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.

Mortality and Christopher Hitchens

In his recently released book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens tells the story of how British journalist John Diamond chronicled his battle with cancer in a weekly column. Hitchens confesses like many other readers, he quietly urged him on from week to week. He says,

But after a year and more…well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, 
miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No neither of those would work as endings.
Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this?- a stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end.
Hitchens’ own story was more elegantly structured. He told it in 7 essays published in Vanity Fair and now collected posthumously in this small book.

Mortality describes his initial collapse in a New York City hotel room during a tour in support of his latest book, Hitch 22, in early June 2010, saying of the emergency responders:

I had time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much backup equipment, but now I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle but firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.

He dislikes the use of the metaphor of battle, fight or struggle to describe what ensued after he was diagnosed with metastatic oesophageal cancer. He says

Myself I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of being a gravely endangered patient.

But sitting “while a venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.” And yet his dispatches from the Land of Malady are full of his customary wit and irony. His wife, Carol Blue, reports in the book’s Afterward that he wrote the jottings now collected as chapter 8 in bursts of energy and enthusiasm, his computer perched on the food tray of his hospital bed. He continued to hold court whenever he was hospitalized, “making a point or hitting a punchline for his “guests”, whom he treated like “participants in his Socratic discourses”. He had always been a great raconteur, as well as a bon vivant. He had an encyclopedic knowledge and a rapier-like intelligence. And he could hold his liquor. After an 8 hour dinner, he would rise to toast the assembled motley crowd with “a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry, limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause and jokes. ‘How good it is to be us’, he would say in his perfect voice.”

I started reading him in Vanity Fair, after many years of avoiding his work and like many others, I was immediately won over. I avoided him because he had betrayed me. For many years he had espoused causes dear to my heart, workers’ rights among them, what might be called leftwing views, but then after 9/11, he made a sharp turn right and supported the war in Iraq, believing the now disproved weapons-of-mass-destruction premise. Not to mention, he dissed Mother Teresa and rounded on Salman Rushdie, when Rushdie, under fatwa pressure, published “Why I have Embraced Islam”. I read the rebuttals that his friend Martin Amis wrote and imagined, in my innocence, that Amis was actually alienated from Hitchens. I was wrong. Amis remained his great friend, Rushdie was at Hitchens’ memorial and Mother Teresa – well that goes without saying.

Hitchens was a famous atheist, author of god is Not Great, and on his last Thanksgiving Day in November 2011, he was in my town, Toronto, debating his point of view with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Hitchens arranged Thanksgiving dinner for his family and friends here and by all accounts carried the day in the debate.

His reaction to the Christopher Hitchens Day of prayer on September 20, 2011 involved wondering exactly what was being prayed for – his survival, his redemption? He examined the nature of prayer -the importuning of an omnipotent being to suspend His laws of nature for personal benefit- and found the practice specious. He noted that certain religious zealots had pronounced that his illness was God’s punishment and in short order analyzed the ill-logic and cruelty of that by citing blameless children suffering from cancer. He said there would be no deathbed conversion and told of Voltaire being badgered as he was dying to renounce the devil, whereupon the great thinker replied, “that this was no time to be making enemies”.

The best gift that Hitchens gave me, besides many good laughs, was the realization that I can listen to a point of view I don’t agree with, indeed that I might find contrary and wrongheaded although, of course, he said much that I found true.

He concluded an essay on The Great Gatsby by saying, “It remains ‘the great’ because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism and finds the defeat unbearable and then turns to face the defeat unflinchingly”.  He died on December 15, 2011 at the age of 62. HIs unflinching voice goes on.