It is tempting to conclude that Terry Southern has faded from the cultural memory because his work feels unavoidably "dated" due to its contemporaneous references, its time-bound subjects, the decidedly démodé familiarity of its postwar disaffection. From this perspective, Southern was essentially a topical satirist, and, as eventually happens with almost all such satire, what on its appearance seemed keenly alert to the pervading cultural winds seems to languish in stale allusions once the winds have shifted. Even an accomplishment as unequivocal as Dr. Strangelove can be harder to appreciate when the political circumstances within which it acquired its comic edge no longer apply.
However, while Southern's screenplays (not just Strangelove or Easy Rider but also the British film version of The Magic Christian) inescapably reflect the convulsive sociohistorical currents of the 1960s, his novels, with the possible exception of Blue Movie, really do not as much depend on their topical details. Indeed, one could say that Candy and The Magic Christian did much to rouse the insurgent spirit of the 60s, but acknowledgment of their literary virtues is not necessarily contingent on their status as documents of their time. Although of course like any literary work in which later readers not part of its initial audience might still take an interest, both of these novels include details and references such readers may not immediately recognize, but neither of them require familiarity with historical and cultural context for their themes and formal strategies to achieve their effects. Candy in particular has somewhat lost its ability to shock, as the sexual and literary taboos it was notorious for breaking are no longer much in force, but this might actually allow us to perceive its less sensationalist, more purely literary qualities even more clearly.
Whether or not we consider Southern to be a satirist, certainly a primary feature--perhaps the essential feature--of his work is its humor, if not satirical humor per se then a mode of humor that goes beyond traditional forms of amusement. Southern surely intends the comedy in his scenes, stories, and extended jokes to be both funny and disturbing, in some ways disturbing because it is funny (or vice versa). During the postwar period this sort of humor was referred to variously as "absurdist," as "sick" humor, or as "black humor." While there is some justification for placing Southern's fiction into each of these categories, "black humor" seems more useful (and less morally freighted), especially as it ties Southern's work to that of other writers of his generation who not merely depicted a world that seemed "absurd" in its loss of coherence following on two shatteringly destructive world wars and the rise of a new order of ideological conflict and the threat of nuclear annihilation, but did so by employing forms of humor, often drawn from popular culture, that were not traditionally "literary" and often had the effect of provoking laughter perceived as unsuitable to the subjects and situations portrayed.
Southern's fiction makes extensive use of this sort of humor, from the prolonged seduction scenes of Flash and Filigree to the crude sex jokes of Candy to the elaborate put-ons staged by Guy Grand in The Magic Christian. Indeed, Southern suffered throughout his career from a perception among readers and critics of a more refined literary sensibility (those playing the "quality lit game," in Southern's words) that his work went too far in its iconoclasm, sacrificing subtlety and craft for often coarse humor. Similar objections could be made, of course, to the work of numerous other modern writers, from Beckett to Genet to Joseph Heller, although the argument that any of these writers, in the process of evoking what Bakhtin called a "carnivalesque" kind of humor, also abandoned "craft" cannot ultimately be sustained. The question, then, is not whether Terry Southern uses this kind of humor appropriately (by definition it involves a certain degree of "excess"), but whether the comedy he does employ is in any discernible way different or distinctive in the effects it creates and the purposes to which it is directed.
In his book on Southern, Terry Southern and the American Grotesque, David Tully attempts to place Southern's work in the tradition of American fiction associated with the "grotesque" invoked in the book's title, a tradition most immediately identified with the fiction of Poe and Hawthorne. Tully's attempt to locate Southern in the American nonrealist tradition represented by these two writers is compelling and entirely justified, and his claim that Southern's fiction "neither evades nor embraces morality but simply perceives morality as part and parcel of a cultural artifice that seeks to evade or conquer nature," an effort that is doomed to failure, provides a useful interpretive tool for discerning an underlying theme uniting all of Southern's work, especially the fiction. But if Tully's view of Southern as a "decadent" Romantic adapting the worldview of Poe and Hawthorne to the conditions of mid-20th century America does give coherence to Southern's body of work, illuminating what indeed seems to be a theme to which Southern consistently returns, in his discussions of individual works he still leaves a distorted impression of the way Southern's novels and screenplays treat this prevailing theme.
