ROFL: Reading On the Floor Laughing
Umberto Eco – Travels in Hyperreality
I recently came across an essay by Umberto Eco entitled Travels in Hyperreality from 1975. It is the fruit of Eco’s visit to America, a hyperreal land, as he claims, the hyperreality of which he sets out to grasp. Eco visits Disneyland—of course— but also historical and wax museums. He experiences the fastidiousness of the dioramas and clutteredness of Wunderkammern. He strolls through toy cities imitating real ones. Comes across Superman, Citizen Kane and a grizzly bear named Chester. Discusses the zeitgeist lurking in some of America’s most emblematic marketing slogans. He even ponders the question of an evolutionary retrogression of sheep breeding. The itinerary of his quest after the ‘Absolute Fake’ may by eclectic, yet the resulting text is highly readable, paradoxically coherent and fantastically entertaining. Its humour is subtle and although it will not necessarily cause you to laugh out loud, it is sure to produce a resonant inner chuckle every page or so. Predominantly, though not exclusively, the text is permeated by an irony of a peculiar sort, achieved by Eco chiefly by spelling out things as they appear to be, by retelling them verbatim. He does not necessarily say things he does not mean—a traditional notion of irony—because, being where he was and seeing what he saw, there is no need. The world he visited already was ironic. All he has to do was simply point towards it, repeat what others had said or written and report on how they have arranged the world. What he achieves by means of this honest recounting is a revelation that, somehow, neither they nor that those very arrangements that constructed the world can possibly mean what they say. Oh, sweet irony!
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This is the third time I have written about this book for the Ark Review. Since I read the book, now over a year ago, I have not read anything that even approaches the depths of humor contained in The Sellout by Paul Beatty. And looking ahead at the pile of books I have too read, I cannot imagine reading a funnier one in the near future. This is because Beatty’s satire of American racism, and the consequences of the incoherent concept of race upon which it is built, is not content to either celebrate its rectitude or let any offender off the hook. Beatty is perfectly willing to “eviscerate”, as the click-bait parlance would have it, those, with the structural position to do so, who would demean the humanity of others on the feted grounds of white supremacy; but he understands and expresses the vacuity inherent to this evisceration. What good is simply laughing at those whose ignorance or hatred has allowed them to behave so vilely, if we miss that those who laugh are similarly culpable for this situation if only in a disavowed form. Beatty takes aim not only at racism, but at the seemingly benign liberalism that would have it discursively eliminated but materially intact: Those who would wax lyrical about the strengths of diversity but would balk at a school integration program that would actually realize it purported benefits if the school in question was their child’s. Deeper still, Beatty deconstructs the limitations placed upon the personhoods of those who are apparently committed to fighting racism, through the blind spots particular forms of struggle can create and the hypocrisies it can engender. And finally, he doesn’t let his narrator’s apathy go unexamined either. Indeed, our near-nameless narrator’s unwillingness to connect with this world of contradiction, oppression, and community, is presented as an understandable response that ultimately means that life goes unlived.
And while this may seem heavy, and it is; and while this may seem important, and it is; the speed, the density, the wit and the pathos of Beatty’s writing transforms it into an utter joy to read. It is one of those books that will have you irritating those closest to you as you feel the need to share the profound hilarity of what you have just read. And while they may grow tired of these interruptions, the novel will not allow you to let up. A weakness of a great deal of humor writing is that it limits itself to this task of simply making you laugh. Which is to say, it engenders a certain kind of surprise. This is something that can be achieved by a well-timed fart. Beatty wants to surprise you more deeply. As you read this book on the floor laughing, you are surprised by a way of seeing the world that you may not have even known existed, and yet spared from much of the discomfort that this can bring by feeling that he wants to include you in the joke.
Juno by Diablo Cody
First and foremost, my contribution to this listicle isn’t exactly a book — it’s a screenplay. So I’ll start by apologising to my fellow ark books volunteers for not only disobeying listicle instructions but also doing absolutely nothing to promote sales, (I’m sorry). But I felt compelled to shout out Diablo Cody’s “Juno” here for a number of reasons — first because it really did make me laugh out loud, and second because this felt like a good opportunity to vouch for reading screenplays in general. It might seem dull and quite pointless to go to the trouble of reading a text that only exists to serve the creation of something else — like reading a recipe in a cookbook instead of eating the meal. What I discovered upon digging into Cody’s “Juno”, however, is that screenplays contain secret delights of their own. Cody is known for her wacky sense of humour and, for lack of a better word, ‘quirky’ style, and “Juno” in particular is chock-full of zany eccentricity. My point is, the humour is not for everyone — it’s very American, and ‘random’ in a way that was perhaps more fashionable in the early 2000’s than today, where dark humour à la Yorgos Lanthimos reigns supreme. Having said this, if you enjoy Juno’s offbeat and kitschy teenage world of blue slushies and hamburger phones, I highly recommend giving the screenplay a read. It not only made me laugh all over again with its weird one-liners and character names (Rollo? Bleeker?), but the script is littered with hidden gems that don’t even make it onto the screen — strange little jokes lie embedded in the sluglines (“INT. BLEEKER HOUSE – MOLD-O’-RIFFIC BASEMENT – NIGHT”) and scene descriptions are written with an unexpectedly ironic tone (“The Dancing Elk Prep cross country team runs past Bleeker’s house in a thundering herd, wearing a motley assortment of warm-ups. Their momentum stirs the crackling fall leaves”). There’s also something wonderfully deadpan about reading set descriptions as opposed to seeing them — “PILE OF NEGLECTED CACTI” and “PUNK RECEPTIONIST” is somehow funny in a different way when written down. If you’re looking for something short n’ sweet to sugarcoat your winter blues, I recommend that you go check it out homeskillet.