Hey there! Welcome back to the Book I Read with Michael Jarmer Writer Guy, a podcast and blog series where I talk about books mostly, among other things: reading in general, writing fiction and poetry, some occasional diversions into music listening, teaching and learning. It is January, so, happy new year to you. I hope it has begun with a bang—positively. Mine was a mixed bag, mostly a negative bang—as I hurt my back while, of all stupid things, scooping dog poop out of the back yard. Those of us of a certain age are just having to deal with stuff like this from time to time. It’s no fun. I’m much better now, thankfully, but it took almost a full week to feel normal again, and during that time, the recovery process just kind of sucked the life out of me. I just wandered around the house like a dummy trying to avoid things that hurt. I got next to nothing done. I started to really appreciate and empathize with folks who have any kind of chronic pain in their lives. Oh my god. But hey, I have recovered, and I am glad to be back with you here on The Book I Read podcast at the beginning of a new year.
My selection for this podcast was chosen for one simple reason. The writer is not a friend of mine, nor is he a writer I have read before—but his novel was published by a small press run by some very dear friends—and I have wanted for a long time to dive into their recent catalog and find something of interest—in large part out of curiosity about what they’re up to, but also to support my friends undertaking what I assume to be the exhausting, challenging, yet rewarding job of running a small literary press. That press is called Why There Are Words, out of Santa Rosa, California, and the novel I have chosen is a thing called The Groundhog Forever, by Henry Hoke.
Going into this reading project, I knew nothing—except what I have already mentioned—and the information I gleaned somehow, probably by reading a blurb here and there—maybe even one on the back of the novel—that this book is in some way inspired by or takes inspiration from the iconic Harold Ramis film starring Bill Murray, Groundhog Day. And maybe it’s simply because, doing a quick perusal, as one is wont to do before diving into a new novel, I notice that the first Part of the novel is titled, oddly, “Groundhog Day Day.”
Yes—almost immediately the allusion is clarified, when two young film students enter class one day for a viewing of this famous film, a film which, in the time setting of this novel, is already ten years old, a film that the students are all familiar with from childhood, “a comfortable hug” of a film, the narrator tells us. Why exactly the professor wants his students to study this particular film on this particular day is not immediately clear.
One gets the sense right away that the novel may share some other kinds of connections to the film—perhaps most notably in its humor and its absurdist tone—established immediately as it hints obliquely in a short, untitled prologue to some cataclysmic event and introduces the main characters in the novel, these two film students, in a Dr. Seussian nod, as Thing 1 and Thing 2. In fact, it seems like all of the characters might have these kinds of nicknames—two other film students are referred to as The Waterboys, the film studies professor is simply called The Italian, and Thing 1’s dorm-mate takes on a city’s name, she’s called New Rochelle. And surprisingly, beyond its opening allusion to the fiction of the film, reality seems to intercede when, toward the conclusion of their classroom viewing of “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray himself joins the class as a surprise guest, first as audience member, followed by a very strangely absurd Q&A with these film students. The film students have an almost religious experience in his presence, the movie-star nicknamed by our narrator The Divine Bill, or, as Thing 1 whispers her exclamation, as she notices the movie star enter mid-film, “It’s mother. Fucking. Bill.”
I was tempted to take another view of the Groundhog Day film and I went so far as to price out a streaming rental on apple tv and amazon prime, but I did not take the plunge. It wasn’t the money—but the time commitment that stopped me, and too, I think, the desire to run an experiment about how much background knowledge was really necessary. I saw the film upon its release or shortly thereafter and haven’t seen it since. It seems to me that just a cursory understanding or memory of the film might be sufficient—although full appreciation might be difficult without ANY knowledge of the film or its star—because part of the charm of Henry Hoke’s novel, I think, is the clever way it intersects with and diverges from the film and the Bill Murray persona. Henry Hoke’s narrator cleverly and somewhat hilariously includes a synopsis for us, if by some unfortunate circumstance readers are completely in the dark.
