Here's a warning: If you start reading Patricia Marx's new novel in public, you might just find yourself snorting out loud — and with some explaining to do.
The book, Starting from Happy, is a sharp-edged love story told in 618 mini-chapters. It's sprinkled with Marx's quirky line drawings of origami instructions, pie charts, pasta shapes and — for no apparent reason — a kumquat.
Marx, who writes a shopping column for The New Yorker and is a former writer for Saturday Night Live, describes her protagonist, lingerie designer Imogene Gilfeather, as an atypical female lead.
"Imogene Gilfeather says things that I wouldn't dare to say, and doesn't become a better character in the end of the book," Marx tells NPR's Melissa Block. "She has been described by one character as 'a big No.' The other character — the one who she's involved with, Wally Yez — is 'a big Yes.' "
Imogene thinks she's doing just fine on her own, so when people try to fix her up with Wally, telling her he's perfect for her, Imogene's response is telling: "Perfect ... is not my type."
"I wanted to write a book about a single woman who wasn't desperately lonely and yearning to be with a guy," Marx says. "I kind of wanted to reverse the conventional roles of man and woman in a romantic comedy: the man being much more ardent; the woman being much more committed to her work and committed to not making any commitments."
Wally, the scientist with a fondness for reading instruction manuals, is a different story.
"He is as enthusiastic as Imogene is not," Marx says. "He's just a happy guy."
'It's One Of Those Things. Like Soil Erosion.'
There are pages in Marx's novel where the text is sparse, just a series of one-liners — like "Everyone has a mother" and "It's one of those things. Like soil erosion." Think of them as shorter, more concise versions of the everyday chapter. Marx likes to call them "chaplettes."
"I'm sort of temperamentally terse," she says. "The book before this, I forced myself to get up to 20 pages per chapter, but truly I can reduce everything to about a word. If I were Shakespeare's editor, 'To be, or not to be' would be just 'Be,' question mark."
There's also an aesthetic appeal in Marx's chaplettes.
"As a writer, [I] think visually," Marx says. "And I like a pretty page, so I thought this would be kind of a nifty look with lots of blank space."
On Getting Away With Comedy
Marx has been known to say that she writes comedy because she's too shallow to do anything else.
"Being serious just makes me a little bit embarrassed," she says. "I write the shopping column. I think I've proven my superficiality."
But being the funny person can also be a burden — like when people ask her to say something funny when she isn't necessarily feeling it.
"[I] just say, 'Not today — not on Thursdays,' " Marx tells Block. "You come up with something. And then the advantage is [that] if you are billed as being funny, people laugh even if you say, 'The wall is white.' ... They don't want to not get the joke."
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Patricia Marx writes the shopping column for the New Yorker and she's a former writer for Saturday Night Live. Her female lead in the novel is Imogene Gilfeather, a lingerie designer with, as Marx writes, a cruel haircut, tall and thin with jutting cheeks and fiery red hair, she looked like a kitchen match that stubbornly would not light.
PATRICIA MARX: She has been described by one character as a big no. Imogene Gilfeather says things that I wouldn't dare to say and doesn't become a better character in the end of the book.
BLOCK: She stays the same. She starts out saying, when people are trying to fix her up with Wally Yez, they say he's perfect for you. She says, perfect is not my type. She's pretty happy or she thinks she's happy on her own, right?
MARX: And I wanted to kind of reverse the conventional roles of man and woman in a romantic comedy, the man being much more ardent, the woman being much more committed to her work and committed to not making any commitments.
BLOCK: Okay. So that's Imogene Gilfeather. Her romantic foil is Wally Yez. He's some kind of scientist, right? We're not sure exactly what.
MARX: He's some kind of scientist. I think he takes cats and makes them dizzy and studies them at some point and he looks at a lot of chipmunks. He is as enthusiastic as Imogene is not. He's just a happy, happy guy. He's a big yes.
BLOCK: He likes instruction manuals. He really has fun with them.
MARX: He loves reading instruction manuals.
BLOCK: Let's talk about the format a little bit here. Here's an example of one of your chaplets in its entirety. Everyone has a mother. Another one. It's one of those things, like soil erosion.
MARX: And, you know, I got to the end of a sentence and I thought, well, I have no more to say in this chapter. I also, as a writer, think visually and I like a pretty page, so I thought this would be kind of a nifty look with lots of blank space.
BLOCK: You said, at one point, not in this book, but earlier, that you write comedy because you're too shallow to do anything else.
MARX: I say that hoping people go, oh, no, you're really not. But they really don't. Being serious just makes me a little bit embarrassed, earnestness does. So it is kind of superficial. You know, I write the shopping column. I think I've proven my superficiality.
BLOCK: Is it ever sort of a burden? Do you feel pressure? You know, I'm a humorist. People are going to expect me to be funny. If I'm just not feeling funny that day, what do I do?
MARX: Oh, gosh, is it ever. It's at times like that that I wish I were a lawyer because I want somebody to say, she's a lawyer. Say something legal or, you know.
BLOCK: Well, what do you do when, you know, people are looking at you just expectingly, waiting for you to be funny?
MARX: Just say, not today. Not on Thursdays. I don't know what you do. You come up with something. And then the advantage is, if you're billed as being funny, people laugh even if you say, you know, the wall is white.
BLOCK: Really? Oh, you think they just go along with it?
MARX: Yeah. They don't want to not get the joke.
BLOCK: Well, that's got to be a relief and tempting, I would think.
BLOCK: Patty Marx, why don't we end by having you read to us one of your chaplets. This is chaplet 224. It's a happy point, an early point in Imogene and Wally's relationship.
MARX: Okay. There was always something to celebrate. The five month anniversary of the first time they touched each other on purpose. The three month anniversary of the first time they took public transportation together. The two day anniversary of the first time they saw each other with wet hair. The seven month, three week, two day, four hour anniversary of when Wally really knew. They liked to reminisce about the instant that just went by.
BLOCK: It's Patricia Marx reading from her novel, "Starting from Happy." Patricia Marx, thanks so much.
MARX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.