In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes, which have nestled into my bookbag.
(Meanwhile longer works, like Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter and Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning, were left at home.)
Stephen Thomas’ The Jokes is not funny-haha, but funny-hmmm. It’s not meant to be funny-haha either, although many of the stories are designed to make readers think about other funny-haha moments (or make them reconsider what makes a story funny-haha in the first place).
Consider the beginning of “The ethicists”: “A deontological ethicist and a utilitarian are standing on the sidewalk of a bridge.”
Or, the opening of “Ethnic joke”: “A black girl and an Asian girl walk into an Italian restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama.”
They sound like jokes, but readers will be unlikely to laugh at either story (each less than a single page in length).
Then again, how many times has someone told you they had something funny to tell you, a joke which begins with a structure something like these stories, but you have not wanted to laugh at the end of it either.
In fact, how many times has someone told you a “joke” with just such a beginning and you have found yourself in the situation where you had to tell your own story afterwards, a story which explains to them not only why you don’t find that ‘joke’ funny, but now you have to outline the ways in which it is offensive, sometimes struggling to explain hundreds of years of history/oppression/tyranny with just as few sentences.
I’m not an Asian girl nor a black girl nor a utilitarian nor a deontological ethicist but neither am I humoured by these two jokes, these two stories — though neither am I offended! They are simply stories, told without names, but in such a way that readers realize the people do have names, they just aren’t relevant to the joke, er story (neither term feels quite accurate), and there is no punchline.
But sometimes there is. Other times, a story ends with more of a flatline. Occasionally, there is a flinchline. Once, there might have been a clothes-line, but he used a dryer instead. There was a strawline. And an outline. And, another time, a Logitech line.
Mostly, after I have read a few of Stephen Thomas’ stories, I can’t tell whether I am feeling nothing, or whether I am feeling so many things at once that it only feels like nothing. Because sometimes one feeling does dominate, but that feeling on its own doesn’t quite reflect the story either. I think it’s like Kizzy must feel when she looks up.
“Kizzy looks up at the network of geodesic trusses in the grocery store’s extremely high ceiling.
She realizes that the squandering of human potetial is not aberrant at all, but the norm.”
And Kizzy is going home with a bottle of wine.
(Actually, some of the characters clearly prefer beer, but otherwise, I would love to offer most of the others a glass of Kizzy’s wine. I hear it’s more economical to purchase liquor by the case. The ethicists would probably know. They seem the sort who have had a lot of late-night, liquor-fuelled philosophical debates.)
But at least one of the Shiny Metal Bunny characters almost made me smile. (Almost, but even the shiny metal bunny made me feel sad, at the same time.)
“In the morning, the shiny metal bunny rereads what they wrote the night before. There can be joy in life, and beautiful phases.”
On first reading, I thought that was “There can be joy in life, and beautiful phrases.”
And just for a moment, I was convinced that I understood everything that I needed to know about The Jokes.
But, that was just one shiny metal bunny’s story. And it was only two sentences long.
And the real story went more like this: Three shiny metal bunnies walked into a bar, and ….
*** *** ***
Last month, I read Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair, which nudged She of the Mountains into my bookbag.
In some ways, it appears to carry on the story, with “In the beginning, there is no he. There is no she.”
Identity is fluid and defies definition, yet presses for a sense of belonging. “He recognized that she and he could hold hands and kiss in most spaces and that landlords wouldn’t think twice about renting to them. But queer spoke to all the other places and moments his body and heart didn’t fit into.”
There are sections in the narrative for Parvati, Sati, Kali and Ganesha, and the mythic bonds and tendrils of love in old stories revisited echo in the narrator’s contemporary love story. “After years of hiding and being unseen, her touch was a deep thawing, a permission to feel, a memory of heat lost long ago.”
The illustrations by Raymond Biesinger are abstract and boldly coloured, one to herald the beginning of each segment, different fonts occasionally used to allow the text to play as much as the images do.
“And, yet, brown in and of itself, had not yet registered as a real colour to him. Brown was unremarkable, a non-colour, akin to a shade of grey. For he had been blinded by another colour: white. White expanded limitlessly and drained every other colour out until all that could be seen was.
This is not a linear or predictable love story, but it is infused with an open-heartedness which is refreshing and inspiring.
“Falling in love with her brown had unexpectedly given his own skin new value, a new sheen.”
What are you slipping into your bookbag this week?