I’ll provide my own crude synopsis quickly here—for the rare, uninitiated listener: Groundhog Day is a romantic comedy, a film about a burned out, cynical, curmudgeon of a tv weatherman who, by some strange supernatural trick of the universe, experiences or lives the same day over and over again, in a loop, essentially, Scrooge-like, until he gets it right, until he learns his lesson. It takes him awhile—and the film goes to some pretty dark places—which brings me to the moment when I first laughed out loud reading Henry Hoke’s novel. From the narrator’s synopsis: “In despair, the weather man commits suicide, but even this doesn’t free him from the same day, the same alarm clock radio song, the same wake up. It’s simply a shortcut. He kills himself again and again, writhes in a snowy purgatory, destroying his body with increasingly inventive flair.” And then, after a double-spaced paragraph break, the narrator tells us: “This is a family comedy.” It’s super funny, admittedly a dark funny, to couple the repeated suicides with this reminder about exactly what kind of film we’re dealing with here—you know, it’s a family film—suitable for the kids.
So let me talk a bit about the main characters of The Groundhog Forever. What do we know about Thing 1 and Thing 2? The factual identifiers can be handled, as they are by the narrator, in just a few sentences: they are nicknamed Thing 1 and Thing 2 by their film studies prof, The Italian, quote “because they had the same swoop of a hairstyle, wore similar clothes, were always together.” The narrator adds, “In other ways they were different, she was brown and he was white. People thought of him as a boy and people thought of her as a girl.” The narrator tells us on the preceding page that they “were probably best friends,” bound together by their common passion for film and film making, but also by the shared experience of “the long bad day,” an oblique reference at first, later on made explicit, to their common and close proximity in New York during the terrorist attack on the world trade center, September 11, 2001, and the cataclysmic collapse of the twin towers, when they were both college freshmen. It was, before they were Thing 1 and Thing 2, but Anna and Sam, the day that the two met officially for the first time. “When young people spend a long bad day together as strangers, they bond.” So, they become over the next three years almost inseparable, vaguely romantic, but not seriously, as it becomes clear later that Thing 2 is either gay or bisexual, and Thing 1, more ambiguously so. Beyond this and their age of 21 years, we know very little else about them save for their relationship as it develops in the novel and their responses to the very strange thing that is about to happen to them both.
On the evening of this Groundhog Day Day, named of course after the occasion of the classroom viewing of the movie, the Things go to Thing 1’s dorm room to share some beer and watch some shows. The morning after, Thing 2 inexplicably ends up in his dorm with no recall about exactly how or when he got there—and Thing 1 wonders why he left so abruptly and secretly. They talk on the phone. She’s hungover, he’s not. They both think it’s Wednesday, but there seems to be some confusion about this—Thing 2 thinks to herself, “Why wouldn’t it be Wednesday?” Well, the answer is that—because—for Thing 1 and Thing 2, it’s Tuesday—again!
Yeah, it’s Tuesday, April 27th, 2004, again. And we discover in short order that it’s Tuesday again ONLY for Thing 1 and Thing 2—as, like in the Groundhog Day film—they alone are aware of the anomaly. What precipitated it? What caused it? This remains a mystery throughout. It just IS—it becomes their reality for a very long time—how long? I’m not gonna spoil that one for ya. But Part 1 of the novel concludes with this puzzler of a philosophical statement: “This wasn’t a realistic story anymore. For the Things, life was finally making sense.”