"It is often difficult for people to take comedy seriously," Tully writes in his introduction, "but Southern, for all his grotesque comedy, is a deadly serious writer." That a predominantly comic vision and formal strategy can also be taken seriously is certainly an important point. Much modern and postmodern literature (not to mention 18th and 19th century writers such as Sterne, Dickens, and Twain) would have to be rejected as insufficiently serious if we were to disregard this truth. However, the "deadly" in "deadly serious" leads Tully not to point out the ways in which comedy, in Southern's work or others', is itself a representational mode well worth taking seriously for its inherent aesthetic qualities and implications, but to focus narrowly on the "serious" themes Southern explores. In this analysis, Southern is a writer determined to "say something" about modern American life--about human existence in general. Consideration of the specific ways those themes are realized by rendering them through often extreme episodes of burlesque, parody, and comic exaggeration is almost nonexistent in Tully's book, however much, as the only extant critical consideration of the work of Terry Southern, it remains a worthwhile reading of that work.
Of course, Tully is not alone in implicitly devaluing comedy except to the extent it is clearly satirical, in which case readers can in effect overlook the silliness and exaggeration in favor of the larger satirical intent—the "message" the satire wants to convey. What was called black humor disrupts the normal expectations of this kind of satirical comedy, presenting instead an apparently non-instrumental humor that does not simply subject perceived folly or corruption to the kind of ridicule that seeks correction of objectionable behavior, but treats all human activity as essentially comic, equally deserving of unqualified laughter. Such an approach certainly implies a worldview of sorts, if only that the appropriate response to the world we inhabit is to laugh at it. (That it is fundamentally absurd is indeed a perspective adopted by a number of midcentury writers, but this is not a necessary inference to be drawn from the expression of a radically comic vision--and can equally well be suggested through non-comedic means.) However, what is most provocative about this mode of black humor is not the philosophy of modern life it might advance but its challenge to our notions about the justified objects of humor, the phenomena of modern life at which it is acceptable to laugh.
Terry Southern's fiction undoubtedly belongs generally to the informal movement of writers converging around what Bakhtin called "absolute" comedy, but whether his form of such humor is similar enough to that of prototypical black humorists like Joseph Heller or Bruce Jay Friedman to comfortably link it to their work could be questioned. Since David Tully's description of Southern as offering a variant of the "grotesque" is otherwise accurate in capturing one of the qualities that defines Southern's fiction, perhaps to more fully account for its total effect we should regard the novels as examples of a kind of grotesque comedy in which "comedy" is not merely an accompaniment, an efficacious embellishment of the primary object of interest, Southern's representation of the grotesque in modern American culture. Instead, comedy doesn't reflect or duplicate the grotesque as encountered in reality but works to produce it. (Poe and Hawthorne do as well, of course, albeit through different means.) Through characters, scenes, and situations marked by his typically unrestrained brand of humor, Southern invokes a grotesque comic world resembling our own ordinary world just enough for us to laugh at it in recognition.
Southern was most successful in realizing this project in The Magic Christian, probably the least successful in Blue Movie. However, both Flash and Filigree and Candy may in fact offer a more purely grotesque depiction of its characters and their milieu, in the sense of the term Tully has in mind when he describes the American version of the grotesque as "the freakish aspect of the carnival that is American culture." Flash and Filigree, Southern's first novel, still retains its "freakish" quality (no doubt even more striking to readers in the late 1950s), which arises from the deadpan manner adopted by the novel's narrator, beginning with the extended dialogue between a doctor, Dr. Eigner, and his patient that occupies the first chapter.
Dr. Eigner sat quietly, his white drawn hands clasped, resting on the desk, his lips parted in an almost weary smile, perhaps only tolerant of his own opening cliché, inevitable, as he asked:
"And what, Mr. Treevly, seems to be the trouble?”
"Yes, replied the young man, sitting forward in the chair at first, then back easily, crossing his legs.
"Well, I don't think it's much really. I have, or rather did have, . .a certain lesion. A lesion which wouldn't or at least didn't. . .close. A rather persistent. . . ."
"I see, said Dr. Eigner, unclasping his hands and placing them flat on the desk before him. "And where is the--this lesion?"
Mr. Treevly shifted in his chair, as though about to stand. "Well," he replied instead, with a certain smugness," at first it was only a pustule. . . ."
"May I," interrupted the Doctor again, now with the faintest pained smile, ". . .may I see it?"
"Of course," said the other, speaking pleasantly, but he followed the remark with a look of extreme care. "I should like to give you some particulars. . .which may facilitate, or rather, have some-bearing-on. . .the diagnosis.
"Yes," said Dr. Eigner after a pause. "Yes, of course," and leaned back, a little heavily, perhaps even in resignation . . . .
