Friday, December 11, 2009

The Funny Bones

In an interview, the filmmaker Errol Morris once said, “I don’t believe in that distinction between laughing at and laughing with. There’s just laughing at. Let’s get real here. And I suppose my final answer is, ‘So what!’…The important thing is to create complexity and to try to capture the complexity of your characters.” I’m inclined to agree. Humor need not blind us to the humanity of its subjects; in fact, it can help to point out their frailties, their excesses, their self-delusions, with an accuracy that is at times as painful as it is hilarious. Sometimes, as in Chronic City or James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, the humor complicates a tone of tenderness and nostalgia, giving the book a self-awareness it wouldn’t have otherwise; at other times, in a piece like David Sedaris’s “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!” the humor makes a black-as-coal vision of human nature palatable. Though not every story needs to be funny – and certainly not funny all the time – humor is one of the most efficient ways of cutting through the comforting bullshit, of getting to the heart of things. For this reason, humor and horror exist along the same continuum: at their best, both reveal more than we “can take” – they make us cringe, make us shriek, make us cover our eyes. The question is simply one of degree.

To backtrack: I have decided that the next book I read will be Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, about which I will undoubtedly have much to say in the coming posts. But, like a selfish fiancé at a bachelor party full of strippers, I decided that I deserved one last fling before making such a major commitment, and I woke up in bed with The Lovely Bones.

I expected this book to be commercial schlock, and I won't mince words: it is. This is a novel where a grieving mother orders toast in a diner and “butter[s] it with tears.” It is a novel where a dead girl dances in heaven with her grandpa: “I found myself small again, age six…Now, as I had done then, I placed my feet on top of his feet.” It is a novel where a creepy single guy who builds dollhouses turns out to be – gasp! – a serial killer. It is a novel where newly engaged lovers run joyfully, nearly naked, through the rain. It is a novel where no one checks the friendly neighborhood sinkhole for a missing body. It is cheesy as a Lifetime movie starring that chick from “Touched by an Angel.” But although I could make a laundry list of the things I disliked about the novel, the one thing that stands out as an underlying factor in all of them is the book’s humorlessness – not seriousness, but humorlessness – about its plot, its characters, and its central conceit.

In an early scene, when the limb of the narrating dead girl is found, her sister reacts to the news thus:

“ ‘Dad, I want you to tell me what it was. Which body part, and then I’m going to need to throw up.’

My father got down a large metal mixing bowl. He brought it to the table and placed it near Lindsay before sitting down.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Tell me.’
‘It was an elbow. The Gilberts’ dog found it.’

He held her hand and then she threw up, as she had promised, into the shiny silver bowl.”

In addition to the fact this on-cue vomiting recalls for me, quite unintentionally, I’m sure, the famous restaurant scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (“Better get a bucket”), it is a perfect case-in-point of the characters’ surreally appropriate responses, throughout the novel, to every goddamn thing that happens. These characters rage, cry, suspect, fall in love, get aroused, withdraw, open up, celebrate, and yes, puke, with all the unpredictability of clockwork automatons. No one ever says something bizarre, out of left field; no one ever has their priorities all out of order; no one is ever disappointed when their dream comes true, or relieved when their worst fears are confirmed. No one ever screws up bigtime. If a character thinks something weird or crazy, like that the neighbor killed his daughter or that her ghost is in the room, it’s not because he’s cracking under the stress – it’s because, actually, he’s right. That lonely artist girl isn’t being pretentious when she thinks she has a special tie with a dead classmate she hardly ever talked to: fo’ shizz, the two of them have a psychic connection. And God forbid the dead girl’s high school crush get over his feelings for her and move on with his life, even, cruelly, forget about her for months at a time: no, that one kiss they shared means as much to him down on earth as it does to her up in heaven, and when they reunite years later, he isn’t freaked out (or turned off) at all.

Sebold doesn’t have the guts to subject her fantastical conceit to the test of humor, which leaves me as a reader duty-bound to do that myself. And there’s plenty to laugh at here if, like me, you’re the kind of person who spent the ‘90s cackling over promos for “Mother May I Sleep With Danger.” But I can’t help imagining how much better the book would be if she’d gone to the trouble herself. Picture a scene, a la Melanie from Kids in the Hall, where Susie, still acting like a lovesick fourteen-year-old, returns from beyond the grave to rekindle her love with a boorish ninth-grade flame who’s nearly forgotten her. Or picture her father suspecting the wrong neighbor of her bloody demise, while helping her real killer trim his hedges. And what if her sister was, like Dawn from the film Welcome to the Dollhouse, both intensely miserable and inappropriately happy about her beautiful sister’s disappearance? Developments like these wouldn’t undermine the novel’s conceit; they’d bolster it, by showing that even in a world with heaven people are still, well, fucked-up. Even one or two touches along these lines would breathe life into a novel that feels dutiful and wooden in its depiction of a family’s grief. As it is, I don’t begrudge Sebold her success – but don’t look for this book on any shelf in my heaven.

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