f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: You Must Be Joking! Well, Yes, Today I Guess I Am.

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

You Must Be Joking! Well, Yes, Today I Guess I Am.

“Being a shepherd seems easy. I went with Kaliel last week to tend his flock. The Law says that two must go with the flock to keep an abomination from happening. I can spot an abomination from fifty paces.”
Maggie smiled. “And did you prevent any abominations?”
“Oh yes, I kept all of the abominations at bay while Kaliel played with his favorite sheep behind the bushes.”
“Biff,” Joshua said gravely, “that was the abomination you were supposed to prevent.”
“It was?”
pp. 28-29
Ah, bestiality humor. Nothing better to start a journal entry, I’ve found. This was one of the jokes I laughed at in Lamb. It may not be to your taste. It probably shouldn’t be to mine, but it was.

The humor here emerges from two things. First, Biff. At this point, he’s an 11 or 12 year old boy. His presumptive arrogance and actual ignorance are funny. Second, the humor emerges from our societal disconnect to many of the Old Testament laws. Moore knows this. Much of Leviticus doesn’t just sound oppressive—it sounds downright weird. We’re without cultural context and so it simply becomes absurd. (The same thing rings true of those weird laws from early America. Things like, “It is illegal to hold a chicken on your head on Sundays” or whatever.)

The joke itself hinges on the repetition of the word “abomination” (which carries the weight of our cultural disconnect), on Biff’s self-assurance, and then the final reversal. And thus, because we’ve practically diagramed the thing, it’s no longer funny.

The interesting thing about Lamb as opposed to other comic novels is that much of its humor is found in dialogue. These are “spoken” jokes that rely on the voice of the characters as much as anything in the set-up of the story. That joke works out of the context of the story because it’s a joke. In other novels, you have pithy turns of phrase that can be quoted, but mostly you see extended scenes with punchlines that don’t seem funny if quoted without the set-up.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book like Lamb before that used the dialogue jokes so fully. I can’t say that it’s my favorite style of writing and I wonder if Moore repeats it in all of his books. My biggest issue with it is that the book becomes, by necessity, so dialogue heavy. I tend to feel like I’m reading a screenplay at such points and it loses the richness that books allow. Moore doesn’t fall completely into this trap and manages a decent balance of narrative scenes as counter-point. I wouldn’t select this book as a prototype for a comic novel, however, merely for that fact.

The next question is: What is a comic novel? There’s all kinds, of course, with all sorts of purposes. One generalization I think you can make is that, at their heart, they are about something more than just the jokes inside them. There is a plot; there is a story; there is a narrative drive to discover something. Whether these books mean “more” than that is often left to the writer.

Here’s some humorous novels I’ve read and my categorization of them.

Isn’t It Romantic by Ron Hansen — This is called “An Entertainment” rather than “A Novel,” so you should know what you’re in for. A romantic comedy that includes scenes of fish-out-of-water, bedroom farce, and situational comedy, there’s nothing in here that will surprise you if you watch movies or television. They’re well-done though and breezy. It’s a nice read.

The Tetherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner — I think I’ve read this. I know I’ve read one or two of Leyner’s and the experience was quite enough. Absurdist, parodic, and wildly over-the-top, Leyner’s novels are called “satires” but I never think they can carry that weight.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller — This one, meanwhile, can carry all the weight you dare to throw at it. Deadly incisive on the absurdity of order in the face of atrocity, it’s more than just a comic novel. It carries real power and now stands as the embodiment of our disillusionment with the armed forces following Korea and Vietnam. I think anger and frustration drive a book like this.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby — “Lad-lit” they call it now, insisting on having a counterpart for “chick lit.” Forget it, Hornby rises head and shoulders above most of the dreck that passes itself off as entertainment for women. This book is a satire as well, but a gentler one. It’s a very sweet and hilarious story of a cad who’s forced to realize he’s not a rock, not an island, but a person who needs to love and to be loved. If you saw the film, it’s actually a pretty good take on the book.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams — Take one uptight British person and send him careening off through space with a half-dozen insane companions including a morose robot and you have debatably one of the funniest books ever. The equation here is the juxtaposition between Arthur Dent’s stolid unflappability and the absurd/ridiculous events that try so hard to flap him.

Straight Man by Richard Russo — For my money, this is the best “humorous” novel of the past decade or two. Russo offers a spoof of academic life that somehow manages to be meaningful at the same time. There’s real drama here. And it comes without the expense of a single funny moment. This book sets up long and situational comedy rather than simply jokes. The prologue alone about trying to name a dog should have you hooked.

This is a small list and certainly not comprehensive. (Here’s another list from a library. I haven’t read most of these.) The point is that you can have humor without sacrificing meaning or power. Often it can serve as wonderful counterpoint. Think about the possibilities that tackling a humorous novel might open to you.

And tomorrow we’ll talk about the one rule in writing humor—you can’t try to write humor.