Seeing The Funny Side

I’ve just read two of the funniest memoirs ever, and both have left me with some serious reflections as to the place of humour in our lives. The first was Shirley Jackson’s hilarious account of bringing up a family entitled Life Among The Savages. I’ve never read any of Jackson’s other work, although I did know that she wrote gothic horror novels but in a way that put her on the classics shelf rather than in the genre section. Well, Life Among The Savages is simply one long, uninterrupted hoot from the start, when Jackson, her husband and their two small children move out of New York and into a gloriously eccentric house in deepest Vermont, right until the finish, when Jackson brings her fourth baby home to greet the household (after her husband and eldest son have been surreptitiously running a book on when she’ll finally have it).

There is nothing in here that the average wife and mother won’t recognize from the daily struggle with chaos, from philosophical musings on the mentality of motherhood: ‘I realized how thoroughly the housekeeping mind falls into the list pattern, how basically the idea of a series of items, following one another docilely, forms the only possible reasonable approach to life if you have to live it with a home and a husband and a children, none of whom would dream of following one another docilely’; to the impossibility of getting children through breakfast and out to school with any semblance of order; to keeping household help (one particularly nice girl she traces via her parole officer to the local jail when she fails to turn up one morning); to the living nightmare that is a family shopping expedition, particularly when one daughter has seven imaginary friends who all have to come along. What makes this so delightful is Jackson’s turn of phrase. The line ‘Now, I have nothing against the public school system as it is presently organized, once you allow the humor of its basic assumption about how it is possible to teach things to children’ had me laughing out loud. And the great comic set pieces are just a treat.

What Jackson does so brilliantly is to capture the surrealism of family life with its impossible combination of adults forced to explain and impose standards of behaviour that collapse into ludicrousness under the stern eye and wild logic of your average four-year-old. The result is that usual family compromise that looks like madness and indulgence to grown up people who have no children, and parents who have forgotten the tragi-comedy of those early years. Jackson also has a wonderful ear for the eccentricity of child talk, its odd, borrowed adultness, its surreality, its gorgeous self-obsession. Her husband is equally well-drawn, a man who is trying to maintain a steady grip on his own personal requirements, despite everything that happens around him. There’s a beautiful anecdote in which Jackson’s three children fall in love with a big empty box that arrives at the house. After each child has hidden in it and pretended to be a present (which Jackson declares must be sent back to the shop), the children rush off and after much whispered consultation, Jackson hears her husband say ‘All right, but just once’. This time, however, when the children burst into the kitchen to collect her, they get distracted by the appearance of the dinner she is preparing and it’s only when Daddy can’t be found to come to the table that her son recalls he had something to tell her about him, if only he could remember what it was.

Anyway, I was cheerfully reading this book and thinking, fantastic, here’s a prime example of a creative mother, bringing up four children, managing splendidly to attend to her literary life and her maternal duties. Believe you me, I am thin on the ground where healthy, happy, creative mothers are concerned. I had little subheadings running through my head along the lines of: is humour the key to family life? So I looked up Shirley Jackson on wikipedia and who’d a thunk it? It turns out she was a woman who suffered from neuroses and psychosomatic illnesses and got herself into an early grave with a combination of prescription pills and heavy smoking. What shocked me was that you would never guess this in a million years from the tone of her memoir; it’s purely, evenly comic throughout. It’s so even in tone that I had to put it down from time to time, to let reality intervene. But the reality of Jackson’s character to one side, I would thoroughly recommend this book – it’s like Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, only with fewer animals.

Then I read another memoir, equally funny, equally uniform in tone, and yet deeply, profoundly disturbing. This book is a recent release, Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher. Fisher is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, a marriage that didn’t last long before Fisher ran off with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher grew up on tour with her mother, and shot to stardom at the age of nineteen by playing the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars (a film that clearly did nothing to aid her sanity). She also married the extremely well-known singer-songwriter, Paul Simon and had her first novel made into a movie before she was thirty. She is careful at all times to tell us that she therefore had nothing to complain about as far as her early life was concerned; she was brought up in luxury, with iconic parents, a talented, creative woman who found personal fame with rapidity and ease. And yet nothing, nothing was normal or orthodox in her life. If you’ve ever believed that this kind of Hollywood existence is something to aspire to, read this book. Within five pages it becomes apparent that it cocoons its victims in the strangest fantasies, desires and insecurities. Fisher claims it wasn’t due to her unusual childhood that she ended up an alcoholic and a drug addict with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome (that was after her gay friend died of an accidental overdose in her bed, but that’s another story), but the crazy unreality of her life just screams off the pages, even if it takes the form of witty, deadpan humour with probably the best use of the ironic exclamation mark ever.

