Humor’s Uses In Literature

Below, you’ll find the first long series of posts I did for the blog, discussing the role humor can play in literature and why I think that role should be played up more often.  I’ve reassembled them here and deleted the introductory business of each post so that the whole thing will be easier to follow as a unified thought.  I hope to one day use this as the basis for a chapter in a book on humor in literature, so please do let me know what you think needs work or deserves more elaboration.

Why More (All!) Literature Should Employ Humor

Because laughing feels good, and I want to do it more.

If this answer doesn’t seem like enough, it’s because we expect our literature to do something more than simply entertain us.  While I think literature would hold a more democratically revered place in our popular culture if many authors focused a little more on being graciously entertaining, I’ll dedicate the rest of this post (and the next few to follow) to the more noble reasons writers should employ humor in their fiction.  Whether you think the sole, true purpose of literature is uplifting our spirits, shining a cold light on dark truths, giving audience to under-represented voices, or toppling the bourgeois hegemony, humor can only help in accomplishing these goals.

Humor is a tool, like characterization or dialogue, and it is foolhardy for any writer to rise to the impossible task of communicating the unspeakable with less than all available tools at their disposal.  Why, then, do some people try to write about parenthood or cancer or vampires without a large box of jokes at the ready?

I wonder if some associate humor with the genre of comedy, a narrative arc which I think literary authors are right in distrusting.  Every element in strict comedies must conform to a path—the protagonist falls further and further before triumphing in the climax— which is much neater and straighter than reality.  In trying to say something astute about life, literary authors need to be looser and subtler, free to let the plot follow the subtext.

But I don’t see why this should keep anyone from using as much humor as their structure allows; no author would think to write a novel without setting because of her distaste for the post-colonial trappings of commercial travel literature.  Nor would she do without a plot because Robert Ludlum could do it better by focusing on plot alone.  There are literary novels that have done so as noble experiments or self-absorbed stunts, but no one except the most fevered manifesto writers (which is probably the farthest one can get from being a fiction writer) have ever suggested that one of these elements is actually a distraction from the story and should be kept out of fiction forevermore.  Why then isn’t humor seen as a necessary element of fiction?

From another angle, humor isn’t a tool but a sense.  We all think of it this way—one’s “sense of humor”—and it is a common admonition in introductory creative writing classes to engage all the senses: the only chance you have of making the world of the story come to life is by stimulating every input the reader has.  A teacher of mine once encouraged the class to revise the first page of a story so that it included at least one concrete detail for each of the five senses.  Why not also engage the sense of humor?

Again, I hope a substitution illustrates my point: it should surely change the story if the narrator were unable to touch the world in a tactile way or if she were fully blind, so it is only a very specific narrative point of view that should ignore humor fully. Full humorlessness, though, seems almost past disability: the man who enters the cancer ward without holding tight to some sense of humor seems as monstrously disfigured as the sociopath who enters without a sense of sorrow or empathy.  While it may be useful to explore characters with these emotional blocks through literature, I fear most of our self-important writers choose to write without humor because they take their own thoughts too seriously.  As a result, their work ends up being evidence instead of an elucidation of this blindness.

Show & Tell

For an example of humor as a tool and a sense–and for the rest of the examples in this series–I want to discuss Ben Lerner’s incredibly beautiful, intelligent, and hilarious Leaving the Atocha Station from Coffee House Press. 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 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.

If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext

It is hard to discuss any literary technique without discussing subtext and theme because the presence of an underlying theme built by subtext is what defines literature and sets it apart from general fiction.

I don’t think anyone has written so clearly on subtext as Charles Baxter does in his short treatise, The Art of Subtext, which I highly recommend and am greatly indebted to.  In short, subtext is the content implied but not explicitly contained by the text; it could be a character’s motives, the narrator’s understanding of the world, or anything else the author can’t or doesn’t want to express explicitly.  As such, it is literature’s greatest strength; straight genre fiction, depending on the genre, can certainly excel over literature at plot, setting, dialogue, or anything else to quickly satisfy a reader’s desires, but nothing can draw a reader deeper, more permanently into a story than subtext.

For example, if you’re reading a procedural crime novel set in a morgue, you’ll get drawn easily along the surface of a nice plot, and as you’re told what the main character is thinking and feeling, you might grow to like her and learn a few (hopefully forever useless) facts about how to dissect a corpse.  Maybe you’ll get so involved in the circumstances as to hazard an informed guess at the identity of the murderer—but unless it is a particularly literary crime novel, you won’t ever have to wonder at the inner workings of the main detective, the emotions that she may be hiding from even herself, or what her struggles imply about the human condition.

