This is a review of a book entitled This is a Book by Demetri Martin. The book was written by Demetri Martin, of course. The title is not the only reason, however, why it could not have possibly been written by anyone else.
There has always been a matter-of-fact post-modernism to the way Demetri Martin packages himself, and his literary debut is a remarkable translation of that unique aesthetic into book form. (That the author designed the jacket and cover artwork himself suggests that this process was a labor of love.) Several self-aware touches adorn the book, poking fun at the medium: a sly mock-tutorial, “How to read this book,” a page that is blank except for the sentence, “This page unintentionally left blank.” From the title on down, this is clearly a product of the mind responsible for the stand-up album, These Are Jokes.
There’s much more than jokes on display here, though.
This Is a Book By Demetri Martin is divided into multiple modes, just like the Comedy Central special that made the author’s name. The first part of that special was straightforward stand-up, and for Demetri Martin, that meant mostly one-liners in a style indebted to Steven Wright, but informed by his own wry, gently self-deprecating everyman persona. Another part of the special featured the comedian’s clever, absurdist drawings on a giant notepad — the imaginative wit of his ideas practically demanding a visual accompaniment. Finally, there was a section of jokes set to ruminative guitar or whimsical accordion; a trope also employed by contemporary Nick Thune and the late Mitch Hedberg. Demitri’s book somehow encompasses all of these skills, deftly applying them to the page in a definitive mission statement.
Some sections of the book such as “Ideas and Opinions” and “Statistics” serve as clever framing devices for delivering one-liners (e.g. “Nearly ½ of all people in the United States are Torsos.”) Other sections, like “Charts and Graphs” and “Drawings”, take over for the giant notepad in Demetri’s act (e.g. a Venn diagram showing a tiny circle that represents Happy Clowns within a much larger circle representing Sad Clowns.) In place of the sketch comedy that Demetri employed in his 2009-10 TV series, Important Things, we get conceptual pieces like “Socrates’ PR Agent”, which plays out exactly as it sounds. There are also genuinely inventive odds and ends like “Palindromes for Specific Occasions”, which features a series of sentence-length palindromes that only make sense in the context of their hilariously belabored set-ups.
The real meat of the book, though, is comprised of short humor pieces that hover somewhere between monologue and short story. These entries would feel not at all out of place in McSweeney’s or “Shouts & Murmurs.” (Indeed, one of the pieces, “Who Am I?” was rightfully excerpted in The New Yorker recently.) Demetri Martin turns out to be a gifted literary satirist whose promise was only hinted at within the confines of stand-up and sketch. With the written word, the comedic tool that is perhaps most difficult for prizing out laughter from an audience, he successfully takes apart couples who speak in the first person plural (“We’re Pregnant”) and evergreen targets like trendy health food and white guys with dreadlocks. He always sticks the landing too, capping off each piece with a jolting twist of an ending.
Ultimately, though, the most surprising moment of the book arrives in the short fiction piece, “Sheila.” The longest individual segment by far, “Sheila” tells the tale of a man who is in love with a ghost. It is sharp, well written, and full of silly details and descriptions that somehow also resonate (“George felt warm, serene, and relieved, kind of like the way you feel after you sneeze or take off some ski boots, only more so.”) Considering that “Sheila” seems as though it could be adapted into a film, it’s not surprising to learn that the author has two movies in development based on his personal pitches. The range of talent at work throughout the book hints at the possibility of what these movies might be. Thankfully, even though Demetri’s industry profile is growing exponentially, his author bio mentions that he is currently working on his next book. Whether that turns out to be Another Book By Demetri Martin or an entire comedic novel in the style of “Sheila,” this terrifically funny and original first offering should inspire confidence that he can pull off just about anything.