So, just where the hell have I been, anyway? The truth is predictable and blah; let us go with a pleasant fiction wherein I have been in Siberia, on a field assignment for the International Lesbian Conspiracy. An assignment that required me to wear exciting amounts of leather and rescue women from horrible fates involving, I don’t know, spiky wheels and rats. So, yes, I did that, and then there was sex. On rocks. All the rocks. In Siberia.
Sure, let’s go with that. Tell you what, I’ll invite you next time. There are enough rocks over there for all of us.
Why is it, I wonder, that people spend so much time talking about boring things? I’m a lawyer (calm down, stop waving the crucifix in my face, I only transform at full moon) and when you corral a bunch of lawyers in the same room and get them squiffy, there are two topics which get discussed ad literal nauseum:
1.) Where people went on their last holiday.
2.) Where people are going to go on their next holiday.
This is why I spend most social occasions hiding in a corner, with a potted plant in front of my face, humming In the Hall of the Mountain King under my breath and hoping no-one will notice me. The world contains so many million fascinating things to talk about: game theory, mantis shrimp, serial killers, BDSM, the uncanny valley, fairy chess, the colours of dinosaurs, the Book of Judith, lithography, Edwardian meals, women in leather on rocks in Siberia, and feline genetics, to name the first few that jump to mind. With all that going on, why in the world would I want to spend any fragment of my finite existence listening to some besuited harpy complain about a restaurant in Paris which she visited last July, where she was served bouillabaise that did not meet her lofty expectations?
All these cocktail-hour agonies have made me, more than ever, a believer in humour, both in life and in writing. By “humour,” I don’t mean jokes, exactly, or comic relief, or slapstick moments- slips on banana peels and pies in faces. (Mind you, I can think of a few lawyers who could do with a pie in the face. I might recommend it to the relevant authorities.)
No. By “humour,” I mean the sense of shared enjoyment between writer and reader, or between speaker and listener, that comes out of a shared experience.
The great Dorothy Parker, she of the barbed wit and the pinpoint turn of phrase, wrote some wise words on this subject:
“The possession of a sense of humor entails the sense of selection, the civilized fear of going too far. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself. Humor, imagination, and manners are pretty fairly interchangeably interwoven.”
Every time I read this, I make an assortment of loud noises and dance around the room in ecstasy, just because it’s so absolutely right. Humour, like empathy, involves a sense of connection. It means thinking about- and more important, giving a damn about- what other people are thinking and feeling. Humour is the best chance we get, as writer or as reader, to connect with the person on the other side of the page- because it’s the common ground between us which means that both of us get the joke.
Skeptical? Imagine that two UFOs land beside you at the same moment. A green slime-creature oozes out of one of them and announces, “We come in peace; take us to your leader.” Another green slime-creature oozes out of the other ship and asks, “Say, didja hear about the dyslexic man who walked into a bra?”
Now, which slime-creature do you trust not to eat your face?
Humour, at its best, builds bridges. Tragedy, even at its best, creates distances. Humour draws you close. Tragedy forces you to stand apart and stare.
I find it difficult to read books with no humour at all, unless they’re dizzyingly brilliant (yeah, I’m looking at you, Anne Michaels). I find it even more difficult to write without using humour- even, and maybe even especially, when I’m writing something dark. When I’m inflicting very-and-extremely-not-nice things on my characters, humour is a way to show their continued humanity and individuality, to keep the situation from dissolving into a swamp of generic despond and blah.
There’s enough despond and blah in the world.
And that’s why I shan’t be talking about where I’ve been the past few months. Except to tell a blatant lie about my overseas mission for the International Lesbian Conspiracy. Let me know if you want to attend the Siberian rock-orgy. Bring potato chips.
What are your thoughts about humour in fiction?