Humor in Literature

A Closer Look at Humor Writing

We might laugh until we cry. The majority of us, though, can’t recall how long it’s been since we shed emotional tears. We laugh far more, roughly 17 times a day, whereas the average woman cries 17 times in six months and—you guessed it—the average man doesn’t cry half as much in one year. Even when we feel like crying, we laugh.

Laughter, or rather humor, is a staple of the human experience. People crave a good laugh. A chuckle, a smile, a silent ha! will do. The desire to ‘LOL’ has us perusing YouTube videos, tuning in to Comedy Central, going to the theater, reading a novel, etc. Laughing is cathartic. We cling to our sense of humor and should it fail, we appreciate comic relief all the more. Laughter feels good, and that’s what life—survival, you could say—is about. We work, play, eat, sleep, socialize… arrange and rearrange our circumstances to feel good. Humor is a sure thing. It gives us intellectual, emotional, and physiological satisfaction.

Fiction’s Unsung Element

Humor writing is not a genre but an element of fiction. And good fiction elicits diverse emotional responses, one of which rises from the belly and has readers quaking and tittering. Even with stories rooted in sadness, such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars whose central characters have terminal cancer, humor plays a crucial role.

Finding the funny side of things reduces loneliness and stress. Pyschologists say that laughter changes us, makes us feel positive and plugged in, more engaged. Humor, then, serves the writer’s purpose, enhancing not only how much readers enjoy our work, but also how much they enjoy themselves while reading what we’ve written. The more enjoyable the experience, the more they’ll remember it. And united with other elements of fiction, humor can further our story’s thematic significance, plot, and character development lines.

In Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon is a self-loathing poet who thinks that poetry is overrated. On a fellowship in Madrid, which he won on bogus claims, one that asserts his intention to research a poem on the Spanish Civil War (for which he has no knowledge of or motivation to write) and the other, a fluency in Spanish. Well-subsidized and self-medicated, Adam instead pursues an investigation of art’s authenticity, his relationship to it, and his relationship to others. Throw in a terrorist attack on the Atocha Station, and the novel might sound like a downer. On the contrary…

The story opens with phase one of his research—getting up in the mornings.

…letting myself be woken by the noise from La Plaza Santa Ana, failing to assimilate that noise fully into my dream, then putting on the rusty stovetop espresso machine and rolling a spliff while I waited for the coffee. When the coffee was ready I would open the skylight, which was just big enough for me to crawl through if I stood on the bed, and drink my espresso and smoke on the roof overlooking the plaza where tourists congregated with their guidebooks on the metal tables and the accordion player plied his trade. In the distance: the palace and long lines of cloud. Next my project required dropping myself back through the skylight, shitting, taking a shower, my white pills, and getting dressed.

Like all good openings, the lead paragraph presents a compelling glimpse of the story’s protagonist, while the unexpected reference to his regularity wins the first chuckle. As Adam oscillates between highs to lows, Learner shifts between the comic and tragic, pulling both off with humor.

If the sun were out and I proportioned the hash and tobacco correctly, if there were other people around, but at a distance, so that I could hear that they were speaking without hearing in which language, a small wave of euphoria would break over me… I would begin to feel a rush of what I considered love, first for the things at hand: the swifts, if that’s what they were, hopping in the dust, the avenues of old-world trees, the stone statues of kings and queens with whom the tourists pose, love for the glare off El Estanque, the park’s artificial lake. Love for Topeka: the chicken hawk atop the telephone poll, the man-child with a flare gun tucked into his sweatpants, the finger lost to snapping turtle or firework; love for the bully and his neck beard, a love only a mother could face. Love for all my sitters, except James; love for the wrestler falling from the water tower where he’d tried to represent. Then for Providence: the first breakdown in the stacks, running lines of prescription something with the dim kids of the stars, emerging from a tunnel or sleep into New York, redefining “rich,” love for the unread book of poems, Cyrus and our walks. But most intensely love for that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance, although that’s not even close, the texture of et cetera itself.

Readers learn from the onset that Adam is preoccupied with the suspicion that people can see through his masquerade of the profound intellectual/ artist.

…after all, there was nothing particularly original about my original poems, comprised as they were of mistranslations intermixed with repurposed fragments from deleted e–mails.

Furthermore, his appearance of deep thinker and rapt listener is merely the dumstruck look of one who can’t follow the conversation.

She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn’t tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds. Her uncle had died in a car crash a year ago today in a street in Salamanca; she had helped have her junky boyfriend hospitalized over the summer and now he wouldn’t see her and had moved to Barcelona; her parents, who lived in a small town, were having their home foreclosed upon and she had been sorting through boxes of childhood toys; she had broken with a sibling over the war. This ability to dwell among possible referents, to let them interfere and separate like waves, to abandon the law of excluded middle while listening to Spanish—this was a breakthrough.

