Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
There's nothing wrong with a joke.
Quite the opposite, jokes illustrate a number of important narrative principles, in particular the principle of "in retrospect inevitable," according to which the end of any narrative, in retrospect, should seem inevitable. We can see how this works with the joke: by the time you get to the punch line, you realize that this solution to the linguistic conundrum posed by the joke was the only possible solution, the one that would have rendered the chaos of the joke, from the beginning, perfectly orderly and sensible.
I learned this from a fellow named Joseph Skibell
who taught a creative writing seminar that I took when I was a junior in college at the University of Wisconsin. Joseph Skibell was on fellowship at that university, and part of the fellowship involved teaching one or two classes a semester. The classes were supposed to last four hours, but with him they rarely lasted more than two. Why? Joseph Skibell had just released his first book, a fictional elaboration of some strange fantasy about his grandfather - his actual grandfather - who died in the holocaust returning to consciousness as a ghost-like being and interacting with the world. I don't know much more about it than that.
I own a copy of the book, but my only foray between its covers was when I attended a reading that Joseph Skibell gave at the University Bookstore. The book did well. It even had a complimentary blurb from J.M. Coetzee on the back. J.M. Coetzee! I love J.M. Coetzee, although less so now that his work is not so aggressively post-colonial. In any event, with the publicity from the book, and constant reading appointments at various bookstores and cafes throughout the Midwest and Texas (he had written the book while in graduate school at the University of Texas), Skibell didn't have much time to think about the classes he was teaching. So be it.
I took some valuable lessons from him, nonetheless. For example, he was the first person who ever notified me that a traditional story can indeed be written according to something of a formula. First, the protagonist wants something. Or, perhaps, he doesn't want something, which is simply a negative formulation of a desire: that he wants to avoid something. Second of all, that the protagonist will make an effort to either get what he wants or avoid whatever it is that he wants to avoid. Third, that in these efforts, he will face obstacles. Fourth, he will make decisions regarding how to confront or respond to those obstacles, and the decisions that he makes will not only reveal the nature of his character but will have consequences within the story. And this, to use E.M. Forster's terms, will turn story into plot. Finally, he either will or will not succeed in getting what he wants (or avoiding whatever it is that he wants to avoid), but by the time he does, that something, that object of his desire or ire, has been transformed, at the very least in his point of view, and this transformation widens his, and therefore our, perspective, broadens his and our understanding of the world.
Skibell was a good teacher despite himself. He had us a read a number of the stories from Joyce's Dubliners, nearly all of which follow that basic model. Then, the following week, he had us all come to class with a joke. This was, as I indicated already, his strategy for illustrating the concept of in retrospect inevitable, a phrase which feels like poetry the way it comes off the tongue.
In retrospect inevitable.
In retrospect, the end of the story should seem inevitable when you finally get to it. It, and only it, has the power to lend order to the chaos that was the story itself. With jokes, the issue is usually linguistic: the punch line is almost always a play on words, the unraveling of a double-meaning, and the way it works is that while we were distracted, all along paying attention to the more obvious meaning of the word, or in any event only one of its meanings, if only we had thought to look at the other meaning, then the chaos would have had order and we would have known the punch line before we ever got to it. Some of the jokes, especially the longer, narrative jokes worked well to illustrate this principle. I told a long joke about
a cowboy captured by Indians, his horse, and three sexual escapades, and in the end the chaos of that narrative was resolved with a simple play on the words posse and pussy.
Other jokes were strictly word plays with minimal narrative, but they worked just as well. For example, the following: Question: What did the Dalai Lama say to the hot dog vendor? Answer: make me one with everything. And although there doesn't seem to be enough of a narrative to this one-liner for it to illustrate the narrative principle of in retrospect inevitable, in fact there's more than enough. What is the chaos of the narrative? That the Dalai Lama is engaging in conversation with a hot dog vendor. What could those two possibly have in common? What could a Dalai Lama possibly discuss with a hot dog vendor? Certainly, the Dalai Lama doesn't eat hot dogs. First of all, they're made of meat, and we all know that the Dalai Lama wouldn't eat meat: for a Tibetan Buddhist, it would be as well to cannibalize another person. Second of all, hot dogs are just bad for you. The Dalai Lama would never do that to his body. He's the Dalai Lama. And beyond that, the Dalai Lama and a hot dog vendor exist on two very different planes of existence.
The order? A play on words. When he says "make me one with everything," we see where their common ground is: it's somewhere in the closed territory of language. Now it makes sense. Now we can see what they would have in common, conversationally.
I went to Skibell with a petulant question. Take Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls
, I said, hoping to challenge some of his storytelling principles. In that book, it seems that the only thing our protagonist, Robert Jordan, could possibly want is to survive this escapade into the Spanish
countryside to blow a bridge with a band of Republican guerillas.