Of course, that a doctor would be having such a conversation during an office visit is not itself at all unusual, but most readers no doubt were not accustomed to finding lesions and pustules the immediate subject under discussion in the opening pages of a novel. Southern's placement of the scene as the novel's first, as well as the poker-faced narration, help make the scene seem altogether grotesque indeed, certainly to the extent the term can be taken as synonymous with "weird." The same effect is produced two chapters later as Dr. Eigner is preparing to leave the Clinic in his imported luxury car. As he departs we are told he is given to driving "extremely fast," which he demonstrates forthwith:
These canyon roads toward noon blazed with heat, and now the sun lay afire on the mountain land, striking every light surface with wild refraction. Dr. Eigner turned down the green glass visor and floored the throttle, racing up along a slow rise in the highway road. The Delahaye touched the crest of the hill with a whirlwind drone and plunged into the descent as for an instant the black sedan was lost behind. . . .
Dr. Eigner is involved in an accident at the bottom of the hill toward which he is racing (literally, it turns out), the repercussions of which provide the novel the series of events that could be called its plot (although a parallel sequence of events follows a callow young man's efforts--ultimately successful--to seduce Babs Mintner, a nurse who works at the Clinic.) While Flash and Filigree is no lost classic, Southern's initial foray into the comically grotesque is still effectively creepy, and both its episodic structure and uncluttered style establish the approach Southern will take in his subsequent novels as well, giving them a consistency of tone that probably should not be surprising, since all three of the novels were written almost concurrently, their publication history jumbled.
Flash and Filigree was initially published only in England, while Candy appeared in the U.S. several years after the publication of The Magic Christian, even though Candy was written first. The circumstances surrounding Candy are further clouded by the fact that it is to an extent a collaboration, co-written with poet and friend Mason Hoffenberg, However, evidence suggests that the novel was written mostly by Southern, whose idea it was and who had already written a substantial part of it when Hoffenberg joined him (Tully). Moreover, the novel is so much of a piece with the rest of his fiction it seems entirely justified to regard it as just as representative of Southern's work as his other novels and screenplays (many of the latter also written in collaboration). Written for a somewhat disreputable French publisher specializing in "erotic" fiction, the situation if anything allowed Southern to more freely indulge his inclinations as a writer drawn to outrageous situations.
The most immediate connection between Candy and Flash and Filigree is the way in which the former takes the latter's episodic structure and amplifies it into a fully picaresque story that has a plot only in the sense that one thing happens after another (often the same thing in a slightly different iteration). Indeed, this use of picaresque narrative to depict the journey of an innocent confronting the iniquities of the world is the primary parallel between Candy and its presumed namesake, Voltaire's Candide. Southern's revision of Voltaire perversely twists the conventions of the picaresque narrative when he portrays Candy Christian as essentially still an innocent even after she has experienced degradation at every stage of her journey. Although Candy manages to retain her virginity for early two-thirds of the narrative, all of the men she meets, before and after, treat her as a purely sexual object, but she never really manages to perceive herself as a victim nor to understand the inherently dehumanizing attitude the men take toward her. Candy herself possesses an inherent goodness that prevents her from recognizing their predatory behavior as anything other than a momentary lack of control (a weakness she thinks she may be guilty of provoking).
Although Southern uses Candy Christian and her travails to exemplify the clash between naïve presumption and the hard truth of reality (the metaphysical theme running throughout Southerns's work), the novel also depicts egregious exploitation of Candy's good nature for male sexual gratification, with little regard for her sexual agency. Whether Southern's concern for Candy's plight extends to her status as a woman in a sexist, patriarchal society is debatable; while Southern's prominent women characters are depicted as victims, their stereotypically "feminine" identities are generally reinforced, their exploitation not so much a potential opportunity to escape their confinement in prescribed gender roles through resistance but the inevitable consequence of their status as the weaker, more vulnerable sex. Candy Christian is perhaps allowed more room for development as a character beyond this reductive role, as she actively struggles to maintain her human dignity, but it would be a stretch to say she is presented as a sort of proto-feminist heroine.
