By Toni Jordan
‘Dry as a Chip’: A Journey Through Humour in Australian Fiction
When I first read Peter Carey’s Bliss, I was smiling by the third page. This is when Carey introduces his protagonist, Harry Joy, who was ‘thirty-nine years old and believed what he read in the newspapers’. This tickled me – and it’s wonderful writing, besides. I know who he is, this man who believes what he reads in the newspapers. Nothing more about Harry needs to be said for my benefit.
Just a few pages further on, I laughed out loud. Harry’s adulterous wife Bettina and cuckolding business partner Joel are at lunch, discussing Harry’s impending heart surgery. Despite the obvious advantages to them, Carey tells us they lacked:
‘the strength to say they would have liked Harry dead. In truth they wouldn’t even look the idea in the face. Instead they flirted with it. They saw it pass sexily out of the corner of their eyes but did not, for a second, turn their heads to stare.’
It’s the word ‘sexily’ I find so funny here. I can’t help but imagine the idea of Harry’s death dressed up like a G-stringed, bow-tied Chippendale dancer, sashaying along the edges of Bettina’s and Joel’s vision while they dutifully look the other way. Yet one of the difficulties with discussing humour in fiction is exactly this.
We can flirt with the concept. We can see it pass sexily out of the corner of our eyes. If we turn our heads to stare with a keen analytical gaze, however, it evaporates. On reading back, my two examples seem utterly unfunny: droll and limp without the context of Carey’s voice and the pages of his story. There are one-liners and gags in novels that can survive this scrutiny but the embedded, character-driven humour of fiction is a perishable thing.
Jane Sullivan, literary columnist and novelist, believes we have a great tradition and distinct style of literary humour. ‘Historically, if you go back to Steele Rudd, C.J. Dennis and further, there’s what gets called larrikin humour. The working class against the nobs and tossers.’ Sullivan, too, admires ‘early’ Carey for his humour. ‘I think Peter Carey is greatly underrated as a comic novelist,’ she says. ‘We need to go back and rediscover the humour in books like Bliss and Illywhacker. They’re very funny and there’s a sense of exhilaration to them.’
There’s an interesting point here: Sullivan’s use of the world ‘early’. While Parrot and Olivier go to America has the trademark Carey flippancy (and I loved the book), I found little that made me actually smile. Fiction – like food, shoes and manners – can be a creature of fashion.
‘I don’t see many comic literary novels around anymore,’ Sullivan says. ‘The people who are writing humour these days are mostly found in genre fiction, or writing for children. Andy Griffiths is hilarious and children love him. Kids love to laugh. Chick-lit and lad-lit, for want of better terms, are often very funny: writers like Jessica Rudd and Nick Earls. In crime, there’s Shane Maloney.’
Crime seems a perfect match for the Australian brand of literary humour. Kerryn Goldsworthy, co-editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature and author of Adelaide, describes Australian humour as ‘dry as a chip. Maybe dryer. So dry that it’s very easy to miss.’ She draws my attention to a bit I’d forgotten, in Peter Temple’s dark masterpiece, The Broken Shore. The hard-bitten homicide detectives, Cashin and Dove, have just left a harrowing interview in a boarding school, where they’ve learned their murder suspects have been sadistic torturers since childhood. The mood is gritty and threaded with foreboding.
In the twilight, they crunched softly down the gravel drive. Boys in green blazers and grey flannels were coming along a path to their right. The pale one in front was eating chips out of a box. A boy behind him put a headlock on him, pulled his head back. Another boy walked by and casually took the chip box, kept walking, put one in his mouth.
‘Year ten mugging class,’ said Dove. ‘Been out on a prac.’
No one would describe The Broken Shore as a funny book, yet I find this line both hilarious and an expert example of the craft of writing (it’s no accident, the way these two things so often converge). The line is true to Dove’s character, but it also varies the mood in the way of a composer who understands the use of tempo. It releases Temple’s pressure-cooker of tension just a smidge, so that the next horrible thing happens (and we know that won’t be far away), it will pack a more powerful punch.
