Funny Pages 

Making readers laugh is every bit as hard as making them cry, but that doesn't stop novelists from trying.

Being a writer is somewhat akin to being a naked renegade zookeeper stalking through the jungle in search of exotic animals. Ideas come like rustlings in the trees or paw prints in the mud. Even after the story is flushed out, it's often still quite a task to get a firm hold on the animal, naked as you are; and once you have it under control, then you have to worry about the veterinary side of things, such as slicing off excess verbiage or at least trimming the fur.

All of this can amount to a good bit of work, even if your quarry is no more than a book review. Written comedy, however, is an even more demanding beast than most: wrigglier and harder to pin down. Worse yet, its various species are often difficult to identify properly. What looks like clever wordplay in the darkness of the jungle often turns out to be nothing more than a bad pun when viewed under the harsh rays of a reader's desk light.

It takes a special kind of zookeeper to write comedy.

Sue Margolis, author of Apocalipstick, occasionally makes those sorts of errors, mistaking bad puns for good ones, though she does manage to sneak some great ones in as well -- e.g. "If he needs an anesthetic at any stage, don't give him a local. My son can afford imported." This mixture sets up an exciting, if uneven, safari for the reader.

In the beginning, this novel seems to be a fairly standard romance. Rebecca Fine is a beauty columnist who aspires to investigative journalism. Her life is already complicated enough as it is, thank you very much, with her meddling grandmother Rose, her depressed best friend Jess (recently postpartum and with a husband recently afflicted with a curious case of impotence), and a father about to marry a younger woman. The last thing Rebecca needs is a man, particularly not that smarmy but wildly attractive bloke Max Stoddart, who just happens to have been hired by Rebecca's magazine as -- of all things -- an investigative journalist.

Readers who aren't scared away by the first few chapters will discover that eventually the clichés do end. The book starts to get rather funny as Rebecca (romantic entanglements with Max aside) becomes embroiled in a quest to discover the secret ingredient of a soon-to-be-released anti-wrinkle cream, which, if allowed on the market, promises to end all hope for world peace. It's a bit absurd, yes, but while some of the plot devices that allow for such absurdity are occasionally too contrived, the suspension of disbelief is mostly worth the fun of seeing which horrible situation will arise next. The various plots are all compelling, there are a few brilliant send-ups of high fashion (the latest drink of choice is the water-cocktail: "two parts Evian, one part Volvic"), and the only real downside is the unnecessarily graphic detail of the love scenes. At the least, this is a book that takes chances outside of the usual genre conventions. The animals are novel, if not always so pretty.

A Promising Man (and About Time, Too), by Elizabeth Young, is mostly populated with the safer species of British chick lit. And the book is very British. It really helps to know your Cilla Black from your Blue Peter before you begin. But while Young doesn't bring much to the genre that Helen Fielding hasn't brought already, she at least seems to know the genre well.

Harriet Grey's life is complicated enough as it is, thank you very much, with her meddling friend Rosie, her depressed best friend Jess (recently postpartum and single), and a father about to get married to a younger woman. ... Sound familiar? Remarkably.

The plot dwells mostly on Harriet's usual agonies over every minor word and action of the rich and dashing John Mackenzie, who begins dating her while apparently already involved with her old nemesis, Nina. Should Harriet date a man who is seeing another woman, even if that woman is a coldhearted cow? Why isn't John forthcoming about his relationship with Nina? More importantly, the reader might wonder, why doesn't Harriet ever ask him about any of this?

Perhaps it's best not to ponder such things. The humor is warmhearted, at least, and fairly consistent, even if it never achieves downright hilarity. It's subtle, with a few metaphors extended throughout the book, taking on different meanings as they go -- for instance, maggots symbolize both hidden flaws and penises, and snakes symbolize both jealousy and penises. The tale bows down to the telling here. Not that the various subplots aren't all interesting; if you make it to the end you're rewarded with a warm and tidy resolution. This author might not have any new animals in her zoo, but her cats and dogs are very friendly.

In Eleven Karens, Peter Lefcourt comes off more as a taxidermist than a zookeeper, though some of his specimens are beautifully preserved. There's not a plot to this novel so much as a premise: In his lifetime, he claims to have been involved in one way or another with eleven different females named Karen. It's kind of like David Sedaris' Naked, complete with an episode set in a nudist camp, except for the fact that most of the tales follow the same story arc: Boy meets girl, boy has sex with girl, boy and girl grow disillusioned with one another and never see each other again. This single repeated theme can get a bit tiresome, but the cleverness of the variations keeps it on the tolerable side of redundancy.

Lefcourt manages to keep the reader smirking. It's a very dry comedy that occasionally verges on the pointless (does the reader really need to know the stats on the baseball cards he traded while discussing his first Karen with a friend?), but when it works, it can be quite poignant. You feel bad for his animals, but at least they're displayed with dignity.

So just what is the secret to capturing a successful comedy? Aristotle supposedly wrote a book on the subject called something like Poetics II: Revenge of the Zookeeper, which tried to do for comedy what Poetics did for tragedy, but that's been lost for roughly a millennium.

Hippocrates believed human health and temperament were controlled by four "humors"; by applying the names of these to the practices of today's zookeepers, maybe we can deduce a formula for interpreting funny -- or would-be funny -- modern fiction. The melancholy type elicits laughter from the misfortunes of life. It's sad that a monkey has to beg for change, but it's funny, too. Sue Margolis' slapstick tragic situations tend to fall into this category. On the other hand, sanguine humor is generally good-naturedly happy stuff, along the lines of Elizabeth Young or a bunch of playful seals. Phlegmatic humor focuses on life's ironies while keeping a straight face: Imagine a tired old pit bull with a kitten sitting on its head -- or Peter Lefcourt's musings on his various Karens.

The fourth and final type of humor is choleric, which isn't very funny, though for some reason it gets lumped in with the other three. These books are all funnier than cholera.

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