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.

Going SACPOP

October 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Here’s a deep thought: IJ is not a perfect book.  While I doubt DFW would have described it as a piece of speculative fiction without prompting, it nevertheless is that, among many other things: it posits a future, it speculates on what might be in store.  Its main action is probably set right about now, or maybe a few more years down the road, if you want to get specific about it (which really is beside the point).  And as a speculation on technology, it’s not actually very good.

12 (12!) years down the road, it’s easy to see how many anachronisms the book contains.  All of these “cartridges,” CD-ROMs, even the now utterly obsolete 3″ floppies which were becoming obsolete even as the book was published: these are superficial anachronisms, but nevertheless jarring in realizing how we live in the future now: we’ve outstripped expectations for our technological dependence, and also changed the nature of our addiction to “entertainment” in interesting and unforeseeable ways.  I’m thinking here YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, the already-kind-of-obsolete personal blog, the whole constellation of 2.0 “infotainment” and exhibitionism that an awful lot of people use the Internet for, and which is more or less absent from IJ’s Subsidized Time of the future: people are still watching movies, TV, playing CD-ROM games.  (Of course we in the now still do those things, and still will; point is we do an awful lot more, as well, without really decreasing our consumption of any of the other entertainments we were already abusing.)  I’m guessing DFW wrote much of IJ in the early ’90s, perhaps even late ’80s.  It was probably impossible to anticipate how much the Internet would change things.

The best section on technology in the book is the classic videophone discussion.  It’s brilliant on “a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.”  To recap, it explains that videophones went through a vogue when first introduced, but people realized they couldn’t do all the distracted, self-involved things they do when talking on the phone if they’re on a videophone.  So products were developed to help them use these expensive devices without actually using them: filters, fake backdrops and masks and “Transmittable Tableaus” that let the videophoners show whatever “heavily doctored” image of themselves they want to present, until this fad too faded and people just pretty much went back to using audio-only phones and all their paraphernalia for transmitting doctored images of themselves were thrown away or gathered dust, except among the gauche or lower-class who still use them.  (It’s much better to read it yourself: p. 144-51.)  What’s ingenious about this, I think, is the way it highlights (wittily and succinctly, I might add) the issues of power and control at the heart of most communications-based technology.  What interactive “Web 2.0” sites focused on personal interaction and communication (including, of course, this here personal blog) allow you to do is construct a “heavily doctored” image of yourself, a view of yourself to present to the world without really presenting yourself to the world, in, you know, synchronous, face-to-face, interpersonal interaction.  A dance of veils, more or less.  The technology itself is not inherently narcissistic, which seems to be a fallacy many of us fall into.  That just happens to be how it’s been applied.  (This isn’t just 2.0 stuff, of course: you can make the same argument about e-mail.)

The worst section on technology in the book is the game of Eschaton.  I may have dreamed this, and I’m too lazy to look it up now, but I seem to remember DFW saying in some interview that Eschaton was a relic, kind of a self-contained short story, one of the earliest things he wrote that ended up in the book.  That’s how it feels, now: honest to God, he has Otis P. Lord running around on the tennis courts with a “color monitor” laptop hooked up to a more powerful computer by a giant extension cord and 200-something 3″ floppies to process the complicated computations required by Eschaton.  It’s like WarGames, for Chrissake.  Someone get the Lord a wireless connection, a battery, and a laptop built after 1995.

