Chris Hitchens once wrote a piece on how women aren’t funny.
But after having read a couple of supposedly humorous books based on Hitchens’ own reviews/recommendations, I get his point.
Men are overawed, not to say terrified, by the ability of women to produce babies. (Asked by a lady intellectual to summarize the differences between the sexes, another bishop responded, “Madam, I cannot conceive.”) It gives women an unchallengeable authority. And one of the earliest origins of humour that we know about is its role in the mockery of authority. Irony itself has been called “the glory of slaves.” So you could argue that when men get together to be funny and do not expect women to be there, or in on the joke, they are really playing truant and implicitly conceding who is really the boss.
In other words, for women the question of funniness is essentially a secondary one. They are innately aware of a higher calling that is no laughing matter. Whereas with a man you may freely say of him that he is lousy in the sack, or a bad driver, or an inefficient worker, and still wound him less deeply than you would if you accused him of being deficient in the humour department.
And yes, there’s all sorts of things I just don’t find funny that leaves men laughing in the aisles.
Such as puns.
ARGUABLY BY HITCHENS
But let me start with the book that kicked off my reading project: Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens. It’s a collection of his writings, covering about 2003 – 2011 (when he died).
I got this in audiobook format, first from the library, and then I bought my own copy. I find it so entertaining, though some is very serious indeed. While I’m no atheistic Trotskyite, I valued Hitchens’ writing and viewpoint. As he sets out in the beginning of this text (preface?), he became an anti-totalitarian leftist, picking that over the anti-Western (aka anti-imperialism) branch.
In listening to his writings on Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, etc., I wondered what he would say about current goings-on. I miss him most for that, because I can’t think of anybody writing now who could cover these subjects as he did.
But one of the biggest values I’m getting out of this book is a list of books and authors to read (and not to read). The first two I’ve pulled are Evelyn Waugh and George Macdonald Fraser. I’m trying Waugh again, and letting Fraser fall by the wayside.
For my first Waugh pick, I tried Scoop, which reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm in multiple ways. You start with the absurd British aristocratic circles (now extended to include people who got really rich from business) pulling each other’s strings, and then somebody flung far away. It starts very amusingly, but there are few laugh-out-loud moments (yes, I’ve laughed out loud at books… but more on that later.)
Scoop’s humor is that of the smirk. Some of it may have been funnier if I had been a foreign correspondent myself, but that would be like me writing a comedy novel targeted at actuaries. That’s a fairly restricted audience. And many of them have no humor whatsoever about their profession.
So I did find the book at least amusing, but it’s not the kind of amusement that stands up to a second read, I find. If you want some absurd fun, then Scoop is innocent enough. But I wouldn’t buy a copy. Plenty available in the libraries.
WAR AND RAPE ARE NOT FUNNY
Except when they are, but they’re definitely not funny in George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman.
The book starts promisingly enough, with the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays ejected from Rugby (the school, not the game) due to drunkenness. Then he messes about with his father’s mistress, which is exceedingly funny, fixes a duel, gets exiled to the north, and then ends up getting caught in marriage (and how that occurs is also funny). Seems like we’re in a comic novel, right?
Sure, Flashman is a coward, bully, racist, and misogynist, but that’s to be expected as an aristocratic asshole. He semi-triumphs, but he’s often the butt of events. So far, so good.
Then he’s shipped off to India, which is well enough, and gets booted to Afghanistan, at which point it stops being funny altogether.
Part of this was I made the mistake of looking up the war and events he was alluding to.
You see, the Flashman series is based on dropping Flashman into various famous conflicts in 19th century history, especially with regards to British colonial “troubles”. All sorts of real historical figures are name-dropped throughout the book (it’s clear that sometime in the series, he ends up with Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. And I think with Custer, too… at the fateful time when Custer makes his last mistake. But that’s from the name dropping and Hitchens’ own comments.)
I think the trope is that ole Flashy is always on the losing side, but manages to snatch glory accidentally for himself, even when he’s displaying cowardice (or especially when he’s displaying cowardice.) It’s an amusing trope (here’s the series’ TV Tropes page… see ya in several hours!), but Fraser puts some extremely non-amusing details in.
And I’m not talking about the violent rape he commits (yeah, that’s not funny), nor the racism against the Sepoys (Americans may be taken aback to hear racial epithets used against Indians that we may think only applies to black Africans. I had to check to figure out who he was referring to.) There’s the blatant classism as well, but again, that can be amusing.
It’s the torture and the details from the war that reminds one of things going on right now with respect to beheading and sticking heads on spikes. Then one of the British commanders made a comment akin to Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” and I had to set the book down for a moment.
I assume that part of Fraser’s point was as a post-colonial critique of the British Empire, but it’s not like he makes the subjected masses look much better. The British “ruling class” is made to blame for all the mess, though.
So, I guess it’s partly adventure/historical novel, with some political critique, and the comedy is sandwiched at the ends. When Flashman gets back to England, and it’s pretty clear his wife has been screwing around, and Flashy’s dad’s mistress gets her barbs in… lots of fun. Heck, it’s even amusing when Flashy gets to meet ole Vicky & Al.
But one needs a strong stomach for the parts in between, I find. I can’t find this entertaining at all. So no more from the series for me.
SO WHAT DO I THINK FUNNY?
Some people may still enjoy Flashman, if they realize it’s not all comedy. And a frothy piece like Scoop is a good beach read. But what have I read that has actually made me hurt my ribs with laughter?
I will pick only one book, which I read because of another book. The book is Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog).
The book is about a trip down the Thames of three men, with a little, pugnacious dog. It has no real plot, no character development, etc. It’s mainly a set of vignettes of how these men get into ridiculous situations.
The bit about the wheel of cheese is what killed me especially. Particularly because I’ve had a run-in with stinky cheese that my husband loved (but at least we have a fridge, which these poor fellows did not.)
It’s partly the absurdity of ordinary life, and making it incredibly funny. As opposed to the dreariness and brutality (which is what I found in Flashman). I have seen the same thing happen when it’s similar tropes/premises being used — Jasper Fforde writes about nursery rhyme characters in ordinary situations and it’s entertaining, someone does something else… and it’s dreary.
Perhaps it depends on how curdled the soul of the author is, but both Dickens and Twain were personally dark and extremely funny in their writing. Not sure if I can put my finger on it.
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