Passionella and Other Stories
By Jules Feiffer; McGraw-Hill, New York; $1.75
On the second floor of a nondescript building in Greenwich Village, above a reducing salon (and around the corner, for those who care, from the residence of e. e. cummings), there is published every week an anomalous organ called the Village Voice, which has served as the bottle from which the comic genie Jules Feiffer was launched upon a small but highly appreciative world. There are other good things in the bottle, but so far only Feiffer, whose cartoons continue to appear there weekly, has risen from oblivion to the Voice and then directly to paperback publication, autograph-signing tours of college bookstores, and a considerable degree of personal fame.
A collection of his Voice pieces came out a few years ago, entitled Sick, Sick, Sick, and now Passinonella and Other Stories, a collection of four longer cartoon features, is also among us. They can be read, or rather looked through, in about a half hour apiece, and this is pretty quick considering that Passionella retails for $1.75 in paperback. But there is not much else to do except to plunk down even these enormous sums, unless you can borrow, steal, or arrange to be given the books, because Mr. Feiffer is a deft, knowledgeable and brilliantly witty cartoonist, satirist, and "observer," as they say, "of the contemporary scene."
The contemporary scene to Mr. Feiffer can be best beheld from the windows of the Voice--big ones that look out on a wide prospect of Greenwich Avenue. His vision is far from universal: when he is not looking at his urban, liberal, Freudian, cultural (if not always cultured), ostentatiously enlightened milieu, he is looking at other things from its viewpoint. Anyone who belongs to this milieu, or who can temporarily or permanently assimilate into it (which is easy, after a few years at Harvard), will find both books full of old friends sensitively observed and old enemies devastatingly put down. For any outsiders doing research on the attributes and attitudes of this group, Mr. Feiffer's two-volume oeuvre will be a necessity, almost a guidebook.
Sick, Sick, Sick is for the most part realistic, personal, homely; cast in monologue (interior and exterior) and dialogue; set largely in offices, coffee houses, bars, apartments. But in Passionella, the shy young men, the pony-tailed girls, the woman who sings folksongs "in the original ethnic," the man who says, "What I wouldn't give to be a conformist like all those others," are replaced by a "friendly neighborhood godmother come [by way of a television set] to bring you the answer to your most cherished dreams," and by little Munro, who was drafted into the army at the age of four. George, who "was concerned with his roots" and who "recognized he had no sense of himself" is a familiar figure in the coffee houses, but he gets into one of the stories in the Passionella volume only by virtue of the fact that he "lived on the moon--no kidding." But though the "friends" from Sick, Sick, Sick are missing, except for George, the enemies are the same: Madison Avenue types, organizational tyrants, and the entrepreneurs of the hydrogen bomb. (By making this distinction between "friends" and "enemies," I do not mean to suggest that Mr. Feiffer coddles the phonies, the sedulous non-conformists, the trend-hoppers, the self-conscious psyche-searchers, and the various other types who populate his world. But though he exposes them, he does it from within; they are "us," while the groups I have called "enemies" are "them.")
Passionella is fantastic, allegorical, even, in one story, apocalyptic; less concerned with subtly-observed scenes from daily life among the in-group than with smashing examinations of institutions (Hollywood, the Army) and issues (the H-bomb). Both elements are present in each book, but they were better balanced in the earlier one. And the general absence of people whom Mr. Feiffer can regard with understanding affection is complemented by the lack of individuality of those there are. The small boys in Sick, Sick, Sick, and in some of Mr. Feiffer's subsequent Voice pieces have problems, and sometimes genuine pathos, of their own. Four-year-old Munro, of the second story in the new book, has no personality; his only identity is his incongruous status as a draftee, and so he fails to attain much of the pathetic quality that Mr. Feiffer attempts with an effort more obvious than usual.
But there are some marvellous things in the new book. The title story, about a frumpy lady chimney sweep who is turned into a "beautiful, glamorous movie star," covers familiar ground wtih unfamiliar dexterity; if we must have more jokes about Method acting, let us by all means have Mr. Feiffer's image of "The Inner Me Acting Academy." His ear for catch phrases and talent for parodying them are as precise and effective as ever; in the story entitled "Boom!" he reproduces a dialogue of two generals discussing their progress: "This is last year's bomb. We thought it was pretty ultimate, remember?" "Boy, were we naive!"
His verbal effects are easier to describe and reproduce, but his skill at drawing is equally impressive--though more influenced by Robert Osborn than his dialogue and narration are by anybody I can think of. A picture of Passionella in her swimming pool, with a vast expanse of bosom floating before her, says more than a thousand "Will you mammary me" jokes about America's breast-fixation. Mr. Feiffer uses a flexible combination of text and pictures thoroughly intermixed; nobody's else is quite like it, and no quotations simply of words will get across its effect. Even people not in the in-group, even (God save the mark) people who approve of H-bomb tests, might buy Passionella just to watch a master satirist making up his medium as he goes along.