October 2009

Michael Schaub


Overqualified by Joey Comeau

It should be very difficult to find a job. Any human being who wants to work, who wants to earn a basic living, should have to humiliate himself on every level imaginable, and undergo as many pointless, repetitive, and mind-numbingly tasks as possible. Work isn’t a right; it’s a privilege for those who want to humble themselves, and sacrifice every single bit of dignity that they have, to apathetic business owners and managers. That is why God created cover letters. If you haven’t had to write one, you will. And it will make you weep, and drink, in that order.

So here we have Joey Comeau, the Canadian writer of the webcomic A Softer World, and an author of fiction and humor. He’s written a novel called Overqualified, which is told through a series of cover letters from the character “Joey Comeau” to various businesses and organizations -- Absolut Vodka, RAND, Nintendo, American Express. The letters are by turns hilarious and tragic, highly inappropriate and oversharing. The novel that results is both extremely funny and extremely sad, and above all, original -- I’ve never read anything like it, and I want to read it again and again.

The first letter in Overqualified is to Irving Oil, which Comeau starts off by revealing his intention to “take (the company) down, from the inside.” The letter ends like this: “I want a scar down the side of my own face. I want to get an alcoholic woman pregnant, and when that little freak squirts out, nine months later, I want to tell him, ‘Live for today, you retarded little shit. The end is near.’” The last sentence could serve as Comeau’s statement of purpose for this novel; it’s infused with a sense of dread -- but the kind of dread that’s greeted with tired, undefeated eyes and a thin smile. Comeau is hard to figure out -- you’re never quite sure whether he’s deliriously happy or being crushed with depression. Overqualified suggests the two might not be mutually exclusive. It’s like listening to a bouncy, catchy pop song and then realizing the frontman is singing about wanting to kill himself.

Which is to say: it is awesome. As the novel goes on, we learn more and less about Comeau (the character) -- he’s unsure what to do with his family history, he seems both in love with and afraid of sex, he seems unable to know what to do with himself, or how he fits in to the world, or whether he wants to. This is a short novel, so every word has to count, and every word does. Here’s Comeau on his jealousy of the relationship between his brother and his grandfather: “My grandfather was driving Adrian into Halifax a few years ago, and it was either rainy or snowy. I can’t remember. A man staggered into the street, drunk, and they hit him. I remember Adrian telling me about sitting quietly in the car, my grandfather crying, while they waited for the ambulance.

“What a strange thing to be jealous of.”

Here’s Comeau applying for a job at a magnetics company, and bringing up -- as you would, if you were applying for a job at a magnetics company -- three-way sex: “I am not a freak because I want to sleep with two chicks at the same time. That is perfectly normal! I am a freak because there is a magnet shaped like a kitten stuck inside me. I would love to discuss this position further. Please call. I am free all the time now.”

And here’s Comeau applying for a government position, and referencing the late comedian Mitch Hedberg: “Everything falls apart, and it fucking sucks and we’re all going to be in those wooden boxes eventually. Pause for effect. But the first and the middle parts are amazing!”

Here’s the deal: Overqualified is a great book, and its greatness makes it almost resistant to review. Or at least resistant to objective review. Everyone’s heard the cliché film review line: “I laughed and I cried.” But I did. I laughed and cried while reading this book. I wanted to be Joey Comeau (the character) and then I wanted to be Joey Comeau (the author) and then I was afraid of having felt that way. Comeau’s prose is manic, both when it’s funny and when it’s sad, and I was pulled into it in a way I don’t think I ever have been before. I thought about my own family. I thought about my own job. I felt nostalgic, and then I felt the opposite of that. (Comeau on nostalgia: “Is nostalgia like kittens? Does it make our language stupid? OH MY GOODNESS YOU’RE A KITTY!”)

I haven’t read anything like this before. At times, I felt like Comeau had reached into my brain and started playing it like a stringed instrument. I feel different for having read this. I feel exploited, emotionally, in the best way possible. I don’t know how he does it -- his prose style is so unique that it’s impossible to tell who his influences might have been. He has a brilliant sense of humor, but it’s a sense of humor unlike any I’ve ever seen before. He is a preternaturally skilled novelist, and he’s written one of the most original and most affecting books I’ve read in years. He is a comedian, and a mad philosopher, and there probably has never been anyone like him before. He’s a writer who lives for today, or for tomorrow. The end is near, or it’s not.

This book confused me, and I loved that. When I got to the end, I knew I’d never forget this book, and I loved that, too. A writer named Katie West wrote a LiveJournal entry about this book with this headline: “Everyone I know wants Joey Comeau to be inside of them.” That’s about right. That’s kind of what happens when you read this book. It’s a good feeling.


Overqualified by Joey Comeau
ECW Press
ISBN: 1550228587
96 Pages

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