Humor keeps us sane (sort of) during bad times, especially in fiction

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“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

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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.






Author looks at Congress and a slaughterhouse through satirical lens

Marietta Rodgers
Marietta Rodgers

Today’s guest is Marietta Rodgers, author of The Bill (Second Wind Publishing, January 6, 2015). In the novel, Representative Joe Herkieze is trying to get his Hunger Relief Act passed and teenager Hope Price has taken a summer job in a slaughterhouse looking for enlightenment. This juxtaposition screams dark humor and satire.

Malcolm: Your novel The Bill is a political satire. Did you select this genre because you tend to view the world through a satirical lens or because satire seemed like a fitting approach to a story about a Congressman?

Marietta:  I do view things through a satirical lens sometimes, but the lens are more like reading glasses, where I wear them as needed as opposed to all the time. Satire is a good tool for highlighting flaws or short-comings, but it is also a way to goad individuals, groups and governments into improvement, by juxtaposing reality with absurdity and not having a giant chasm in between. The misnomer is that satirists are pessimists, or even misanthropes, but usually it is just a way to unlock human potential.

Malcolm: Did you have to do a considerable amount of research to write about the process a Representative follows to write, promote and get a bill passed?

thebillMarietta: I did research the process of a bill from the time of its inception to its fruition, because it isn’t as straightforward as people might think. These bills can get watered down or so bogged down in a committee, that they never see the light of day.  It’s good that we have checks and balances, but unfortunately what we have currently, is nothing more than obstructionism, that has little or nothing to do with the bill themselves, but more to do with party lines.

Malcolm: Obstructionism is bad for the country but good for satirists. Your book also features a slaughterhouse whose foreman is aptly named Piggy. I must confess, I haven’t read anything about a slaughterhouse since I read Upton Sinclair’s muckraking book The Jungle in school. How did you happen to select this industry for your novel, and how did you learn enough about a slaughterhouse to write about it?

Marietta: I did have to do research on slaughterhouse practices, because I too read The Jungle and thought I would be working away from that, but people would be surprised to note that some of the horrifying practices that took place then still occur. John Lennon famously said, “If a slaughterhouse had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians.” I think that is definitely true.

Malcolm: I understand George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is among the books that have influenced you. Is it partly responsible for your choosing satire as a genre and possibly for naming a slaughterhouse foreman “Piggy”?

animalfarmMarietta:  I wrote, The Bill as a satire, because it just felt natural. George Orwell could have written, Animal Farm (I’m sure he would have titled it something else) as a straight forward tale, without the use of satire, or the metaphorical use of animals to convey his dismay over Stalinism, but it would have been a halfhearted jab, as opposed to the knock out punch it delivered instead. It would have definitely lost a lot of bite in the telling. The slaughterhouse foreman’s nickname is Piggy, which was given to him by the other workers. I chose that name for him, because he is the head of an entire slaughterhouse machine, which slaughters not only pigs, but really human dignity as well.

Malcolm: Do you have a new satirical novel in the works or have you shifted your focus for your next book?

Marietta: I wrote a novel called, Loony Bin Incorporated, which is a satire of big business. It is tentatively scheduled to be available for sale, June 1, 2015. This was another novel, that I felt was better told as a satire. It employs a lot more lighthearted humor than, The Bill though. Currently, I have shifted my focus to writing short stories, that each revolve around the lives of tenants in a particular building in New York City.

Malcolm: What did I forget to ask you?

Marietta: “Vanity Fair” does the Proust Questionnaire, based on the famous questionnaire of the French writer, Marcel Proust. One of the questions they ask authors that I like is, what is your current state of mind? The answer: always a chaotic preoccupation of ideas.

Malcolm: I’ve found that chaos is often a writer’s best friend. Thanks for dropping by the Round Table today to talk about The Bill and the ways and means of satire.

thebillYou can read more about Marietta Rodgers at “Pat Bertram Introduces” and her Second Wind Publishing author’s page. The Bill is available in paperback and e-book.