Monday, June 01, 2009

The Signal by Ron Carlson

Full disclosure: I have a deep and abiding love for Ron Carlson, who has been my mentor for more than ten years now. But who would you be if you didn't blog about the books by people you love?

One of the interesting things about reading everything that one writer puts out (and it's rare that I do that), is you notice when they drop certain habits. And lately Carlson has dropped the habit of being funny. Now, I'm sure he still is and can be, and I wouldn't be surprised if he comes out with some short stories soon that are once and again really funny. But this novel, despite some moments of humor, is not funny at all. It's absolutely and completely sincere. And lately it's not that often that I read fiction that is completely sincere. It's about the mourning of two losses the protagonist's wife (who he betrayed and she divorced him) and his father (who died just before his romance started years before with his wife). And even though the plot is a combined Western-shoot-out-Secret Agent thriller kind of thing (done literarily, of course), the book's heart is about how those two losses--and the nostalgic memories connected to them--seep through all the camping and hunting and manly action.

So it just made me think maybe humor sometimes comes at a cost. Because the light tone that I associate with a lot of Carlson's short stories--which I really enjoy--would have prevented the reader from really feeling the mourning that comes with this novel (as with Carlson's previous novel, Five Skies). Not to say heartbreak can't come with humor...probably my favorite novel of all time (if I really had to pick) is Catch-22, which is uber-funny and yet uber-serious. But perhaps a certain kind of narrator--that charming, smart-alecky one, needs to interrupt itself, and choose a different tone, for deeper impact. And in short stories, it's harder to vary tone. So short stories are often serious and sincere or funny and ironic. I'm not sure about this... for class we just read "Jon" by George Saunders, which is funny and ironic and a little bit glorious and awesome (in the literal sense not the Valley Girl sense) in its end. So I guess certain writers pull it off.

I recently mentioned in class that I never seemed to read comedies as realist and there was much protest at this--as real life is quite funny and often absurd--but real life doesn't come with such a one note point of view as most comedies do (because they leave out all the unfunny stuff). The context for the comment was Zadie Smith's White Teeth, another favorite of mine, but an example of when humor eliminates the chance of heartbreak (or heartlift). She chose humor over heartbreak though, I wouldn't say she went for both.

1 comment:

eric b. said...

That's funny--I tend to read White Teeth as realistic and kind of heartbreaking (the restaurant that Samad works at especially--and his relationship with Poppy (?-is that her name?). Only in the final part, with the mice and genetic engineering and so forth--do I see it veering (too?) far from the realistic.