photos: Photos courtesy of Douglas & McIntyre.

The alphabet of panic attacks

Charles Demers’ new book an underdog triumph

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Charles Demers is uneasy with his career and material success. This comes across in his new essay “Y for Yuppies,” which highlights his deliberate selection of a “boxy, relatively down-market, fog-coloured stroller” for his family, rather than “one of those top-of-the-line jobs that look like a stylized cluster of speech balloons from an Ikea-themed comic book,” and even more so when he meets me at Vancouver’s Our Town Café to talk about The Horrors: An A to Z of Funny Thoughts on Awful Things, his latest book in which “Y for Yuppies” is housed.

“I have really struggled in recent years to come to grips with the fact that I am no longer a put-upon person,” Demers says. “To be a straight, white, English-speaking middle-class man in North America, most people would say, ‘Not put upon? No shit.’”

But he spent his formative years feeling like a loser in life. So it’s one thing to recognize objectively that his life is actually pretty great, and quite another to truly feel it is so.

Yet the 35-year-old author, stand-up comedian and faculty member of the Creative Writing program at UBC is about to add another feather to his cap when Douglas and McIntyre publishes The Horrors, his second collection of essays, Oct. 17.

Demers bares much in the book. His alphabetically catalogued musings touch on his experiences with masturbation, depression, and panic attacks. Moving from chapters A to Z, he weaves the personal with the political, exploring the connections between comedy and tragedy, how humour can help us navigate the darkest corners of our lives.

“The comic or ironic sensibility is one of the only things that can really allow you to face that kind of absurd and chaotic terror in the face,” he says. “I've used comedy, in my life, alternately to hide from reality, but more often than not, that's the sound that pain makes when it's leaving my body.”

Laugh-crying in print

Demers relished the opportunity to write comedic essays on horrible topics.

“I think of making a joke as a way of ordering the chaos of the world,” he says. But, fittingly, he experienced a “never-ending nightmarish slapstick of a year” while writing the book. His family’s home flooded, his wife contracted shingles, their six-month old baby subsequently developed chicken pox, and Demers’ dad was unwell.

Despite the personal chaos surrounding its writing, The Horrors succeeds in eliciting laughs before the first essay even starts.

“For my father, Daniel Demers, whose unshakably positive outlook on life has been my only reason for ever questioning his paternity,” Demers writes in the book’s dedication.

Then it’s on to “A for Adolescence,” “B for Bombing” (during a stand-up set) and “C for Capitalism.”

The sorest subjects hit the page most coherently, Demers says, because they were the topics that have intensely occupied his mind. He counts among these “M for Motherlessness,” “O for Obsessive- Compulsive Disorder” and “F for Fat.”

His sentiments in the F chapter are some of the most humorously tragic.“To go through high school as a very fat kid is to go about the most sexually terrifying period of one’s life from within a carapace of unfuckability,” he writes.

The Horrors includes Demers’ dalliances with Communism, his musings on imperialism and “K for Kelsey Grammer.”

But “H for Heteronormativity,” or the aforementioned “O for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” may linger with readers the longest.

“H for Heternormativity” outs the unique makeup of Demers’s family while questioning his relationship with conventional masculinity.

“O for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” reveals Demers’ struggles with a strain of OCD that not only produces chapped hands but also invasive thoughts of blasphemy, inappropriate sexual behaviour, and violence—“an easy mnemonic device is that they’re the same three things most young men are looking for in a video game.” But his account resonates not only with his raw revelations, but also with the tender description of the solace he encountered with his friend Tej, “whose physicality as well as his personality offered countenance and comfort and made me feel small and safe (I don’t ever get to feel either of these things).”

Turning the microscope onto himself

A funny man on a career upswing such as Demers could refrain from tearing back the curtain to reveal the struggling man behind the magic. But Demers finds highlighting his imperfections more self-protective than embarrassing. He believes his impulse to expose so much of his life is partly rooted in his OCD.

“You’re trying to head off anything bad by putting everything in front of other people and having them be the judges of everything about you,” he says. “...I do have a certain compulsion to share these things about myself partly because I want to make sure I’m not crazy.”

Demers’ candour is sure to prompt grateful sighs of relief from readers who’ve shared similar experiences. Whether he recognizes it on every level or not, the happily married father who earns a living and acknowledgement for doing creative work that he loves is likely to serve as an inspiration to others that loss, mental illness, and imperfection don’t equal a life of misery, that humour and smarts can take you far.

Demers took an inventory of his life while writing The Horrors and guarded against solipsism by choosing to write about what he presumed would be relatable. He tried to avoid self-indulgence by focusing on making others laugh.

“Comedy, like horror writing or like erotica, is a sensual writing,” he says. “It’s trying to provoke a specific intellectual and even physiological reaction in a a way that can be a really helpful corrective to navel-gazing inward-looking stuff.”

No casts, no costumes, just a book

Demers grew up mostly in South Burnaby. He never formally studied writing but says his Grade 9 honours English teacher and debate coach Ms. Morgan profoundly influenced him. He earned a degree in history at SFU and considers his stint editing student newspaper The Peak his writing school.

He’s working on his third East Van Panto to play at The Cultch’s York Theatre in December and rewriting his one-man show Leftovers with playwright Marcus Youssef, for performances at the PuSh International Performance Arts Festival in January. He’s also voicing a cartoon.

Demers, a returning star of CBC Radio’s The Debaters, has been so busy with other pursuits he’s been “neglectful” of stand-up comedy, which, in his words, feels more “punk rock” than writing.

But he loves that once he’s “chiselled out” a book, he’s created an object that exists in its final form—and, unlike his other creative work, doesn’t need to be cast, costumed, or performed.

The Horrors is Demers’ third book. He published a debut novel The Prescription Errors, in 2009 through Insomniac Press. Later that year, Arsenal Pulp Press published Vancouver Special, his first collection of essays that serve as an alternative guidebook to the city.

Demers says The Horrors is partly about coming to grips with the way his life has changed.

“At the height of the It Gets Better campaign, wherein prominent and successful gay adults shared their stories of hope and overcoming adversity with LGBTQ youth, I was tempted to reach out to chubby youngsters—multi-chinned, breasted boys like I had been—with my own message of It Pretty Much Stays Really Shitty,” he writes in “F is for Fat.”

Later in the essay, Demers suggests that things can get better. They have,at least, for him. Today, he recognizes he’s fortunate to earn acknowledgement for—and a good living from—work he’s passionate about. He’s got a “brilliant and beautiful” wife and a “wonderful” baby.

But it’s one thing to be able to objectively acknowledge your fortunes have improved, and another to feel it on a cellular level. “If and when that happens,” he warns, "one of your biggest challenges might be recognizing that.”

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