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Comedy: A Tragedy
Well, there goes another Guggenheim.
I am starting a new novel. And so, as is my usual process, I sit down at my table at Panera Bread, wonder what sticky shit I just sat in, crack my knuckles, and say what I always say when I start a new novel:
"This is it. This is the big one."
This is the serious one.
This is the award winner.
This is the tome.
It will, of course, be a tragedy. I don’t want some goddamned humor award. Characters are going to die. Mothers, babies, babies still inside their mothers. There will be diseases, heartbreak, pestilence, hunger, sorrow, failure. All that good stuff.
"What's it about?" you ask.
It's about six-hundred pages.
Ha ha ha ha.
Make it seven hundred.
I'm going to out-Foster Wallace Foster Wallace. I'm going to out-Joyce Joyce.
Length and girth determined (let's make it an even thousand, with deckled edge pages, and a map in the front, the old kind, with drawings of tall ships on it, and a family tree if I can figure out how to make one in Word), I take out my old Smith-Corona (I don't use a Smith-Corona), and light up a cigarette (I don't smoke), throw back some whiskey (I'm not a big drinker) and say to myself, "It is time to get serious."
Then, I fail.
So let's talk “Serious.”
Because everything is serious and everything is tragic and everything sucks.
I was raised in a strict religious family, in a strict religious town named Monsey. It was a town of ultra-Orthodox Jews. You may remember Monsey from the early days of Covid, when the ultra-Orthodox there refused to social distance or wear masks. Then they got Covid. Then they died. It's okay, the hepatitis would have gotten them eventually anyway.
In Monsey, God was real. God was present. God was a dick. This was God:
We don’t know much about God, but we know he hates laughter. He hates laughter as much as he hates pigs, and he really hates pigs. Sarah laughed (Genesis 18:12) and he made her barren. Tough room. God isn't fucking around. God is Very Serious, and so God's followers are Very Serious, too. When I was young, me and my friends traded Gedolim Cards, which are like baseball cards but with ultra-Orthodox rabbis (Gedolim is Hebrew for "Great Ones"). Here's one:
His name is Rabbi Kanievsky. Here's another:
His name is Rabbi Elyashiv. Here's another:
His name is Rabbi Abuhatzeria.
We traded them, we hung them on our walls.
"I'll give you two Kanievsky's for a Abuhhatzeria."
"Are you crazy? I have, like, a hundred Kanievsky's."
Their writings were as grim as their countenances. Life was a test, filled with tragedy and misery and suffering, all of which you probably deserved. Books were downers. We didn't study English literature, of course, and the photos of the secular Great Ones didn't make me want to. Here's one:
His name is Fyodor Dostoevsky. Here’s another:
His name is Leo Tolstoy. Here’s another:
His name is Ivan Turgenev. Just kidding. That’s Rashi, another rabbi. But you get my point.
I wanted nothing to do with books, or with writing, until one day, killing time in Manhattan while waiting for a bus back to Monsey, I stepped into an old used bookstore and asked the bookseller, "What's funny?"
I wish I knew his name, because he saved my life.
He led me down a crowded aisle of towering, overfilled bookshelves and handed me a book called The Metamorphosis and other Stories, by someone named Franz Kafka. This was the picture of him on the back of the book:
Uh-oh, I thought. Put a hat and fake beard on him, and he could be a young Kanievsky.
"He doesn't look funny," I said.
"Just read it," said the bookseller.
I paid him $5 and read the titular story on the bus home. It was a story about a man named Gregor who turns into a bug. His asshole family is more annoyed by his change than they are concerned for his well-being. His father kills him with an apple. They live happily ever after.
It was the funniest thing I had ever read.
I knew Gregor. I knew Franz. Deeply, personally, instantly. I knew their pain and their loneliness. But this Kafka guy was laughing at it all, and the laughter felt strong, defiant. He wasn't denying anything, wasn't sugar-coating anything, wasn't avoiding anything - but he wasn't succumbing to it, either (it didn't surprise me later to learn that he would read his story The Trial to his friends in their favorite bar, and crack up laughing as he did). I read everything by him I could find, and when I was done, I asked the bookseller what else was funny and he handed me a play called Waiting for Godot, by someone named Samuel Beckett. This was the photo of him on the back of the book:
Uh-oh, I thought.
"Just read it," said the bookseller.
Two tramps wait for a man who doesn't show up. They keep waiting. He doesn't show up. They decide to kill themselves. One takes off his belt in order to hang himself with it from the tree. His pants fall down. Curtain.
It was the funniest thing I had ever read.
Life, death, God, meaning, salvation, hope – it was all in there, but this Beckett guy wasn't surrendering to life. He was poking it in the chest and laughing.
This, I decided, was writing. This was books. This was a way through life. This, maybe, was something I could do too.
Bookstores became my home. They were radical. They were outrageous, rebellious, punk. I was a yeshiva student listening to The Beastie Boys and Run DMC, watching Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, and reading Beckett and Flannery O'Connor and Twain and Vonnegut, dark laughers and rebels all, a club of the resolutely non-tragic.
That was a while ago. Laughter today is paradoxically deemed both foolish and dangerous, something to be ignored and something to be shut down. Perhaps it has always been that way, and perhaps that is its strength.
I'm not sure what the allure of the serious and tragic is. I'm not immune to it myself. Here's the author photo from my first book of short stories, Beware of God:
Jesus Christ. I look like I was just told about the Holocaust. For the first time.
"How many million?"
(This for a book with stories about depressed chimps, guilt-ridden dogs and Charlie Brown struggling with fundamentalist religion.)
In Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne calls gravity "that well-worn cloak of ignorance." I’m sure that for many readers, gravity and tragedy is cathartic. Maybe I just overdosed on it all as a kid, with my stern father and stern God and photos of stern rabbis pinned to my bedroom wall. Maybe when we talk about “our voice,” what we’re talking about is the stance we each need to take towards life in order to survive it. To me there's something selfish in the tragic worldview, something that feels like a crab pulling other crabs into their miserable bucket. Worse, there's something about tragedy that feels like resignation, like surrender. Like giving up. But comedy defies. Comedy survives. Comedy overcomes.
And what I hear most around me these days - in friends, in books, online, in Panera Bread - is resignation. Surrender. Giving up.
Beckett was an admirer of Abbot and Costello. He wrote Godot as a gift to himself, as a break from his Very Serious novels which were getting him down. Later, after watching a particularly maudlin German production of that play, he penned an angry note to the producer: "My work," he wrote, "is not meant to be ponderous." And so the photos of him always bothered me. So grim, so sullen. It was as if the Serious wanted him to be so, despite the humor in his writings. It was only after the rise of the internet that I stumbled on this photo, a photo I had never seen before, a photo unlike all the photos of him used on his countless books and plays:
And this is what I thought:
I fucking knew it.
For a long time, that photo was my desktop image. I still keep it close. And when I start a new book, and I decide This one is going to be the serious one, and I fail because I have no interest in it beyond the fleeting respect it might bring me, I pull out this photo, and I save it to my desktop, and get back to my work of poking life in the chest and laughing, respect or not.
Yours in the fetal position,
Is That Kafka?, by Reiner Stach, dispels many of the myths of the miserable Kafka – he worked out, he played sports, he partied. He laughed.
Because I'm a foolish optimist, I tell myself that one day the true story of Beckett will be told, of the funny, darkly comic, whiskey-loving Irishman. I recently heard of a new biopic of him, written by and starring Gabriel Byrne.
This is Gabriel Byrne:
And this is Gabriel Byrne:
And this is Gabriel Byrne.