To take a joke seriously—

July 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

This week, I present the conclusion to my discussion of humor as a literary technique, with one last example from Ben Lerner’s brain-painingly hilarious Leaving the Atocha Station, hopefully illustrating the points I made over the past month about humor as a form of subtext (in “If you have to explain it…” and “Moby Dick in Needlepoint“):

Adam, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, is hyper-sensitive to subtext, always obsessing over every possibility of what might be implied by what he says, the tone in which he says it, and the practiced expression on his face afterward.  In part, he dwells in subtext because the language barrier and his constant drug use leave him with little control or understanding of the literal meaning—a weakness he often tries to turn to his advantage.  For example, his strategy at seeming profound on a date at a museum:

As we walked  through the Reina Sofia I would offer up unconjugated sentences or sentence fragments in response to paintings that she then expanded and concatenated into penetrating observations about line and color, art and institutions, old world and new […] I would say, Blue is an idea about distance, or Literature ends in that particular blue, or Here are several subjunctive blues; I would say, To write with sculpture—, To think the vertical—, To refute a century of shadow—, etc., and watch her mouth the phrase to herself, investing it with all possible resonances, then reapplying it to canvas.  Of course, we engaged in our share of incidental talk, but our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.

As a great poet and bullshit artists (he often wonders if there’s a difference between the two), Adam is using the powers of literature to his own personal gains.  As I discussed in the above posts, subtext establishes and deepens relationships, as Isabel is drawn closer by the intimation that Adam has something inexpressibly profound to say about art as well as enough respect for her intelligence to trust that she she can figure out what that is without him stating it explicitly.  He establishes a rapport much as a humorist would with a subtle yet powerful joke, or a literary author would with a challenging but concise scene.

The problem is that Adam doesn’t have anything profound to say about the art he is looking at and has very little respect for Isabel (or any of the other women he’s trying to seduce through similar techniques).  As readers, we end up liking Adam, though, because he admits these shortcomings to  us through self-depricating humor.  This is an instance of humor and subtext working as one; the humor marks it as important, not just by begging for our attention but by skirting the issue as something ultimately impossible to approach soberly or express sensibly.  As a result, we fall into a trap similar to the one he’s used to ensnare Spanish girlfriends, guessing at a deep and familiar pain or fear that leads him to build so many walls around himself.  Falling deeper through the subtext of his anecdotes, which begin to feel more and more precious as we realize how hard it is for him to explicitly share any true part of himself with anyone, we begin to realize the theme of the novel has to do with his fear that there is nothing of true meaning at the bottom of any of his subtexts, just a desire to be admired.

In conclusion, Leaving the Atocha Station is about the way meaning can ultimately escape a person if he or she spends too much time considering every possible meaning of the meanings people ascribe to him–and if that sounds too confusing, I hope I’ve finally driven home my point about the usefulness of subtext and theme, and the way literature can say something more concisely in thousands of words than is possible in a dozen.

And besides, the above book-report topic-sentence misses half the point, because after inferring so much from the way Adam composes his actions for optimal inferences, we have to wonder if every sentence in the novel hasn’t been a carefully composed trick to get us to ascribe a loveably feeling soul to a hedonistic sociopath, the ultimate level of Adam’s subtext as seduction.  And if that’s too depressing a thought, I hope you’ll understand why I prefer my literature with spoonful of humor–because reading Leaving the Atocha Station (and rereading it for these posts) was never trying or burdensome, but a constant beauty and joy.

Thanks for reading through this first major thought-arc on the blog over the past few months.  In the coming weeks, I’m going to reorganize the blog a bit to bring this series of posts into one easy-to-follow page, as I envision them as one chapter in a book on literary humor.  Past that, I’ll be posting one-offs as often as I can between a big push to finish the second draft of my latest novel and a trip to a hammock in Canada to catch up on my reading.  Hopefully by the fall, I’ll be back with at least one big idea for a long series of weekly posts–I’ve already got some ideas forming on satire as well as the differences between prepared jokes, wit, and jokes in literature.


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