Friday, April 4, 2008

Laughing and Screaming

We don't watch horror movies at my house. I was explaining this to my fourteen-year-old this fall sometime around Halloween, because she was in the "but everyone else does it" mood. I told her that she could watch them, but she'd have to do it with her friends at their houses, because her brother and her father and I don't want to see (or hear) that stuff.

Sometimes in the evening Ron and I go downstairs to watch an R-rated movie we don't think our kids need to see. This fall we did that with the DVD of Tristram Shandy. It's a pretty awful movie, and I don't recommend it, but it did make me laugh every time it went back to Tristram's mother screaming while trying to give birth to him. Even though we were downstairs and the kids were upstairs, Eleanor evidently heard bursts of screaming accompanied by my laughter. After the faceoff about horror movies, she was incredulous that we'd chosen to watch one and sit down there and laugh at it! I had to try to explain the plot of Tristram Shandy, which is a pretty interesting thing to try to do (as he says himself, it's not the kind of book where you should be "reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart").

At any rate, I was thinking of Tristram Shandy today for a number of reasons, chief among them that I just read Douglas Coupland's new book The Gum Thief. As I meandered amid Coupland's several narrators and his book-within-a-book (a not-funny-enough conscious ripoff of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), I found myself thinking how much better Sterne did this sort of thing. Coupland does not seem to me to be consciously imitating Sterne's style, but his character Roger certainly has some major hobby horses.

Tristram explains hobby horses at some length and piecemeal (as he explains everything). Here is one of his attempts: "For my hobby-horse, if you recollect a little, is no way a vicious beast; he has scarce one hair or lineament of the ass about him----'Tis the sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for the present hour----a maggot, a butterfly, a picture, a fiddle-stick----an uncle Toby's siege----or any any thing, which a man makes a shift to get a stride on, to canter it away from the cares and solicitudes of life----'Tis as useful a beast as is in the whole creation----nor do I really see how the world could do without it----"

Roger says "I draw lines everywhere. It's what makes people think I'm Mister Difficult. For example, people in the ATM machine lineup who stand too far away from the dispenser forfeit their right to be next in line. You know the people I mean--the ones who stay fifty feet away so they don't look like they're trying to see your PIN number. Come on. I look at these people and I think, Man, you must feel truly guilty about something to make you broadcast your sense of guilt to the world with your freakish lineup philosophy. And so I simply stand in front of them and go next. That teaches them.
What else? I also believe that if someone comes up behind you on the freeway and flashes their lights to get you to move into the slow lane, they deserve whatever punishment you dole out to them. I promptly slow down and drive at the same speed as the car beside me so that I can punish Speed Racer for his impertinence."

I have liked Coupland's books before. As you can probably tell, I'm an easy mark for writers who make me laugh. But this latest book ends up being more irritating than funny. I'd rather go back to Tristram Shandy, who does finally admit that his whole story, in the end, is about a COCK and a BULL.

1 comment:

Lenore said...

Roger doesn't sound that pleasant, that's for sure.

I got a kick out of imagining your kids thinking you were watching horror when you were watching TS. LOL.