The Serious Nature of Comic Fiction
When it comes to comic fiction, some readers automatically assume that it will be less powerful emotionally because it's funny, but a lot of comic fiction has a serious aspect to it and that entertains us on a sophisticated level that we, as readers of literary fiction, demand. Just as serious fiction can be enriched by comedy so comic fiction can be made emotionally powerful by balancing the humor in the work with serious intent. It's a tough job, joining comedy and tragedy, humor and sorrow, in such a way that a reader is both moved and amused, but successful manipulation of these two seemingly opposite ends of the emotional spectrum can give a necessary weight to a comic novel or story.
In order to achieve this the work needs, beneath its comedic tone (whether it's the extravagant one of books like The World According to Garp and Catch-22, the slightly more subdued and lyrical one of a Lorrie Moore story, or the sort that exists in the bleak world of Denis Johnson and Flannery O'Connor), an origin in sadness or tragedy that affects the novel both scene by scene and as a whole, that seeps into style, structure, story and characters.
For some books it's something large and and overwhelming that burdens the whole environment of a novel. In Catch-22 it's World War II and war's attendant miseries. In Huck Finn it's the catastrophe of slavery. In Flannery O'Connor's stories it's the burden of original sin.
Sometimes the tragic is in the events that occur in the novel or story, as in The World According to Garp, a wildly comic novel in which tragedy frequently occurs: Garp's father dies of a war wound, his mother is murdered, his son dies, his other son loses an eye, and Garp himself, finally, is assassinated. In Lorrie Moore's collection Birds of America there is a story that begins with the main character doing the unthinkable, dropping a baby and the baby dying; in another, a close friend of the narrator's has a terminal illness—terrible events that appear nevertheless in stories that move with typical Lorrie Moore breeziness and that deftly combine these tragedies with comedy. In Anne Tyler's Pulitzer prize- winning novel, The Accidental Tourist, it is the random murder of the narrator's son by a man who steps into a fast food restaurant and starts shooting and the fallout of this loss that destroys his marriage. But again, terrible as this tragedy is, the novel is primarily a comic one.
Sometimes the sadness that pervades a novel or story is not from tragic attitudes or terrible events; it may be much more mundane and everyday. In Straight Man, Richard Russo's wonderful novel, it's a man slipping ungracefully into the thick of middle-age. In another Ann Tyler novel, Ladder of Years, it's a woman whose children are grown or nearly grown and no longer need her in the way they once did.
These stories and novels are all very funny, but they're more than just funny because they've bravely pushed into the uncomfortable Darth Vadar dark side.
Milan Kundera wrote, “There is a thin line between the horrible and the comic.” Mark Twain said, “The source of all humor is sadness, not laughter.”
Think of comic works you love and see if most of them don't have some source in sadness, or walk the thin line between the horrible and comic, and/or allow, in the work, tragedy and comedy to exist side by side. You can fill in the blank here for your own list but a few that come to mind for me are The Tin Drum, Good-bye Columbus, Huckleberry Finn, Henderson the Rain King, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, A Conferacy of Dunces, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Works by Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolfe, Mona Simpson, Denis Johnson, J.D. Salinger, Harry Crews to name only a few. These writers successfully create worlds where the writing skillfully slips back and forth between comedy and tragedy. That they are funny and serious to very different degrees, that sometimes the humor is so dark it hurts to laugh, is just fine by me.
Okay—back to this question of how writers give their comic writing a seriousness with some specific examples of different kinds of comic writing: Catch-22; Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man is Hard to Find”; The World According to Garp, and finally a story that was included in the Best American Stories 2001 by Peter Orner titled, “The Raft.”
The novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller takes place on a mythical island eight miles south of Elba and in Rome, Italy, during World War II.
There is death everywhere in this novel, deceit everywhere, terror everywhere, injury, sadness, and there is also comedy. Heller ridicules human values that become twisted in war and maybe in life in general. He targets business ethics through Milo Minderbinder, religion through the ineffectual chaplain, and above all, the way men follow orders they know are idiotic or stupid and that will lead to their own destruction. The wordplay, the jokes, the absurdist situations all make the novel funny but what makes it deeply serious are the constant reminders of death and war and man's inability to escape his own destructive tendencies.
Captain Yossarian, our hero or anti-hero, believes that THEY are trying to kill him and he has no wish to be the victim of THEM. The fact is the enemy is trying to kill him along with everyone else on his side, so it's logical that he should fear them. At the same time it's absurd that he takes it so personally. Or is it? Yossarian's response strikes us as funny but at the same time the many deaths we'll witness in the war make it seem true as well. This is humor with a serious undertow.
One death that particularly affects Yossarian is that of a fellow solider, Snowden, whose blood and entrails splash on Yossarian as Snowden dies, an event that is alluded to often in the novel and described in detail eventually. This is a central event in Yossarian's war experience. He watches the boy die slowly and in great pain.
When Snowden is killed, Yossarian's uniform is stained with the boy's blood. Yossarian's response is to stop wearing clothes. This is funny. It creates humorous situations. For example, it causes some problems when Yossarian wins a Distinguished Flying Cross and there's a ceremony and Yossarian steps up to receive the medal completely naked. General Dreedle can't find a place to pin the medal on him. (p.228)
It's an absurd scene. A comic one. At the same time we know he's quit wearing clothes because his uniform was stained with Snowden's blood.
Comedy and tragedy. We sympathize with Yossarian's reaction. We can see it as a psychological response to the horror of witnessing a boy die and of all the death around him. So as the scene between General Dreedle and Yossarian plays out and we laugh we're also aware of the connection between what causes the comic in the scene (the naked Yossarian) and what has caused the situation in the first place (the staining of his uniform as Snowden dies). This is walking the fine line between the comic and horrible.
Of course the title of the novel refers to a rule with a catch in it, Catch-22. And this itself is both comic and tragic.
Yossarian asks Doc Daneeka to ground him from flying any more missions.
“Can't you ground someone who's crazy?”
“Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy.”
“Then why don't you ground me. I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger.”
“Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him.”
“Then ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am.”
“Then why don't you ground them?”
“Why don't they ask me to ground them?”
“Because they're crazy, that's why.”
“Of course they're crazy,” Doc Daneeka replied. “I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not, can you?”
Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn't he ask you to?”
“Because he's crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That's all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That's all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can't ground him.”
“You mean there's a catch?”
“Sure there's a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.” (pp.54,55)
Funny? Sure. But Catch-22 and the terrible situations it creates it creates are not. Catch-22 is an admission that the man-made forces beyond Yossarian and his fellow soldiers can put them in a position from which they cannot escape, a position that will end in the deaths of many of them.
One of many examples of Catch-22's deadly logic is Milo's syndicate, an economic organization that involves both allies and enemies in making a healthy profit during the war. A specific incident is when Milo makes arrangements fair to both sides--he tells the Americans where to attack and then tells the Germans where the Americans are going to attack. During one of these raids a new soldier dies and Yossarian blames Milo.
“I didn't kill him!” Milo kept replying passionately to Yossarian's angry protest...”The Germans have the bridge, and we were going to bomb it, whether I stepped into the picture or not. I just saw a wonderful opportunity to make some profit out of the mission, and I took it. What's so terrible about that?”
Yossarian replies...”What's so terrible about it? Milo, a man in my tent was killed on that mission before he could even unpack his bags.”
“But I didn't kill him.”
“You got a thousand dollars extra for it.”
“But I didn't kill him. I wasn't even there, I tell you...I'm just trying to put it(the war) on a businesslike basis. Is anything wrong with that? You know, a thousand dollars ain't such a bad price for a medium bomber and a crew. If I can persuade the Germans to pay me a thousand dollars for every plane they shoot down, why shouldn't I take it?”
“Because you're dealing with the enemy, that's why. Can't you understand that we're fighting a war?...”
Milo shook his head with weary forbearance. “And the Germans are not our enemies,” he declared. “Oh, I know what you're going to say. Sure, we're at war with them. But the Germans are also members in good standing of the syndicate, and it's my job to protect their rights as shareholders. Maybe they did start the war, and maybe they are killing millions of people, but they pay their bills a lot more promptly than some allies of ours I could name. Don't you understand that I have to respect the sanctity of my contract with Germany? Can't you see if from my point of view?”
Well, yeah, we can. On the local level of this scene our laughter is burdened by our anger and indignation at the thought of all the lives lost in the name of profit. And yet. Burdened or not we laugh.
Flannery O'Connor's fiction is hard to place in any category. It's slippery that way. However, while her stories frequently have to do with man's wickedness to man, the fallout of original sin, the legacy of slavery and racism in the South, they are, too, often funny. And it seems to me that the comedy in her writing is intricately related to her voice and the distinctive and unusual way in which she communicates to us. Her vision has twisted comedy right along with the dark and strange and terrible.
Robert Lowell said of O'Connor's writing “Much savagery, compassion, farce, art and truth have gone into these stories. Miss O'Connor's characters are wholeheartedly horrible and almost better than life. I find it hard to think of a funnier or more frightening writer.”
Like Kafka, she is a comic writer and she isn't a comic writer. One thing's for sure, O'Connor's fiction would not be O'Connor's fiction without humor.
What I think she shows us about the nature of comedy in serious fiction is that it can exist in a dark fictional world, that it can enliven a dark world where good and evil battle almost every day and evil often wins. Here's a writer who even at the sentence level sometimes captures a strange mix of humor and terror.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” has many comic moments, and it also has brutality. The brutality of the grandmother and her prejudices, and, especially, of the Misfit who murders the whole Bailey family, among others.
I want to focus on just one line near the climax of the story that illustrates the way O'Conner can defy the laws of fictional gravity and make a sentence ring both comic and deadly serious. It's when the Misfit, after killing the grandmother, says to his two henchmen, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Some of us, the sick ones of course, can't help but smile at this line. What could he possibly mean? I don't know, but it feels right. It feels like it somehow carries the heart of the story in it. This is what it would take for this woman to be good, maybe for any of us to be really good, and it's impossible.
There is a savage truth in the line and there is also savage humor. O'Connor frequently shows us that one single sentence can contain both comedy and horror or comedy and sorrow and that the sentence is the wiser for it, not less but more.
John Irving's use of comedy is less dark than Flannery O'Connor's. He sees laughter as related to sympathy and there is a sort of gentle melancholy to his comedy that is saved from being so gentle as to be kittenish by frequent tragic events—perhaps a little too often related to loss of limbs.
In an Irving novel we expect to laugh and we are not disappointed. However, we know there will be tragedy, too.
In The World According to Garp, John Irving has Garp explain some of what I think are Irving's thoughts about comedy and tragedy: “Why did people insist that if you were ‘comic' you couldn't also be serious? Garp felt most people confused being profound with being sober, being earnest with being deep.”
Exactly, though you might say this is a writer of comic novels getting a little testy with reviewers and critics who refuse to see how a comic novel might be more serious ultimately than a self-consciously sober one, I think Irving is trying to point to an attitude that causes people to downplay their enjoyment of comic fiction.
One thing that John Irving is particularly good at showing is that comedy and tragedy often exist side by side in this world. When Irving has Garp say that “It is simply a truthful contradiction that people's problems are often funny and that people are nonetheless sad” he's expressing his own particular version of the world and one that allows him to exploit all kinds of situations for comic effect and then ease back into the sadness that makes his novel serious.
There are countless examples in Irving's work of comedy and tragedy existing side by side. Sticking to Garp, here are a few:
Roberta Muldoon is one of Garp's mother's friends who becomes his friend. Roberta was once a man, a very large man in fact who played professional football, but realized he was a she and had an operation to correct the initial genetic error.
Of course, any situation with Roberta inherently has the incongruence of this woman who was once a lineman for the Baltimore Colts. So we're expecting to laugh when she appears. At the same time, we're sympathetic to her inability to find love and we recognize the loneliness of her situation.
In this scene Roberta calls Garp and is crying because a man has left her.
She says, “‘I never knew what shits men were until I became a woman.'” Then she goes on.
“He said I wasn't enough of a woman, that I confused him, sexually—that I was confused sexually,” Roberta cried. “Oh, God, that prick. All he wanted was the novelty of it. He was just showing off for his friends.”
“I'll bet you could have taken him, Roberta,' Garp said. ‘Why didn't you beat the shit out of him?”
“You don't understand,” Roberta said. “I don't feel like beating the shit out of anyone anymore. I'm a woman!”
“Don't women ever feel like beating the shit out of someone?”
“I don't know what women feel like,” Roberta wailed. “I don't know what they're supposed to feel like, anyway. I just know what I feel like.”
“What's that?” Garp asked, knowing she wanted to tell him.
“I feel like beating the shit out of him now," Roberta confessed, "But at the time when he was dumping all over me, I just sat there and took it.”
Funny and sad—the he-sheness, the mixture of who she was and who she is and the problems this cause are funny. But the horrible mistake at birth, being born into the wrong gender, and her willful struggle to become a woman and find love, while grandly sympathetic, is also often sad.
Another example: Both Garp and his wife, Helen, have several affairs during the course of the novel. Naturally, these cause problems, but it's Helen's affair with one of her students that causes tragedy.
We know it's going to happen before it happens. We know Garp is heading home with his two boys, hurrying because he's jealous of Jenny and her young lover. The weather is bad, an icy rain storm. We know Jenny is parked in the drive with the boy and is giving him a blowjob in order to get rid of him because she believes “Men, once they had ejaculated, were rather quick to abandon their demands.” His demands have been that they not break up. She wants to break up. This is her final good-bye.
So even as we smile at this line, ”Men, once they had ejaculated, were rather quick to abandon their demands,” we know something bad is about to happen. Garp approaches the drive fast and turns off the lights and engine once he hits the gentle incline to coast in.
There's a terrible collision. In the next chapter we find out that one of Garp's and Jenny's sons is dead and the other's lost an eye, Jenny's neck is nearly broken, and in typical Irving fashion, in the middle of describing all this which is heartbreaking, he can't help but also explain how Jenny, at impact, bit down hard, resulting in Michael Milton—her young boyfriend—losing about three-quarters of his penis.
This comic novel does not avoid tragedy. Terrible things happen. People die. Even children. Even our main character, Garp. The ultimate tone of this novel is melancholy but there are many, many laugh-out-loud scenes. The ultimately sad conditions of life are portrayed in such a way that the comedy of the way we live them in spite of or because of these conditions makes us laugh.
My last example is one of my favorite stories from Best American Stories, 2001, “The Raft,” by Peter Orner, which is a short short story that weighs in at a little over three pages. Maybe because of its brevity, it's forced to be sneaky.
Like many comic stories, it uses the absurd and ridiculous for a laugh. In this case the character of the grandfather and his mental problems.
From the first line we're lured into this situation. “My grandfather, who lost his short-term memory sometime during the first Eisenhower administration, calls me into his study because he wants to tell me the story he's never told anybody before, again.”
Of course, it's the “...story he's never told anybody before, again.” that is contrary to reason and so absurd. It's funny because the voice of our narrator, a twelve- year-boy, is clearly letting us in on the joke right away. And, of course, the sarcasm of the voice seems appropriate to an adolescent boy, so we're expecting this situation to bear laughs.
As the old man tells his story we're made aware that the boy has heard the story many times because he prompts the old man when he wanders. We're also aware that his wife's heard the story because her reaction when he calls his grandson into the room is, “‘Oh, for God's sake, Seymour. We're meeting the Dewoskins at Twin Orchards at seven-thirty. Must you go back to the South Pacific?'”
We get all this in the first paragraph. We get the Grandfather's cranky, military voice in the next paragraph.
“‘There's something I want to tell you, son,' he says. ‘Something I've never told anybody. You think you're ready? You think you've got the gumption?'”
“I think so.”
“I know so, sir. I know I've got the gumption.”
...”Well then, stand up, sailor.”
Back to Mark Twain, “The source of all humor is sadness, not laughter.” An old man with no short-term memory who retells a story again and again isn't funny when stated this way. His seeing his grandson as a soldier from World War II isn't funny either. Except that it is in the context of the story. However, what will eventually provide depth is the source of this humor, the tragic moment that is at its heart.
As the story moves on the grandfather takes his grandson and we readers back to the South Pacific when the grandfather, captain of a destroyer during World War II, is awakened in the middle of the night by two knocks on the door.
The boy humors the old man as he narrates the events of that night, but when the grandfather asks him if he understands a warning he's gotten about kamikaze flotillas and the boy answers, “‘Basically, it hits the side of your boat, and whango.'”, the tone is changed by the grandfather's response which is: “‘You being smart with me? You think this isn't life and death we're talking about here?'”
Up to this point we've been smiling at the situation, at the old man's treating his twelve-year-old grandson like a soldier, at the quirky things he says, but this line hints that maybe, in fact, all this is leading somewhere more serious than the tone thus far has led us to believe. The stakes are raised. Life and death. What could be more important?
Here is one way that a funny scene can move from just the pleasure of humor to a slightly less comfortable smile. A single line that hints at serious consequences.
The story moves on back into the ridiculous that gives it its particularity. The grandfather opens a drawer where there's a safety-locked pistol and tattered, weird, period pornographic propaganda in the form of comic books; these in a way mirror the grandfather's own disturbed mind and what we are beginning to understand is a dangerous and blind patriotism.
Then we are taken to the heart of the story as the grandfather explains the raft floating toward his boat was full of “‘Japs...Looked like they'd been floating for days. They turned their backs to the light so all we could see was their backsides, skin and bone fighting it out and the bone winning.'”
