Reviews

Joe Frank: Ascent

Joe Frank: Ascent

Joe Frank, Jason Novak

Fantagraphics

$25

232 pages

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The first time I came across the name of Joe Frank was in some online discussion of Blue Jam—a late night radio show that still remains Chris Morris's darkest creation. My personal favorite sketch is the story of a man who, instead of jumping from the top of a building, decides to jump from the first (second for you Americans) floor several times, in case he changes his mind mid-way. After 40 or so jumps, he doesn't get up. To someone who grew up in 80s-90s Russia, this vision of life as an incremental suicide felt comfy and familiar—Blue Jam portrayed a world where death is the answer, and the only question is how horribly can it arrive. The monologues, co-written with Robert Katz and delivered by Morris himself in his most unaffected manner, give voice to the most uncomfortably naked parts of the psyche, portraying a person completely at odds with the universe that he inhabits. The story of the playwright (clearly an attack of Morris's ex-collaborator Patrick Marber), is particularly queasy in all its ritualistic humiliations. Blue Jam was clearly inspired by Joe Frank's 80s radio show Work in Progress, which nowadays, along with the rest of Frank's archive, can be bought in its entirety for $1500, or in increments, or even streamed with a subscription, for which Ascent provides a 10% discount code printed on the back of the book, "exclusively" for its readers.

“Ascent” is a fitting title—Frank's stories tend to take a simple starting point and rise in massive unexpected leaps until there's nowhere left to go, and suddenly it's over. César Aira coined the term "flight forward" for his approach to writing the story sentence by sentence and allowing it to flow however it pleases—never going back to edit and revise, and taking each narrative encumbrance as an opportunity to go a little farther. Whether either of them actually write this way is unknown, but with Aira and with Frank you get that delightful feeling of watching the narrative invent itself in front of you, which makes all the more sense in radio format.

Despite the wide acclaim (the blurbs feature Federico Fellini and Charlie Kaufman, as well as Philip Glass's first cousin once removed), Frank is not exactly a household name, partly due to the nature of his medium (another recorded artist, Ivor Cutler, mostly known in his time for briefly appearing in some Beatles film, seems to be similarly barred from entering the literary canon). The present collection will do little to help with that, published as it is under the Fantagraphics Underground imprint with minimal production or promotion, which is a shame—Frank's stories are immaculately written, and wouldn't be out of place next to Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley and other figures of the new(-ish) American short story.

Drawn in simple confident style that reminds me of xeroxed zines of yesteryear, Jason Novak's unassuming illustrations do justice to the text. The words are spaced out, broken by rhythm, and the square panels follow this rhythm and compliment it gracefully. We never get too much detail, and Novak's interpretation still leaves plenty of room for the images to animate and grow in our imagination. Instead of imposing a vision on the reader, these drawings follow the narrative like a deft storyboard. Ascent has that often missed simultaneity in reading pictures and words, and the whole book gives an approachable and breezy touch to something rooted in despair or loneliness.

Many of Frank's monologues are poised on the brink of a total collapse, and if that collapse comes, the narrator takes it up without skipping a beat. Taking out a gun and shooting everyone present at a New Year's party, for instance. The violent motifs in Frank's stories dance along the casual nature of America's mass shootings, picking at a scab and making no attempt to explain or solve it. Frank understood that it's not a puzzle to be put apart in some thinkpiecemeal manner—the story in question continues with a return to decent banter and an absurdly long recipe, reminiscent of Harry Mathews' Country Cooking in Southern France. There's an Armando Iannucci sketch where a nice middle-aged couple sits down for dinner at an upscale restaurant, and, after a bit of small talk, the wife opens her mouth and screams for half a minute. She then excuses herself and continues the dinner. Later in the scene, the husband takes out a gun under the table and shoots down everyone around them. The wife politely reprimands him and they go on as usual. In contrast, Frank's voice is unmistakably American, but the atmosphere behind these stories is not dissimilar—that warbling scream of abject horror that most of us keep muted through our lifetimes. At the moment of writing, most comedy writers seem to float between cuddly relatability and needless offense, and there's something to be said for laughter that doesn't aim at anything profound, yet manages to get there, seemingly, by accident. The best of Kharms, Cutler and Frank do that. They start with mundane premises and scrutinize reality "to the point of madness," in the words of László Krasznahorkai, another master of apocalyptic melancholy humor.

Reading Frank’s stories without the music and the voice is like assessing rock lyrics—they might work here and there as standalone pieces, but if they were never meant to be read this way, judging these words in silence feels unfair. Frank himself said that his monologues can’t be divorced from the music that accompanied them. It makes sense—while some of them work better than others in pure script form, there is a feeling of something essential missing, even to someone like me, who isn’t intimately familiar with Frank’s delivery. One can be critical and say that the only reason his stories gained all this attention is because they were unusually good for their medium. The comedian Stewart Lee, talking about the writings of the Fall’s Mark E.Smith said that for everyone making their way through the band’s extensive discography there comes a point when one wonders—why didn’t he just write a novel? Smith didn’t seem to like being in a band, and was wildly antagonistic to everyone from fans to bandmates. But then one recognizes that Smith’s writing is inextricably linked to the medium, along with his incompatibility with the role of a bandleader and everything that it entails. Frank had a not dissimilar antagonistic quality about him, which Morris gleefully inherited, and the unlikely placement of his writings in, among other things, NPR’s All Things Considered, only makes it better.

In any case, aside from out-of-print The Queen of Puerto Rico and Other Stories, the book under review (although by this point it hardly qualifies as a review, I'm sure) is the only published collection of Frank's work, and it does a good job both as a tribute and as an introduction. The drawings in Ascent fill the space that the absence of sound leaves in the stories, and Novak approached the scripts with love and care, placing the narrative before the art, and never following the common temptation to compete with the source material. The simplicity of the drawings matches the matter-of-factness of Frank’s voice, and one can imagine them projected at a reading, along with musical accompaniment, dimmed lights, sounds of a distant highway.

"Ask me what time it is, and I'll tell you how a watch is made." That line from At the Dark End of the Bar (a festive show, which features, among other things, one of the stories from Ascent) sums up Joe Frank's approach quite well. Ascent, and Frank’s work in general, is entirely unique, and that quality justifies all of it, and negates whatever criticism I may bring up, were I inclined to do so.

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