It is the mental and emotional work involved in all that implying that turns a lot of readers of off literary fiction, but for those that stick with it, the rewards are great.  In helping build the story through active involvement, a reader who picks up on subtext gains a sense of partial ownership of the story as well as a sense of communion with the author.  This deeper form of communication is why so many people dedicate their lives to the study of literature, obsessing over single authors or books, while most people won’t dedicate more than $5.99 and a couple afternoons to a disposable paperback.

Humor can work the same way in fiction by building similar bonds and forming another layer of subtext.  Both humor and subtext make generous assumptions about the audience’s intelligence, compassion, and attentiveness; an author who uses subtext takes the risk that the reader won’t pick up on it, losing the thread of the story, just as the comedian takes the risk that the audience won’t understand his joke, settling into a serious silence.  If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext.

There are many jokes that play on this risk of misunderstanding, and the humor of Chico Marx is a great example.  He’s always playing against the language barrier for a laugh, but while he’s misunderstanding everyone and being misunderstood, our understanding of him as a performer deepens as our laughter effectively says,“We are so simpatico, you and I, that we both understand not just what you said, but what you were trying to say, as well as everything that was implied by the discrepancy.”

So, just as with subtext, the rewards of humor are a deepening bond with each successful communication.  We’ve all broken the ice with a joke in the company of strangers and felt a good laugh cementing a friendship.  Similarly, humor can act as subtext in literature, deepening the unspoken bond between author and reader by letting the reader share in making the meaning of the story.

Moby Dick in Needlepoint (on humor and theme)

Authors can use subtext for additional reasons, as well, while still drawing readers deeper into the experience of a story.  For example, in times and places of severe censorship, subtext is often used to address forbidden subjects, and the bond created by the subtext takes on the air of a clandestine handshake between secret conspirators.

But even in free-ish societies like ours, there are some things authors feel they can’t just come out and say.  Anything we could say directly on the subject would sound trite because what we want to say is too complicated and nuanced for words.  I’m talking about the big questions literature grapples with: the true nature of truth, beauty, or what have you—all the meaty issues we generally discuss as theme.

These are the issues that inspire a work of literature, the questions that the story is attempting to answer.  So it is never enough for me when we say, “the theme ofMoby Dick is obsession” (or God, or the limits of knowledge, or class-strictures in colonial America)—but it is much worse when we get specific, with high-school three-part essay conclusions, “Moby Dick shows the destructive aspects of obsession.”

I should say here that I love the high-school theme paper, and that through it, my favorite teachers first instilled in me a sense of literature’s power, an idea that has become a driving force in my life.  That said, I feel it is really just a stepping stone to further understanding and that many readers’ desire for “theme” to come in the form of a clear, easy answer, is not just a failure to fully understand the nature of literature, but of language and the human experience at large.

I’m not saying that Moby Dick doesn’t “show the destructive aspects of obsession,” but through subtext, it does so much more that any such simple statement seems almost insulting; if Herman Melville thought a sternly parental, “Don’t succumb to obsession,” would do anyone any good, he could have saved himself a lot of time and sewed a saying onto a wall-hanging instead of writing a novel.  I, for one, am glad he realized most good advice goes ignored, and instead chose to explore the subject (and so many others, tying them all together) in a complicated and nuanced way, to say something about obsession that couldn’t be said in less than the 211,000 words he used.  We don’t get a nice take-away for an inspirational poster, but what we do get is a indelible but inexpressible sense of, “yes, Herman, that’s exactly how it is, isn’t it.”

Theme, then, isn’t a parental lesson or a sermon from on high, but an understanding shared between friends.  As I discussed last time, humor creates understanding in a similarly cooperative way.  The most profound jokes work like theme by communicating a concrete yet inexpressible sense of the truth of our experiences.  When we laugh together at the great ironies of life, commiserating over the cosmic joke of it all, we affirm a shared reality that can be expressed no more concisely than with laugher, but which we are willing to take as concrete because we agree on how abstract it.

To take a joke seriously—

Adam, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, is a great example of how humor relates to theme because he 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.

§ 3 Responses to Humor’s Uses In Literature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: