DEAR READER OFTHE WEIRD:
I am a hauntress of bookstores.
I shudder at ghost stories and weird fiction.
I shun 12-foot skeletons on lawns.
I buy candy on sale on All Saints' Day.
WELCOME TO SUPERNATURAL SUBURBIA!
HEH HEH HEH HA HA HEE HEH HEH
READING THE WEIRD
Ghost stories and tales of the supernatural are labeled weird fiction. But weird fiction to me is fiction for weirdos.
I do enjoy some traditional weird fiction. I recommend Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson.Benson is well-known for his witty Lucia novels, and the two superb TV series based on these charming books. This prolific writer also wrote tales of the supernatural.
His most fascinating ghost stories wrestle with the concept of home and haunted houses. In “Bagnell Terrace,” the narrator loves his quiet neighborhood in London, but he is jealous of his neighbor’s house. The addition of a huge room extends into the yard. How he wishes he had such a room! Finally he has a chance to buy the house, and things begin to go terribly wrong. In this suspenseful, entertaining ghost story, friendship is the key to survival.
Then there is weird fiction for weirdos. Olga Ravn’sshort, moving, poetic novel, The Employees,was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021. It is at first puzzling. Written in the form of employees’ “statements,“ the novel gradually reveals the import of their statements. The crew are on a spaceship, reporting their reactions to objects they have brought on board from the New Discovery planet. in the dedication to the book, Ravn reveals that she was inspired by Lea Guldditte Hestelund’s installations and sculptures.
The crew is manned by humans and humanoids: are the humanoids also objects? The relationships between them are touching and affectionate. and their observations of the objects are in sync. But the humanoids get upgrades and uploads and re-uploads and begin to surpass the humans. They begin to avoid the humans. And the humans are saddened by their separation, by their own mortality, and the end of friendship and possibly their race.
FINDING BALANCE: HUMOR WRITING
Humor will cure the sense of imbalance. I recommend Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Soap Behind the Ears. one of her best collections of humor columns. It is worth buying for her satire of For Whom the Bell Tolls, which she calls For Whomthe Gong Sounds. How I wish I’d read this satire when I plowed through Hemingway’s ghastly novel!
We have subscribed to The New Yorker for 30 years. We read it for the movie reviews, the Cartoon Caption Contest, and the profiles of Paul McCartney and Mick Herron. We do not read Shouts and Murmurs, the weekly humor piece, because it is just not that funny.
A longtime fan of the humor writing of Dorothy Parker, E. M. Delafield, Betty MacDonald, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, and Jean Kerr, I wonder what happened to modern humor.
And so I sat down with The New Yorker and parsed a few of its sinisterly unfunny humor columns to figure out what has happened.
I expected to get off to a good start with Ian Frazier (Western Reserve Academy, Harvard), who is a brilliant writer, despite the handicap of an Ivy League education. I admired his book, Family, a history of his family in the midwest , and On the Rez, a history of the Ogala Sioux and a modern account of their daily life.
The trouble is when Frazier tries to be funny. The New Yorker recently published his column, “Translation,” a humor “piece” (pow!), or perhaps one would call it a satire of pig Latin, which he purports humorously is derived from the Latin, which he may have studied at Western Reserve Academy.
The earthy, untrammeled, and lyrical other language that I’m referring to was derived originally from Latin, hence its common name, Pig Latin. Among linguists, it’s known as Demotic Ay-speak, for the sake of precision, and to remove any allusion to pigs (which have nothing to do with the language). Other members of my linguistic community will tell you that I’m fiercely proud of my fluency and stand up for the language whenever it is misused. I even prefer to read novels in it, because it makes me feel at home. I first encountered the P.-L. version of olstoy-Tay’s “anna-Yay arenina-Kay” in the abridged translation done by Mrs. Erwin’s fifth graders. The principal translator, Billy Nolan, was a fully proficient speaker.
Okay, it’s mildly funny. I prefer LOL funny. But what’s with Billy Nolan’s translation of “anna-Yay arenina-Kay”? I happen to know Ian Frazier studied Russian, and perhaps he has read Anna Karenina in Russian. I wonder which translation he prefers, if he reads it in translation: the illy-Bay oland-Nay, the aude-May, or perhaps the -onstance-Cay arnett-Gay?
I would say that this column is Medium Funny.
It does make me want to reread Anna Karenina. Thanks, Ian azier-Fray.
And now on to a second Shouts and Murmurs “piece,” “Making of,” by John Kenney, who, according to The New Yorker bio, has contributed to the magazine since 1999 and is the author of six books.
This column takes the form of a Zoom call, or do I mean a Platonic dialogue? A writer, art director, strategist, and account exec. are planning a Budweiser commercial. A terse Stream-of-consciousness is their medium of conversation.
It begins with the writer.
Writer: We open on a horse. Cut to, like, a farmer. Then a welder. Then a man on a horse. Maybe a jockey. We hear a voice-over. Reciting the Gettysburg Address.
The writer and art director are obsessed with the farmer’s “bare muscular chest… gleaming with sweat,” and invent another farmer who “is also half nude and insanely fit. And he has a look that says, ‘Let’s do this.’” Later, the writer imagines American flags everywhere. “And when we cut back all the men are in drag.”
There apparently must be a horse. The writer insists. Perhaps a farmer shoeing a horse, perhaps a horse running slo-mo, perhaps someone doing something with a horseshoe. The writer finds this all very sexy! Well, a horse is a sex symbol, if I remember my D. H. Lawrence (and you know I do).
I would find this column funnier if I had ever seen a Budweiser commercial. But honestly I hate sports, and isn’t that where beer commercials air?
