Q: You often use humor to diffuse an emotionally intense situation, and at the same time to create pathos, or a sense of the real sadness underlying the attempt at humor and the need for humor in a given situation. For instance, in “Silver Water,” the scenes with the therapists, especially Big Nut, are funny in spite of the gravity of the situation. Are you aware of this as you work, or does it just come out at certain times? How does humor work in your fiction?
A: I don’t see that much as diffusing the sadness of the situation. There is humor in grief. Funny things happen in hospitals. That’s just how it is. I don’t think that life is composed of sad moments, which are sad, in which bad things have happened to good people, and happy moments, in which good things have happened to good people. So for me, there being humor in the midst of difficulty and pain is not an attempt to either lighten the pain, or change the focus, or make a comment on it. It’s the way it is. To me it’s no different than the idea that there are both flowers and weeds in the garden. I don’t feel like if I see weeds in the garden, I think, That’s an interesting comment on the flowers. I think, That’d be because it’s a garden.
I appreciate this take from both a storytelling and real world perspective.
Humor in grief or when facing a serious situation isn’t uncommon or out of place – it’s how people cope, it’s how people face what may normally be absurd, but it’s also just how the world works. Emotions don’t live in a silo. We don’t live in a silo.
Somewhat related (apologies to Amy Bloom if she’s offended I’m about to compare her statement on her literary work to superhero films) is a debate among people who need to lighten up about the major differences or flaws between the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. Marvel uses humor to drive the plot, develop a character, or just to lighten up a scene. DC, in the other hand, fills in the gaps with grunts and punches.
There are some who argue that Marvel’s approach is unrealistic and that may be true to its degree, but the DC approach isn’t how human nature works either. As serious as the world is around us, there’s something absurd, someone to say something out of place, someone to ease the tension.
When I see people argue against any humor in a tense situation, I’m reminded of a bit in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down which chronicles the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu after the downing of two US Black Hawk helicopters.
Fire was coming from all directions, but mostly straight up and down the alley. They were still expecting the arrival of the ground convoy at any moment. They had no way of knowing that the convoy was lost and taking heavy casualties.
Fales was too busy shooting from his position out by the tail to take notice of the placement of the floor panels. He had a pressure dressing on his calf and an IV tube in his arm.
“Scott, why don’t you get behind the Kevlar [floor panels]?” Wilkinson asked. Fales looked startled. Only now did he notice the barricade.
“Good idea,” he said.
Crouched down behind the panels, Wilkinson and Fales watched as the intense gunfire ripped first one hole through the tail boom, then another. Then another.
Wilkinson was reminded of the Steve Martin movie The Jerk, where Martin’s moronic character, unaware that villains are shooting at him, watches with surprise as bullet holes begin popping open a row of oil cans. Wilkinson shouted Martin’s line from the movie.
“They hate the cans! Stay away from the cans!”
Both men laughed.
The world going to hell around them and they laughed. It doesn’t belittle or negate the chaos they’re in. It’s just the way it is.