On being funnier

I often wish I were funnier, even though I can be reasonably quick off the cuff.

Friend: Oh my God! Someone poisoned ninety elephants in Zimbabwe!

Me: Sounds like a pachyderm lies to me.

But that practice of humour isn’t really funny. Actually, it’s rather annoying for the recipient of the joke. It’s the sort of compulsive shot that is more likely to push people away than draw them close. And it doesn’t require thought or call for consideration; it’s more evidence of an obsessional scanning of conversation than a willingness to listen.

Our ability to laugh with someone is evidence, Freud points out, of a deep psychic similarity between us. Everyone has their own way of laughing, and it’s not something that can be replicated on a page. The descriptors we have for laughter – giggle, guffaw, chortle, snigger – are two-dimensional, more suitable for the Beano than real life.

Finally, I’ve realised that I am a writer who prefers not to write and who can only ever produce failed works of mourning about the failed work of mourning. I prefer not to, as Bartleby would say, because I came to understand that to write is to engage in an imaginary conversation with both the writers I respect and the people I love, a conversation that I can only enter into with a series of elliptical and equivocal jokes.

These particular jokes are of two kinds: those that succeed and those that fail. And a failed joke is like a dying animal, a botched experiment from the laboratory of Dr Moreau – nobody wants to look it in the eye.

The successful jokes are of two types: those visible as jokes and those that aren’t. Those that are visible can be further divided into those that are understood by the people I love (and, in my fantasies, by the writers I imagine invisibly commenting on my life) and those that are recognised by one but not the other.

The danger of constructing writing and reflection as equivocal jokes is that I develop the habit of speaking in ellipses that I suspect are becoming dispiriting to others and possibly making them uneasy, as though they are being made fun of in ways they can’t recognise. I become anxious that I will lose the ability to write about what is most important to me and instead speak only in weird lies and complacent truths. So, I write – but I prefer not to.

In Enrique Vila-Matas’ novel Bartleby & Co, the narrator, an anxious hunchback who has no success in love, is travelling on a bus in New York City. Opposite him sits a beautiful young woman. The hunchback is wondering how he can begin a conversation with her while also knowing that any attempt to do so will inevitably end in disaster and humiliation, when he suddenly realises that the man sitting next to the young woman is the reclusive writer JD Salinger, whom our narrator much admires. He is torn: should he try to talk to Salinger or the young woman? Can he do both? He rapidly begins to imagine a series of possible conversations he will never have.

In his lengthy poem The Sea and the Mirror, WH Auden wrote: ‘Can I learn to suffer / Without saying something ironic or funny / On suffering?’

For a long time, I felt as if a fault line were slowly lengthening inside of me. It was like a hairline crack in a cup, one barely visible but which nevertheless renders the cup useless. I came to accept that I was in some ways like a broken object, and that realisation was a huge relief. I no longer tried to imagine myself as coherent or useful. I no longer cared.

A curious transformation began to take place, one that was both disturbing and enlivening. In a conversation with a friend, I found myself listening to her words as if each had its own weight, colour and complex history trailing behind it, as though she were speaking a language of clouds.

For a little while, I thought I could become someone else.

Recently, I went down to my local village market. I stopped briefly at a bookstall and speculatively weighed up the consequences of buying Keats’ collected poems or Chapman’s translation of The Iliad. Looking for a cheap gift for a friend’s birthday, I browsed at a stall that sold hippie knick-knacks. An elderly woman pushed in beside me and began to haggle with the stallholder about the price of his incense sticks. The discussion went on for some minutes, with the woman claiming that the incense was drastically overpriced and the stallholder refusing to give her more than a nominal discount. Eventually the old woman left in a temper. The stallholder made a few peevish remarks to me about obstreperous customers.

‘Well, you know,’ I said absently while examining a packet of prayer flags, ‘a strolling crone gathers no joss.’


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Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2016, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was recently published by Seizure.

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