Funny Books: Snappers, Commitments, and Clockwork Oranges
When I was in college, an unbelievably long time ago, I saw Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange. It is one of the two most disturbing things I’ve ever watched (the other being Deliverance), and not coincidentally, it’s only now that I’ve gotten around to reading the Anthony Burgess novel that inspired it. That was a very different experience. In the novel Burgess created tension by juxtaposing horrific acts with humor, the latter coming in part from the ridiculous teen slang used by the narrator, Alex; the reader’s response is nervous, guilty laughter. This is a delicate balance, one that depends greatly on the discretion with which the violence is presented, and that discretion and balance are what Kubrick’s blood-spattered film tosses out the window. (That is true according to my memory, anyway, and since no power on Earth could get me to watch that film again, memory will have to do.) The humor gets lost in all the violence, and while the story’s message comes through intact, the context all but nullifies it. Watching what Alex and his ilk do to innocent people before his state-imposed cure, we don’t care that his rehabilitation is achieved through the destruction of his will and power of choice. Totalitarianism? The police state? They never looked so good.
Anyway: if you haven’t read the book, I recommend it. The movie, well . . .
Another funny book I read recently — a novel otherwise as different from A Clockwork Orange as one piece of fiction can be from another — is The Snapper, by Roddy Doyle. Is it possible to compare a novel to a sitcom without condemning it? The sitcom-like feature is not the triteness, predictability, fraudulent emotion, or lame humor of the worst sitcoms, but a sort of unspoken, unwritten agreement between writer and reader that nothing too bad is going to happen. (That is chiefly how The Snapper differs from A Clockwork Orange.) Within that seemingly limiting framework, Doyle accomplishes a lot, with his touching, unsentimental story of a working-class Irish family whose oldest daughter is unmarried and pregnant and won’t say who the father is.
A page from The Snapper resembles a page from a sitcom teleplay in its sparseness. This is not laziness but minimalism at its best, one that draws on the most powerful source of imagery there is: the reader’s imagination. (Here The Snapper manages what the best modernist painting achieves; see my post “But I Know What I Like.”)
Even funnier than The Snapper is The Commitments, Doyle’s short novel about a briefly successful Irish soul band.
What other Doyle should I read?