Here, for instance, is how she got into drugs: ‘The first time I did drugs was when I ws thirteen. Before we lost all our money, my family had a vacation house in Palm Springs, about two hours outside of Beverley Hills where I ostensibly grew up. So periodically my mother used to rent that house in Palm Springs to these people who, after one of their stays, left behind a bag of marijuana. Who knows? Maybe they left it intentionally, a kind of chemical sacrifice on the altar of appreciation for their time there. Anyway, after my mother found the pot, she came to me and said, “Dear, I thought instead of you going outside and smoking pot where you might get caught and get in trouble – I thought you and I might experiment with it together.” Well, frankly at the time, and let’s face it – even now – I couldn’t imagine anything weirder. But what actually came to pass was that after presenting this bizarre, albeit marginally appealing proposal, my mother got swept back up in the whirlwind of her life and promptly forgot about it. But being the crafty, eager-for-the-altered-state person I was destined to become, I absolutely did not.’ I came to the conclusion that you could read the memoir in two voices; the first is perky and upbeat and distanced, the second is slurred and weepy and cynical, and might be accompanied by the sound of a whisky chaser being slung into a shot glass. Of course this fits right in with Fisher’s bipolar disorder, the seamless transition from a monstrous high to a monstrous low: ‘when you’re manic, every urge is like an edict from the Vatican. No plan is a bad one, because if you’re there and you’re doing it, it can’t be bad. It’s like a bank error in your favour. Mania is, in effect, liquid confidence… when the tide comes in, it’s all good. But when the tide goes out the mood that cannot and should not be named comes over you and into you. Because to name it would be an act of summoning.’

By the end of the book, Fishers voice sounded to me like the funniest, most dangerous, most damaged voice I had ever read. Every time she has a little insight, like the one above, it strikes her as too serious, and she rushes off into the realms of surreal fantasy or the cheap joke. It’s a memoir, sure, but a patchy, fragmented, odd one, that chooses a punchline over an explanation every time. It’s good, but in a worrying way. And all of this led me to wonder about the use and abuse of humour. Is being funny on the side of the angels or the demons of our minds? Do we use it to transcend what’s almost unbearable, or do we use it to disguise and distort the things we really ought to deal with? Do we slather it over our worst moments to make ourselves feel better, or to make others feel better about us? I don’t have any answers, but it was curious that two consistently amusing books should make me question just how healthy it is to look on the bright side of life.

26 thoughts on “Seeing The Funny Side

  1. What an interesting review and what interesting questions. The first book sounded delightful right up till the time it turned out that the author’s real life and presented life were discordant. And that brings up a whole other question, which is in memoir, ostensibly non-fiction, how much does the work stand apart from the author? I think humour is a tool and like any tool it can be used in a lot of different ways, both positive and negative. And not simply either. A racist joke obviously hurts and perpetuates stereotypes. But how many comedians from immigrant and marginalized groups have told stories that play on stereotypes and in doing so make us laugh at ourselves with some wryness?

  2. I come from an enormous family (35 first cousins), and having a lot of relatives ups your odds that somebody in the family will get sick or injured. In 2005 it felt like we were spending more time in ICUs and hospital bedrooms than out of them. And it seems to me that at times, humor was the only way we could confront the stuff that was happening at all. I think making jokes can give you a certain amount of distance, which is desperately needed when your circumstances become too difficult to hold close to you. I think humor is more likely to be damaging when you use it to deflect (which it sounds like Carrie Fisher is doing), than when you use it to give yourself distance. Deflecting shifts the focus elsewhere; distancing can help you snap things into focus. If that makes sense.