It seems to me that Jane Sullivan is right about the current scarcity of funny literary novels – but it’s not just Australian fiction that lacks a comedic touch. When Howard Jacobsen’s The Finkler Question won the Booker Prize in 2010, it was widely lauded as the first comic novel to have won since The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis in 1986. This makes me concerned for either these learned commentators’ literary judgement or for mine, since I found 2003’s winner, Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre, hilarious. I caught myself laughing out loud while reading it on the 9.13pm train to Sandringham. (The woman sitting beside me was so unsettled that she got out at Balaclava, walked along the platform and got in at the next carriage.)
When I tell Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic for the Australian, that I find more humour in crime writing than literary fiction these days, he isn’t surprised. ‘They’re creatures of the genre ghetto,’ he says. ‘So they’re allowed to be funny.’ Williamson points to Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life (‘our first great book’) as an example of profound comic tradition that goes back to the folk yarns of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. This type of humour, Williamson says, is typically Australian: ‘coarse, ribald, dry and withholding strong feelings – the phlegmatic individual faced with disasters’.
For real literary humour, my gold standard is Thea Astley’s Miles Franklin-winning 1972 masterpiece, The Acolyte. It’s not easy to find stand-alone funny lines. That’s not her style. The humour is part of the voice itself: the cutting first-person narration of Paul Vesper (assistant, confidant and devotee of the blind genius musician Jack Holberg). Every sentence sparkles with wit, in the midst of a dense and complex story.
For example, in the gloriously named border town of Grogbusters, Paul goes to an engagement party at the McEvoy’s:
‘a pre-Yuletide whacker to celebrate their apple orchard, the largest in Grogbusters, becoming engaged to a sheep property farther west. I was a shy boy, and after congratulating the merging couple huddled myself near a food table and sipped my sherry and watched and listened.’
Or this: after dropping out of university, to the horror of his parents, Paul found himself lured back:
‘The cheque-thickened voice of paterfamilias managed, by a simple and irrefutable sorites that took moolah as its major premise, to persuade me back to second and third terms, an undistinguished degree in civil engineering and a minor position with a firm of bridge builders.’
Jane Sullivan chuckles at Robert Drewe, ‘who can be very funny when he’s not being very serious’. Kerryn Goldsworthy speaks with admiration of Frank Moorhouse’s stories, David Foster’s The Glade within the Grove (1996) and Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story (1985) – and Patrick White, who ‘can be hilarious, strange as that may sound.’ Geordie Williamson nominates Gerald Murnane, Olga Masters and Elizabeth Jolley, as well as finding a recent honourable mention in David Musgrave’s surrealist 2010 debut, Glissando. He finds Christina Stead ‘funny, brittle and savage. Like Jane Austen on steroids’ and is, in general, a fan of our twentieth-century funny women. ‘The bloke side has been a bit po-faced,’ he says. ‘But on the other hand, you couldn’t find anyone more blue-stocking than Henry Handel Richardson.’
As for me? I laughed from beginning to end of Murray Bail’s Homesickness (1980). Charlotte Wood’s Animal People (2010) has some very funny bits and P.A. O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust (2011) deftly strides the comic/literary divide – but it seems we’re mostly looking backwards to find examples.
This might be a by-product of the Australian literary community. We are one of the smallest English-language markets; a shortlisting or two can make or break a new Australian novel. For a debut novel, even a morsel of recognition can provide sufficient confidence (and a wee bit of cash) to encourage the writer to try again. It can be a serious, desperate business. With so much at stake, perhaps humour is too big a risk to take?
‘My guess, and this is nothing more than an impression, is that a lot of novels … are coming out of creative writing programs where students have been taught to take themselves and their writing a bit too seriously,‘ Kerryn Goldsworthy says. ‘There’s an earnestness in Australian fiction, especially the stuff that isn’t as good as the good stuff, that I don’t think was there in earlier fiction. When I say “earnest”, I don’t mean “serious”, which is something quite different and much more acceptable in a novel. I do think there’s a distinction to be made between a “comic novel” and a serious novel full of wit.’
I know what Goldsworthy means, and it reflects much of my taste as well. I adore fiction of serious intent: it’s the po-faced; the didactic; the earnest, creaking, educating tome that dents my enthusiasm. Geordie Williamson notes the legacy of ‘grim emulation’ that stems from the work of our most celebrated sad sack. ‘You could argue that Patrick White has been a terrible influence on Australian fiction generally,’ Williamson says. ‘The gloomiest writer to ever pen a novel. He was in a dark, dark place.’ Slavishly copying White’s sombre style and intent without his wit is not the way to literary immortality.
