Is That Supposed to Be Funny? – consider satire

Satire, like irony, gets misunderstood, especially when delivered deadpan. Deadpan artists find themselves harangued by the serious-minded at home and in the boss’s office. More than once, I have found myself explaining this difficulty to irate parents and the principal. I have taken a vow then and on other occasions not to “joke” with maturing minds or in emotionally fraught situations. To no avail.

Satire can be dreadful.

Think of that awful man – what was his name?- Jonathan Swift, who made a “modest proposal” that the babies of the Irish, who were being starved out in the eighteenth century, should be served as Sunday roast to their English landlords. Now I ask you is that an essay to teach to young minds?

Several things made me think about satire: my post “Zero Dark Thirty: lessons in self-love”, reading Jo Nesbo’s novel, Headhunters and Martin Amis’s novel Lionel Asbo: State of England as well as George Saunders‘ Tenth of December.

My post on Zero Dark Thirty considers the dark subjects of torture and family abuse, not amusing, indeed deeply unsettling, not to say anguishing, so dreadful that my instinctive response was to resort to satire, to treat them flippantly. I depended on the reader to work it out that since it was apparent that I know the dreadful effects of such brutality, I was not actually treating it lightly. My words grew out of deep compassion for suffering, just as Swift’s did. He portrayed the monstrous behaviour of the English landowners by proposing a solution that mirrored that monstrosity.

Martin Amis’s novel, LIonel Asbo: State of England is about a lottery lout, a recidivist, so often in and out of jail for petty crimes that he has changed his name to ASBO, naming himself for The Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a distinction that he claims to have won at a younger age than anyone before him. Basically, he was society’s enemy long before he started school. He is a brutal low level thug who keeps vicious dogs and feeds them Tabasco sauce to render them meaner and more effective help in his loan-collecting business. He has taken in his orphaned 15 year-old nephew, Desmond Pepperdine. They live in a 2 bedroom council flat high above Diston Town, a fictional suburb of London,, and the dogs live on their balcony. Desmond has a small secret: he is having sex with his 35 year-old Nan, Lionel’s mother and Desmond is certain that Lionel will kill him when he finds out. Meanwhile Lionel goes back to jail and while there wins millions in the lottery and emerges a media darling.

The novel covers a number of years, during which Desmond is able to give up incest, get an education, marry and have a baby, all while still living in the flat – Lionel having risen above it or being back in jail- the dogs still on the balcony, still scoffing down the Lionel-mandated Tabasco sauce, still ravening monsters. The question is does Lionel learn about Desmond and Nan. The question is not who let the dogs out.

British reviews were not flattering. The Brits themselves were deeply offended. What does he mean ‘The State of England’? They said it was Amis’s final insult as he moved to New York City. Which only goes to show that his satire succeeded brilliantly.

What is the target of Amis’s satire? The ever younger age at which the disadvantaged are having sex and getting into trouble. Being famous for being famous. Lionel’s girl friend, “Threnody” is a glamourous model who insists that her name be spelled in quotation marks. But it is the absolute despair of Diston Town, the unemployment, the complete lack of opportunity, Amis takes aim at. Culture and beauty and interesting ideas don’t even come into the picture. And the absolute lack of humanity: Lionel who has more than enough money to help out, does nothing, on principle, even for his own family. His mother dies in poverty of extreme old age before she is forty. Exaggeration is a tool for satire and of course these things are grossly exaggerated. Aren’t they?

Jo Nesbo’s  satiric novel, Headhunters, is a surprising change of pace for a writer who specializes in mystery thrillers. Set in Norway, Nesbo’s home territory, it is narrated by Roger Brown, headhunter par excellence. He begins by detailing an interview with a potential placement for a job as CEO of a well known company, a man who is 14 centimeters taller than himself. Roger is a relatively short man, 1 meter 68, about 5 ft. 8 as near as I could figure out. (I know, I know – I live in a metric country, but I still do height in- what- imperial.) Like Nesbo’s detectives, Roger conducts the interview according to the FBI nine step interrogation model -submission, confession and truth are its basic principles. Roger rejects the candidate but outlines how improvement can be made.

