December 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
I was crammed into the bitch seat of a Ford Festiva, the closest I ever got to perfection.
It was the winter of my senior year of high school, and I was pretty sure I had it all figured out: I’d read a bunch of Kerouac the previous summer.
Kerouac made me want to be a writer. He made me want to be an intellectual rebel. He made me want to be a spiritual searcher. He made me want to be a Buddhist. He made me want to be a weeping angel of hangdog grace.
And since I was still in high school, I could be all those things just by saying so.
So what if you’re on the football team? I’m a writer. No, I don’t have a book published—I’m only 18—but I’ll show you my moleskine if you promise not to read it.
And I’ve got to say, I find your suburban Lutheranism dogmatic. I prefer the spiritual freedom of Buddhism. No, I guess I don’t pray, or meditate, or go to temple, or whatever—but I assure you, I am a Buddhist: notice, please, the Alan Watts paperback that has accidentally slipped out of my backpack beside your foot.
I hope it is clear that I’m poking fun at myself here—not those beliefs. While I consider myself a Christian now, I still feel there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom to be found studying Buddhism, and I truly have no idea who I would be if I hadn’t read On the Road and Dharma Bums when I was 17. But in a comfortable suburban life without too many opportunities to test and prove my beliefs to others or even myself, I spent a lot of time on symbolic gestures I hoped wouldn’t just communicate, but also cement and validate, the changes I felt going on inside me.
And for some reason, there was a week during that February when I thought tying a karaoke microphone to my belt-loop and wearing it like a fashion accessory was the perfect representation of everything I wanted to believe about myself.
I had a tight group of friends growing up, 5 or 6 guys who all hung together every weekend of high school, playing videogames and listening to music we were sure everyone else at our school was too stupid to like. We certainly weren’t cool—there were no girls anywhere near us—but we weren’t such big losers that we couldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we were actually cooler than everyone: that the pop squad in our school didn’t actually know what cool was, that once we got to college, we’d already have all the right indie rock and avant garde electronica CD’s and it would be clear who was actually cool all along.
R was one of the first of us to get a car, and we’d all cram into that tiny, wheezing Ford Festiva like pubescent clowns: blotchy faces, awkward physiques, and big smiles all around. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as simply happy as I did in the back of that car as we all traded off making fun of each other and the dolts we went to school with, always rehashing and adding to our history of inside jokes. As integral as the seemed to my life at the time, I’ve forgotten most of these little witties—and like most wit, they aren’t as funny when removed from the elements that inspired them—but here’s one example to give you an idea of where our heads were at at the time: one of the most famous and re-referenced of our jokes had to do with the time B made a point of vowing to all of us that he would lose his virginity on his upcoming trip to Steamboat Springs; it only took K a few seconds to come up with the term Fornication Proclamation, which took years and years for B to live down.
It was with this feeling in mind that I picked a karaoke microphone out of the back of R’s closet and wore it out to Cheapo Records, Blockbuster Video, and Granny’s Donuts that night. I mostly kept it tucked into my pocket, but would pull it out at moments when I felt seized by wit, raising it to highlight how important the pun or that’s what she said waiting on my lips was, then turning it on my friend for his reaction.
At times, I’d wondered if it wasn’t wrong to be mean to each other all the time, but I’d extrapolated a nearly religious reverence for wit from what I understood of Kerouac’s spontaneous writing process: if some force beyond my control and consciousness plopped a funny into my head, it was my duty to say it out loud; wit was worth so much more than the sort of contrived statements most people made when they thought before speaking. Taking the microphone around with me was my way of showing the world this deeply held belief: this shared experience between my friends was something of holy import. Like Jack and his crew of Desolation Angels, our lives were a matter of precious record.
I wanted to start my posts on the dichotomy between wit and prepared humor with this anecdote, firstly, to remind myself that there is no bigger fool that someone trying to take humor too seriously. I think the me back then would be happy to be called a fool, and I must not mind much either, because I keep groping around for something profound to say on this blog despite never getting hold of anything better to show than my own ass. Being a fool is unavoidable, but I hope that by grounding the discussion in proof of my follies, I won’t be tempted to many quick, sweeping judgements.
As I mentioned last week, my original impetus for these posts was a quick, sweeping judgement; within moments of pondering the question, I wanted to prove that wit was always the superior form of humor. My main reason for beginning with the above real world example of humor in use, then, was to use it’s details to complicate that simple thesis while enriching our understanding of the issue.
