Saturday, November 7, 2009

Hiding under the Bed or in the Closet: Humor as an Explosive Survival Technique

If we were to be asked which type of story we preferred above all others, many of us would want to equivocate with some variation on the theme of, It all depends. All depends what kind of mood I'm in. All depends what has been going on (or not going on) in my external life. All depends what kinds of dreams I've been having or, conversely, what kind of dreams I've not been having.

Makes sense, doesn't it, because even as individuals, there is a resident we, the equivalent of a closely packed apartment building in which a chorus of neighbors are clamoring for differing things. To put it yet another way, an apartment building as metaphor in which the neighbors all but one are listening to differing television programs, the one exception wanting the silence in which to write or play a musical instrument.

Your own answer might well be a mystery because such stories represent a breech in the civil and or professional order. Some recognized crime against some recognized person has been committed; something has been taken. Justice or, if you will, restitution is called for, and along with it, the question emerges: What will it take to satisfy the reader that justice is done or restitution is made or redemption experienced.

Perhaps your own approach to story has its origin in the early belief you had where redemption meant taking a once-filled bottle back to a market, whence you claimed a five-cent redemption. At a particular age, nine or ten or eleven, you were aware of adults who regarded you as incredibly naive for this vision of redemption; they spoke to you at some length of having something other than a bottle you presented for a redemption of greater value than five cents.

But thus you strode into life, pursuing a relationship with religion and philosophy in much the same way you pursued a series of attractions in the form of girls of about your age and, of course, of the even more unreachable pursuits of older, seemingly more sophisticated girls who made your contemporaries seem as ordinary as the parts of yourself you recognized as ordinary.

So right off the bat, you wanted experiences and knowledge that was out of your own vision of ordinary. Welcome to the club, the sandbox on the other side of the schoolyard, where the older kids played.

All our attitudes and expectations contribute to forming the kinds of stories we want to hear, like to hear, dread to hear. These last are the ones we need to spend more time considering because they will lead us through our discomfort to face the biggest dragons and monsters resident in this apartment building we call the psyche.

One of your own discomforting story lines involves a character of either sex who has become used to something that produces if not outright pleasure then awareness of understanding and inner stature. That something is altered. If it is a person, the person dies, loses interest, becomes interested in something else, becomes arrested in a consuming distraction. The Act Three of such a story is what the bereft individual does next. So you see, a happy outcome is possible; so too is a better outcome or a different outcome. All is not 1984 or anything resembling it, although the result can be Kafkaesque.  One example of such a story, with not such a happy ending, is Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon, one of your early reasons for caring so much for science fiction.  Another is Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.

You have been aware for some time that Camus had the greatest effect on you not from his novel but from his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," because of his observation that Sisyphus, doomed to an eternity of a a mindless, purposeless task, had found a way to address it that made him happy.  Compare and contrast that with your mother, who encouraged you to write happy stories as opposed  to ones in which characters had to settle for less than what they had sought.  You did not feel nor think of yourself as a dark writer; even your noirish landscapes produced crops, but you also recall early incidents in your life, before you were able to read with any great ability, when your mother told you of the so-called classics, her version of Moby-Dick being that of a huge white whale that went about the world, doing good, and of The Odyssey in which a salesman became lost at sea and spent seven years trying to find his way back home to his wife and son.  Later, when you were in your thirties and you discussed such things with her, she freely admitted altering the endings of the classics because at the time she wanted you to see how possible it was for stories to convey happy outcomes.  Far from having felt cheated or led astray, you were grateful to have your dramatic genome so generously composed; you look now not with suspicion at the happy story, alert for the lover hiding under the bed or the robber in the closet, you look for negotiated settlements with despair and noir in which, however grim the landscape, there may be some jester lurking, some unanticipated Monty Python, or even a farcical jack-in-the-box, ready to spring from the gloom to produce the punch of laughter and awareness we need to continue the journey of survival.

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