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.