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:
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)
Cree writer Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat (2008)
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)