It's easy to make people cry. Bald chemo kid in a hospital bed, mangy dog in the pound, soldier on the tarmac home from war greeting his family — who doesn't get teary-eyed? I routinely cry at phone commercials in which people call their mothers.
But it's much more difficult to make people laugh, which is precisely why I so admire comedy.
By comedy I don't mean the broadest slapstick, slips on banana peels and goofy hats. I mean comedy that is challenging, potentially even offensive.
We're more used to that kind of humor in TV and movies. People revel in political incorrectness from Larry David and Sacha Baron Cohen. Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of chuckling at death, the more grotesque the better. But literary fiction with comic overtones has a harder time finding its audience. Serious fiction still tends to be mostly... serious.
My favorite works of fiction are dark (as opposed to lite?) comedies that tiptoe a tonal tightrope. Vladimir Nabokov yucked it up about the grooming habits of sexual predators in Lolita. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is a laugh riot about, among other things, amputation due to medical malpractice and an ugly death by poison. Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" makes comedy from random violence — think National Lampoon's Vacation meets The Road. These works by my literary idols are tonally complex, chimerical, outlandish, yet moving.
Love Bomb, my fifth novel, concerns a woman with an assault rifle and a bomb strapped to her arm who takes hostages at a suburban wedding and calls herself "the terrorist of love." Several of the novel's first readers forewarned me, alarmed, "You really shouldn't use the word 'terrorist.' It makes people really nervous."
The book was published right around the time of the Aurora shootings — not a moment when assault rifles felt particularly droll. A couple of interviewers asked me if my novel made me worry about copycats. Right, I thought. Scores of love-crossed, heavily-armed women are going to be storming backyard weddings because of this novel. As people who had been inside the theater in Colorado said, again and again, that the event "felt like a movie," I thought about the blurry line between life and art that the novel attempts to explore. How none of us can quite have authentic and original experiences anymore, even when we're facing death. How all of the props of (mostly male) aggression — the guns, the bombs, suicide by cop — have become such staples in our national narrative that we expect life itself to be as predictable as an episode of Law and Order.
So now the paperback of Love Bomb is coming out, and we have the Boston Marathon event, and once again bombs are off limits. Recently, a student from the MFA program where I teach was talking to his new agent about his first novel, which happened to have the word "bomb" in the title, and she informed him, "You can't really use the word 'bomb' anymore. Certainly not in a comedy."
I thought about the exchange in Meet the Parents when a straight-faced flight attendant informs Ben Stiller, "You can't say 'bomb' on an airplane." Stiller snaps back, "Why can't I say 'bomb' on an airplane? Bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb!"
Meet the Parents came out before 9/11, when the absurdity of Kafkaesque airplane safety procedures was still a safe target. But I still think with admiration and gratitude about the first brave souls who dared to crack jokes while the flags were still rustling in the breeze on every lawn in America. Their doing so got to a different kind of truth that wrenched us out of our raw, unreflective grief. "U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're at War With": that was The Onion on September 27, 2001.
I love irony in fiction because it gets at a fuller vision of reality than flat tragedy or flat comedy. Irony is about mixed messages. The late great Donald Barthelme said it best: "The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude, as when you attend a funeral and notice that it's being poorly done."
Even at this late cultural date, there are readers who object to just such impurities. At one book club event — in the New Jersey town in which Love Bomb is set — one reader told me she felt uncomfortable with my portrayal of the charming borough. She said, "I feel very lucky to live here and raise my children here." Hard to believe, but after Blue Velvet, after Weeds, after so many busts of prostitution rings and kiddy porn and meth labs and kidnapper's lairs, there are still readers who want to believe that their suburbs are pure and untainted. But that doesn't mean I was asking her to move to Sierra Leone.
In the Truth Is Stranger than Fiction Department, in 2007, mere minutes from where I live, the FBI ran a sting that busted a plot against Fort Dix. Remember that? The terrorists were from a Muslim family sending their kids to the local public schools. One of the terrorists worked at Safeway. Another worked at his father's pizza parlor. The neighbors all confirmed that this was a nice, hardworking family — although they didn't entirely appreciate their slaughtering of goats in their backyard.
A jihadist who bags groceries after algebra class: now that's a story I would want to read.
Correction: An earlier version of this post indicated that Meet the Parents came out after 9/11.