I’d like to make some structural observations about the novel, before I say much else about the story that unfolds or its potential significance. As a fiction writer, I like structural observations. I find them useful and instructive. As a reader, I like the way structural considerations shape the way I read a text, or teach me how to read a text. In The Groundhog Forever, Hoke has organized his novel into titled parts, five of them—a nice, symmetrical number. These parts are further divided, not into chapters, per se, at least not titled or numbered chapters, but in multi-paragraphed chunks, most not more than a page long, usually leaving significant white space at the bottom of the page—the kind of white space you would find, more conventionally, at the end of a chapter in a traditional novel. The effect is somewhere between the full stop of a chapter’s end and the pause you’d experience in a poem between stanzas. The action of the next chunk sometimes occurs chronologically immediately after the previous one—sometimes it feels like a continuation of the same scene. In a few passages the subsequent chunks move back in “time” a bit—a couple of flashbacks to earlier in the day—or, a couple of moments where backstory is revealed from the time “before” Groundhog Day Day. There is, nevertheless, at the end of each chunk or chapter a breath the author forces us to take before we continue—it’s refreshing—it’s easy on the brain—it gives us lots of opportunity to reflect on what has just transpired. But the quick succession of these small chunks also gives the reading experience a kind of rhythm, a repeated rhythm, a loop, if you will; it gives us a visceral sense of the unfolding of April 27th happening again and again for the Things.
The first sentence of part two, “The Vicious Sequel”: “It happened again.” And it keeps happening. At first, they find themselves going through the same processes they went through on the original groundhog day day—going to class, meeting Bill Murray, going to lunch, acting in the Waterboys’ little movie, but they jettison that quickly—at first, changing things up ever so slightly, and then more radically, like on one iteration, confessing to Bill Murray in class, publicly, that both Thing 1 and Thing 2 are actually experiencing, for real, what Murray’s character experienced in the film, to which they get essentially no response, to then, on subsequent repeated Tuesdays, doing whatever the hell they want essentially without consequence. They make a kind of manifesto, or rules of the road, lists of things they won’t do or things they won’t ever have to do, settling into what feels like might be a kind of immortality. The narrator tells us: “Their real superpower was impermanence,” meaning that nothing they created or wrote or did lasted beyond the closing border of this one day. So, the whole thing becomes a kind of experiential experiment: what have you never done? Is it possible to stay in the shower for two days (or the equivalent of two days repeated on the same day?) What kind of mission could you attempt? Thing 1 wants to break up with someone—why not the roommate, New Rochelle? Thing 2 wants to kidnap a dog.
It appears that even though they know what is supposed to happen on this day, and given that on each repeated Tuesday they are free to make different choices, they are powerless to change any of the outcomes for everyone else. For example, Thing 2’s attempt to prevent an accident in which a bicyclist is severely injured by crashing into an open taxicab door is futile. It happens anyway. Thing 1’s attempt to break up with New Rochelle or Thing 2’s wish to kidnap a dog—also futile.
What seems to be most important, the thing that makes the experience not altogether a kind of hellscape, unlike Bill Murray’s weatherman, is that the Things have each other—they are not alone—even against this awful realization that they do not exist in any other time or place—in other words, they seem to conclude that when Wednesday comes for every other human being, it will be a Wednesday without Thing 1 and Thing 2—so they must stick together in this eternal loop. They need each other now more than ever. But still, the knowledge that they exist only within the loop, provides, I think, the most significant existential problem of the novel. One that they attempt to solve. If we exist only on this one day—we might as well never have existed. Is it possible then to leave something behind, some proof that we lived, that we were real human beings?
After some trial and error, they do solve the problem, and it serves as a kind of crisis moment, or climax, if you will, for the novel—but it would be giving too much away if I described the way they go about it—so I will remain mum about this particular development.
I’d like to describe just a couple other aspects of the novel that I found intriguing before wrapping up my discussion here of Henry Hoke’s The Groundhog Forever. I think I have indicated that this, like the film that, at least in part, inspired this fiction, is a comic novel. It is witty, laugh-out-loud funny in moments, absurdist, and fun. However, Part 3, titled “Inciting Incident,” provides a significant change-up in tone. It is a section, for the most part, that provides the back story of our main characters’ shared experience of the world trade center terrorist attack of 9/11. These passages are not funny. The details are realistically drawn. The chaos is described, the confusion. The mundane morning visit to the coffee shop followed by an unimaginable and surrealistic terror. And in this passage, for the first and only time, Thing 1 and 2 are named, Anna and Sam—and on the one hand it’s because they are freshman, haven’t met The Italian film studies professor, haven’t been given their nick names yet, but on the other hand, hearing and reading their names here lends a kind of sobering realism to the proceedings. And while I haven’t really been able to piece it out, yet, while my understanding is still incomplete, it feels like the 9/11 attacks are the hub around which this entire novel circles. After all, this is the proper middle of the novel. It is the center.
