Comedian Roger Norquist on Paul Auster, postmodernism, and not having sex with people who don't read

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.

Roger Norquist is a comedian, podcaster and self-styled occultist. As co-host of the Lion's Lair open mic, Norquist is a Denver comedy-scene ambassador for the scores of novices who cut their teeth at the legendary Colfax dive. Norquist, who's known for his absurdist one-liners, also co-hosts the resurgent Werewolf Radar podcast, which has returned from a brief hiatus better than ever, releasing episodes on its website and on itunes every week and recording a live show the first Wednesday of every month. Tonight, Norquist will join co-hosts Jordan Doll and Nate Balding and guest Bobby Crane and Chris Charpentier for a live podcast recording at El Charrito. In advance of that event, Westword caught up with Norquist to discuss Paul Auster, postmodernism, mythology and a John Waters quote about refusing to fuck people who don't own books.

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Westword: You had a pretty funny tweet a while back. I think it said something like, "If you go home with someone and they don't have books, don't fuck them."

Roger Norquist: The John Waters quote?

That's a John Waters quote?

Originally, yeah.

It's probably good for the species to not fuck people who don't read, though. Everyone should have at least a couple books in their house.

I don't. I like well-read women. I'm also a very nervous guy, and books are something that I can talk about without having inhibitions about what to say next. I always generally know what to say about a book. Because if you've read it, it's just expressing your opinion at that point.

It's an unobtrusive way of getting to know someone.

Yeah, you don't have to talk about your families and that bullshit.

Discussions like that can be a real minefield when you're getting to know someone.

"What's your favorite book?" A way better opening question, and you can learn just as much about a person.

So then, what's your favorite book?

My favorite book is probably The New York Trilogy. It's a series of three novellas written by Paul Auster: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. They're existential crime novels. Where there isn't really a mystery to be solved or a point to learn, it's just a lot of weird coincidences happening and the world being deconstructed.

I haven't read any Auster, but those books sound like something I'd enjoy.

City of Glass was one of the first novels he ever had published. He also wrote Moon Palace, which taught me the best scam ever. In census-taking -- and I think it's still this way today -- all they're really doing is looking for names, so you can just make shit up and have fun inventing whole lives and families. That's what the beginning of Moon Palace is about, just him scamming the government. Paul Auster is definitely one of my favorite writers. I suggest him to everybody. He's doing what postmodernists should do, which is having fun. It's not about proving how meta he can be. It's supposed to be fun to deconstruct stuff and build a new structure.

When did you first start reading Paul Auster?

In a post-modernism class. We were reading a lot of stuff from the late '80s and '90s, so of course, graphic novels were a part of that. So we read a graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass. It was adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. David Mazzucchelli is the guy who co-wrote Batman: Year One with Frank Miller. They're superhero guys; they had a darker take on Batman and his backstory. They actually deal with big ideas. City of Glass was a phenomenal adaptation. It's more driven by language than most other comic books. The graphics are more metaphorical than narrative. Like a cave drawing, almost. It took them like five years to adapt it.

Was that class your first exposure to postmodernist literature, or did you sign up for the class because you were already interested?

I took the class because I was into that style of literature. I was studying to be a teacher and what I wanted to teach was modern and postmodern fiction. Writers can't really seem to move past postmodernism right now. We'll figure it out. But some of it has more credibility than others, it's not all just Norman Mailer talking about himself. Paul Auster is more existential. He understands that postmodernism is about blurring every genre.

Do you mostly stick with that kind of literature?

I read a lot of classics, too, but probably with a postmodern eye.

What are some of classics you've read?

All the big ones. The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid. I love Joseph Campbell. I went through so many years of college just being a stoner who took whatever lit classes I thought sounded cool. So I did a few mythology courses, too.

When else will you get that opportunity? It's not like an English degree is going to pay off economically; you might as well read great literature under the guidance of an expert.

Yeah, it introduced to me a lot of the writers I still enjoy, and I got to follow the chain of influences. I loved Joseph Campbell, and I read that he was really into James Joyce, so I read everything James Joyce wrote. Finnegans Wake, The Dubliners, Ulysses, I read all of it. I taught myself to really love James Joyce, but it wasn't easy at first.

I've only read "The Dead" and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. That's probably his most accessible book.

Yeah, it's the easiest, if you will. Finnegans Wake is probably my favorite. It's a bitch to read, I think that's the point. I mean, who knows what the true plot is? James Joyce is dead. I know it's this wake and everyone is going through their emotions, and emotions are wild, and they don't make sense. I don't understand my emotions.

It's harder to pursue difficult books like that outside of a classroom setting because I know there's always going to be some other important book waiting that won't feel like a chore to read.

That's another reason why I like chicks who read a lot, and I feel like intelligent women like dudes who read. Talking to someone about reading forces you to do it more. Because it's something that you have to force your brain to do. It requires brain activity to read a book properly. Even if you're just reading for enjoyment, it still requires some critical thought, I feel, to enjoy a good book.

Especially Joyce.

Yeah, but even fairy tales and the most basic myths need to be read with a critical eye. Metaphors need to be sought and examined. That's what good writing is about.

You like genre stuff too, right? Like fantasy, sci-fi and comic books?

Yeah, I like comic books, but not superhero stuff. I like graphic novels; usually just about people who don't have powers. I like Will Eisner. Jordan Doll got me into the Locke & Key series which fucking blew my mind. The first few pages are so intense, and then they get so cryptic and mysterious. The intensity just draws you in like good drama should.

I love Locke & Key. How about any other genre stuff?

I love Phillip K. Dick. I love The Divine Invasion, The Ganymede Takeover, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's science fiction that's not so much about science as it is about emotions.

The idea of what it means to be human is a big theme for him.

Yeah, the stories, whether they're about dealing with androids or a vast conspiracy that completely changes the nature of reality, all kind of come down to that.

Some people are not into Phillip K. Dick, I think they're really wrong. Do you like Thomas Pynchon?

Yeah. Especially that short story "Entropy." He sets up such an experiment so brilliantly. He repeats the theme of entropy throughout his writing.

Have you read Inherent Vice yet?

No, I haven't.

It's great. I'll let you borrow it. It's a really entertaining stoner noir, set in the '70s. At one point, the protagonist uses a proto-version of the Internet. It's also probably his most accessible book. Enjoying accessibly books by challenging writers is a real theme for me. I can pat myself on the back for not giving up in the middle.

At least you get to the middle. I don't like it when people give up on a book without at least giving the first few chapters a try. It's worse when people say that a book sucks if they haven't given it an opportunity. I've read the first few chapters of the Hunger Games and I was not a fan, but I do understand why people like it and get into the mythology behind it all.

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

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham