Writing humour is difficult. Wordplay can trigger a laugh but the same pun may cause one listener to laugh, the other to groan. The reasons two people might not laugh at the same joke are poorly understood. We know that humour plays with language, touches on truth and finds ways of expressing things we can’t or won’t say ‘straight.’ Humour is built on recognition, that ‘aha’ moment in which we see ourselves. It’s quick and dirty and aggressive – and those are just the things I like about it.
Humour can also be hurtful. Often it is who gets hurt that decides which people are doing the laughing.
I am currently reading Christopher Moore’s, A Dirty Job. I have enjoyed several of his previous books about crazy people in small towns, about marine biologists, about vampires and monsters of various kinds. Much of Moore’s humour plays with ‘type.’ There are surfer dudes, Alpha males, geeks and freaks.
Moore’s humour breaks down when he describes the minor characters in his latest book. The Chinese and Russian widows in A Dirty Job are often the brunt of jokes. They are sketchy stereotypes with tag lines and yucky habits.
Moore’s humour usually works because his books are full of colourful characters. I prefer, however, for the character who looks forward to eating dead goldfish, dead hamster and dead dog to be a monster, not a middle-aged Chinese-American woman. The two characters in this book who have English as a second language appear simplistic in their thinking, not just their expression. Speaking two languages does not make a person stupider!
The book repeatedly depicts members of the Chinese-San Franciscan community referring to white people as White Devils, in Chinese, to their faces. Doesn’t that seem a little paranoid to you?
I’m sure I’ll finish reading the book, I’m about three quarters through, but it’s been spoiled for me. The worst of it is, I don’t know whether Moore is racist in person. It is laudable that he does not fall into the trap of depicting America as culturally homogeneous. To pretend that our North American cities are centred around just one group of people, the group the writer happens to belong to, would be racism by omission.
Perhaps Moore’s intentions are good but his research isn’t quite up to the task. Cardboard characters and types are part of the comedians toolkit and he makes an attempt to be even-handed. I just can’t laugh when I feel that the jokes are at the expense of others and that truth is not being fully served.
In order to further ponder how a novelist might portray a modern, cosmopolitan city, today I bought the 2003 Giller Prize winner, M.G. Vassanji’s, The In Between World of Vikram Lall. I was convinced by the National Post quote on the back cover: “…with zero hectoring and unsettling calm, [Vassanji] describe[s] the complexity of race relations in post-colonial, multicultural societies…”