    On a lighter note, I’m thrilled you liked Life Among the Savages – I just ordered it online, experienced immediate buyer’s remorse, and was trying to decide whether to cancel my order. But it sounds great! 🙂

  3. I’ve been meaning to read the Jackson for years, because I’ve been told it’s very, very funny — hard for me to believe, given the novels of hers I’ve read. I did know, however, that she had all kinds of psychological problems and died young. The Fisher I hadn’t heard about, but it sounds good, too. I’ve been questioning humor the way you do here for some time now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t really the “bright side.” As a matter of fact, it seems some of the funniest people I know are also some of the darkest and that humor often is a crutch that keeps others at bay. In other words, make others laugh, and you don’t really have to talk about yourself or hear too much about them or get too close to them at all, if you don’t want that. However, I certainly hope that it doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with psychological disturbance. Otherwise, given what I write, I’m in BIG trouble.

  4. Life Among the Savages is delightful. I read it a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much. I also read the follow-up, Raising Demons, and after reading it, I wasn’t too surprised to hear of some of Jackson’s struggles. In Raising Demons, Jackson didn’t seem nearly so well able to merrily muddle her way through one crisis after another.

    I haven’t read Wishful Drinking, but I saw the one-woman stage production of it last year. Upbeat but cynical is a perfect description of her voice. I’ve wondered how it would work in print because her actual voice was, for me, a central part of the experience. It sounds like the print version captures her tone pretty well.

    I never would have thought to pair these two books, but I can see how they show what humor can do to mitigate pain. Now that I think about it, maybe Fisher’s approach is healthier than Jackson’s because at least she’s not hiding the painful experiences. Jackson is perhaps using the humor as a mask to hide the pain entirely.

  5. Both of these books sound fascinating. Memoirs that leave out such huge parts of the writer’s life as Jackson’s does are particularly interesting because you can’t help but wonder what’s going on in the writer’s mind — how much self-delusion or desire to delude the reader is there? Books like this make me wonder why people publish memoirs at all, because they are inevitably revealing in ways the author couldn’t have anticipated — and who wants to take that risk? Okay, maybe lots of people, but not me!

  6. I loved that quote on mania – so much so that I want to print it out and post it on my board. What interesting memoirs – I think the first one is more interesting for being so different from reality. I also think, as Jenny says, that humour can give us some healthy distance but when it’s distancing ourselves from ourselves for the benefit of others, then surely it’s damaging. In my reading on aggression, there’s a lot of overlap between humour and aggression. Stand-up comedians talk about “killing” their audiences. Perhaps for Carrie Fisher, she’s overly focused on performing for others. I’m sure you must talk (in your book) about how both motherhood and creativity can be about pleasing others rather than oneself. Of course there’s a big difference though. Anyway, love your work 😉

  7. This is from Doctordi, who’s been having a nightmare commenting. Do let me know if anyone else is having problems!

    Litlove, how unbearably sad that you’re finding ‘healthy, happy, creative mothers thin on the ground – really? How bloody awful. And of course every time I read something like that, I shrink away from the idea of being a mother one day myself. It’s not exactly selling it to me when you put it like that!

    On humour… I just think it’s one of the most complicated facets of all human communication. I think what’s funny, who’s funny and why is so deeply complex, and very often not at all, as Emily points out, about the bright side of life. It’s so interesting to me that humour is often associated with lightness and frivolity and a kind of superficial preoccupation with getting laughs – none of which speaks to its other highly sophisticated and elusive features.

  8. I’ve read a couple of Jackson’s novels and loved them and knew about the memoir but didn’t feel so compelled to attend to it. Now you’ve gone and made me really want to read it! I’ve seen it at the used bookstore a few times and no doubt next time I see it there it will be coming home with me. I like Carrie Fisher very much. Postcards from the Edge was a good book and a decent movie. She gives the appearance of someone who has it all together after a really rough patch, but from what you said about the memoir, I have to wonder. As for humor, I think it can be lighthearted and genuinely fun, but too often I think it comes from a place of “if I don’t laugh I’m going to cry.”

  9. Tragedy or loss or some other keenly felt sadness is usually at the heart of humor. Humor is the tool the soul uses to lift up what might otherwise be too heavy to bear.

