The Magic Christian (5/5)

I had never read any of Terry Southern’s work, but heard that this was his masterpiece and since it looked to be a short, quick read, I picked it up. I’m glad that I did too – it should have been called The Magic Discordian.

Guy Grand is a billionaire but, unlike most of his ilk, he likes using it to create chaos and disorder all around him with cruel practical jokes and eccentric pranks. No price is too high or degradation too low for Guy to pay somebody to partake in it. Simplistically, the book is about how money influences people.

He purchases a New York ad agency so that he can install a pygmy dwarf as its president – and instructs him to act as erratically as he can:

An account executive, for example, might be entertaining an extremely important client in his own office, a little tete-a-tete of the very first seriousness… when the door would burst open and in would fly the president, scrambling across the room and under the desk, shrieking pure gibberish, and then he’d go out again, scuttling over the carpet, teeth and eyes blazing.

“What in God’s name was that?” the client would ask, looking slowly about, his face pocked with a terrible frown.

“Why that… that…” But the a.e. could not bring himself to tell, not after the first few times anyway. Evidently it was a matter of pride.

Guy fills a vat full of shit and piss, then throws thousand dollar bills into it and stands back, waiting to see if anyone will go in after it. He subtly doctors film at a cinema he buys to totally change the meaning of the film. He pays a pair of boxers to act effeminate in the ring, resulting in The Champ cowering in the corner, shrieking like a little girl. These are just some of the more memorable pranks he pulls, and every one of them is as inventive and disruptive as these are.

From a Discordian perspective, it’s hard to classify Guy. Is he the epitome of the capitalist pig who can throw around his money to satisfy his every whim? Is he an emissary of the Goddess sent to sow entropy and Disorder in the funniest possible way? Is he attacking the pretentious and the conspicuous consumer? Yes, yes, and yes. Depending on the part of the story you are at, you will be either disgusted, amazed, delighted or shocked at Guy’s hubris – but you will have a reaction. Because of its undisguised cruelty, it greatly resembles Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces in tone. This is not the kind of book you can read and then blithely ignore – you will remember some of the images Southern’s slim volume evokes for a long time.

That is assuming, of course, that you have not seen the movie starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Star, Richard Attenborough, John Cleese, Christopher Lee, Roman Polanski, Yul Brynner and Raquel Welch. Somehow, I have managed to live my life without seeing it (this will soon be rectified) but according to the reviews on Amazon the movie is fairly close to the book.

I can’t recommend The Magic Christian strongly enough. It is maddeningly short, but I doubt Terry Southern could have kept up the rate of hilarity and preposterousness he had achieved here for very much longer. It’s better to have a brief book where every chapter shines than a thick one padded with unnecessary and unfunny scenes to achieve a word count.

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