Threatened by the language barrier while using it to his advantage, Adam describes one of his awkward cross-cultural experiences—

I was too nervous to catch the names of the people with whom I exchanged handshakes, but I was aware that my kissing was particularly awkward, that I had kissed one of the women in the corner of the mouth, more on her lips than on her cheek. This was a common occurrence; with a handful of clumsy exceptions when I had met particularly cosmopolitan New Yorkers one kiss on the right cheek, and various relatives when I was a child, I had almost never, prior to my project, kissed a woman with whom I was not romantically involved. I wasn’t exactly sure what would have happened if I’d tried to greet a woman by kissing her in Topeka; certainly her boyfriend would have kicked in my teeth if she had one, or I would be at risk of becoming her boyfriend if she didn’t. It often occurred to me that my upbringing would have been changed beyond all recognition if kissing had been common; such a dispersion of the erotic into general social circulation would have had unpredictable effects. In Providence I could have gotten away with it, but not without an air of affectation and effeminacy; regardless, I had never thought to try. But in Spain, I was guilty of abusing the kissing thing, or of at least investing it with a libidinal charge it wasn’t supposed to contain, and when you were drunk and high and foreign, you could reasonably slip up and catch the corner of a mouth.

In a monologue that could fit as easily into a stand-up routine as a novel, Adam tells us about the ironies in his tendency to push the kissing boundary. Lerner uses humor as a fictional technique, wielding it in concert with other elements to characterize his protagonist and develop our sense of setting. The humorous details bring the story world to life. More effectively, we get an appreciation for Adam’s sense of humor. 

The scene is ripe with sensory detail, but after a mention of the weather, Adam glosses over the physical aspects of the kiss. Instead of dwelling on the feel of the kiss—the contrast of textures between her cheek and lips, the smell of her hair, the sexual jolt it sends down his spine, he jumps to the ironies. We might have implied these ironies had Lerner chosen a different approach to the scene, but that Adam tells us establishes his point of view—that satisfying his lust isn’t as strong as the desire to remain aloof. His agenda is to seek ways to be with people without having to invest in authentic relationships. The humor in his digression, far from humor for humor’s sake, invokes a subtext that explores the novel’s theme.

Both humor and subtext make assumptions about readers’ attentiveness. Writers who uses subtext risk that readers won’t pick up on it, just as comedians risk that their audience won’t understand a joke. 

The most profound jokes work like theme by communicating a concrete yet inexpressible truth of our experiences. As we laugh at life’s ironies, commiserating over the cosmic joke, we affirm an aspect of reality that is too complex and nuanced for words and can only be expressed through laughter.

Leaving the Atocha Station provides an example of how humor relates to theme, as its narrator obsesses over the possibilities of what his words, tone, and facial expressions might imply. Due to his inadequate Spanish, Adam dwells in subtext—a weakness he exploits, as seen in his maneuvering to appear profound on a date.

As we walked through the Reina Sofia I would offer up unconjugated sentences or sentence fragments in response to paintings that she then expanded and concatenated into penetrating observations about line and color, art and institutions, old world and new […] I would say, Blue is an idea about distance, or Literature ends in that particular blue, or Here are several subjunctive blues; I would say, To write with sculpture—, To think the vertical—, To refute a century of shadow—, etc., and watch her mouth the phrase to herself, investing it with all possible resonances, then reapplying it to canvas.  Of course, we engaged in our share of incidental talk, but our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.

Subtext establishes a pseudo relationship with Isabel via the intimation that Adam has something weighty to say about art, as well as a respect for her intelligence. Though he has neither, we
like Adam. We tolerate his exploitive ways because Adam knows he is despicable.

Humor and subtext conspire to skirt Adam’s issues while drawing our attention to them. As a result, we fall prey to the trap Adam uses to ensnare his Spanish girlfriends. We sense the pain that leads him to build walls and having identified with him, begin to realize the novel’s premise—that meaning eludes those who dress in the meaning others ascribe to them.

As Adam works inference to his advantage, we, the readers, from the way he composes his actions, infer his greatest fear—that the core of his being is a void of meaning, nothing but a desire to be admired. Perhaps we might wonder if Leaving the Atocha Station hasn’t been composed to seduce us into inferring that one hedonistic sociopath is in fact in possession of a caring, if not self-preoccupied, soul. Such is the magic of story in the hands of an artist who knows how to pull the rabbit of empathy from humor’s hat.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist