The Cruelty of Comedy

January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Reading next: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.

Snowbound in Nebraska on Christmas night, we watched Funny People.  Underrated movie, great performance by Adam Sandler, a nice peek into the craft of stand-up performance and comedy writing.

It’s a dark movie, though, and not a lot of people like their dark and their light mixed.  But it is a commonplace to point out that comedy comes from dark, weird, even ugly places; that comedy is often cruel.  (One of my favorite scenes in Funny People is when Sandler’s character sings a song in a comedy club about how everyone will miss him when he’s dead and there’s no one left to make them laugh — it’s a funny song, but there are also layers of mock- and non-mock egomania, ironic posturing, Kaufmanesque comedy of the nervous audience, and genuine terror, sadness, and self-hatred involved.  It’s cruel to himself and to the audience to sing the song — and somehow, he finds this funny; and somehow, he is right.)

Here’s how this connects to Dickens: while every Dickens novel includes comic interludes and tragic (or potentially tragic) storylines, Dickens is usually careful to keep the comic and tragic scenes separate, with very different tones for each, at least until the ending, when the comic overcomes the tragic.  But there is, nevertheless, a lot of darkness and cruelty in Dickens’ comedy, however unintentional.  In Dombey, I find his treatment of Mr. Toots rather cruel.

Mr. Toots is a typical secondary comic-relief character: an older classmate to Paul Dombey Jr. at Dr. Blimber’s house, he is regarded as something of a simpleton but befriends Paul, becomes enamored of Florence, and begins to kindly and gently… well… stalk her, I suppose, once he’s come of age and received his inheritance.  His dominant trait is his cheerful self-deprecation, expressed in his constant chuckling and the catchphrase “it’s of no consequence,” with which he typically ends any statement of his desire or feeling.

Toots is incapable of wooing, too nervous to engage in any sort of direct courtship of Florence, instead hanging around to do whatever kindness he might for her and hoping to catch a glimpse of her beauty.  He’s quite funny, in his weird mannerisms and foppish love of tailored clothes and selfless devotion to whomever will befriend him.  But somewhere in the last third of the book, for some reason, I stopped thinking of Toots as merely a comic character and started rooting for him to win Florence’s heart.

But of course, that is an impossibility in Dickens.  The characters he represents as ridiculous do not marry the main characters; they marry maids, servants, other members of the comic-relief portion of the cast.  What I find cruel about the treatment of Toots is that he is handled so deterministically; that his serious devotion for Florence is dismissed so casually, so lightly, by both Dickens and by her; that he is seen, in his comic behaviors, so unworthy of the love of someone less odd, though he has the means and the passion to marry and provide for her; that he is kept in his place as firmly as any Untouchable.  Dickens’s cast, in other words, can function as a caste.

I suppose this would be the opposite of how Dickens would like to think of his characters, that they are locked into their certain roles and must perform them as required by the book’s fictional society.  Certainly Dickens saw much of the cruelty of the Victorian class system, and in Dombey there’s the obvious commentary on the evil of loveless marriage for class status and wealth.  And yet there’s “the Native,” Joe Bagstock’s dark-skinned servant, scarcely a tertiary character, rumored a Prince in his (undefined) homeland, frequently beaten and abused as nothing more than a commentary on Bagstock’s core rottenness and hypocrisy and, yes, I’m afraid, as comic relief.

And yet there’s also Mr. Toots, whose insistence on his inconsequence becomes very sad, to me at least, after many repetitions.  After he repeats his “it’s [read: I’m] of no consequence” catchphrase so many times, throughout the book, in virtually every appearance, you can come to think of it as a kind of metafictional mantra: that Toots knows his role in the novel is unimportant, in the grand scheme of the plot, like a Beckett character in a Dickens novel.  I do not know yet whether Toots gets paired off with Florence’s servant, Susan Nipper, or stays a bachelor, or what (I’d bet on marriage to Nipper, though); I just know that the experience of seeing this character, so much more vivid and alive to the reader than Florence or her long-lost beloved Walter or nearly any other character in the book, so easily dismissed is rather tragicomic.

Casts of Characters

December 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens and Other Electricities by Ander Monson.

It’s all story, these two very different books agree.  From the perspective of someone even vaguely acquainted with literary history and criticism, these books seem wildly dissimilar and even oppositional: Victorian v. American postmodern, social realist v. belletristic, representational v. poststructuralist.  But to a 13th- or 30th-century person, they could seem very much the same: pretty lies with title pages, single authors, plots and pictures and casts of characters, all in the service of story.