This problematic depiction of hyper-sexualized, mostly passive women is no doubt most pronounced in Blue Movie, Southern's pastiche of the Marquis de Sade updated to 1960s Hollywood. The novel chronicles the production of a pornographic "art" film concocted by a well-regarded director for whom the film is a vanity project that prompts him to take advantage of his reputation as a serious filmmaker to attract big-name stars to his production, although he doesn't quite reveal to them what kind of film they're signing up for. While ultimately the director and his collaborators (primarily a screenwriter with more than a little resemblance to Terry Southern, and an unctuous producer) are the objects of the novel's satire (and it is largely a satirical novel), revealing themselves to be utterly indifferent to the suffering they cause in their blindness to any interests other than their own, the sex scenes they stage are especially demeaning to the women actors, whose bodies are relentlessly treated as object of potential violation. Southern himself, of course, doesn't necessarily share his characters' casual contempt, but the episodes are narrated with sufficient relish that the effect now is at least as obnoxious as it is disturbing or darkly satirical.
Because it is emphatically focused on the escapades of its male protagonist, with women playing really only subsidiary roles (principally in the novel's frame-tale), The Magic Christian mostly escapes the period-specific cultural assumptions that, to one degree or another burden the other three novels. While it would, strictly speaking, be misleading to call the novel autobiographical (no one has ever quite managed to carry out the kinds of actions performed by Guy Grand), as reflected in its main character's bearing toward the world, his insouciant abandon in realizing ever more outrageous acts of impish sabotage, surely Guy Grand does implicitly represent Southern's own comic method as a writer. Like Guy Grand, Southern attempts to undermine the established order through an artful mockery, to expose the hubris and folly that have created and maintained the social order, even as it deadens the lives of those who must subsist in it, and who themselves contribute to their own degradation by willingly submitting to it. Both Guy Grand and Terry Southern subject not just authority or particular kinds of social behavior to incessant ridicule, but the whole of social existence as manifested in postwar America.
In The Magic Christian Southern takes the picaresque strategy and makes it serve most persuasively to provide aesthetic and thematic unity. The picaresque structure doesn't just accommodate Terry Southern's penchant for episodic development but is inseparable from the comic vision that inspires the main character and his exploits. Guy Grand exemplifies Southern's anarchic spirit in his iconoclasm and ingenuity, and is Southern’s greatest fictional creation. If any work of fiction from the 1960s could be said to epitomize or presage the raucous spirit of the period itself--which in many ways owes much to Terry Southern's influence--it would be The Magic Christian, even if Guy Grand achieves his dissident goals through subterfuge rather than confrontation.
It is tempting to think of Southern's kind of humor as centering around the joke (as does the humor of Heller and Friedman), but it would be more accurate to say that Southern writes, even in his fiction, extended sketches the humor of which is not proclaimed loudly but arises from the implicit incongruity of the situations portrayed and from the characters' often impassive responses to the situation. These situations are not so much absurd (as in the logically skewed episodes of Catch-22, for example) as progressively more outlandish, sustained send-ups of our belief in an underlying normality of "civilized" behavior. This belief is exposed as an illusion by Southern's unrelenting burlesque, the effect of which is in some ways only intensified by the cool narrative manner Southern's 3rd-person narration typically assumes.
This manner is first of all a product of Southern's mostly utilitarian, mostly expository style. Seldom does Southern pause from the immediate storytelling task to indulge in flights of sensory description--certainly there are few of the kinds of figurative embellishments and finely wrought imagery that leads to a writer being praised as an admirably "literary" writer. And, on the one hand, it is true that, since most of Southern's kind of comedy is essentially plot-based--the product of what happens, however loosely structured--an especially fussy, ostentatiously lyrical style would likely interfere with his preferred comic effects, taking attention away from the outrageous situations depicted and in effect placing it on the writer and his skills as a prose stylist. On the other hand, while he is by no means deficient as a writer of prose, clearly Southern himself must have concluded that his talents were finally more suitable for film writing, since for the most part after writing the script for perhaps the most important black humor movie of the 1960s, Dr. Strangelove, he devoted his time to writing screenplays (most of them not produced). Aside from Easy Rider, none of these came close to equaling what he had accomplished in Strangelove or in his early fiction.
It is true that movies have been especially adept at a certain kind of broad comedy abiding somewhere between silliness and satire. It is also true that precisely this sort of comedy was used by many of the black humorists (indeed, by such precursors to the black humorists as Nathanael West and Samuel Beckett), which at the time provoked skepticism among some critics and readers but in retrospect seems perhaps the most important legacy of black humor fiction. Terry Southern made an important contribution to this legacy, but in turning directly to movies (an ironic move to some degree, since Southern in a prominent book review, "When Film Gets Good," complained that too many writers were writing fiction that wanted to be movies) as the vehicle for his comic imagination, he seemed to reject the further possibilities of fiction as the form that might expand his comic vision. Given the genuine achievement of The Magic Christian and the dubious success of his later efforts at film writing, he probably made the wrong choice.