February 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I used to hate salespeople. You go into the cell-phone store for a new phone, and someone swoops in to try and convince you to get the same phone he has, a more expensive one than you had in mind. The store could have made money off the phone you wanted, but since they have this glorified con-man on their pay-roll, he has to find a way to justify his wage by pressuring you into something you don’t want.
As a grocery buyer, I had to deal with them all the time, dropping into the store just when I was least expecting it, to see if I was interested in carrying their new line of sprouted nuts or artisinal jams, talking too quickly to give me a chance to cut them off with a, “no thanks, not interested.” They’d fill my mouth with samples and tell me to think about it, they’d be emailing soon. I always felt like chasing them out of the store–“Really just no! Not maybe! No need to send your pricing structure. We are not interested, never will be.”–but politeness always stopped me. Then the call came a week later, “Remember me? I fed you ginger peach jam from my jar with a tiny spoon: now you owe me! How many cases can I put you down for?” Even after that no, they had to find a way to keep it open ended and check back to see if anything changes in a few months.
After one guy’s fourth call-back, it hit me: these weren’t the slick talking, smooth operators I was hating them for being; they were desperate losers–they reminded me of myself in high-school and college, trying to ask out girls, pitching my pathetic, inexperienced self in way that avoided the chance of ultimate rejection to keep hope, however slim alive. In addition to making me finally realize why I was always left feeling led-on when girls were as clear with me as I could be, I came to recognize that at the heart of every salesman, there is a sad, scared, and lonely man.
Patrick Robertson is probably the purest example of that sad, scared, lonely bastard since Willy Loman. The title character of Brian Hennigan’s slim novel, Patrick is a divorced and friendless alcoholic stumbling from Asian hotel to machine parts sales meeting without ever making a real connection with anyone.
Don’t let that description and the Willy Loman comparison fool you, though: Patrick Robertson: A Tale of Adventure is not some somber elegy but a raucous farce full of more ups and downs than a regional sales graph. Though a barechested special-ops comando may be the more obvious choice to take on the terrorists, jungle elements, and mistaken identity that pop up in this book, as a salesman, Patrick is a perfect protagonist for an adventure: used to pushing forward towards a deal against all odds, as he falls deeper into trouble, he never gives up, always persevering even in the face of certain death; and as an alcoholic, he is ready to make the sort of brash, split second decisions needed in high-pressure situations. As he explains, “Alcohol is not the answer to all our problems. But if one removes from one’s life those problems that cannot be solved with alcohol, the path is clear.”
Patrick makes a perfect narrator, too, as he’s always dispensing terrible wisdom like the above lines. Interspersed with the action, advice like, “There is a time and a place for the truth, and the conclusion of a sales pitch is not it”, is funny, in part, because readers are left wondering why Patrick would think any of us would want to follow the steps to ending up as sad and lonely as him. Only a narcissist as cut off from others as himself could think that he’s in an admirable position–especially as things keep going from bad to worse for him. And that’s the other reason they are funny: Patrick’s grand schemes for survival keep taking him further and further from life, until he is finally floating on the ocean in hot-air balloon basket, being roasted to death by the sun.
And that’s why I wholeheartedly recommend this book: it fits in with our program here at The Oldest Jokes in the World, with the humor working as another literary device to reinforce and deepen the subtext. If the life of a salesman is a large and already bullet riddled target for a satire, this book gets by for being a quick, energetic read, full of other surprises, the somehow warm without being schmaltzy ending chief among them. Previously published by Cape in the UK, it is now available for the first time in America. You can get it at Amazon or head on over to ataleofadventure.com for more info… and wisdom.
Full disclosure: a friend sent me a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
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.
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.
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.
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.
July 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
Sorry there hasn’t been much activity on the blog this week. My car broke down just after I agreed to house-sit for my mom in the suburbs, so I’ve been spending an extra hour on my bike every day—which is fun but also eats into my writing time. I have, though, managed to organize the half dozen posts I’ve written on The Uses of Humor in Literature over the past three months into a single page. Hopefully, this will make them easier to follow, as I initially conceived them as a single thought but ended up breaking them up to fit on the blog. Just click the page link to the left–and relive the magic all over again.
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.
June 25, 2012 § Leave a comment
Last time I discussed humor and subtext, I focused on the way authors can use subtext to involve a reader in the story, drawing him or her deeper into the experience of meaning—but authors can use subtext for additional reasons, as well, while still accomplishing this goal. 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 of Moby 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.
I’ll flesh out this comparison with examples next week, but in the mean time, thanks for reading!
June 11, 2012 § 2 Comments
Continuing on from my previous posts on the subject—in which I discussed and provided an example of humor as a literary tool and a sense—I want to get into the meat of my argument today and look at the relationship between humor and subtext. As I hinted at in last week’s examination of Leaving the Atocha Station, it is hard to discuss any literary technique without discussing subtext and theme. This is 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.
Just what this meaning might be is the subject of next week’s post, as we’ll discuss the ways both subtext and humor can express the inexpressible.
Thanks, again, for reading!