Roger Brown is a driven man, financially over-extended in an effort to please his beautiful wife Diana, who, he is afraid, will leave him for a taller man. He moonlights as an art thief, stealing valuable paintings off the walls of the wealthy, including this client and replacing them with photocopies. Into his life walks a taller man, Clas Greve, who shows up at Diana’s art gallery and charms her into getting him an interview with Roger. Turns out Greve is even better at the FBI’s nine step method than Roger and soon gains the upper hand in the interview. Turns out Clas has found a hitherto unknown Rubens while renovating his apartment. Turns out Greve takes advantage of his height differential. The self-assured Roger soon finds himself out of his role as master of the universe, the mere tool of the more masterful Greve.

There are genuinely funny scenes, which had me laughing out-loud, not least of which occurred in an outhouse on a remote farm. Let’s just say that Roger finds himself in reduced and unsavoury circumstances.

Headhunters like Nesbo’s detective stories includes the grotesque and unexpected but it differs in allowing a measure of redemption.

On one level, Nesbo is satirizing the Gordon Geckos of the business world. He carefully itemizes their designer suits and ties and their Italian shoes, carefully calibrating the nuances of the hierarchy. He is attacking ego and greed and the lust for power with his considerable wit and insight. But on another level, he is satirizing our human propensity for trying to control life that is fundamentally chaotic and beyond control. Even if we are 6 ft. tall.

George Saunders’ Tenth of December is a book of short stories that Saunders says reflects the good fortune of his life at this point. (These are far from his own words and he could have fooled me.) Saunders is referring, I assume, to his commercial success and his contentment with his creative writing professorship at Syracuse U. One of the stories is set in the near future when drugs are capable of resolving any inconvenient emotional state while, in reality, creating others equally problematic. In “Escape from Spiderhead”, convicts are serving their time in a research facility. Initially, the experiments deliver drugs that heighten pleasure and even include what every writer dreams of – “pepped up” language centres. They move on to include extremely good sex with an inmate of the opposite sex and then they morph into something much darker, something which tests the subject’s willingness to harm another. In “Exhortation”, a boss writes a memo encouraging those under him to do their jobs with a more positive attitude; otherwise, he and they will be replaced by a team that will. It might well have been written for those doing the experiments in “Escape from Spiderhead”. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, a father who is fast losing his middle class status, seeks to gain status by filling his garden with Semplica Girls. Gradually, Saunders reveals that these are not cute garden gnomes but living women, from third world countries, who have contracted to be strung together and displayed in fetching arrangements. In “Victory Lap”, a teenaged boy, an only child, who has been warned never, ever to put his precious self in danger, watches the kidnapping of a neighbour girl in conditioned paralysis, until he can’t. My favourite story is “Tenth of December” in which a boy lost in a fantasy world in rural New England, comes upon the trail of an older man, dying of a brain tumour, who has decided to commit suicide by freezing to death. In the ensuing and hilarious chase as the boy tries to catch up and save the would-be suicide, a sudden turn of events proves heart-stopping and redemptive.

Saunders’ stories, published in New Yorker and the Atlantic between 2000 and 2011, deal with contemporary situations, including returning veterans, who have lost their families and their way. They deal with the hollowing out of the middle class and the on-going economic downturn. They satirize parents who try, despite their reduced circumstances, to give their children nothing but the best. “Victory Lap” takes aim at health food nuts and ecological freaks who attempt to stunt empathy. “Puppy” is a darker look at the gap between the well-to-do and the poor. Suicide crops up in 2 other stories, which do not have such positive outcomes as “Tenth of December”. Yet, in one case, it represents a moral victory and “Tenth of December” seems like a reminder that life, with all its pain and despair, is worth living intensely right up to the last second.