imomus (imomus) wrote,

The lie factory and other negro oddities

My novel The Book of Jokes, due in a month, has collected its second review (the first was in Dossier Journal). On a page featuring reviews of Nick Cave and Thomas Pynchon's new novels, Publishers Weekly clusters the following adjectives around my debut: phantasmagorical, twisted, meandering, dark, absurd, funny, strong, short, crude.

Publishers Weekly is important because their reviews have a semi-official status -- being featured, for instance, on pages. Here's what the new review says:

The Book of Jokes Momus. Dalkey Archive, $13.95 paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-56478-561-9
Known primarily for his avant-garde music, Momus (aka Nick Currie) proves that he is no slouch as fiction writer either, easily translating his iconoclastic vision to prose. The novel is a phantasmagorical ride through dirty jokes that, in Momus’s twisted alternate reality, dictate the lives of a very unfortunate family. It’s all here: bestiality, incest, rape, murder and combinations thereof, as if related in the locker room of a junior high. There is no clear narrative structure; the action meanders through anecdotes told by the narrator—sometimes a young boy, and sometimes his hugely endowed father—who lives in a glass house and is sometimes imprisoned with a pair known only as the Murderer and the Molester. The humor is dark and absurd and genuinely funny (though not for everyone), and the style is reminiscent of Naked Lunch, with puns and coarse jokes instead of caterpillars and otherworldly creatures. This strong and short novel, despite its uncompromising structure and style, is delightfully crude and never ever dull.

I clicked across to Amazon to see if they'd added this review yet -- they hadn't -- and was intrigued to see that when you type "Momus Book of Jokes" into the Amazon search slot you get directed to The Bureau of Negro Oddities: Containing all the popular jokes, dialogues, stories, repartees, lectures, interludes, conundrums, of the leading Ethiopian artists of the day (Unknown Binding), by an author known only as Distinguished Son of Momus. The book, first published by Fisher and Denison in 1869, is out of print, and the internet can tell me nothing about its author ("Did you mean: distinguished son of moms?" Amazon asks me, blankly, blandly).

There are, however, lots of books about Momus. In fact, there's a connection between the most famous of them -- "Momus", the satire by humanist scholar Leon Battista Alberti -- and The Book of Jokes. In an interesting Bookforum essay about Alberti, Ingrid Rowland tells us that this multi-talented renaissance man (he could "parse a Latin phrase, tame a horse, or jump six feet in the air from a standing position" -- or so he bragged) finished the manuscript of "Momus" in 1450, at which time he was working as an employee of the papal Curia in Rome (he befriended Pope Nicholas V, according to Vasari). Alberti had also spent time in Florence with the Medici.

Now, it so happens that one significant influence on The Book of Jokes -- I use a couple of gags from it, as well as the title -- is the original Book of Jokes written by Poggio Bracciolini, who was also an Italian humanist scholar of the 15th century, also worked for the Medicis, and also worked for the papacy at the Vatican. Both men were fans of the lively Greek satirist Lucian, who wrote often about Momos, the Greek god of mockery. Poggio was writing The Book of Jokes (the Liber Facetiarum) in 1451, just a year after Alberti completed the book of Momus.

Jest Upon Jest, John Wardroper's history of comedy, tells us that most of the dirty stories which comprise the Liber Facetiarum were told in "a sort of club in the papal secretariat, a secluded room jokingly called the bugiale or lie-factory, 'where we collected the news of the day and conversed on various subjects, mostly for relaxation... Nobody was spared... Often the Pope himself was the first subject of our criticism.'" (That's Poggio himself speaking.)

I wonder if Alberti used to hang out in this irreverent Vatican club house with Poggio? Do the original "Momus" and the original "Book of Jokes" come from the same shit-shooting sessions at the same "lie factory"? A bureau of oddities indeed.
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