in this chapter, as does Jackson. Also appearing is Wakelin, the main character from Gerdes' first novel, The Million-Year Centipede; or, Liquid Structures. Wakelin is a Jim Morrison-like lead singer, but his involvement here is incidental. The chapter disintegrates into non-linear prose (literally, for the lines move up and down and curl around, a technique that has since been explored by other writers, notably novelist Kenneth Patchen, though its origins can be traced back to Apollinaire) (151), and then into a warning on successive pages: "No!" and "No more writing! THIS IS STUPID! GET OUT." "LIVE. DON'T READ BOOKS UNLESS YOU." "HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO." "YOU'RE DYING. I'M DYING. GO OUT AND LIVE. NOW. NOW. NOW. NOW."
That, apparently, was Jackson's usurpation of the chapter
and his attempt to end this book, which Hugh is writing. Jackson is Hugh's upstairs neighbor, and when Hugh
admonishes Jackson for his attempt to end the book, Jackson overflows his bathtub so that the water will run down into Hugh's apartment. Here in the chapter, the text, in a manner akin to the concretists, forms Hugh's face.
Chapter Ten is the "Meditation of Mary," of Mary
Moore, that is, though the religious
double meaning seems to be intentional. Much of this chapter concerns Hugh's waiting for
Mary to provide him with the material for the chapter, but she is not forthcoming, and at a
crucial point, even has her phone disconnected. So he kills time in the chapter and rambles until he gets fed up and leaves. At that point, Jackson takes over again and tells us he's the real author of the book. Hugh eventually reappears, comes to Jackson's door, and lets us know he's gone and gotten Mary's Meditation, which finishes the chapter and the first part of the book.
The second part of the book is entitled Jackson Berlin. Its first chapter, Jackson Flies a Kite, is
very light, almost juvenile, and contains drawings of design patterns that look
like circles, zigzags, flowers, mandalas, dollar signs, and wedges. Then the text
up, down, left, and right on the same page. All the rules of fiction are being ridiculed
again. We see Jackson moving out of the building where he was living above Hugh (his five
days' notice appears earlier, in Part One, Chapter Nine). Jackson puts up a page of
the novel for rent, and we can see that, indeed, he has wrested control of the text from
Chapter Two of this part is about Stuarts on Berlin,
Jackson's brother. This family
member's chapter is quite different from the Moore family chronicles in the first part. Here,
the names no longer seem to be puns, and the subject matter becomes more intimate and
personal and not so buffoonish. There is what appears to be a sincere questionnaire for the reader which asks personal questions of the reader), which seems to be Jackson's attempt to engage the reader in a way that is not aggressively confrontational, the way puns can be.
Chapter Three details Jackson's feelings for a co-worker
named Liv. This continues in a confessional, unfunny way. The Jackson Berlin part is notably free of the
characterized the Hugh Moore part. Hugh reappears in Chapter Four, but something is wrong, and Jackson begins to feel that he and Hugh are the same person in two guises.
In Chapter Five, Jackson is obsessing about Liv again, and their relationship, which culminated in carnal passion, disintegrates.
Chapter Six sees a return to our funeral story. Rich Moore, the wealthy family
member who sponsored the family reunion, greets the various family members and we see his thoughts about them. Sections of this are interwoven with sections about Jackson's relationship. The Moore family parts see a return to some humor, such as when Pat calls Rich a bonehead, and when Chuck and Ralph engage in duelogue, but essentially, with the funeral party, all the fun has gone out of the novel, and the humor decreases to a whimper.
The Epilogue is even more grim. It's Hugh/Jackson looking back at the preceding
manuscript years later, after he's found it in his sister's house. He'd lost it years earlier, and
just reread it. He describes his brain as having rot in it and himself as shaky and old.
The Epilogue reads like the last words of a dying man, and so, a novel that began with
humorous intent, ends in sadness.
What was eutelesteroic tilts back to the semnoteroic, and equilibrium is regained.
Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley
Brereton. New York: Macmillan, 1914.
Gerdes, Eckhard. Cistern Tawdry. New York: Fugue State Press, 2003
---. Hugh Moore. Niles, MI: Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2011.
---. The Million-Year Centipede: or, Liquid Structures, Hyattsville, MD: Raw Dog Screaming
---. Przewalski’s Horse. Los Angeles, Red Hen Press, 2007.
Hugunin, James R. “Patterning the Verbal Pater.” in Gerdes, Cistern Tawdry.
---, ed.. History 3876: Art and Humor. Chicago: SAIC, 1997.
Hyers, M. Conrad. The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic Heroism in a Tragic World. New
Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1996.
Muecke, Douglas Colin. The Compass of Irony. London: Methuen, 1980.
Rapp, Albert. The Origins of Wit and Humor. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1951.
Salinger, J.D. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction. New
York: Little, Brown, 1963.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. “On Women.” Essays and Aphorisms. trans. R.J. Hollingdale.
London: Penguin Books, 1970.
 Shinola is an American slang term for the sort of cure-all elixirs
used to peddle out of the backs of trucks. These concoctions consisted primarily of alcohol
and flavored water.