Despite all that: how I do love the Eschaton.  It’s hilarious slapstick, it’s philosophically and metaphysically complex, it’s a crash course in game theory or maybe why game theory isn’t the answer to everything.  (As a super-nerd side note: it’s also one of the most deliberately metafictional portions of the book, with this strange interplay between the text and the footnotes raising the question of whether Pemulis or Hal is narrating, or whether the nameless narrator is simply ventriloquizing Pemulis/Hal.)  It’s an interesting question what DFW was, exactly, trying to do with the Eschaton.  Partly I think it was simply a lot of fun: DFW clearly loved the math involved, the geometry, the vectors, and once Ingersoll hits Kittenplan with that ball to the back of the head there’s sustained comic chaos worthy of the Marx Bros, at least until things turn seriously Lord-of-the-Flies and Lord ends up with his face through a monitor.  (Too much fun, as always.)  Partly there’s the satiric intent of showing how much “fun” apocalyptic scenarios can be, how seriously these 12-to-15-year-olds take the entertainment of their abstracted ends, how easy it is for them to accept scenarios leading to nuclear holocaust.  (I love the treatment of historic consciousness here, how Canadian extremists so often factor into their explicitly nostalgic Cold War scenarios.  We have this way of filtering our present through our past, like now, as we’re reenvisioning former backwaters and bit players like Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalism as central to our current situation and driving forces in recent history.)  And partly there’s some big-time Pynchon/DeLillo influence here, in the metaphysical concerns underpinning these endgame scenarios, in the aptly named Otis P. Lord and his total lack of control when irrational human beings start acting irrationally and his spinning beanie of doom.  Most of all, in the giggling horror of “going SACPOP”: Strikes Against Civilian Populations as a strategy in a game, a way of winning or of preventing someone else from winning.  This may have seemed a historical concern in 1996, and DFW framing this Cold War section as a kid’s game does seem like a kind of time capsule of 1996, with its sense of post-historicity and global exhale and smaller-scale conflict.  Nevertheless, he kept this section for a reason: the warheads hang around, and even if they didn’t, the knowledge does, and the desire.  (This, of course, is why DeLillo remains vital and not a kind of Cold War cultural artifact.)  DFW’s inclusion of terrorist scenarios proved, obviously, adept, and the cataloging of scenarios used in past and potential Eschatons points out all the dangers that still existed, that were still horribly frightening and imaginable and variable, in that far-away-future year of 1996.

More Is Less

July 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.

I think I can safely say that the first two chapters of Vineland were the most fun I’ve had with Pynchon since I read Lot 49 in college. Gravity’s Rainbow is awesome, but it’s exhausting. This is a straight-up blast. Case in point: “More Is Less, a discount store for larger-size women…” Our hero (apparently), Zoyd Wheeler, buys a garish dress there which he wears to better seem insane for his annual jump through a window to keep receiving mental-disability checks.

Nothing’s an accident with Pynchon, especially not the jokes, and even more especially not the names. This one got me, made me laugh out loud. And after getting the joke, the store’s name made me think of that “less is more” dictum of writers’ workshop lore. (Surely no one actually uses this line anymore.) It occurred to me that the star of Raymond Carver, the minimalist’s minimalist, Mr. Less-is-More (well, with Gordon Lish’s help), had risen and fallen between Pynchon novels: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? came out in 1976, three years after GR, and Carver died in 1988, two years before Vineland.

Pynchon’s a maximalist. He’s setting his story in the mid-80s, and it’s clear from the get-go that part of the point here is going to be mediation, inundation, the sensory saturation that had been kicked up a notch since the 70s. I suspect that Pynchon believes that to trim out the details of modern life to tell intense stories of personal relationship and unspoken tension is a goddam lie. You are not going to get a discussion of how a former dive lumberjack bar has been transformed into an upscale gay bar and restaurant (still named the Log Jam, of course) since Return of the Jedi was filmed nearby in a Raymond Carver story. You are also not going to get brilliant and semi-prescient descriptions (seemingly offhand, like so much important stuff in Pynchon) of TV newscasts and their insatiable appetite for “human interest” fluff, their selective reporting of inconvenient details (choosing not to mention that Zoyd’s jump this year was through a window made of candy, and that the media had more or less directed where he would jump rather than reacting to his decision), and their willingness to analyze in absurd detail worthless trivialities while overlooking massive atrocities (here, a panel discusses the development of Zoyd’s jumping technique, and I can’t help but see this as in part a comment on the rise of the ESPN family of networks).

I don’t know that Pynchon cares enough about his contemporary literary milieu to have done this intentionally. But I do think it’s interesting that the reigning dictum of 1980s literature has been inverted and put to work as a plus-size ladies’ clothing store.

The Comedy of Voice and Punctuation

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Reading next: Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

Well, here’s something completely different. Jaime, my wife, has been a big fan of Portis for some time now. She’s been telling me to read DOTS every month for years now. I finally succumbed, since I’m trying to sprinkle Southern lit into my reading more regularly and it seemed like a good summer book and a good travelling book. (Which it was: a good laugh on an airplane never hurts, and it was appropriate to read about the Texo-Mexican scrublands while flying over the Southwest. Although, if we were to emulate the experience of the book, one of the engines would have started shaking and fallen off.)

And it’s true: Portis is funny as hell. Also, funny about hell. I don’t think Ray Midge’s descent into Belize is exactly a Dantesque journey — I’ll write about this hopefully tomorrow: I think the journey is something of a way to comment on the place departed, the American South — but, nevertheless, things do get a bit hellish now and then.

