Survival of the Funniest

Researching Dawn Dumont, to review her most recent collection, Glass Beads, this quote leapt out at me:

“If you can laugh then you can survive until the solution arrives.” (Room Magazine, interview with Theressa Slind)

It’s easy to dismiss funny books as light, insubstantial. To call them diversions, and feel smug about choosing humourless narratives.

But humour is a powerful force, capable of changing minds and hearts.

Russell Smith even writes a funny article about how many Canadian writers and books are unfunny.

About the importance of remembering that funny doesn’t get the credit funny deserves.

“We are a serious nation, and we do not accept that sad can be funny and funny sad.”

Who says Canadian writers (indigenous writers, women writers, too) aren’t funny? Consider:

Holly Adams’ Things You’ve Inherited from Your Mother (2015)

Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last (2015)

Joey Comeau’s The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved (2015)

Cree/Metis writer Dawn Dumont’s Nobody Cries at Bingo (2011)

Terry Fallis’ No Relation (2013)

Doug Harris’ You Comma Idiot (2010)

Cree writer Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat (2008)

Shari Lapena’s Happiness Economics (2011)

Susan Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules (2015)

Corey Redekop’s Husk (2012)

Cherokee/Greek writer Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water (2000)

Is there always a punchline?

“Good question. Let’s examine the evidence. You haven’t left the house in a week, almost two, actually. You cook amazing meals all day, but you won’t eat more than a bite. You hate and fear birds, yet you have two of them living in your bedroom because — and really, here’s the punch line — you’re using them to send messages to the ghost of your dead brother.
What do you think?”
Stephanie Domet’s Homing (2007)

In Ali Bryan’s The Figgs, there aren’t any punchlines. It’s also not really a laugh-so-you-survive humour. More a laugh-so-you-thrive humour. The story of a family facing ordinary stresses.

Take, for instance, this dialogue between an adult daughter and her mother, about a time in the past when the daughter promised to pay her brother $200 to keep a secret.

“You wanna know why I only paid him fifty?”
“Because I covered for him that time you found weed in the car.”
“I don’t recall finding weed in the car.”
“Because I said it was lettuce.”
“Yes, and you were mad because you made that rule about no eating in the car.”
“That was weed?”
“You let it go because you were so proud I was eating salad.”
June sighed and hung up without saying goodbye.

The dialogue feels believable and the points at which it halts are realistic too. This is not a family in which members hesitate to hang up the phone or walk out of the room.

Things get awkward, too, whether that means having to get out of the car because you’ve not gotten close enough to the ticket machine or having to accept hasty decisions that family members make for their own convenience.

Several years ago, I heard Bonnie Burnard read from A Good House and she spoke about how many books were written about families that don’t work, families that splinter and do not endure. But she wanted to write about the families that did work, the people who stayed.

It’s easy to imagine that that’s the kind of story Ali Bryan is most interested in telling too. The kind of story that provokes the use of the word ‘heartwarming’. Maybe even ‘charming’.

Where there’s vomit, it smells like spaghetti AND rum. And where there’s an angsty daughter, she has a parakeet on her shoulder. Sometimes elements are predictable: hospital cafeterias smell like French fries and disinfectant. Other times, not so predictable: one day, a twentysomething is vaping and playing “Grand Theft Auto” and, the next, they’re buying a car seat.

But it’s important not to dig too deep into these characters, where the potential fracture could split and tell that other kind of story. So when there is pain in the story, it’s kept at a distance.

For instance, June is tremendously preoccupied with parenting her adult children, who have gotten taller but haven’t necessarily grown up. And she accepts the fallout from her children’s shortsighted decisions and keeps her eye on short-term solutions. But she keeps her own sorrows at a distance. Readers learn early on that she was adopted, and as long as she remains at a distance from this, readers do too.

“The words resounded in her mind. Another time. That’s when she was adopted. When underwear was mostly white and people had dress-coats and nice handwriting. And she was certain that babies from another time were conceived out of something akin to love and not one of some knuckle-sucking lust-driven Kardashian-waxed porn.”

What must have been painful is relegated to “another time”.

This is partly because other characters have more pressing familial concerns, which cause the boundaries of “family” to shift unexpectedly and dramatically, as one change sparks another.

“I’m tired of news,” June replied. “I don’t want there to be any more news for a long time.”

But it’s also partly because The Figgs is a snapshot of one period of time. The characters aren’t the brooding, reflective sort and the narrative is constructed from a series of detailed and dramatic scenes.

It’s always readable, consistently entertaining, and The Figgs stick together.

Have you read any of these?

“So all in all, I’d say your chances of victory have improved from ‘don’t make me laugh’ to ‘you  must be kidding’.”
Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans (2007)

Do you have a favourite funny novel or story collection?