The nicknames return as soon as the 9/11 sections are over—almost as if to say that on that day in history Anna and Sam were most themselves. As maybe we all were.
And then there’s Bill Murray—as an actual human being, a very famous one, and a character in this novel. His role is significant, but mysterious. His starring role as the weatherman in Groundhog Day, notwithstanding, he appears as a guest in the Things’ classroom and then later actually intervenes, almost supernaturally, in the lives of Thing 1 and Thing 2 as they proceed through their Tuesdays, over and over again. His appearance to them privately is not repeated, however; it happens only once, (I think), in a long succession of repeated Tuesdays. This is another aspect of the novel that’s kind of a head scratcher for me—not unpleasantly—it’s not like a WTF reading moment where you doubt the author’s success with a particular turn—but rather, it adds to the symbolic or thematic mystery. We want to know, and we take some pleasure in teasing out: what is the significance? Murray as a kind of god-like figure—some commentary about the nature of our culture’s obsession with famous people—or with this famous person in particular? David Shields, in his brilliant essay, “The Only Solution to the Soul is the Senses,” grapples with Murray’s uncanny ability to be the only good thing in a series of particularly bad movies. I have no idea if Hoke has read Shields’ essays on Murray, or whether he believes similarly in the Murray iconic mystique—the most unlikely of movie stars—or whether Hoke and Shields are just both independently giving voice to what so many millions of us have admired about the guy—until more recently, it seems, when suddenly it appears that Murray all along has been hiding a seriously ugly underbelly.
At any rate, I think what Hoke has done with Murray is inspiring—and relevant to me as a fiction writer, as I have recently attempted to incorporate fictional versions of real people into my own imaginative work, from Einstein to Andy Warhol, from Shakespeare to James Joyce, from Captain Kirk to Kierkegaard. Don’t tell me Captain Kirk isn’t a real person.
There are other fascinating aspects of this novel that I haven’t been able to touch—but I think that’s just as well. I find myself in these podcasts/blog posts always to be running the risk of saying too much, so I will conclude. I found The Groundhog Forever to be a most intoxicating read, a lovely experience during which I laughed a lot, thought deeply about a number of provocative existential questions, revisited my own life from 22 years ago, and reflected about my own endeavors as a creative thing-maker. I must conclude by giving a rousing recommendation to this novel, and, by association, to the brilliant small press, Why There Are Words. Their entire catalogue is worth exploring. I think they are doing brilliant, important work.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my 13th episode, the fifth episode of Season 2, of a podcast/blog series I’m making about books I am reading in a series called The Book I Read. Hope you enjoyed it.
Stay tuned for episode 14–in which I am likely to be talking about a new novel by Mimi Herman called The Kudzu Queen! Please come back to give it a listen.
Until then, if you want to learn more about me and the stuff I write and the music I make, please visit michaeljarmer.com or herecomeseverybody.com to read and listen. Look for me on anchor.fm to subscribe and support for as little as .99 per month, or as much as you want. You can contribute to the sustainability of this little endeavor.
You can find my novel Monster Talk at Powells.com, amazon.com, you know, almost anywhere you can buy books online, but support your local bookstore, would you please. If they don’t have my book, they can order it for you. Hey, and get a copy of Henry Hoke’s The Groundhog Forever from bookshop.org or from other online or brick and mortar bookstores–or directly from Why There Are Words Press.org, where you will find a number of other enticing titles–not the least of which might be Kevin McIlvoy’s last novel, One Kind Favor.
Thank you so much for tuning in or reading. Again, Happy New Year. I hope all kinds of great things lay in store for you in the following months. I hope to be back here real soon! Until then, so long. Be kind. See you next time. Cheers.