An Elegy for my Vacation

August 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

I really wish I could say I’m happy to be back here on the world wide web but my recent vacation was just too beautiful.  I spent a glorious week in a cabin on an island in Northeastern Ontario. The weather was a little cooler than a normal August, perfect for shorts and dock shoes during the day and sleeping bags at night, and the only time it rained was the day the roofers were due to make some repairs, so the grey skies were actually a lucky guarantor of peace and quiet for reading. And that’s really all I did for the whole week: laze about in a hammock and read.  On one of the last days, I tried fishing for a few minutes, but quickly found myself back to a book.

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View from the Western Window of my Cottage–photo by Jenny McDougal

You know you’re relaxing when fishing seems like too much excitement.

In addition to Rob Bell’s thoughtful Love Wins, I read the following novels: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Red Moon by Ben Percy, Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins, Broken Harbor by Tana French, and A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch, but it is A Hologram for the King that I want to blog about today, because its literary use of jokes it pertinent to the mission of this blog.

The novel follows Alan Clay, a salesman from a fast-fading era of American greatness, as he tries to redeem his recent (and continuing) blunders by giving a successful sales pitch to a Saudi Arabian monarch. Concerned with failure and decline—both personal and cultural—this spare novel is sad and beautiful in an elegiac way.

It is, thankfully, also very funny. Many of the laughs come at Alan’s expense as he rushes from one awkard mess to the next (imagine Michael Scott fancying himself Lawrence of Arabia).  But, lost in a foreign land, Alan recognizes that humor is a great bridge between cultures (as we’ve discussed on the blog before). After an awkward silence between he and his local driver, Alan tries to break the ice:

-Okay, Alan said. A woman’s husband has been sick. He’s been slipping in and out of a coma for several months, but she’s been staying by his bedside every single day. When he wakes up, he motions for her to come nearer. She comes over, sits next to him. His voice is weak. He holds her hand. ‘You know what?’ he says. ‘You’ve been with me all through the bad times. When I got fired, you were there to support me. When my business went sour, you were there. When we lost the house, you gave me support.  When my health started failing, you were still by my side… You know what?’ ‘What dear?’ she asks gently. ‘I think you bring me bad luck!’

Yousef snorted, coughed, had to stub out his cigarette.

-That’s good.  I didn’t see that coming. You have more?

Alan was so grateful. He had not told a joke to an appreciative young person in many years.

This joke, obviously doing some thematic work as well, is surrounded by Alan’s recent memories of being shamed by his ex-wife and daughter for telling jokes. These failures are indicative of his crumbling connection to American life, just as his success in the car is a convincing sign of his budding friendship with Yousef. This relationship was one of the least depressing aspects of the book, as well as one of the realest feeling, in part because of the good (and good-bad) jokes Eggers uses in building it. There’s a decent chunk of the book dedicated to lamenting the fact that nothing real is built in America anymore, and in Alan’s world of  telecom holograms and skyscrapers that will never be finished, an unlikely friendship is one of the most concrete commitments  to be found.

With this in mind, I’m afraid to say that this post might have to serve as a sort of elegy for business as usual at The Oldest Jokes in the World: in contrast to the declining might of American manufacture, I’m going to start focusing on producing my own work for a while instead of commenting, theorizing on, and repackaging the rest of the world’s. My serial novel, Slash, is launching in September, so my only posts here for the next month or two will probably be to promote my efforts. I will have plenty of content related to Slash that is both literary and funny, though, so check out the website and the fb group to get your fix. Otherwise, I promise to be back soon with an essay about the history of the “deeez nuts” joke or the importance of flatulence gags.

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