Patrick Langley on Comedy and Violence

In “Life with Spider,” your story in this week’s issue, a young man named Fletcher encounters a creature with six legs, jet-black skin, and no eyes, ears, or mouth. This is Spider, and Fletcher finds that Spider is everywhere he is, in increasingly menacing and forward ways. But Fletcher is less surprised than he might be, because he recognizes Spider. And yet Spider terrorizes him. There are lots of ways that Spider can be read as a metaphor—for depression, terror, self-hatred—but this is a story with a lot of very concrete action. How did you go about balancing these two modes of storytelling?

I should mention at the outset that I find a lot of what happens to Fletcher very funny. It’s horrific, too, of course; that tension is at the heart of the story. If there is comedy there, I think it also points to the two modes you identify, and how they relate to each other within the text. However unsettling, icky, or frightening the reader finds Spider, they will, I am sure, recognize it for what it is: a literary device. Fletcher is not so lucky. He is familiar with Spider’s weight and texture, the click of its legs on his kitchen floor, how the light bends when it touches its skin. Perhaps above all, he knows, all too well, the mood that comes upon him whenever Spider is there—not a physical quality, exactly, but a felt sense of its presence.

From the beginning, I decided that I was going to treat Spider with the rigor I would afford to a human character. Since thought and speech were unavailable, this meant exploring how it morphed and moved. While writing, the two modes you describe seemed at points to converge. To say of Spider that it “trips Fletcher up” or “weighs him down” is to state the material case using figures of speech. This doubleness or blurriness hedges against the idea that Spider “represents” any one thing. Spider booby-traps Fletcher’s life. Hopefully, while doing so, it wriggles free of any neat definition.

It’s interesting that this story isn’t told by Fletcher, or by a third-person narrator. There’s an unnamed person telling it, a friend of Fletcher’s. What does that slight distance, that as-told-to mode, allow you to do, as a writer?

Having a teller who is implicated in the tale, who first conceals and then confesses to a betrayal, lends “Life with Spider” a moral dimension that it would otherwise have lacked. When the story first came to me, it was a third-person account of a dark time in Fletcher’s life. It only really clicked when I struck upon the idea of the reluctant confession. The as-told-to mode brings shame and loyalty into the picture. In doing so, it heightens the ambiguity of perspective.

I mentioned earlier that I find what happens to Fletcher funny, but it’s important that he is both an object of comedy, hence the nod to the cartoon violence of “Tom and Jerry,” and one of compassion, perhaps even pity. While writing, I was reminded that Buster Keaton was one of Samuel Beckett’s favorite actors—that face!—and thought of Beckett’s cruelly hilarious aphorism, in “Endgame”: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” I don’t always agree with this sentiment, but he’s right to suggest—his work demonstrates—that humor and pathos are often inextricable.

Fletcher embarks on a quest to get rid of Spider, trying to drown it, burn it, even microwave it. Nothing works. In narrative terms, how do you deal with this kind of dead end? Did you see a way out from the beginning?

That the story presented me with an apparent dead end gave rise to its antic propulsion. If all you see is walls, then, sooner or later, you’ll start to bounce off them. Fletcher’s life with Spider first came to me as a succession of semi-tragic, semi-slapstick vignettes, a catalogue of all the energetic ways in which he struggles to defeat a foe that is—will always be—maddeningly indifferent to damage. Spider makes a Sisyphus of him. To see no way out was the beginning.

The narrator fails Fletcher, abandoning him when he’s most needed. By contrast, Spider is always there for and with Fletcher. In what way is this an optimistic conclusion?

On the one hand, it’s not optimistic at all. There is no exorcism, no remedy, no uncanny extermination. The narrator fails Fletcher, who himself is flamboyantly failing. On the other hand, if this story had concluded with Fletcher “succeeding,” with the triumph of violence against himself or Spider, it would have been too bleak, and too neat. What it resolves on instead is a form of acceptance, a détente. Out of this emerges what, to me at least, is a complicated hope. Fletcher looks forward to a time when Spider can be coaxed into performing with him while it wears a porkpie hat. At the end of the story, he’s still in the dark, but at least he’s laughing. ♦

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