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Funny as Hell

By: Louise Van Oel

 

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

 

Using humour in terrible situations has probably been a human urge our species has indulged since we learned how to talk. We tend to joke about all kinds of death, evil, and misfortune in a way that doesn’t make sense at face value. Those things are just not funny, so why do we do that? The answer is so simple it’s almost unsatisfactory. There’s just something about pointing your finger at the face of a terrible fate and laughing at it that has always felt powerful. In life and in literature, the blade of mockery can be wielded to amusing and devastating effect.

 

To paraphrase what Ursula K. Le Guin famously said so well in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” refusing to admit the banality of evil is an artist’s version of treason. Glorifying evil through your art grants it power, and thus a measure of respect it doesn’t deserve. If we invert that, making a joke of evil can serve to highlight that very banality. By Le Guin’s chivalric notion of artistic treason, doing this makes the artist a loyal subject of her calling.

 

Granted, joking about evil and fear is certainly not always good. Laughing at your enemies may be a marker of sadism if the “you” in question is a Disney villain or a morally corrupt dictator. However, if your enemies are the normal kinds that normal people have—unreasonable bosses, looming exams, an article draft in progress that just won’t get written—making a joke of it can reduce the power that that adversary holds over you.

 

In the vein of undercutting terrible things with humour, one of the strangest and most memorable funny books I have enjoyed recently has been Montreal author Jo Walton’s Lent. This novel is a piece of historical fiction reimagining the life of Friar Girolamo Savonarola—one of the most influential characters who ever spruced up the streets of 15th-century Florence with his dour Dominican habit—and is grounded in solid historical scholarship on the period. This book is serious in the sense that it focuses intently on the psychological struggles the deeply Christian Girolamo faces when he learns a terrible truth about himself. It is also funny as Hell.

 

The central conflict of the book involves Girolamo and his friends trying to solve an incredibly high-stakes problem that could upend Hell and Heaven (both places which certainly exist in this literary universe). But, importantly, this Renaissance Italy gang manages to make it through their repeated failures and the deaths of some dear people—this is a Florence of bubonic plague and regular political assassinations, after all—because they support each other, and take moments to laugh together. Walton writes endearing dialogue better than probably any other author I’ve read, and through it, does a great job of reminding you that sharing jokes with your friends makes the weight of the world much easier to bear.

 

I said that Walton undercuts terrible things—such as religious guilt, execution, fear of Hell—with her humour. While that is true in the sense that she undermines the more conventional literary tendency of those things to create pits of hopelessness that characters (and readers) can get melancholically stuck in, she doesn’t deny that they remain serious things to grapple with. Even as the framework of her novel is based on a somewhat ridiculous concept, and regularly features moments of comic relief (including the silliest demon concepts known to literature), Walton always maintains that the emotional struggles of her characters as they grapple with these matters are valid.

 

Lent tackles incredibly complicated subjects like self-image, selflessness, orthodoxy and morality, death, friendship, the meaning of Hell, how to deserve salvation… and that’s not even mentioning the way she manages to clearly convey the chaotic history of Italy at the time. Through it all, her light but persistent touches of humour bring the book and its serious topics to such vivid life that you can’t help but turn the final page having gained a deep and abiding love for a very controversial 15th-century friar and his friends.

 

I’m not one who often cries at books, but this one got a few tears of both sadness and joy out of me. Sometimes nearly at once.

 

Walton’s comedy is funny, serious, and respectful of her characters. She finds an incredibly impressive balance to strike, and I truly encourage everyone to pick up this fascinating book. You’ll learn enough about Renaissance Italy to impress people with at parties, and the novel will not go where you expect it to.

 

It’s Lent’s fault that I started thinking about humour and fear and where they butt heads. It made me realise how much literary comedy about serious matters serves as a psychological pressure release valve, perhaps more than any other genre. People enjoy laughing at fear to declaw and de-fang it, to stop it from ripping up the couch of their mental state like a badly-behaved cat. (Don’t declaw your cats, folks; that’s cruel. This has been a metaphor and a PSA.)

 

The best kinds of art often come from people asking, “What happens when we force two things that don’t seem to belong together into the same space and make them hold hands?” Jo Walton asks this question about everything from the inanimate (like Holy Grails and Hell) to complicated people (like Savonarola and Pico della Mirandola) all the way up to enormous abstract concepts like humour and evil. Often, we find out that what seemed like incompatible opposites have secretly been perfect complements all along.

 

So, hone that caustic wit, my friends. It’s a historically tried and true weapon you can wield against all your demons, external and internal.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” (1973) The Wind's Twelve Quarters. New York: Harpers, 1975: 275-84.

Walton, Jo. Lent. New York: Tor, 2019.

 

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