I consider Kenney’s column Kind of Funny, but not very.
You’ll be thrilled to know that I genuinely enjoyed a witty Shouts and Murmurs column by Samantha Irby, a comedian and essayist. She made me laugh with her column, “Please Invite Me to Your Party,” in which she assures her potential hosts that she will try all their weird party food, appreciate their deep cleaning, and charm their family to the point that their dad will invite her to a football game, “an invitation I will dodge till one of us dies.”
I love her assessment of her personal charms: she is a fun guest who will do all she can to support and make the hosts the stars.
“Who is that fat ghost?” your friends will ask as they swipe through the photos you posted to prove that you know people and like to have a good time. Then they’ll swipe to your in your sequined dress and sigh in commitment, immediately forgetting about me.”
Ah, memories of parties past! Like Irby, I am happy to keep the cat company.
So I can come, right? You’re gonna text me the address and your favorite brand of tequila? I need to be invited more than anything I’ve ever needed in my life. Because, trust me, really am great at a party. Especially since I won’t show up.
This is hilarious! I do love a good party where everybody mills and throngs, the conversation flows, and nobody networks.
We all enjoy cheery, witty memoirs. Everybody loves Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, a hilarious, if despairing, memoir about life on a run-down chicken ranch. Not surprisingly, it was not Betty’s dream to raise chickens. She followed her husband Bob to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Her mother told her you should always help your husband in his work. It is clear that raising chickens is not fun. It is clear that Betty is not happy. And yet she stays upbeat in her writing. This upbeat humor outshines the melancholy #MeToo Twitter memoirs any day.
I’m not at all sure this isn’t the best way to write a memoir. Think Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, Jean Kerr, Carrie Fisher, and Louise Dickinson Rich.
The following excerpt illustrates Betty’s uncanny gift for satire. And I love her exclamation marks.
Aunty Vida took another swallow of coffee, rinsed it around in her mouth as if it were antiseptic, and said, “You have solved the problem of living! You have the answer to happiness! There are thousands of people in this bitter old world who only hope some day to achieve by dint of hard work and sacrifice what you and Bob have now!” It was nine o’clock in the morning. Bob and I had been up since four and had not gone to bed till after twelve. Aunty Vida was just having breakfast. It was that part about others hoping by dint of hard work and sacrifice what Bob and I already had, that got me.
Now if I wrote a memoir, humor would be the way to go. I’m thinking my teen years should be a comic book.
How did it all begin? It was a cold winter day, possibly in the single digits, when my friend and I hitchhiked to the junior high to visit her favorite former English teacher. We sat on top of the radiator and kicked our boots while my friend’s charismatic teacher gathered her papers together, promising to take us out for cocoa. In the back of the classroom, a polyester-pantsuit-clad teacher lurked, in stark contrast to the rest of us: we wore bell-bottoms, blue work shirts (possibly embroidered with roses), and sturdy hiking boots, while she had the look of a dowager who had not discovered natural fabric. She tagged along to the cafe with us, and stared across the table at me with eyes googling out of an acne-scarred face.
Usually I love book talk, but not about books I haven’t read, books which I have no intention of reading. Did I like poetry, she asked. Um, I liked Richard Brautigan and Sylvia Plath, I muttered. You must read Anne Sexton, she insisted. She took a book out of her purse. Oh, thank you, I said politely, and put it in my knapsack. And, of course, as one does, I forgot about it. And that night I got a hysterical phone call from her. She said, You hate me now, don’t you? Now you’ve read my notes and know I’m gay. Oh, I didn’t see them, I said politely.
I had no intention of reading her book.
I wanted to get back to Hermann Hesse, Doris Lessing, Jimi Hendrix, M.C. Escher, Easy Rider, Ingmar Bergman, Baskin & Robbin…
She kept calling me…
I politely had coffee with her…
Eventually, you know…
And then… Boredom. Isolation. Trapped.
I wonder if that’s why I like trapped housewife novels.
Mind you, I was now living in a comic book called “Trophy Girl.” After school, we made the rounds of her acquaintances. She liked to show me off. Sometimes we would drop in at the house of the super-smart feminists who never invited her over and clearly disapproved of her relationship with an underage concubine. It seemed politically incorrect, even rude, to admit how bored I was. Like it or not, this was my world–for a short time.
I longed for the hilarious company of my own friends, who laughed at Tiger Beat magazine, sang along to the Grateful Dead, joked about boys, baked cookies, hitchhiked to rock concerts, watched Masterpiece Theater, and had a thing about Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (which was constantly being shown at the second-run theater) . We might not have been super-smart feminists–it never came up!–but I missed them.
She drove a car everywhere. She listened to Melanie. She didn’t watch Masterpiece Theater!
It was unspeakable.
At that age you like to be on the go.
I was living–gasp!–with a (sort of) grown-up.
After seeing my friends, I had to returen to the grainy dull black-and-white Peter Bogdanovich film of the “relationship.” Relationship! Now there’s a word for you! It wasn’t a courtship, it wasn’t a friendship, it wasn’t a flagship, it wasn’t a lordship, it wasn’t a fellowship–it was a RELATION-ship! How very, very, very, very dull. I have never spoken of boyfriends and husbands in terms of a “relationship.”
I will not dwell on her sexual tastes. I will tell you she wanted to pee on me in bed, and claimed that her former underage lover had enjoyed such peefests. “Gross! No!” One minute you’re dreaming of romance with Mr. Rochester, the next…
Dear reader, I left. Thank goodness! But where is the narrative here? Everything dissolves into grainy black-and-white film. Narrative might exorcise it… but a comic book would be best.