Gross over-generalization time: It’s harder to write fictional comedy in the first person than the third. No fair counting romans a clef or autobiographical stand-in narrators. Is that obvious? I don’t know, but I hadn’t really thought about it until reading this book. Third person allows for authorial interpolations on all characters, a focus on details those in the story cannot notice or would not mention, an “impartial” scene setting, and, most importantly, a shifting viewpoint, the ability to capture reactions and relationships in ways an author cannot when bound to a single, involved narrator. All of this is the very stuff of humor, setting up both the narrator and his or her readers to feel the superiority to the subject on which so many jokes are based. I can’t imagine A Confederacy of Dunces from the point of view of Ignatius or any other character, for that matter: it is too important to see them all bouncing off of each other, their personalities too strong to allow any of them to dictate the narrative.

Portis doesn’t give himself this luxury. He writes from the point of view, not just of the main character, but of a fairly… um… idiosyncratic main character. He’s something of a drifter, returning to school again and again to start one or another career path, only to lose interest or his nerve. He’s dependent on his fairly wealthy father for money. He’s a military history buff who refuses to read fiction.

And, while educated, he’s not your typical narrator who’s smarter than everyone around him. He’s a schlub from Little Rock, with few skills and fewer prospects. He’s no writer. While there’s much of the comedy of situation and personality in this book, many of the laughs — for me, anyway — come from Ray’s voice and even the punctuation Portis chooses, especially the exclamation point.

I suppose the word for Ray’s narration is deadpan, although I’ve never heard a completely satisfying definition of same. It’s true, though, that his narration betrays little emotion much of the time. But it’s more the juxtaposition of disparate modes or levels of language that he uses that tickles my funny bone. Rather than piling on snippets, here’s a longish section which encapsulates much of what I find funny in the book’s language:

In South Texas I saw three interesting things. The first was a tiny girl, maybe ten years old, driving a 1965 Cadillac. She wasn’t going very fast, because I passed her, but still she was cruising right along, with her head tilted back and her mouth open and her little hands gripping the wheel.

Then I saw an old man walking up the median strip pulling a wooden cross behind him. It was mounted on something like a golf cart with two spoked wheels. I slowed down to read the hand-lettered sign on his chest.

JACKSONVILLE

FLA OR BUST

I had never been to Jacksonville but I knew it was the home of the Gator Bowl and I had heard it was a boom town, taking in an entire county or some such thing. It seemed an odd destination for a religious pilgrim. Penance maybe for some terrible sin, or some bargain he had worked out with God, or maybe just a crazed hiker. I waved and called out to him, wishing him luck, but he was intent on his marching and had no time for idle greetings. His step was brisk and I was convinced he wouldn’t bust.

The third interesting thing was a convoy of stake-bed trucks all piled high with loose watermelons and cantaloupes. I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that the bottom ones weren’t being crushed under all that weight, exploding and spraying hazardous melon juice onto the highway. One of nature’s tricks with curved surfaces. Topology!…

“Hazardous melon juice” is one of the funniest noun phrases I’ve ever read.

It’s funny after that, too, but one must stop somewhere. Part of what’s funny here is embedded in the fact that Ray never reads fiction, I think: the telegraphed statements — “I was amazed.” — add some unquantifiable comedy, but make sense only for someone who’s not very comfortable with personal narrative. The fact that he was an engineering student also plays into that last paragraph. Ray’s character can seem like a loose bag of experiences and quirks, sometimes, making him into a savant of sorts. But it pays off in narration like his waving at a Jesus-freak and contemplating the freak’s chances of busting. And I’ve always been a sucker for a blend of meticulous detail and technical language with laid-back qualified “maybe” and “some” sentences.

Then there’s that exclamation point — “Topology!” These exclamations recur throughout the book, and they’re almost always funny, and they almost always crack me up when I think of them delivered in a Southern manner, with an Arkansas accent. It’s realistic, I guess I’m saying: funny because it’s true. Another funny moment comes in a bar in Laredo, when Ray explains his method of avoiding germs on bar glasses. “A quick slosh here and there and those babies are right back on the shelf!” These moments of excitement or intensity are often ironically funny, although I never get the sense that Portis condescends to his narrator. I think a large part of their effectiveness is simply due to the fact that there is very little else in the way of punctuation, besides periods: simple sentences, few commas, certainly no colons or semicolons or question marks. The surprise of those exclamations, frequently fragments, somehow heightens the humor.

Caging the Nightingale: The Fifth Day

June 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Where to begin with this day? Quite a bounty, these lovers’ happy endings.

