A Gait at the Stares

September 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

Before we move on to fresh subjects, I want to share one last item that is germane to our discussion of puns:

Sorry.

I feel like I didn’t make enough actual puns during our discussion of puns, so I had to throw Jemaine in somewhere.

What I really want to discuss in Lorrie Moore’s novel, A Gait at the Stares, about a young woman who faces persecution for her unique style of walking and must learn to stand tall against her condemners’ dirty looks, so that in the end she can master her… gait at the stares.

Sorry again.

The title is actually spelled A Gate at the Stairs, and the novel is really about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for a mysterious couple.  The book came out three years ago to good reviews and bounced around my to-read list ever since—until I found a hardcover copy for two dollars at a Chapter Books while I was in Canada!  I’m writing this recommendation today to let you know  it is definitely worth at least a toonie—if it’s been on your to-read list for a while, bump it up to the top—but also because it is an interesting study in punning that puts many of the points I’ve been trying to make about puns this past month into practice.

Tassie, the narrator, is an inveterate punster; barely a page goes by without her making at least one pun, and sometimes, her punning takes over as the narrative logic linking one scene to the next.  She answers a question about her parents:

“They sold off the farm to some Amish people and now they’re quasi retired.”  I loved to say quasi.  I was saying it now a lot, instead of sort of, or kind of, and it had become a tic.  “I am quasi ready to go,” I would announce.  Or, I’m feeling a bit quasi today.”  Murph called me Quasimodo.  Or Kami-quasi.  Or wild and quasi girl.

While this punning works to entertain and draw readers into Tassie’s sensibility, her sensibility is ultimately one of disconectedness.  As I said in Punning in Circles, puns draw attention to the short-comings of language, the fact that a word isn’t what it means, only a sound that can mean many different things.  Or, as Jonathan Lethem stated in his review of the novel from the New York Times, “The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers’ attention to the innate thingliness of words.”  He goes on to say that the novel highlights words’  “potential use as deliberate uncommunication.”  For example, after the above passage, Tassie amends (not out loud, of course, but to herself), “What my father really was was not quasi retired but quasi drunk.”

The novel is full of secrets like this, small and large, that the characters hide from each other and themselves, and the puns they hint at them with seem like, at times, like cunning ways to withhold the truth without lying, and, at others, like desperate attempts to be caught.  A Gate at the Stairs is hilarious and heartbreaking, an engrossing and communicative novel about the ways in which we can use words to keep ourselves alone and insulated.

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Punning in Circles

September 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve added another “page” to the blog, collecting the last three posts on puns into one easy-to-find, -follow, and  -digest location, and titled it Punning in Circles. I owe a lot of the ideas and all the inspiration for these posts to John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises, and I had a lot of fun searching for the best Marx Brothers routines to use as examples.  I’m most grateful, though, for everyone who read my musings and contributed to the discussion.

I’m not sure what my next big series of posts will be about—I’ve been sketching some notes on wit and reading a fair amount of satire lately, so those are possibilities—but I’ve got some book recommendations and fun one-shots in mind to finish out the month.

Thanks again for reading!

Spider-Ham Must Die!

September 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

I sat down to write this last post in my series on puns planning to elaborate on the dichotomy I laid out last post between puns and irony; this was originally meant to be a manifesto for all the punners in the world, a call for us all to keep our eyes out for sarcastic eye-rollers and arm ourselves against their ironic armor.

But then I actually remembered how obnoxious over-punning can be. When I was a kid, I read a lot of Spider-Man comics. (Not as many as I read now that I get paychecks instead of an allowance, but that’s beside the point). In the late 80’s they sometimes featured back-up stories about Peter Porker, Amazing Spider-Ham, a parody of Spider-Man who fought and allied with other animal versions of Marvel characters such as Ducktor Doom, Nick Furry (Agent of S.H.E.E.P.), and the X-Bugs. They all punned incessantly—no one more so than Frank Carple, aka The Punfisher.

I always felt cheated out of the last few pages of my proper Spider-Man comic when they showed up; I didn’t get why Peter Parker needed parodying. I still love it whenever I get to see Batman treated less seriously than normal (which is to say, as seriously as world hunger or less), but Spider-Man already joked around in his regular comic. In fact, he made good puns nearly every issue and they were all the funnier and more affecting because he made them as a means of coping with the incredible danger and loneliness being a hero brought him. In contrast, Spider-Ham made one joke after another just to fill up the panels until the pages became a tasteless pablum of puns. I think it was my first exposure to making bad puns on purpose, the sort of humor that is purposely so unfunny it is supposed to be funny—a form of irony that is not at all in opposition to the pun.

Wrestling with whether puns and irony were opposed or aligned, I came across this last quote for us from John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises:

Incidentally, both irony and sarcasm are, like puns, a way to say one thing and mean another. However, irony and sarcasm don’t suffer the pun’s poor reputation. Maybe this is because punning, which seeks to create a connection between words and ideas, is inherently an attempt at intellectual construction. Irony and sarcasm, by contrast, tend to be acts of criticism or destruction.

Interestingly, I’d been thinking of them as opposites in exactly the opposite way: puns destroy our illusions that language is exact while irony builds up our false sense of intellectual security. But I don’t disagree with Pollack’s analysis here; I guess it is due to the inexactness I’ve been talking about, but we can both be right while saying opposite things.

Irony and punning can do different things in different situations. Since irony is currently in fashion, the contrarian in me wants to see it degraded. But I could just as easily imagine myself in ancient Sumeria, where the pun was revered enough to start wars, being the guy groaning and rolling his eyes,”Really? You’re going to send all of us off to die in battle just because Prince Apuulluunideeszu pointed out that your name sounds a little like the words for ‘smelly genitalia?’ Really?”

So at the end of three posts, I guess I don’t have much definite to say about puns. Again, I guess I’m just reiterating that one of humor’s most important functions is to illuminate our mistakes, to tear down those structures which don’t build us up but only bind us—including most of the grand sweeping theories we can make about humor itself.

Versus Literary Journal–Now Live

September 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m taking a brief break from our discussion of puns to let you all know about Versus Literary Journal because:

1) The journal’s name is a pun, so, technically, it is still germane.

2) It was founded and is edited by my lovely girlfriend Jenny (and our good friend Kate), so I’m hoping I’ll get out of cleaning the bathroom if enough people click through to the journal.

3) Mostly, though, because it is a great idea (literary explorations of pop culture) that is well executed (how come everyone’s blog looks more exciting than mine? (oh yeah… because all I have is black text and Marx Brother’s stills—hopefully just posting their logo below will help jazz things up around here a bit)).

They just launched the first issue this weekend with a short story, an essay, and a poem.  Each of the pieces is exciting, but I especially want to recommend Sarah Turner’s CNF piece “Holy Roller“, because it has the tone of heartfelt humor I’m always trying to write about in this blog.  Sarah runs her own hilarious blog, Sarah in Small Doses, and—to bring us back full circle and ready you for my last post on puns later this week—her latest musings include some great punning on the swine flu!

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