“It hadn’t occurred to me until I read them that antiwar novels could be funny as well as serious. “Catch-22” is crazy funny, slapstick funny. It sees war as insane and the desire to escape combat as the only sane position. Its tone of voice is deadpan farce. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is different. There is much comedy in it, as there was in everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote, but it does not see war as farcical. It sees war as a tragedy so great that perhaps only the mask of comedy allows one to look it in the eye. Vonnegut is a sad-faced comedian. If Heller was Charlie Chaplin, then Vonnegut was Buster Keaton. His predominant tone of voice is melancholy, the tone of voice of a man who has been present for a great horror and lived to tell the tale. The two books do, however, have this in common: they are both portraits of a world that has lost its mind, in which children are sent out to do men’s work and die.” – Salman Rushdie in What Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” Tells Us Now
I’ve been a fan, not only of Salman Rushdie, but of both Heller and Vonnegut, so I agree about the “funny” when it’s part of an otherwise grim work. Those of us who watched M*A*S*H as a movie or a TV series know the sharp knife humor can have in an otherwise serious work. One reader review of one of my Florida Folk Magic novels said that since I was writing about a grim subject, she saw no place for the humor I included. Needless to say, I didn’t respond, though I didn’t agree. Humor, I believe, not only helps keep us seen during insane times, but it introduces within a novel a strong and necessary counterpoint to the primary flow of horror and dread.
Perhaps, like the booze and jokes at a wake, humor–while it may contain a dash of denial–helps us cope with the worst of life. Perhaps it shows us that in the worst of times, we are still human. Or, perhaps it’s such a wild card that it shocks some sense and sensibility back into us when our lives and/or our world seem to have hit rock bottom. Heaven doesn’t need humor as much as hell needs humor.
Humor, it seems, can also show us the senseless reality of horrible things in a way that melodramatic prose cannot. In a way, satire and humor bring out the idiocy of events and views in a clearer way than a straight recitation of facts. Long ago, I learned that as a psychic/empath, I could most easily “read” a person by saying something humorous or otherwise unexpected during a conversation. Suddenly, as they try to figure out the comment, they become open and transparent. Yes, I know this isn’t a nice thing to do, but I never promised you I was a choir boy. Likewise, the unexpected humor (or farcical statement) can blast open a reader’s mind to the real truths in a grim novel. S/he sees, then, what s/he might otherwise miss.
Of all the novels I’ve read about war, I was probably more devastated by Johnny Got His Gun and All Quiet On The Western Front than any other fiction. Yet, they do no remain in my memory with the same power as Slaughter House Five and Catch 22. Why? Because they were a one-note samba of horror, unrelenting, and without a moment’s rest.
While the characters in war are likely to tell the worst possible jokes about their situation, the author isn’t there to poke fun at them but of the idiocy of their situation. So, authors risk the truth whenever they have an urge to turn the novel into an ongoing joke. The humor, like the devil, is in the details, the unexplainable moments, the orders from a bureaucracy far away, and the system itself.
Make the readers laugh. They may not thank you for it, but they will be stronger for it, long term.