Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Different Kind of Apocalypse in Simon Rich's Feig-Allen Hybrid Speculative Romantic Comedy, "What in God's Name."

So years ago I came upon this book called Ant Farm. I read it; thought it hilarious. I passed it to Jason; also loved it. We sold a few at Schwartz, but it was a bit of an uphill battle.

Hey, I found the rec I wrote when the collection came out in 2007.

Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations, by Simon Rich, Random House, 2007.
Honestly this is the goofiest and by that I mean most delightful book of humorous essays I have read in some time. It’s all very Paul Feig-like in its focus on middle school, like when the judge sentences the perp and victim to forty years. “I don’t care who started it!” The gang looks for the old man’s booze in “Slumber Party.” A guy’s rough patch leads to trouble naming colors in “Crayola Co.” And some mnemonics lead to a little cultural strife in “Homework.” Sometimes they miss, but really, why isn’t this guy famous?

Wel. it turned out he did become a well-known commodity in the industry. I started seeing his byline in The New Yorker. I learned he was a staff writer for Saturday Night Live. He was also contributing to The Believer. Just last week I read his wonderful column, told from the perspective of...well, I can't tell you, as that gives away the joke. I also can't link you to it, as the New Yorker is subscription only. Hey, you should subscribe like I do. Let me climb back aboard the thought train...
A second collection comes out, Free-Range Chickens, as does a novel, Elliot Allagash. The novel is optioned for film by Jason Reitman. I checked sales and we hadn’t sold a copy of either (I’m transitioning from the Downer Schwartz to Boswell seamlessly, as we share a database) book in either format. I suspect the track isn’t that great. Believe me, I know about track records. I am pulling my hair out that an American publisher won’t pick up Shauna Singh Baldwin’s new novel, The Selector of Souls, even with The Tiger’s Claw shortlisted for the Giller Prize, and also optioned for film. Apparently track on the first novel (two novels ago) is part of the problem. But OK, that’s for a different essay.

I decided to pick up the new novel, What in God’s Name (Reagan Arthur Books, $23.99, it's out next Tuesday), mostly as a breather between upcoming event books. It really takes the pressure off to read a book where you’re quite positive that the publisher will never send the author. I don’t have to be on my best behavior! Well, to be sure, I should stick with dead authors, but why not, I’m going to live dangerously? In Rich’s world or maybe it’s ours, heaven is run like a company, with angels calling the shots. Craig works in miracles, and is training Eliza, who has been promoted from prayer intake. She’s organized prayers by a number system, and has noticed that an inordinate amount of praying revolves around field goals, and most of these cancel each other out, so why waste God’s time with them? Eliza is a bit na├»ve, but very capable.

The problem is that their jobs are no long for this world.—God has gotten bored with Earth, which in his mind is on a downward trajectory anyway. He’s going to destroy it with either fire or ice, he hasn’t decided yet. And anyway, he wants to concentrate his attention on opening Sola, his new Asian fusion restaurant. The heaven bits in particular remind me quite a bit of vintage Woody Allen essays, and also was reminded of Sleeper.

Back to the plot setup. Craig, who now has a connection to God as he’s promised to invest in the enterprise, has a good heart and doesn’t want the world to end. So he makes a bet that if he can perform one agreed-upon miracle in the next month, God will call off his plan. And the miracle? To get two nebbish New Yorkers to fess up to their mutual attraction and kiss.

So angels can do certain things, like manipulate temperature, wind currents, and other natural phenomena. They can make age a battery and start a fire. But what they can’t do is force people do to something they don’t want to do. It’s sort of like the rules of Edward Eager’s children’s novels (Half Magic, et al) or the The Fairy Godparents television series. It’s not magic in this case, but divine intervention, but whatever you call it, it only goes so far.

Rich has a tendency to be hilarious. Several belly laughs came out of nowhere, much like the vomit that spewed from a famous talk show host’s mouth, just one of the bits of angel manipulation that moves the plot along. Another bit has an entire restaurant getting food poisoning just so Sam can lose a little weight.

Wow, does this seem like a Hollywood romantic comedy with some speculative elements woven in? Who was that director of Bridesmaids? Why it was Paul Feig, the guy I compared Rich to in my review five years ago. It even does that Hollywood thing where the protagonist is a nebbish Jewish guy and the heroine is a very glamorous (and most decidedly not Jewish) actress playing regular gal.

If I had one problem with What in God’s Name, the hoop, so to speak, that I had trouble jumping through, it's that there's some sort of line between a novel and a movie treatment, and I couldn’t get past my thoughts that instead of reading the former, I was reading the latter, remolded into the former. One day I’ll be able to analyze the detailed points that helped me make this decision, but for the moment, let’s just say I’m making the judgment, much like Rich’s God knows what is and isn’t Asian fusion.

That said, it is summer, and summer’s about escapism, and besides, this would probably be a pretty good Hollywood movie, if you got someone like Paul Feig to direct it. I laughed out loud quite a bit, and I assure you, I’ve read a lot of comic novels and essays where that’s never happened. Plus it’s pretty charming. You could totally get the girl if you gave her this book as a present.

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