The problem, however, is that in a none too oblique fashion, the book notifies us within the first fifty pages that he is not going to survive the blowing of the bridge in the form of an old gypsy reading Jordan's palm and refusing to tell him, or us, what she sees; but, by refusing to tell us, she tells us, and we, the readers, as well as Robert Jordan, know very well.
And, before he could answer me, I saw clearly: Wait a second. Robert Jordan doesn't want to survive. He wants to live. And so in the few days he has remaining, we, and he, will see whether or not he can really live.
And Joseph Skibell's book? It was called, as it turns out, A Blessing on the Moon.
Even just now, I had to turn around and consult a pile near the bottom of one of my bookshelves to remind myself of the title. I never forget that it involves the moon, but what always comes to mind are phrases like "jumping over the moon," or "straight to the moon, Alice," a reference to the Honeymooners although I'm not sure I've ever seen an episode of the Honeymooners, or even "moon walk.
Speaking of Michael Jackson...
Why does Michael Jackson like twenty-nine-year-olds?
That's the question; this is a joke.
Why does Michael Jackson like twenty-nine-year-olds?
Because there are twenty of them!
I tell that joke to my creative writing class this past Thursday. Yes, my creative writing class. Now, not entirely unlike Joseph Skibell, but somewhat unlike Joseph Skibell because I haven't written a book about the moon, I make a rather poor facsimile of a living teaching creative writing classes to community college students in Orange County. That's right: community college students in Orange County. Oh Lord, imagine the purple prose!
(I, too, was once accused of writing "purple prose," by none other than Barbara Kingsolver, when I made the unfortunate decision to enroll in a graduate seminar she was teaching when I was a student at the University of Arizona. But she was off the mark, or at least partly so: if my prose purple, it is the color of irony, and not of death.)
"Because there are twenty of them!" I say, now, in relation to Michael Jackson.
A short Asian boy with a wiry, pubescent moustache, sitting tucked away in the middle region of the classroom, says, "I don't get it."
A girl with big gums sitting in the front row seizes up with shock and displeasure. Her lips peel back. The gums are bigger than ever. I was reading a predictably tedious and discursively-conservative article in my roommate Patrick's Harper's Magazine the other day, while eating a bowl of his cereal, and I came across the following description of a Republican in Florida worried for a moment that the person talking to her, who would turn out to be the writer of the article that I would read in Harpers Magazine, might be a liberal: "The muscles in her face all fired at once." In any event, that is what happens with the girl in the front row with the big gums when I make my joke about Michael Jackson. The muscles in her face all fire at once. And the gums. They expand. They are as big as Texas and as purple as her prose.
"I can't believe you just said that," she finally manages to say. "He is so innocent.
As opposed to just regular innocent?
I explain to her that, as a matter of fact, we have no idea whether or not Michael Jackson was innocent
of the crimes of which he has been accused; that none of us in that classroom knows Michael Jackson, has ever been to Michael Jackson's house, has ever spent time with Michael Jackson with or without young, male children around, that all of the information we have ever received about Michael Jackson was never anything more than publicity, propaganda, advertising for a product, that as much as we may feel like we know something about Michael Jackson, we in fact don't know anything more about Michael Jackson and the kind of person he is and the tendencies he has than we do about any other person we have never met, and that therefore the conversation is entirely speculative, and doesn't she know that speculation caused the great depression. She cannot not speak to his innocence,
nor I to his guilt, although that didn't keep me from making a joke which pre-supposed his guilt. The joke, I explain, simply made use of that supposed guilt as a figure, and of Jackson himself as a character to whom we could attach that figure, a sort of bearer of the figure. As for the real man, or person in any event, on trial somewhere nearby but also incredibly distant, in some impenetrable chamber of justice, I know nothing and she knows nothing. Nobody knows anything. It is absurd to have an opinion.
She winces and makes a face as though she has just eaten something rancid.
Then I give my latest version of the Joseph Skibell lecture.
"Michael Jackson is definitely guilty," somebody says from one of the back rows.
The girl with the big gums, a staunch defender to the end, wheels around in her seat.
"Who said that?" she says.
"You have no idea," I say, non-specifically, toward the back of the classroom. "And you have no idea," I say to the girl with big gums. "None of us has an idea. It's a ridiculous thing to have an opinion about. Don't waste your time forming opinions about things you know nothing about. Waste your time forming opinions about things you do know about, and then breaking those opinions down, changing them, and re-forming them, ad nauseum or ad infinitum, or whatever ad you prefer. But give it up already with Michael Jackson."
On the way home, through north Orange County and then Long Beach and finally into Mid-City Los Angeles, I'm thinking to myself that it's really a pretty tedious model for making a story that I've shared with these students, perhaps the most tedious model. All of this desiring and all of these obstacles. A Buddhist would be scandalized. The Dalai Lama, for example.
