Show & Tell

June 4, 2012 § 4 Comments

This week, I’d like to take a look at the literary uses of humor I’ve  discussed so far (humor as a storytelling tool and as a “sense” through which the world of the story be brought to life) through a passage from Ben Lerner’s wonderful Leaving the Atocha Station.

Below, Adam describes one of the hundreds of awkward cross-cultural experiences he has while abroad in Spain:

It was getting cold; I had somehow never thought Madrid would have a winter, but I was sweating, no doubt visibly, as Arturo greeted and introduced me to the shivering smokers milling around the galleries glass doors.  I was too nervous to catch the names of the people with whom I exchanged handshakes, but I was aware that my kissing was particularly awkward, that I had kissed one of the women in the corner of the mouth, more on her lips than on her cheek.  This was a common occurrence; with a handful of clumsy exceptions when I had met particularly cosmopolitan New Yorkers one kiss on the right cheek, and various relatives when I was a child, I had almost never, prior to my project, kissed a woman with whom I was not romantically involved.  I wasn’t exactly sure what would have happened if I’d tried to greet a woman by kissing her in Topeka; certainly her boyfriend would have kicked in my teeth if she had one, or I would be at risk of becoming her boyfriend if she didn’t.  It often occurred to me that my upbringing would have been changed beyond all recognition if kissing had been common; such a dispersion of the erotic into general social circulation would have had unpredictable effects.  In Providence I could have gotten away with it, but not without an air of affectation and effeminacy; regardless, I had never thought to try.  But in Spain, I was guilty of abusing the kissing thing, or of at least investing it with a libidinal charge it wasn’t supposed to contain, and when you were drunk and high and foreign, you could reasonably slip up and catch the corner of a mouth.

This passage is indicative of many in the novel, which laughs in the face of the old MFA adage by telling nearly as often as it shows.  Here, the plot is paused for a long paragraph as Adam tells us about the ironies involved in his habit of over-kissing in Spain.  Removed from all but the most general sense of setting (“In Europe they do this–but in America, they do that”), this observational monologue could fit nearly as easily into a stand-up routine as a novel: Lerner, here, is using humor as a fictional technique.  But like all elements of fiction in a book that works, it works in concert with other elements: while we chuckle, Adam is being characterized and our sense of the setting is being deepened and reinforced.

As “sensory writing”, the humorous details in this passage make the world of the story come alive.  The ironic contrast between the setting of Spain and America is deepened, yet again, until it is undeniable fact, true from every angle.  Even more importantly and effectively, though, we’re getting a sense of Adam’s sense of humor, which is probably the attentive reader’s best means of delving deeper into his character.  This scene is ripe for concrete sensory details, but after a mention of the weather, Adam glosses over the physical aspects of the kiss.  Dwelling on the feel of the kiss–the contrast of textures between her cheek and lips, the smell of her hair, the sexual electric jolt it sends down his spine–might make for titillating reading, but Adam instead jumps to the abstract ironies it implies.

It is important to note that with a tightly constructed scene full of details, we might have been able to imply these ironies; but the fact that Adam comes out and tells us shows that to him, satisfying physical lust isn’t as important as his desire to use culture in a way that allows him to stay outside of it.  The most telling line in the passage might be “at risk of becoming her boyfriend.” Adam is always looking for ways to satisfy his urge to be around people without actually having to let his guard down or commit.

It is the jokes in this paragraph that made me realize Adam digresses so often because he doesn’t have much to show; all he can do is tell us about all the reasons he didn’t do what he probably should have.  Far from being a string of useless jokes, then, this passage uses humor as an element of fiction and a sensory detail to invoke a subtext and explore the theme of the novel.

But the relationship between subtext and humor is my next subject, so I’ll leave you here until next week.

Thanks for reading.

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§ 4 Responses to Show & Tell

  • Bayla says:

    If you had driven by the coffee shop I was at tonight you would have seen 4 grown women smiling and laughing, but what you wouldn’t have known is that we gathered because someone that will all know is in the final stages of dying from liver cancer. This is what is so wonderful about humor, that grief and humor can occupy the same place and time. We reminded each other of so many things funny about my friend and at that same time I was flashing in my mind her lying on her death bed being surrounded by her husband and daughter watching her taking her last breaths.

    It confounds the mind and yet on her ” Caringbridge”site a friend put an Ole and Lena joke:

    ” Hang on to any of the new Minnesota Quarters you may have or acquire.They may be worth MUCH MORE than 25 cents! The US Mint announced today that it is recalling all of the Minnesota quarters that are part of its program featuring quarters from each state.

    This action is being taken after numerous reports that these quarters will not work in parking meters, toll booths, vending machines, pay phones or any other coin operated devices.

    The problem lies in the unique design of the Minnesota quarter, which was designed by a couple of Norwegian specialists, Sven and Ole. Apparently the duct tape holding the two dimes and the nickel together keeps jamming up the machines. ”

    Sometimes this stuff makes my head want to explode!!!

    Thank you for writing Evan!

    • Thanks Bayla. My condolences go out to you during this trying time, but I’m glad you can still laugh. It heals us and keeps us strong.

      I liked the nice long set-up to your joke, too!

  • Keri Peardon says:

    The novel you quoted reminds me a bit of “McCarthy’s Bar” by the late Peter McCarthy. If you like humorous novels, you should read it. It’s all about a half-English, half-Irish 40-something man traveling Ireland and trying to find out what it is that makes people crazy for Ireland.

    It involved lots of alcohol, The Edge, a bird up the tailpipe of his car, and breaking-and-entering Bunratty Castle.

    At one point, I was laughing until I cried. Unfortunately, I was sitting alone, in a restaurant, waiting for my parents to show up, and people kept looking at me while I hid my face in my napkin.

  • Sounds like my kind of book! I’ll check it out. Thanks for the recommendation, Keri.

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