I suppose we really must start with the fourth story, Filostrato’s. Abashed for bringing down the whole group with his demand for tales of woe and heartbreak, he tells the fifth day’s funniest and sunniest story. There are these young lovers, see, who hatch a plot to see each other at night: Caterina will convince her parents that her bed needs to be moved to the balcony because she is too hot to sleep in her room, and needs the song of the nightingale to soothe her. Ricciardo will climb up to be with her. It works, but they exhaust themselves to the point that they are not awoken by the dawn, and Caterina’s father comes to check on her. He finds her, asleep, holding… um… “that part of his person which in mixed company you ladies are too embarrassed to mention.” His nightingale, in the parlance of the story.

Boccaccio is remarkably consistent in his arguments that such sins of passion as premarital sex and adultery may be against God’s law, but they certainly don’t warrant the harsh punishments they are sometimes accorded. (However, Dioneo heaps scorn on the closeted homosexual in the final story of the day.) So in this story, the father accepts Ricciardo’s sin, provided he marry Caterina (which he gladly does). And, as Filostrato ends his tale, “he lived with her in peace and happiness, caging nightingales by the score, day and night, to his heart’s content.”

All of the day’s stories seem a reaction to the fourth day’s gloom, and represent a rumination on the relationship of Love and Fortune. Many of the stories are very similar in incident and character to the fourth day’s, but with a reversal of Fortune or a change of heart leading to a comedic rather than tragic ending. For instance, Emilia’s story, the second, reuses elements of Elissa’s story from the previous day (a Sicilian setting, a girl named Gostanza, piracy, the King of Tunis). But whereas in Elissa’s story the boy-pirate who’d fallen in love with Gostanza from afar saw her killed before they’d ever touched, in Emilia’s the girl is rescued by a stroke of wild luck and the boy-pirate is restored to her by Fortune, skill, and the generosity of the powerful.

Not that it’s all sunshine and lollipops. One of the book’s rare splashes of the truly supernatural comes in Filomena’s story, the eighth. It seems ancient and scary and somehow, strangely, Nabokovian, this story. A spurned lover, Nastagio, leaves the scene of his humiliation and goes wandering in the woods. Here he comes across an utterly terrified naked woman running from a “swarthy-looking knight, his face contorted with anger, who was riding a jet-black steed and brandishing a rapier…” When Nastagio interrupts the knight, he says his name is Guido degli Anastagi (Nastagio? Anastagi?); that he is dead, having killed himself in despair over the cruelty of the woman he is chasing, whom he loved; that she is also dead; that they are both in Hell; and that their punishment is to repeat this chase, over and over again, ending every Friday with Anastagi disembowelling his lover, feeding her heart to his hell-hounds, only to have her pop back up and start running again. This is kind of too brilliant for explication, the way so much of Dante is. (No one does the tortures of hell like fourteenth-century Italians!)

But here’s the kicker: Nastagio thinks it would be a swell idea to trick his beloved to coming out to the woods for a picnic, then forcing her to watch the weekly murder. Somehow this makes her change her ways and marry him. Filomena introduced the story to the “adorable ladies” as “an incentive for banishing all cruelty from your hearts.” Boccaccio definitely disapproves of those that try to stay out of love’s way altogether, but how much love does it show to force your beloved to see something like that?

These two love-days, the fourth and fifth, are fascinating on the idea of Love. I find myself wondering how much of my speculation on what Love means to Boccaccio is intentional on his part — is he self-consciously ruminating on its meaning? — and how much of it is my lack of knowledge of the world view of his time. I do think Boccaccio fashioned the stories of these two days to show us different facets of the concept of Love. But when he (and/or his translator) uses the word “love” the way we would commonly use “lust,” as he often does, referring to the satiation of purely physical desires, is he ironically indicating the lack of love in one’s selfish use of another human? Is he saying that he believes the physical and spiritual imperatives of love cannot be separated, or building a case for that argument? Is there really simply no division, in the Italian language of the time, between love and lust — no word to differentiate the two? And why does Boccaccio downplay the procreative aspect of sex so heavily? (There have been attempts to miscarry and panicky pregnant teens in the book, but fairly few, and mostly as convenient plot devices.) And there’s such a lack of religious fervor in this book: I don’t sense much interest on Boccaccio’s part in showing human love as an allegory of God’s love. Maybe it’s still coming, but it’s refreshing for a dilettante like me to see, in a medieval text, such a focus on how humans interact without the characters or the narrator always looking over their shoulder to see what Jesus would do.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m unsure of how unsure Boccaccio was about what Love is and what it means. Does he think he’s explaining or investigating? I wonder.

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