To take a joke seriously—

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.

Show & Tell

June 4, 2012 § 4 Comments

This week, I’d like to take a look at the literary uses of humor I’ve  discussed so far (humor as a storytelling tool and as a “sense” through which the world of the story be brought to life) through a passage from Ben Lerner’s wonderful Leaving the Atocha Station.

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.

But the relationship between subtext and humor is my next subject, so I’ll leave you here until next week.

Thanks for reading.

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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