Bringing the Funny

Bringing the Funny

Posted on May 30 by Mark Sampson in Fiction
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Being an author almost always means being a reader first. Before I set out on any new writing project — whether it’s the lengthy drudge of a novel, or the more abbreviated jaunt into a short story or poem — I become very cognizant of, and even go back and reread, major works written in a similar vein that came before.

For my first novel, Off Book, about an aspiring playwright drawn into a lucrative but soul-sucking job as a web developer in the 1990s, I turned to classics of the bildungsroman form like The Diviners by Margaret Laurence and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, as well as “office novels” like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs.

For my second work, Sad Peninsula, about an ESL teacher living in South Korea who learns about the violent legacy of that country’s “comfort women,” I reread a number of expat narratives by Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, and reflected back on historical novels with an Asian setting like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and Dennis Bock’s The Ash Garden. In each case, I found myself turning (or returning) to these works before making my own tentative steps toward a first draft.

While this was also the case with my new novel, The Slip, things were somewhat complicated by the fact that the work is essentially a comic novel. The story is about a University of Toronto philosophy professor and public intellectual named Philip Sharpe who makes some wildly inappropriate remarks to a female rival during a live televised debate, and the ensuing social media fallout drives a major wedge between him and his much younger, feminist wife, Grace. Philip’s public shaming, and his (painfully slow) realization of just how hurtful his behaviour has been, is played — at least I hope — for intense hilarity. But unlike other modes of fiction, funny writing feels inimitable and singular; and nothing can kill your taste for comedy faster than listening to someone trying to “theorize humour.”

Still, there were a number of authors of comic fiction that I kept turning back to as I planned out and framed Philip’s week from hell. These writers’ guidance had more to do with tone and timing (two essential elements to any funny story) than with specific tropes of the “literary — humorous” genre, and yet I still see their influence in nearly every scene of The Slip. Here they are in no particular order:

  • Anthony Burgess — a writer I keep returning to over and over again for inspiration and creative nourishment. While best known for his dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange, Burgess was ultimately a satirical and comic writer, the talent for which is on display in his masterful tetralogy about the rude and socially inept poet, F.X. Enderby. The Enderby novels paint a perfect portrait of someone suffering from what The Slip’s Philip self-refers to as “fuddyduddiness” and “outoftouchitude,” and Burgess was skilled enough to ensure that both his readers and his own authorial voice were in on the jokes. We also learn from Burgess’s creation just how funny a vocabulary of ten-dollar words can be, something I incorporate into Philip’s narration in The Slip. You may want to download a dictionary app on your phone before you crack its covers.
  • Kingsley Amis and Martin Amis — who are, despite being father and son and authors of comic satirical writing, two very different writers. While Kingsley’s later works (he died in 1995) are almost unreadable as he entrenched himself in a deep social conservatism, his early stuff is great. His breakout book from the 1950s, Lucky Jim, is the gold standard when it comes to humorous campus novels; and his other books, especially One Fat Englishman, are textbook examples of how to make readers root for an unsavoury protagonist. Kingsley’s son, Martin, has a far richer and more nuanced imagination, and his own masterpiece, Money, achieves an improbable feat: it provides the first-person narration of an antihero who has no idea what’s actually happening to him over the course of the story. The Slip, as you will see when you read it, benefitted greatly from Amis’s pioneering technique.
  • A.L. Kennedy — has written about lots of serious subjects, but for me she will always be the doyenne of Scottish humour. Her ironically named 2004 novel, Paradise, was like a revelation when I first read it nearly a decade ago. It’s basically a novel about alcoholism, and from it I’ve learned how a narrative can hold two opposing modalities — one sad and tragic, the other deeply hilarious — to its breast at once. Paradise also shows how heavy drinking can be an excellent trope in contributing to a narrator’s general obliviousness (we see this in Amis’s Money, too), and it’s a trope I use throughout The Slip as Philip quaffs glass after glass of an especially stiff cocktail called The Bloody Joseph.
  • P.G. Wodehouse — who is, for many readers and authors, the granddaddy of humorous writing. Wodehouse’s prodigious body of work starring the lovable wanker Bertie Wooster and his sagacious manservant, Jeeves, provided me with two important lessons when writing The Slip. The first was how to incorporate slapstick into a scene, and the second was how to turn humour into an agent of subversion. Arguably Wodehouse’s best book (arguable because it’s virtually impossible to read them all and keep them all straight), The Code of the Woosters has lots of physical comedy involving a filched cow creamer, but it also teaches us how to deal with and undermine a violent and fascist-loving bully, portrayed in the character of Roderick Spode. Mostly, Wodehouse’s fiction reminds us that even a scatterbrained twit can, in the end, still have a good heart — something I hope the readers of The Slip will keep in mind as the book reaches its own frenzied climax.

Mark Sampson

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014

Mark Sampson

Mark Sampson is the author of the novels Off Book, Sad Peninsula, and The Slip, as well as a short-story collection, The Secrets men Keep, and a poetry collection, Weathervane. He has published fiction and poetry in literary journals across Canada. Mark lives in Toronto.