  10. I must read Jackson’s book. She was probably one of the first writers to ever really scare me, because The Lottery was required reading when I was around 12 or 13, and the people in that story scared me to death! I’d love to read her take on family life! And Carrie Fisher is really, really funny. I saw her one-woman show based on Wishful Drinking and it was one of the funniest evenings of theater I’ve ever seen. In the book, does she draw the chart about how she’s “related” to all these crazy people in Hollywood through her parents’ shenanigans? Anyway, you describe her voice quite well–funny, damaged and dangerous. I’ll have to get this book too!

  11. This is such an insightful post and brilliantly coalesced from the two books. It shows, of course, how difficult the truth is for human beings, so often embroiled in producing what they perceive as a self to present to the world. Sometimes I wonder how one’s true self, whatever that is, survives at all or if we are all constructs. See, I should never have let you lead me into theory – only joking (maybe, perhaps, who knows?. It always struck me how many comedians of all types were really neurotics underneath, whether Lenny Bruce, Kenneth Williams, even Les Dawson. Next time I meet a wisecracker I shall now be wondering what lies beneath.

  12. I think it is almost universally true that the funniest people are the most disturbed people. I don’t know anyone who is happy and well-adjusted and also funny. Now, I do know well-adjusted happy people who have fine senses of humor … but they are not, themselves, funny. They appreciate humor, and they laugh heartily and well. But great comedy is a twisted desperate perceptual escape, and it takes a certain kind of mind to produce something like that.

  13. (And David would know… !)

    Grad, you put that very well. And it always takes me three attempts to post on your blog too – but I think that’s just the way yours is set up. I’ve never had trouble here in the Reading Room before, Litlove… so let’s see what happens now…

  14. I’ve never really thought of funny people as necessarily happy or well-adjusted. This may not be the right place to quote ‘Friends’, but I’ll always remember one of Phoebe’s boyfriends saying about Chandler “He’s really funny. I wouldn’t want to be there when the laughter stops.” Having said that, I definitely use humour when writing about aspects of my life which are difficult to acknowledge. Once I’ve discovered some humour in a situation, I feel it has a lot less power over me.

  15. After reading Ou on va, Papa by Jean-Louis Fournier I am forever convinced of the dark side to any humorous memoir, in fact, that book had me wondering whether humor is almost always a way to speak about rage and fear without giving in to those more dangerous emotions.
    Aside from that, as motherhood looms in my world, I think I will enjoy the Jackson memoir! Added to the list!

  16. I could certainly use some humorous reading about now…these sound like just the ticket.

    How interesting, that Shirley Jackson was able to write so humorously about life, while suffereing so deeply inside. Was the humor a facade or a tool for making it through the day? Knowing her “real story” in advance would lend a cetain pathos to reading that book, wouldn’t it?

  17. No, I did not get my comment above out of a fortune cookie, but reading it over sounds like I did. I’ve probably been eating too much Chinese food.:>

  18. I got “Savages” from the Scholastic Book Service when I was in school; they’d sell us books in our reading class. I loved it back then but, like you, it’s so incongruous for me to know she also wrote horror. Although mayhap raising kids isn’t all that different from the horror genre …

    Thanks for the reminder, I’m going to go dig it out now.

  19. The Jackson book is on the shelves at the library where I work and I have several times now picked it up and considered reading it. Her gothic novels are excellent (if you ever decide to read them)–maybe the inspiration came partly from the darker side of her personality? However, there is still a thread of humor in her gothic work, too.

  20. This was thought provoking and I have been thinking about it for awhile. One of my favourite Gramsci quotes is “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will” and I think it expresses some of why I respectfully disagree with your conclusion, dear Litlove. There’s an enormous overwhelming amount of pain and suffering in the world and often it takes a huge effort to see the good in it. But, quite honestly, I think my determination to focus on the bright side and to find humor in life, has thus far done a lot to save me from the alcoholism, addiction and clinical depression that is absolutely rife in my extended family. Maybe it’s unhealthy but I think the alternative is far unhealthier

  21. I am a huge fan of both Jackson memoirs, and I’m not sure I agree with Teresa that Raising Demons reveals a less-cheery side. They both seem wonderfully comic to me, and in fact not at all at odds with her other work — there is, as Danielle said, odd humor in her novels and short stories, as well.

  22. Pingback: Always Look on the Bright Side « Make Tea Not War

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