It’s all story in different ways to Dickens and Monson, to be sure.  When I say “it’s all story” to Dickens, I mean that Dickens was a one-man storytelling industry, a factory, a marvelous machine that could create characters and plots and scenes seemingly out of anything.  And I guess that story, narrative,  seemed to him the way that life worked, the way to make sense of things, the way to get things done: see an injustice, write a story that would show people why and how the situation could be unjust to a person they might know, might love, and sometimes (at his best) even why and how the evil behind the injustice might be examined and understood.

Whereas Monson’s “it’s all story” is a little more about calling attention to the structure of the lenses through which we see the world.  To Monson, a conversation is a story; a list is a story; a table of contents is a story; a news report is a story; a diagram is a story; a memory is a story.  Another word for “story” is “fiction,” and another word for “fiction” is “construct.”  Reality is a mosaic of a trillion fictions.  Etc etc; if you were an English major (or minor or whatever) you don’t need to hear this all again.  (It is interesting, really, if only you can separate the idea from the way so many profs are so obnoxious and smug about it, and are so certain that it’s the only way of “reading” the “world.”  I digress.)

Maybe you know that I love those appurtenances of literature known in academic circles as “paratexts,” those pieces of supposed non-story which are nevertheless central to how we read books, to our understanding of how books work and what they are.  As it happens, both of these dissimilar books are pretty heavily paratextual.  Other Electricities in its first (only, so far) edition contains, by my count, 37 pages of paratextual material in a book of only 169 total pages.  (Plus one of these paratextual pages contains a web address where there’s even more.)

And Dickens editions, in this day and age, are crazy with the paratexts; so many students in need of so much help.  This Penguin Classics edition I’m using (God bless ’em; where would the world be without Penguin Classics?) contains a one-page bio of Dickens, an expanded 4-page bio, a 16-page critical introduction, a note on the text, a short bibliography for further reading, a reproduction of the first-edition title page, a reproduction of the original dedication page, three prefaces to different editions (all by Dickens, all reworking similar material in slightly different ways and responding to slightly different grievances Dickens perceived or wanted to cut off at the pass), a detailed table of contents, a cast of characters, and at the end a postscript, two appendices, and explanatory notes.  Good God!  (Not to mention that Dickens does not exactly dive head-first into his narrative once you actually get to the text of the actual novel; Dickens was a throat-clearing sort of writer, it seems to me, and would often write his way into the narrative and into the characters’ lives with little mini-narratives: here, there’s a seven-page satirical genealogical history and a three-page description, almost a prose poem, of an early-winter wind before we meet any characters, Dickens seeming to just enjoy playing around with language, casting a kind of linguistic spell on himself as much as us.)

One of the things I find most interesting about paratexts is their aura of mystery, when you think about them: I mean, who writes this stuff?  And why do so many books look so alike, when you think about it: half-title, title, copyright, t.o.c., etc., etc.?  Am I the only one who’s interested in whether an author writes his own dust-jacket copy and bio?  Does anyone else hate it when there’s no info in a book on the book’s designers or illustrators or cover art?

I digress again (big time).  So both of these books contain long, complicated casts of characters.  In the case of Dickens, I’m not sure when this feature was first introduced, and whether it’s an addition to the text by Dickens for some edition during his life or was included once the book was mainly read in classrooms; however, the short notes certainly have a Dickensian flavor to them.  Characters are “weazen-faced,” “unpretentious but high-souled,” “starched and punctilious.”  It’s oddly ordered, in that there’s an alphabetical list followed by another, shorter alphabetical list, presumably of secondary characters.  Reading the cast gives us some sense of the kind of book we’re in for, and does form a narrative in that sense (although the notes are not revealing of plot, only of character), but I’m sure it’s actually supposed to be most useful for revisiting the work when writing a paper, or when you’ve gotten two characters confused.  A handy checklist, in other words.

In Monson, “A Helpful Guide to the Characters and Their Relationship to Danger, and an Explanation of Some Symbols Commonly Found Herein” is a story itself.  It tells, in a different form, the story we’re about to read, and other stories, too.  Probably my favorite entry in the cast is this:

JOSH: jumps off a cliff into the cold water & the dark below, the snow circling around him & falling on his body; compares himself to Jesus; drives his dad’s car without permission; might cease to exist at any moment; minor character who is barely worth consideration

I mean, that’s just brilliant.  It’s a heartbreaking very short story: that last clause made me give one of those surprised huffs of air that sound like a laugh but are often quite sad.  It’s also a great comment on all those untold stories: all the “minor characters” with major meaning, at least to themselves.  Minor characters in life can have Jesus complexes, too.  And Monson’s “Helpful Guide” shows us that a supposedly objective and non-fictional structure like a list of characters can be — is, in fact, in Dickens as much as Monson — a story we tell, a skewed view on the world and its people.

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