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:


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.

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!

Fun Intended: The Pun Also Rises

August 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

Having maintained this blog for five months now, I know how foolhardy it is to try to write seriously about humor, so I was filled with a warm glow of brotherly sympathy while reading John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises.  I feel humor giggles it’s way out of my grasp whenever I try to make too exacting a claim about it, but in this book Pollack does a great job of theorizing on the history, biology, and psychology of puns with a loose but secure tone.

Pollack acknowledges that the pun is derided in our culture—and has some interesting theories as to why—but notes that if it really is the lowest form of humor, it also serves as the foundation of all humor.  One of the book’s strengths is how easily the simple pun lends itself to study; it’s substitution of one meaning for another is mathematical enough to programmed into artificial intelligence and studied in psychological trials, giving Pollack a solid base of evidence to present and extrapolate from.  As a result, when he’s explaining how punning is the very essence of creativity at the end of the book, his claims don’t seem all that unfounded.

While the book’s subtitle, “How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics”, should  make Pollack’s propensity for puns evident, they never obscure his points.  For a former Pun-Off World Champion, he was able to find an admirable balance, using puns to break up scientific evidence and historical accounts every few pages so that the book stayed as quick and effortless feeling as it’s subject.

My complaint about the book, though, is that it was a little too quick and effortless.  It is chock full of information but presented in an anecdotal style, which was pleasant enough for breezy reading on my summer vacation, but frustrating when I tried to delve deeper.  Though full of facts, it is short on details.  For example, he starts the first chapter with what could be an engrossing story about ,”two scholars … arguing fiercely over the accent of a Greek word.”  When the argument turns to deadly duel, we’re meant to understand the power and importance of language—but the point falls short for me with such weak, abstract language.  What scholars?  What word?  I often had trouble at the beginning of new paragraphs guessing whether he was trying to set up evidence or a joke.  (A linguist, a biologist, and a psychologist walk into a bar…)

While I can see the appeal of a streamlined text and understand not everyone has my penchant for detailed academia, Pollack does little to accommodate readers like myself.  For example, when Pollack quotes an account of the above anecdote, he attributes it to “one chronicler of the dispute.”  How is this any less clunky or intrusive than a name?  The endnotes are unmarked in the main text, so finding out who wrote this or any of the other sources he cites involves flipping through the back of the book, looking for the first few words of the sentence you are interested in.

Ultimately, this shallow treatment of the material hurts Pollack’s arguments.  While it made me easy to slide through the points I understood, when I reached sections I disagreed with—such as his discussion of the pre-historical evolution of laughter—I didn’t know how to delve deeper and figure out if I was understanding him fully—and there was absolutely no chance of him changing my mind.

But while the book is frustrating to me now that I’m trying to mine it for future blog posts, it will probably be little but fun to a casually interested reader.  And though it isn’t helping much with the follow through, it has inspired a lot of thought in me, so look forward to a series of post over the next month about puns.


July 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

Since I’m already taking a break from the regular business of the blog this week to promote my guest post over at Innocent Offerings, I want to take a second to let everyone know about Versus Literary Journal.

My lovely girlfriend, the poet Jenny McDougal, is launching this new journal along with our friend Kate Glassman as a much needed home for literary explorations of sci-fi and pop-culture. From their mission statement:

Versus seeks to publish original works of prose, poetry, and creative nonfiction that legitimizes, analyzes, and/or deconstructs sci-fi/fantasy and pop culture icons in order to establish a place for them in a literary capacity. The journal publishes contributor content every few weeks on our website and selected works for our bi-annual print edition in the Fall and Spring.

The web adress is http://versusliteraryjournal.org/, and they hope to have the inaugural issue up soon. In the meantime, though, you should submit something awesome to them. I know for a fact they like humorous work; Jenny is often the only person who laughs at my jokes.

Moby Dick on the Brain: The Snow Whale

June 27, 2012 § 6 Comments

Soon after posting on Monday, I realized that I’d based my whole article on humor and subtext on the decidedly less than hilarious Moby Dick.  I guess I shouldn’t say that about Mellville’s classic, since I read it when I was a precocious ninth-grader trying to impress people by the advanced level at which I read; I probably understood half of the book and wonder if I went back now, I’d clue into some hidden jokes.  Or maybe not.

Regardless, I feel the need to explain that I had Moby Dick on the brain because I’d just finished John Minichillo’s The Snow Whalea satire that uses Mellville’s familiar frame to humorously explore modern conceptions of race, consumer culture, and environmentalism.  There are lots of great moments of the sort of humor I like to talk about on the blog, those jokes that make you think about how your laughing, so I hope to use it as an example in future posts, possibly on satire.

In any event, next week I’m planning on finishing up our discussion of humor and subtext with one last example from Leaving the Atocha Station, so you should have plenty of time for the assigned readings.

TOJItW Book Club: Leaving the Atocha Station

May 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m going to try something new this week, a recommendation instead of an idea or an example. Every couple months, I’ll give a quick review of a work that exemplifies the tone of important joking I’m trying to write about here.

First up is Ben Lerner’s incredibly beautiful, intelligent, and hilarious Leaving the Atocha Station from Coffee House Press. It’s been reviewed and awarded all over during the past year, so I’m recommending it  not because I’m afraid it isn’t getting it’s due, but because taking examples from it will help me elucidate my points more elegantly than my iphone essay prose is capable of: the novel is full of the sort of humor I’m interested in, drawing the reader deeper into a subject instead of flippantly dismissing it.

The deeper subject here is human connection; Adam, the narrator, is a young poet “studying” on a fellowship in Spain. But instead of writing or reading, he mostly gets high and worries that everyone can tell he’s a fraud; he’s worried that everyone can tell his poetry is empty, that there is no such thing as meaningful poetry anyway, and that everyone can tell he’s just using his poor Spanish as an excuse to seem profound and stay distant. Add in the terrorist attack on the Atocha Station from 2004, and the whole thing sounds very sober, but somehow there is humor on nearly every page. Best of all, it never feels extraneous or ingratiating, but continually draws the reader deeper into the story and the problems it explores.

Below, Adam has just been punched in the face for being too high and full of himself to notice he was cockily smiling through a story he should have been frowning at. The girl who told the story finds him to apologize for her punchy friend.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t understand what story you said before to me,” is probably what I said. “My Spanish is very bad, I get nervous.”

“Your Spanish is good,” she said. “How is your face?”

“My face is good,” I said, which made her laugh. She undid her hair and took the scarf and dipped it and wrung it out and used it to wipe the rest of the blood from my face and then dipped it and wrung it out. She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening’s general drama, though the moon wasn’t full. Her hair was long, maybe longer than the guard’s. Then she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or asked me if I’d enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she’d said about the moon was childish. She asked me if I knew a poem by Lorca, this time about something that involved several colors and required her to softly roll her r‘s, which I couldn’t do. She offered me a cigarette and we smoked and I looked at the water and was sober.

There’s plenty of fun like this throughout the book, as Adam invents whole self-serving stories out of the fractions of Spanish that he understands, a process he likens to our modern relationship with poetry.

I’m hoping to write most of the next month’s posts specifically about literature and humor, and how humor can be used as a tool to deepen the subtext of literature. I plan to use Leaving the Atocha Station for most of my textual examples because it does everything I want to talk about so elegantly.  But it’s so full of cathartic moments of complicated laughter–too many for me to attach specific points to–that I hope you’ll read it for your own enjoyment.

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