In a recent interview, George Saunders said, “Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing one’s particular charms.” For me, humor has overwhelming, alluring charm. Anyone who can make me laugh instantly takes on a special, shimmering gold aura. As one student once wrote in my teacher evaluation, “I learned a lot, but she laughs a lot.”
Alas, usually I’m the audience, laughing at the joker, because the only person in the world who thinks I’m funny is my husband. (Though everyone thinks he’s funny). It’s a sad thing, since my work-in-progress novel is supposed to be a romantic comedy.
Is there an art of funny? Can you learn to write funny? I could turn to Saunders, but I’d rather talk about Saul Bellow’s immense charm. As James Wood says in the introduction to Saul Bellow’s Collected Stories, in Bellow’s case, being funny “means prose as a registration of the joy of life; the happy rolling freedom of his daring, uninsured sentences.” Pick up nearly any of Bellow’s novels or short stories, and you’ll find reams of techniques for writing humor. If there is one overarching principle, it’s about upending expectations at nearly every opportunity—image, sound, diction, mixing high and low register language.
In Herzog, Moses goes shopping for some summer clothes. He has to deal with a young, bored salesclerk. “His face was red as a carnation, and he had a meat-flavored breath, a dog’s breath.” The sentence unfolds two delightful surprises, comparing the seemingly incompatible. Part of the humor, of course, comes from the specificity. Not just a flower, but a carnation. And meat-flavored is further modified and made more particular by linking it to a dog’s breath. It’s funny, and it’s also a swift, memorable portrait.
In the short story “By the St. Lawrence,” Bellow writes about one of his characters, “His hair was gray, something like the color of drying oregano.” Again, he turns the reader’s expectations upside down, comparing hair to an herb. It’s also wonderfully precise—the color is vivid and the image is original. The overlay of hyperbole augments the humor, too.
A few more. In the short story “Cousins”: “I remembered Riva as a full-figured, dark-haired, plump straight-legged woman. Now all the geometry of her figure had changed. She had come down in the knees like a jack of a car, to a diamond posture.” In the novel Humboldt’s Gift, the narrator describes his poet friend: “A surfaced whale beside your boat might look at you as he looked with his wide-set eyes.”
Bellow also knows the comic value of plosives, the sounds formed by completely stopping the airflow—t, d, k, g, p, b. As David Madden, author of If You Need Me, I’ll Be Over There, noted in a recent interview, plosives emulate spitting. From Humboldt’s Gift: “Strengthened in illusion and idiocy by these proud medical reports, I embraced a busty Renata on this Posturepedic mattress.” The penultimate word in that sentence, “Posturepedic,” has five plosives. In Bellow’s short story “Zetland: By a Character Witness,” Max Zetland has a “black cleft” in his chin, an “unshavable pucker.”
Bellow also creates humor by using the full range of the English language, combining high and low registers. Latinate diction is typically polysyllabic, while Ango-Saxon or Germanic is blunt, more direct, monosyllabic. You can choose “frigid” or you can choose “cold.” Bellow mashes up Latinate with colloquial or Anglo-Saxon words. In the short story “By the St. Lawrence,” Rexler, seven or eight years old, waits an hour for Cousin Albert to finally appear from a house, which, he figures out later, is a brothel.
Smiling, a pretense of regret in his look, he (Cousin Albert) said, “There was more business to do than usual.” He mentioned a lease. Baloney, of course.
Into the mix of pretense/regret/business, Bellow throws ‘baloney’ to upend the highfalutin sound of his sentences.
Here is the same technique in Humboldt’s Gift: “But then Houdini was punched experimentally in the belly by a medical student and died of peritonitis. So you see, nobody can overcome the final fact of the material world.” That smart addition, “So you see,” introduces a colloquial rhythm and sound, so just as the reader was being lulled by the high register diction, she is awaked again by a different type of sound.
With these techniques, Bellow is able to imbue his stories with the metaphysical, the philosophical, the intellectual, and the mundane—the stuff of life. In Herzog, Moses’ wife has left him and he is living alone, writing letters to everyone “under the sun.” Bellows quickly moves from the physical world in one paragraph—“She was dressed, like most women in Warsaw, in black stockings and long slender Italian shoes, but her fur coat was worn to the hide”—to the metaphysical in the next: “In my grief did I know what I was doing? noted Herzog on a separate page, as he waited for the elevator. Providence, he added, takes care of the faithful.”
While I’m writing this next novel, occasionally I make myself laugh out loud. I’m charming myself right now, I guess. But when I print it out and read it, I sigh. How could I have thought this was funny? I reach for one of Bellow’s works to remind myself how it’s done.
Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.