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Comedian Andrew Orvedahl on JG Ballard, George Saunders and airport books

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Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.

Andrew Orvedahl is a Denver comedian, writer and podcaster. A co-founder of the Grawlix comedy brigade, Orvedahl will be performing at the monthly comedy show at 10:30 p.m. Friday, December 27, at the Bug Theater. Orvedahl's album, Hit the Dick Lights was recently named one of the top comedy specials of the year by Time Out New York. Comedy fans can also check out his headlining set at Comedy Works Larimer Square at 8 p.m. on January 8. We met up with Orvedahl this week to discuss his airport book habit, George Saunders, movie adaptations of great books and the tiny apocalypses of JG Ballard.

See also: Producer Andy Juett on poetry, Updike and reading with his kids

Westword: You travel a lot. Does that give you an opportunity to read more? Books are my default airplane entertainment.

Andrew Ovredahl: Yeah, same here. I read so many books when I travel. I buy a ridiculous amount of books in airports. Even when I already have a book, I'll buy another one out of paranoia. "What if I finish the first one mid-trip? Or there's a delay. I'll be fucked." So I end up buying a lot of books in airports, which is probably why I have so many shitty books.

Airport books are almost like their own genre. They only need to be good enough to kill six hours.

Yeah, exactly. It just has to engross me for the flight. I'm kind of a stickler for finishing books, though, even if they're shitty.


Yeah, I'll generally give it a chance.

There's a nobility to that, I think. A lot of books that start slowly end up being great if you're willing to commit. That said, I give up on books all the time.

Sometimes, if the writing is bad enough, I can't force myself to finish a book. It has to be pretty terrible, though.

Were there any airport books that you remember being surprisingly good?

There's this book called The Ruins by Scott Smith that is so good. They made a terrible movie out of it. It's hugely thick and you just churn through it before you realize you've been reading for five hours straight.

Do you generally prefer books over the movies adapted from them?

I love comparing books and movies because when you read the books first you get your own version of the story, which is always superior. Everything is perfect in your head. The cinematographer lights things exactly the way you like it; if it's scary, it's only just as scary as you can handle. It's not forced over your threshold. Recently, I've been reading the Game of Thrones books, and they are garbage. Yet I can't put them down, they're like my daily soap opera. That's one case where I actually think that show is superior to the books because they manage to core out the best stuff and make it more digestible.

Have you heard of a book called Savages? Oliver Stone adapted it into a movie.

I watched the movie just recently and it was horrible.

The book is worse; if you can imagine. It's so clearly written by a fifty-year-old man who's desperately trying to sound hip. The writing was so off-putting I don't think I even made it past the first chapter. He's trying to be like Elmore Leonard but doesn't create compelling characters. You can tell that Elmore Leonard loves his characters because he'll carry them over from one book to another.

David Mitchell does that. Have you ever read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell? It's one of my favorite novels ever. The novel is amazing. It's one of those books that's kind of inaccurate to describe as a novel because it's more like interrelating short stories. Kind of like World War Z. It's kind of cheating to call it a novel, but they're pretty linked; even in Mitchell's other books, he'll have the same character names and places but in a completely different context.

Is that why they had all the same actors playing different roles in the movie?

Yeah, but it was distracting. It almost became like a party game to spot them. Like, "Where's Hugh Grant? There he is!" Other than that, I thought that they pulled off the movie admirably, but the book is so good. Mitchell really nails each genre and time period. The parts I expected to be really bored by -- because I'm a huge sci-fi fantasy buff -- I didn't expect to enjoy the sections about the baroque classical music composer, but because it's all so well-written I liked those just as much.

Have you read much of his other work?

Some of it. He's written four or five books. I also really like the book he wrote right after Cloud Atlas; it's called Black Swan Green.

Have you read George Saunders?

Yeah, he's awesome.

He does a similar thing with short stories. Everything in Tenth of December in particular is thematically connected, but each individual setting and perspective reads completely different.

He's amazing. I'm not usually into that level of absurdism, but he pulls it off. I fantasize about an alternate reality where I go to Syracuse to take his writing class. That's be so amazing. He's just so funny. It's like Charlie Kaufman. That dreamlike weirdness -- that in lesser hands would be unreadable garbage -- they execute it so well.

Yeah, like grad students who think they're Kafka.

Just getting high and unspooling their bullshit.

Being weird for its own sake is always alienating. Surreal imagery should illuminate something that can't be expressed any other way.

I think exaggerated social commentary, which Saunders does so well, you can draw so much comedy from it, but it's also interesting. What kind of books do you like to read with your daughter?

I think I might start reading her The Hobbit. We've been reading longer books recently. I just read her Alice in Wonderland. She loves reading books, but usually they're more in her wheelhouse. She love Beatrix Potter books, which are so antiquated. Some of the shit she'll say after reading Beatrix Potter books is hilarious. They're so ancient. So I'll probably start reading her The Hobbit. She's really into dragons right now. So we'll read The Hobbit and go right into Games of Thrones after that.

I hope you're ready to explain to her what 'Twincest' means.

Oh, my god. She's four.

Are there any comedy books or books written by comedians that you'd recommend?

Probably just Steve Martin's autobiography. It sheds so much light on his career. Reading about him just eating it for nine years, just bombing and being hated for nine years and then finally turning the corner. I think I read that book eight or nine years into comedy, and was definitely having these moments where comedy seemed insurmountable and I felt like I was wasting shitloads of time. Amazing amounts of time. Anyway, it was inspiring to me in a realistic way. Advice books on comedy are pointless, though. Comedy is so subjective. All those joke books do is help you tell jokes like someone else.

I think that those books can be helpful for creative people because it gives them something to hate and subsequently helps them define themselves.

That shit bugs me, too.

It looks like Pablos is about to close. Before we wrap up, who's your favorite author?

I think my favorite writer, and certainly one I'd like to plug for anybody unfamiliar with him, is JG Ballard.

Oh man. I love Ballard. High Rise has all these haunting symbols of moral decay, like the Afghan hound floating in the pool.

Yeah, I like to call his stories "tiny apocalypses." He zeroes in on this one decaying setting. I've read a lot of his novels and short stories, and a lot of them border on science fiction. Empire of the Sun is the one outlier. I love his writing style, the way he conveys relationships really ground some of his weirder conceits.

Do you read Don DeLillo at all?

I've read White Noise. That's the one with the pills that remove your fear of death, right?

Yeah. If you're only going to read one, that's the one to read. I read Cosmopolis not too long ago, and it's so clinical that I never connected to it. I just sort of admired it like one of those modernist apartments. It looks great, but can anyone actually sit in there? Anyway, looks like we have to go. Thanks for meeting up with me.

Thank you.

Fans of Orvedahl and the art of storytelling should check out The Narrators, a monthly podcast that Orvedahl records live at Deer Pile with his amply bicep-ed co-host, poet Robert Rutherford. Check out their website for monthly episodes.

Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.

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