As you can see in the example, wit can’t exist without relatively tight connections between the speaker and the listener. We were like a gang back then, with little life to speak of but the life we shared at school and on the weekends; I couldn’t see it at the time, but the other kids didn’t laugh at the same jokes we did, not because they were stupid or because we were the chosen witty few, but simply because they didn’t spend as much time in R’s basement laying the groundwork for all those connections as we did.
Further, it requires a relatively strong sense of comfort to be receptive to a witty idea—they come to us less often in unfamiliar or threatening situations—and an even stronger sense of confidence to share it. It was these benefits the group afforded us, I see now, and not any holy calling, that made us such exceptional jokesters.
I had good intentions, I think, in espousing a philosophy that was open to anyone, but in practice, I was just drawing thicker lines around our group: we needed the microphone because it set us apart in a way that proved we were more important than the jocks or the freaks or the band nerds or the pop squad. One of the few specific instances I can remember using the microphone was to mock A for hanging out with the popular kids in pursuit of a girl who hung around with them; as with the Fornication Proclamation, I think we were really just trying to keep anyone from leaving the gang, trying to protect that sense of comfortable confidence we’d built together.
We couldn’t all stay in that Festiva for ever, though, and it was probably my anxiety about high school ending and us all moving on to different colleges that had me trying to hold on to what we had with a fundamentalist fervor. Thankfully, I only wore the microphone to school once or twice the next week and then half-heartedly again the next weekend before letting go of the phase. It wasn’t going to keep A from falling in love and it wasn’t going to keep time from passing. Nothing could keep our group together forever, especially since none of them seemed to want to chase after the wild literary life with me in college: as close as we were, I couldn’t get any of them to want to be the Ginsburg to my Kerouac. I couldn’t even get them to read Kerouac.
I’m happy to say I’m still close friends with almost all of the guys, but I don’t think we’ve ever been as close as we were when crammed into that Festiva. How could we be while trying to grow and explore the larger world, building adult lives for ourselves? As we all moved into the larger world, we had to turn our backs on our inside jokes, and I learned the value of a good prepped joke in an unfamiliar, high-pressure situation—which we’ll discuss in the next post in this series.
October 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’m very proud to announce that I have a new short story up at Versus Literary Journal.
“Frank” is about a real-life Frankenstein’s monster who dresses up as a movie-version Frankenstein’s monster to get laid on Halloween, and I’m very grateful to Versus for publishing it just in time for the holiday.
I hope it is a funny and heartful little farce and would really love to know what you think about it, so please do comment below. Thanks for reading.
October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about titular lines—those lines in a book or movie which include the title of the work (the preceding, for example, is the titular line of this blog post). The working title for the book I’m currently writing is Slash, and though I think it is the perfect fit in many ways, I’m mourning the opportunity to write a titular line. Since it is just a single word tied closely to the subject of the book, it seems I have the narrator or one the characters saying “slash” almost every other page, so none of the lines carry the important weight of titular line.
The titular line is important, and as such, it has often been made the subject of fun. If you haven’t seen the Upright Citizen’s Brigade sketch on the subject, do yourself a favor and click the picture to the right for a link to the youtube clip. UCB gets it so right here, the sketch spawned it’s own tumblr, examples included below.
What makes the fakes so funny is that the titular line is supposed to be important—much too important, as the clerk in the sketch points out, to be given “to some stow-away who arbitrarily walks through the scene.” But it is exactly this importance that the annoying customer is trying to hijack; the titular line is like a flag to the audience, alerting them to a thematically important part of the story, and Titular Line Guy wants to get to hold that flag.
I sympathize with him now that I’m writing a titular-lineless book. As an author, the titular line is like a special card you get to play once a story, your only chance outside the first and last lines to make sure the reader is paying you their full attention, not just reading for entertainment, but for importance. It’s akin to announcing to the reader, “This is important! It was in big letters on the cover—remember?—so listen up! This is almost as important as my embossed name and the full page photo of me looking thoughtful on the back cover.”
In making you think of the story as a book or a film with a title, the titular line can take you out of narrative. Even if it isn’t delivered by a random weirdo, this brief suspension of the suspension of disbelief can ruin the story. If it seems even a hundredth as arbitrary or obvious as these parodied examples, the narrative will seem contrived or shallow. There’s also the danger that someone will reach the titular line and say, “That’s all this book is about?,” and quit with the assumption there’s nothing more important to come.
When done well, though, I think the titular line can take the reader briefly out of the story in a good way: they might pause for a second and think about the implications; maybe look back at the cover, keeping their finger on the passage while thinking about the expectations it initially inspired; they’ll think of everything that has happened so far, and how it has changed their idea of the novel; and hopefully dive back in to the next paragraph, ready to see how their understanding of those now familiar words might change again before the final line.
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.
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!
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.