The boy, who up to this point has been playing along, seems less confident. This simple sentence after the above quote shows this. “I step back. I want to sit down but I don't."
Again, this is only a slight change. We're still expecting to laugh and we will. But it's another tugging that weighs the story down just enough that we sense a serious undercurrent.
In this same paragraph he tells the boy that Phillis, his wife, doesn't know. He writes on a pad in bold letters, “BLEW IT UP” and then “I gave the order.”
The boy is then ordered into the closet where the grandfather says they can talk, a closet that is described later in the story as a confessional. He says, “At ease, sailor.” There is no light in the closet and the boy kneels amid suits, ties, belts and he thinks, “And I see now that it's not how many times you hear a story but where you hear it that matters.”
The boy then asks, “Why?”
Why did he blow up the raft if he knew the Japanese weren't dangerous? This why question brings the central issue of the story out into the open. It's another turn back to the serious and tragic undertow.
The grandfather still speaks in the same military tone, the voice of blind patriotism that will not allow him to question his own actions. But now what he's saying has taken on a different meaning. We still want to laugh because the story has conditioned us to laugh but we don't.
The grandfather says, “‘Some men would lie to you. They'd say it's war. I won't lie to you. It had zero to do with war and everything to do with the uniform I was wearing. Because it was my job to make decisions. Besides what the hell would I have done with a boatload of naked Japanese? There was a war on.'”
Then he explains that it was his job to make the world safe. “‘Listen, my job. Just because men like me made the world safe for men like your father to be cowards doesn't mean you won't ever blow up any civilians. Because you will. I do it once a week at the bank.' He places a stumpy, powerful hand on my shoulder ‘Comprende?''”
We are appalled by this speech. The last line about the bank allows the speech to keep the tone of the old man's earlier speeches, also to remind us that he's mentally ill. But it is not enough to weaken the rest of the declaration or to make it seem unbelievable. In fact, the speech is consistent with the blind patriotism the old man has declared throughout the story.
The boy replies, “‘Never'”
And here is the word that makes this story so powerful: the grandfather's response is “‘Good.'”
With that one word all that he has said, his whole performance, his whole defense of his actions as patriotic duty, is toppled. The grandfather begins to cry. Nothing funny here. The story has reached its sad and tragic origin.
Ultimately, in all of my examples, the writers succeed in making their comic fiction both funny and serious by refusing to ignore the sorrow and tragedy in their fictional worlds.
My Top Nine List:
ways to combine humor
- The more extravagant the comedy is the more it has to be anchored in the central problem of a novel. Comedy, rather than excusing focus, demands it. Knowing the sad or tragic origin behind the comedy will give you an anchor and force the comedy to serve the novel's movement rather than float off into easy jokes.
- From the very beginning, mixed in with the comic situations, characters, themes, there should be mention—in as direct a way as possible without sacrificing plot considerations —of this deeper source. It has to be there so that the reader feels the undertow beneath the comedy in the first few pages. This will help you find the tone and the reader will be subconsciously expecting something more than just laughter as they read on.
- Try to load a comic scene with humor that has, directly, a source in sadness like the scene in Catch-22 when Yossarian accepts his medal naked because one of his uniforms has been stained by the blood of a fellow soldier.
- Create a character with a character flaw that might be played for humor in places, but that also gives a seriousness to the character's troubles.
- Set your novel against a background that is tragic, like Mark Twain does in Huckleberry Finn or like Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
- Like Irving, make tragic events central to story. Allow the events to be described with humor, gentleness, irony, but don't shy away from tragedy just because you are writing comic fiction.
- Recognize that comedy and tragedy aren't opposites. Take Irving's declaration that while people might be sad their problems are often funny. A blending of the two is not as foreign as it might at first seem.
- This might work for stories better than novels. Be sneaky, like Peter Orner. Give clues that there is a darker side to the story, but withhold the tragic event so that when the story does drop its comic mask it seems transformed and the contrast between light comedy and comedy with an anchor in seriousness is exposed.
- Follow Anne Tyler in Ladder of Years and Richard Russo in Straight Man—pick a subtle sorrow like growing old. In the all too mortal words of Joan Crawford, “Getting old isn't for sissies.” Yet the people who get to grow old are considered the lucky ones. A simple sorrow, kept in mind throughout the writing of a novel, can be a powerful way to add weight to the comedy.