At home, I'm drinking whiskey and conversing with my other roommate, Brooke. She has nicknamed herself Babbling. I call her Brooklyn,
after the borough. She has disclosed to me that she is a habitual self-discloser. It's a real psychological condition. What it means is that she can't help it: she discloses everything. For example, she has just disclosed to me that she is a habitual self-discloser, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, or, if you prefer, ad nausem.
"Can you believe these kids?" I ask her, when she has finished disclosing and I have given her the background on the Michael Jackson situation. "They think they know something about Michael Jackson. I'm trying to tell them, stop speculating. You don't know anything. I don't know anything. We have no idea whether Michael Jackson is innocent
or guilty, so we should probably just stop talking about it."
Brooke raises her eyebrows.
I reel. My own roommate.
"You cannot have an opinion on this," I tell her.
"No," she says. "I definitely can."
"Why?" I say. "How?"
She takes a deep breath, as she does before she discloses or pontificates, as though she would just as soon get the information across without having to actually employ language in the process.
"You know Jackie?" she says.
It's a rhetorical question. Of course I know Jackie.
"You remember when she used to work for that lawyer?"
A less rhetorical question, but in any event, I do remember.
"Well that guy she worked for was the lawyer for the first kid that sued Michael Jackson. The one that he paid all that money to in the settlement."
This isn't a question, exactly, but it has the inflection of a question. In other words: do you remember when he paid the money in the settlement?
Unfortunately, I do.
"Well her boss was the lawyer in that case and it was total bullshit and he knew it. They were a hundred percent lying."
"And he told Jackie this?"
"I don't know if he told her," Brooke says. "But she knew. It was like common knowledge around the office."
And since he was innocent
in that case, we can assume that he's innocent
in this case?
Brooke shrugs and extends her bottom lip ambiguously.
"Maybe not," she says, "but I would say probably."
Fair enough; and I would say that she's probably right.
Three years ago, I was dating a girl I didn't particularly like and Jackie was working for a lawyer in Los Angeles and not dating anyone. I knew her because she lived with my friend Brooke, who would eventually become my roommate, and I knew Brooke because she had lived with my younger sister for two years when they were in college. One night, when Brooke was out of town and their other roommate, Katy was staying at her girlfriend's house, I watched Hitchcock's Vertigo
with Jackie. The television in her bedroom was at the foot of the bed, and we lay on top of the covers and watched the movie, and when it was over, provocatively, she crawled to the foot of the bed, leaned forward, and turned off the television. She was wearing small shorts and no underwear and for a moment which ended before I could quite believe it was happening, the cleavage between her buttocks passed before my eyes. She had just shot me the moon!
It was a move. There could be no question that it was as move. People don't do things like that without knowing it, especially girls who wear small shorts when boys come over to watch movies at their house when both roommates are gone for the night.
I was too feint of spirit; I didn't quite believe, or didn't quite want to believe, and anyway, there would have been no future in that relationship, and besides that I already had a girlfriend, even if I didn't like her very much. Jackie and I flirted for a couple of minutes in her bed, pawing at each other in a sexually neutral fashion. She went to the bathroom. I rolled over, obeying some vague instinct, and moved the mattress an inch away from the wall. I was like Picasso, who once famously said: I don't seek, I find. I found, I found. There, tucked between the wall and the bed, was a green plastic vibrator. I watched it for a moment. It did not move or speak. I listened for the sound of the toilet flushing. The vibrator sparkled like an emerald. It would go where I could not. When Jackie came out of the bathroom, I had already put my shoes on and was standing up. The universe of possibilities had closed. She hugged me at the door and I smelled her and thought of her vibrator. A few months later, she met a young Irish man named Darin, a computer programmer from Belfast, and now she lives there with him and has, from what I've heard, secured her European citizenship.
We're no longer in contact, Jackie and I, but perhaps someday she'll read this essay and know that even years after she had left it, she was still touching my life, especially in the area of Michael Jackson, and also think about the fact that I know what color her vibrator is. Maybe, if she hasn't already, upon reading this, she'll exchange it for a new one.
One of my students writes a great story about a fellow who wakes up dying for his morning coffee and encounters all kinds of obstacles in his quest to get that coffee. Eventually he ends up at the police station, sitting in a holding cell, sipping a lukewarm cup of coffee. What irony.
Another of my students hands in an even better story about a fellow who wakes up dying for his morning coffee and encounters no obstacles whatsoever in his quest to get that coffee. However, between the moment he wakes up and the moment he drinks that coffee, he thinks obsessively about all of the things that could potentially go wrong. The coffee is delicious. When it finally touches his lips, piping hot and filled with flavor, we share his sense of bitter disappointment.