A few weeks ago, I finished reading Ted Heller’s satiric novel Pocket Kings, which is told by an increasingly repulsive male character who replaces making up things for a living (writing novels) with living an imaginary life on the internets (playing online poker) and I enjoyed it. I put off writing about it, though, because my fear of the satire’s cleverness is that anything I say will make me end up screaming, like the Captain of the Firefly, “Trap!”
The more visible traps, for a reviewer, are the explicit criticisms of the editing world and the execrable taste of literary consumers, who will line up to buy a book with a title like Saucier: A Bitch in the Kitchen. Heller’s narrator Frank, author of Plague Boy, Love: A Horror Story, and Dead on Arrival, thinks that today Moby Dick would be published as “just the whale parts and the book would wind up on the ‘Who Knew?’ table in Barnes & Noble….and yet…there are hideously pretentious and shockingly juvenile portions of Jonathan David Foster Safroenzthem’s Everything Motherless is Infinitely Heartbreaking and Corrected (which I have not read and which I will never read, but I have seen the reviews) that somehow made it into print, that some editor—thanks to a three-martini lunch?—okayed.”
The less explicit warnings about literary allusions as traps in this novel are in Frank’s descriptions of his own (fictional) fiction:
“Every time I see the word “tony” I can’t help but think of the posh well-to-do golf-playing, tennis-playing swell Tony Newport in Love: A Horror Story. How come not 1 single solitary reviewer ever pointed out that clever pun? What, they didn’t get it? And how come not 1 single reviewer mentioned that the name of the coffee bar in Plague Boy was Max Perkins and that there was once a very famous editor named Max Perkins? And back to Love again: Why did not 1 single reviewer mention that the names of the two movie body doubles in the book were Bill Wilson and Golyadkin? Were they not familiar with Poe’s doppelganger story The Double, whose main character is named Golyadkin?”
The purpose of my attempt to run between all these traps is that I believe, as Lev Grossman says, that a critic’s job these days is to provide context and make any prospective reader a better reader. I think of most of the context I provide here as confessional (e.g. this is how I read; maybe you could look at this book from my perspective for a minute). So although what I want to do after reading Pocket Kings is whine, like Frank, that it would be more fun to play around with literary allusions or on the internet, what the satire invites all of us to do is to have fun seeing the points that the narrator misses—when Frank goes on a road trip with some of his internet poker buddies, he ends up with even less idea of what kind of people they really are than he started out with. By the time he goes off to London without his wife, thinking that he’s going to meet both his literary and his internet mistresses there, it’s clear that the only person he’s fooling is himself.
For every time you’ve laughed at the xkcd comic about not being able to go to bed because “there’s something wrong on the internet,” you’ll be repulsed by the way Frank is unable to see himself as others see him, like on the day that his internet poker site isn’t up: “I checked every few minutes to see if it was back. Sometimes I just clicked on the refresh button so I suppose I was, from time to time, checking every few seconds. I went to the kitchen, opened a box of Froot Loops, checked the site, went back and got the milk out, checked the site, went back to the kitchen and poured the milk over the cereal, checked the site, then brought the bowl into my study and kept checking with every spoonful. Two hours later I interrupted a pee halfway through, checked to see if the site was back up, and then went back into the bathroom to finish.”
Pocket Kings shows a virtuoso touch with exaggeration, plenty of examples for vituperation, and implicit recommendations for solving the problem–which you’ve heard before but perhaps they will have never struck you so urgently as when you finish reading this satiric novel, get up to wash your hands, and…perhaps think about talking to someone else in your house before you go over to the computer, maybe consider taking stock of your supply of sense before splattering the rest of the world with your sensibility.