In How Fiction Works, the critic James Wood discusses characters in literary realism:
‘Why do they always have affairs? Why is there always an aged Holocaust survivor somewhere in these books? And please, whatever you do, don’t introduce incest…’
Well, yes. There’s a bit of that. In some modern literary fiction, I find a sense of this overarching desperation to prove oneself, to write the Great Australian Novel. ‘Literary fiction,’ says Geordie Williamson, ‘is now like a series of boxes to check. It’s actually become a genre like the others. I’m no longer convinced that seriousness is an end unto itself.’
If someone can get away with ‘seriousness as an end unto itself’, surely it would be a Nobel Laureate. At the 2007 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, I sat in the audience while John Coetzee read from his (then) new novel, Diary of a Bad Year.
I find Coetzee’s work entrancing but brutal: Disgrace (1999) is as close to perfect as a work of fiction can be, yet I doubt I’ll ever find the spiritual strength to read it again. I finished the book feeling bludgeoned. My skin was actually sore under my fingertips, bruised like it was the first time I read Crime and Punishment when I was 18. (I had to call in sick to the mailroom where I worked because I physically couldn’t get out of bed the next day.) Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) has a marginally lighter touch, a rapier rather than a club; I re-read it every year for the magnificence of the language and for the way its world opens out in front of me, as though Kafka’s In the Penal Colony (1919) were suddenly a real place.
Diary of a Bad Year is different again, a parallel novel where the pages are divided horizontally into three different but linking narratives. I found it engaging intellectually but distancing emotionally – but that wasn’t my overwhelming feeling while listening to Coetzee in a packed Storey Hall that cold August night. I was astonished to realise it was funny.
In Coetzee’s voice, suddenly the text became full of a sly humour I hadn’t noticed before. He did nothing overt to encourage this: no mugging, grinning or contextualising. His only contribution was a slight rounding of his vowels and the occasional rise of one patrician eyebrow. Yet, to my mind, humour was clearly his intention. He even paused (often) for the audience’s laughter to subside before continuing. When I read Coetzee’s Summertime in 2010, I was wise to his style and found the lightness in it – but I probably would have missed it had I not been at that reading in 2007.
This made me realise that the author’s intention is not always perfectly communicated to the average reader. This is something Kerryn Goldsworthy also noted. ‘Humour is not an intrinsic quality of writing (or anything else),’ she says. ‘It’s more something that occurs when transmitter meets receiver. So often a writer will think she or he is being hilarious and will leave me stony-faced, whereas some other writer can throw away a wry, brief aside and leave me giggling with admiration. Humour is very much in the eye of the beholder.’
Hmm. This raises something I’ve been avoiding since the beginning of this essay: the subjective nature of ‘funny’.
The humour on the page is only half the equation: the sensibility and taste of the reader is equally responsible for the effect. Does this ‘transmitter meets receiver’ quality mean any form of review is pointless? Perhaps. The idea of discussing an utterly subjective, thoroughly unquantifiable concept that vanishes on close inspection seems quixotic at best (though I’d love to see a PhD candidate devise a Pythonesque chortles-per-paragraph Stead-versus-White experiment, with readers being observed through one-way mirrors by clipboard-clutching researchers).
If analysis is a futile endeavour, I’ll end instead on a call for celebration.
We are experienced at acknowledging those who make us laugh on stage and screen. We are quick to see the genius in Barry Humphries, Jane Turner and Gina Riley, Magda Szubanski, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, and Chris Lilley … to name a random few. And so we should. These talented, smart people have the precious ability to make us laugh. Yet think of their advantages: the way they look, the way they sound, wardrobe, camera angles, sets, extras and special effects. The tone of Jane Turner’s voice when she says, ‘Look at moy, Kimmy’; the flick of Chris Lilley’s hair as Ja’mie King.
Our funny writers have none of these tools. Our funny writers have blank ink and white paper and the ability to ignite the readers’ imagination. That is all. Yet, miraculously, that is enough. I will never get over the wonder of it. It seems to me that the ability to make a reader laugh from words on a page should rank among our highest literary accomplishments.