In reading the selected texts discussed below, I enjoyed discovering the power of humor and irony as techniques for creating multi-layered stories. It was interesting to see the different ways in which the writers had used the technique, some going for laugh-out-loud humor, others for witty characters or ironic twists in the plot. Obviously, some achieved the technique better than others.
In her tragic comedy, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, Amy Hempel writes like a fishing pro throwing out three hooks at once: the “Intensive Care” hospital setting, the sick friend’s request for useless stories that she “won’t mind forgetting,” and the narrator’s memory of the mortuary stories that triggered her phobia of death. It is easy to grab the bait and be reeled in to the essence of the story: that the eccentric narrator is actually trying to escape the painful reality of her friend’s fatal disease, and from death in general, while the dying friend is preparing to let go of life. Once there, you may wonder where Hempel will take you next, but you will not be disappointed as you discover layers of fear within the narrator’s witty metaphors and her random thoughts and memories, until she finally reveals her fear of not overcoming her fear when she enrolls in a Fear of Flying class after her friend’s death. Hopefully, the last vignette about the chimp is actually evidence of the narrator finally getting the better of all her phobias by allowing herself to grieve for her dead friend.
In Everything That Rises Must Converge, Flannery O’Connor created a brilliant plot in a duty-bound and guilt-ridden relationship between a mother and son, their generation gap evident from the stark contrast between their inner and outer worlds, and irony tangible in their roles as mutual caretakers. As O’Connor builds this polarity with witty descriptions of the characters and sharp dialogue, she intensifies the conflict between mother and son and illuminates the main theme: intergenerational shame. The son’s judgment of his mother is really a mirror image of himself: small-minded, judgmental, prejudiced, emotionally cold. However, the story falls flat toward the end when the son turns nasty and cruel in order to force his mother into guilt and sorrow. I felt that the author was laying it on too thick so as to facilitate the ironic twist (that the son actually failed the mother), which seemed mechanical and not believable at all.
If handled with expertise, an author can reveal a story’s conclusion early without diminishing the tension and drama of the telling. Dorothy Parker does exactly that by creating an instant contradiction between the title of her story, You Were Perfectly Fine, and the protagonist’s obvious hangover, thus setting up the reader from the outset to expect the opposite of what the title claims. The real joyride of this short story, though, is the circuitous unfolding of the scope of the protagonist’s dilemma in a guarded conversation between the two main characters. Parker held my attention by untying the ironic knots one at a time.
Turning inanimate objects into characters is a clever literary device, and John Cheever is a master of this technique in The Enormous Radio: he uses the device in an innovative way along the lines of psychological projection (the unconscious denial of your own attributes, thoughts, and emotions that you will rather blame on an object or someone else). In so doing, he really creates comedy in the situation rather than through comical characters, though he also uses it to sketch the peripheral characters and reveal their secrets. Not only does the radio drive the plot and facilitates the ironic twist, but by making the radio the culprit of Irene’s obsession and addiction, Cheever smoothes the way for her redemption. All in all, I thought that this story was the most innovative example of the use of humor and irony.
Even though Mark Twain uses an interesting storytelling technique in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by having the narrator tell a story about a story, I did not get the humor or irony of the style or the content. I enjoyed the colloquial voice of Wheeler though, American regional dialects being something that Twain was apparently gifted at.
After reading these text, I came to the conclusion that writers who are masters at humor and irony often “mess with your head” in making you think that they are taking you in one direction when all the while they’re taking you in another, so that in the end you’re always surprised at the outcome.