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The Copia of S.J. Perelman's Comic Prose


The Copia of S.J. Perelman's Comic Prose

"Before they made S. J. Perelman they broke the mold" (S. J. Perelman, 1904-1979)

Hyperbole, circumlocution, inflated diction, and abstruse allusions are just a few of the characteristics of S.J. Perelman's comic prose style. In these opening paragraphs from an essay on the animate and articulate groceries in his icebox, Perelman exuberantly illustrates Erasmus's definition of copia: "a magnificent and impressive thing, surging along like a golden river, with thoughts and words pouring out in rich abundance."

from "I Am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been, a Matrix of Lean Meat"

by S. J. Perelman

I awoke with a violent, shuddering start, so abruptly that I felt the sudden ache behind the eyeballs one experiences after bolting an ice-cream soda or ascending too recklessly from the ocean floor. The house was utterly still; except for the tumult of the creek in the pasture, swollen with melting snow, a silence as melting snow, a silence as awesome as that of Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned citadel of the Moguls, shrouded the farm. Almost instantly, I was filled with an immense inquietude, an anxiety of such proportions that I quailed. The radium dial of the alarm clock read two-thirty: the exact moment, I realized with a tremor, that I had become involved the night before in the affair of the Boneless Veal Steaks. The Boneless Veal Steaks--it had the same prosaic yet grisly implications as the Five Orange Pips or the Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb. Propped up on one elbow and staring into the velvet dark, I reviewed as coherently as I could the events of the preceding night.

I had awakened around two and, after thrashing about in my kip like a dying tautog, had lit and smoked the cork tip of a cigarette until I was nauseated. I thereupon woke up my wife, who apparently thought she could shirk her responsibilities by sleeping, and filed a brief resume of the disasters--financial, political, and emotional--threatening us. When she began upbraiding me, in the altogether illogical way women do, I did not succumb to justifiable anger but pacifically withdrew to the kitchen for a snack. As I was extricating a turkey wing from the tangle of leftovers in the icebox (amazing how badly the average housewife organizes her realm; no man would tolerate such inefficiency in business), my attention was drawn by a limp package labeled "Gilbert's Frozen Boneless Veal Steaks." Stapled to the exterior was a printed appeal that had the lugubrious intimacy of a Freudian case history, "Dear chef," it said. "I've lost my character. I used to have sinews, then I met a butcher at Gilbert's. He robbed me of my powers of resistance by cutting out some of the things that hold me together. I am a matrix of lean meat with my trimmings ground and worked back into me. Please be kind. Pick me up with a pancake turner or a spatula, don't grab me by the edges with a fork. Because of all I've been through I'm more fragile than others you've known. Please be gentle lest you tear me apart. Tillie the Tender."

The revelation that food had become articulate at long last, that henceforth I was changed from consumer to father confessor, so unmanned me that I let go the turkey wing; with a loud "Mrkgnao" she obviously had learned from reading Ulysses, the cat straightaway pounced on it. I must have been in a real stupor, because I just stood there gawking at her, my brain in a turmoil. What floored me, actually, wasn't that the veal had found a way to communicate--a more or less inevitable development, once you accepted the basic premise of Elsie, the Borden cow--but rather its smarmy and masochistic pitch. Here, for the first time in human experience, a supposedly inanimate object, a cutlet, had broken through the barrier and revealed itself as a creature with feelings and desires. Did it signalize its liberation with ecstasy, cry out some exultant word of deliverance, or even underplay it with a quiet request like "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you"? No; the whole message reeked of self-pity, of invalidism, of humbug. It was a sniveling eunuchoid plea for special privilege, a milepost of Pecksniffery. It was disgusting.

S.J. Perelman's "I Am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been, a Matrix of Lean Meat," originally published in The New Yorker, appears in the collection The Most of S.J.Perelman (Methuen, 2001).

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