Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Perverseness of Nick Maandag: Harvey Knight's Odyssey

As a comedic writer, Nick Maandag follows a kind of logic that defies standard expectations of what a comic narrative should be like. In his new book, Harvey Knight's Odyssey, he's downright perverse about taking readers down blind alleys, subverting expectations, telling shaggy dog stories, and otherwise refusing to end his stories on anything resembling a conventional punchline. For Maandag, the humor is found in that repeated defiance of reader expectations that follows its own torturous logic. It reduces personal narratives to banalities at best and deluded acts of violence at worse. He is absolutely ruthless with regard to the concept of the quotidian, slice-of-life story, satirizing it like a wrecking ball. He's even meaner when it comes to the cruel pointlessness of religion and work culture, even if the satire doesn't seem to be his main objective. Maandag engages in vicious absurdity for its own sake, escalating absurd premises beyond a reader's comfort level until they go so far off the rails that they deliberately abandon the story's original idea and frequently reason itself. 

Maandag starts small in "The Plunge," the first of three stories in the book. It starts with a simple premise: Nick Maandag, in his office job, decides to start using a French press to work in order to make coffee instead of getting it from Tim Horton's. He's hesitant for a moment, for fear of being seen as pretentious, but then he reasons: why would anyone care or notice? Maandag takes that premise and takes it in an unexpected direction. In dialogue that is bone-dry and deliberately, maddeningly banal, his coffee-making goes in a different direction. His curious coworkers watch him go through the steps of using a French press and are fascinated by it, as he goes through a little narrative. Soon, his coffee-making becomes a ritual, as onlookers are excited for "the plunge," when he pushes the press down. Maandag even starts to become more elaborate in his narrative. The whole thing takes on a life of its own, until the entire office comes to watch. It ends on a newcomer saying, "That's it?", but the whole point of the story is not that this is interesting, but that so many people in this desperately soul-crushing environment gain the slightest bit of solace from a community experience that celebrates a moment of pleasure. It also attains a cult-like status (one co-worker says "We're always accepting new members"), even if the object of this cult is unbelievably trivial. 

Maandag runs with that idea in the title story. It starts with a crazy premise--a cult called the Church of the Holy Radiance--and goes in directions that utterly deflate the dogmatic qualities of the religion and reduce it to simple human greed and other base emotions. The religion believes that certain creatures are beings of light and others are beings of darkness, and humans are somewhere in-between. The Church aims to increase the light in humans (through obeying doctrines but also tanning beds), but this creates evil shadow beings that Church members now have a legal right to murder. There's an excruciating sequence where there's a lecture on which insects are dark and which are light that's every bit as arbitrary as any religious dogma. However, the titular Harvey Knight conspires against the cult's leader, steals his tanning bed, and eventually murders him. Harvey also hires a new assistant to do "experiments" that include skinning the old leader and turning that skin into a prop for a musical that includes maggots doing a can-can dance. The story and its characters get distracted and bored by their own narratives, forgetting to run their church or go to their own play. The ending is more of the same in terms of non-sequiturs, as a distracted and possibly addled Harvey decides to go explore the sewers. The "Odyssey" here rambles and makes no sense; it's like the antithesis of a Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey. Maandag's plain and simple line accentuates this, as he draws absurd things (Harvey's misshapen head is an inherently funny drawing) in a nonchalant fashion. 

The final story, "Full Day," is a recapitulation of both of the first two stories in the book. It's an "Odyssey" of its own, only it's far removed from the absurd premise of the "Harvey Knight" entry and more in line with the first story. It's a "day in the life" wherein Maandag goes through a series of extremely silly and annoying obstacles. A sweeping machine that only clears sidewalks in the daytime deliberately sucks up his hat because he's walking too slowly. An elevator closes on him repeatedly. A lecture from the boss on work-as-family is an obvious pretext to start firing people. Maandag faces a dumb and arbitrary performance review metric and gets increasingly in the weeds with it as the company sends someone to evaluate him in the middle of the task; Maandag gets in trouble for using folders wastefully. In the middle of the evaluation, he's asked to evaluate the evaluator in the most mind-numbingly awful survey ever. Maandag's failure to complete a task leads to a shaggy dog story of dead ends, pointless conversations, kidnapping, and abject failure. A homeless woman flashing him on the train leads to him being pulled into a complaint of being harassed, ending with a grief counselor chasing him to give him condolences.. The day is a pointless one: nothing is learned, nothing is gained, and all of it is a waste of time. 

It's a waste of time for everyone but the reader, that is, as Maandag's deadpan humor and drawings are a perfect conflation of ennui, absurdity, and total meaninglessness. This one doesn't quite have the more visceral belly laughs of his other recent work, but it's also fair to see that this book is much more conceptual in nature than his past comics. There's no hope or meaning to be found here, and that gleeful nihilism and total subversion of narrative expectations can be a gut punch at times. Maandag knows it too, and just when you think there's going to be a moment of character growth, Maandag short-circuits it with something absurd happening or that character (literally) choosing violence.

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