  1. annelogan17 June 7, 2018 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    i totally agree with your review of the figgs.There were awkward moments, but that’s what made it so realistic! I could see myself doing so many of these things (like having to get out of the car because you parked so far away from the ticket machine) LOL

    • Buried In Print June 7, 2018 at 4:51 pm - Reply

      You could see yourself doing them? Oh, my, I can’t count how many times I have had to get out of the car for that *&$^$@( ticket. However, the rate of incidence has decreased since we no longer have a car. My subway-awkwardness is negligible.

  2. Wendy May 30, 2018 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    Hi I have not read any of these and I should include more humour or light hearted ness in my reading. I did find the Sister Brothers comical and years ago I surprisingly enjoyed the Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella (?) and I have one David Sedaris collection but that’s about it!

    • Buried In Print May 30, 2018 at 4:30 pm - Reply

      Right! The Sisters Brothers. What a great suggestion! (I loved it!) Last week’s interview, with Sedaris, on the New York Times Book Review podcast was quite curious: I haven’t read anything of his for awhile…

      • Wendy June 1, 2018 at 11:45 pm - Reply

        I’m going to check out that podcast – thanks

  3. Laila@BigReadingLife May 23, 2018 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    Right now I’m reading Elinor Lipman’s On Turpentine Lane and it’s a screwball romantic comedy. Have you read her before? She’s written a lot of books and they’re all light but not stupid or vapid. And they’re like Nora Ephron romantic comedies in book form. I hadn’t read one of her books in a while and I’m tempted to go back and reread the older ones. Such a nice contrast to much of the heavier reading I do!

    • Buried In Print May 23, 2018 at 7:27 pm - Reply

      I thought I had read one of hers (The Ladies Man?) but I didn’t record it in my log, so maybe I’m mistaken. Do you have a favourite? In the meantime, I’ll have a lookout for her in the paperback sections of the library (those lovely renewable finds, uncatalogued, free-for-alls) as well. Although On Turpentine Lane does sound fun! I’m not doing a great job of including more fun reads in 2018; I might have to make a more concerted effort amongst next year’s reading plans.

  4. Naomi May 20, 2018 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    The thing about The Figgs that I appreciated is that none of them are all that likeable, really, but put them together and I was routing for them all anyway. Which makes me wonder if any of us are likeable if others could hear every thought in our heads, as well as all the thoughts in our relatives’ heads of our faults and annoying habits?

    • Buried In Print May 22, 2018 at 11:48 am - Reply

      I know I just asked the same question elsewhere, but did you find them actually dislikeable or just not especially likeable. They all seemed just human to me. (Although sheesh, as you mentioned in your review – birth control shouldn’t be a revolutionary consideration at that age!) And I did want things to turn out for all of them. I remember a “Next Chapter” interview with Katrina Onstad about the characters in Everybody Has Everything and how she didn’t think that her characters were so abhorent (as some readers had pointed out) but they weren’t easy company for her as a writer either (it’s been ages – I’m probably only vaguely remembering at this point)! Somehow I imagine Ali Bryan’s time with the Figg family was largely enjoyable…

      • Naomi May 23, 2018 at 9:47 am - Reply

        No, I didn’t dislike them. In fact I think I liked them, even though I don’t find them overly likeable, if that makes any sense. I think I like that they’re flawed, imperfect, human. I like reading their thoughts and not feeling so bad about my own. 🙂

        • Buried In Print May 23, 2018 at 10:41 am - Reply

          Same here! Maybe some other readers will dislike them. I’m often surprised, scrolling through reviews on GoodReads, when readers rate a book a 2 or 3 because they dislike a character or the character’s decisions or choices: it makes me curious about those readers’ seemingly perfect lives.

  5. iliana May 17, 2018 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    I haven’t read any of these but I do enjoy a good, funny book. I think I tend to go to David Sedaris or Nick Hornby for some fun stories.

    • Buried In Print May 22, 2018 at 11:42 am - Reply

      I recommended “Holidays on Ice” to a co-worker once, for a fun listen when she was travelling for December holidays. Turns out that there are some people who do NOT get Sedaris’ humour. sigh And I didn’t work there much longer.

  6. A Life in Books May 17, 2018 at 5:58 am - Reply

    That’s a lovely quote from Theressa Slind. Funnily enough (ha ha!), I read a book last week which used sardonic humour very well as a defense mechanism for the main protagonist who was dealing with the fallout from an abusive childhood. It really was laugh-out-loud stuff, something I’d usually avoid, but it worked beautifully.

    • Buried In Print May 22, 2018 at 11:40 am - Reply

      I know exactly what you mean; this kind of sharp and insightful humour can really flesh out a character in unexpectedly powerful ways, so that you find your emotions far more deeply engaged. Funnily enough indeed.

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