Meet the Other Matt Sharp(e)
Written by Bwog Staff
Can the apocalypse be funny? Ashraya Gupta, Bwog’s Blue Notebooks correspondent (and member herself), summarizes novelist Matthew Sharpe’s recent visit to Morningside and reviews his latest, Jamestown.
Not the ex-bassist for Weezer, but Matthew Sharpe, author of the best post-annihilation novel this side of the Book of Revelations—well, maybe.
Matthew Sharpe has the kind of acerbic yet winsome humor you’d expect of someone capable of writing dialog like this:
“Like you’re so happy, Rolfe. Hope you don’t get murdered in your sleep. Good night. Up yours.”
“Where do you think Smith is?”
“Also up yours, I would guess.”
The Rolfe in question would be John Rolfe, the English colonist, who died sometime around 1622. Smith, of course, is John Smith, whom you probably remember from Pocahontas, the Disney movie. Sharpe’s new novel, Jamestown (Soft Skull, 2007), succeeds in all the ways Disney failed: it stays true to the story. At least, as true as you can stay when you’re shifting everything forwards about half a millennium and adding a devastating war between the city-states of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Last Thursday, during an event sponsored by the Blue Notebooks, Sharpe spoke about the new novel, his process as a writer, and why violence (think lots of arrows, in excruciating places) makes for the best comedy (ditto).
Bethany Rower conducted the interview. After a short introduction from Rower, Sharpe opened by saying, “I’m glad I haven’t been subjected to the new Columbia tradition of being denounced before I speak.”
He then quickly shifted gears into how he became a writer. A colleague of his, he said, used to dress up for work, donning a fedora and necktie every time he sat down to write. Sharpe didn’t go to such lengths, but found that “one of the most helpful things…to be a writer, was to pretend to be a writer.”
His first collection, Stories from the Tube (Villard, 1998), related to this idea of trying on other lives. Each story is based on a TV commercial—Sharpe wondered if the characters could transcend their lives as commodities. His next work, the novel Nothing is Terrible (Random House, 2000), he began while he was getting his MFA at Columbia. It’s a modern bildungsroman, stemming from the “post-modern notion of recycling.” Sharpe explained, “A particular generation…doesn’t necessarily exhaust the possibilities of a story.”
He added, “I always feel a little bit like I’m full of bullshit when I do these things.”
Nothing is Terrible sold well according to his mother, but not so well according to Random House, so Sharpe found himself in need of a publisher when he completed his next novel, The Sleeping Father (Soft Skull, 2003). Small-scale, independent press Soft-Skull came to the rescue. Random House must have kicked themselves hard after The Sleeping Father was released. Featured on the Today Show Book Club, the novel brought Sharpe and Soft-Skull unprecedented success. It’s the story of a divorced dad with two kids, who emerges from a psycho-pharmaceutical-induced coma with aphasia, an inability to use language. “So that’s that one,” Sharpe said, “a lighthearted comedy for you.”
He was joking, but there’s a truth behind the statement—and Jamestown reveals it. It’s a novel full of violence, set in a dystopic, but not-too distant future, and it is funny. Dead funny.
At one point, a man leaps from one moving truck to another in search of liquor and falls to his death. His comrades leave him with the epitaph, “HERE LIES HERB MANGOLD, WHO WANTED A DRINK.”
The novel is timely, not only because this year was Jamestown’s 400th anniversary, but because it is tied to today’s political climate. Sharpe explained, “This is a myth, a founding myth…And one of the features of a myth is that we reenact them—are we still enacting this myth? Yes, we are.”
Here we are, Sharpe described, invading another country for aims both sycophantically idealized and deeply material, facing an “ineptitude that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so horrifying.”
Asked by Rower about any kind of hope that may remain, he replied, incredulous, “You found hope in this book?”
Ultimately, however, he admits, “There’s a love story at the heart of the novel,” and more than that, it’s the words themselves that provide solace. It may be a misnomer, but Sharpe is in some ways a writer’s writer. He loves the “transmission of wisdom via taking great care with language,” and it is here that Jamestown succeeds most. From the linguistic pyrotechnics of a teenaged Pocahontas to Johnny Rolfe’s unaddressed wireless messages, sent out somewhere to enter the static of the universe, Sharpe traverses voices as well as he traverses time zones. It’s a journey worth taking.