How to Write Funny — on Charles Stross and the 4th Wall

 APOCALYPSE CODEX

Charles Stross

                   On the surface, Charles Stross’ third “Laundry Files” novel, The Apocalypse Codex, seems to be a serious secret agency-meets-sorcery story. Other work by Stross – his straight SF novels such as Singularity Sky and his shorter fiction about sorcery like the Oliver North-inspired elegant short story “A Colder War” – all seem to imply a seriousness of storytelling. In Apocalypse Codex, Stross often writes as if he wishes to be taken seriously. Here’s a description from early on in the novel:

In my dream… I’m one of the Watchers – or rather, I’m a passive, helpless passenger inside the skull of one of the dead, mummified Watchers who the Baron impaled in a huge circle on the dying plain nearly a century ago, to form a ring of human sacrificial guards around the Pyramid. The Baron, himself a figure out of nightmares and necromancer of no small talent, had nightmares of his own about the thing that sleeps in the Pyramid…

 

This is a great hook for a story that will carry the reader to other dimensions and through terrible events with a trusted narrator. Unfortunately, however, I feel gypped by Stross: when the jokes start erupting, I almost feel as if he’s lied to me. Truth be told, I’ve always had a very short leash for humor in the midst of a story that involves the supernatural, because I want this stuff to be an internally-serious narrative. But in Apocalypse Codex, Stross is writing something else entirely. He is writing a supernatural novel replete with jokes – both of the historical and the internal variety.

As an example of a historical joke, Stross makes the real-life spymaster James J. Angleton into a demon-possessed ancient entity known as the Eater of Souls (and a bureaucratic manager). This ploy unfortunately ends up contaminating the waters for those of us who would want to treat Angleton as a serious character from history.[1] Stross also makes a multitude of jokes internal to the story he tells (such as having other characters refer to our hero as a “chinless wonder”), and jokes that reference other stories and fictions (like his constant and humorous references to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthlulu mythos). Finally, and most importantly, he makes a lot of jokes about the type of story he is telling here.

So what about jokes? What bothers me about what Stross is doing here? Why do I feel gypped as a reader?

The key difference between making fun of a story or making fun of a character is how the characters themselves treat the story they are in. If they are aware of the references and the self-referential humor, then the story itself begins to bend under the weight of superficial irony and frays as a coherent fabric of fiction. It becomes something different than a STORY, and is rather more malleable as the 4th wall breaks apart.

Characters are telling the reader their own (humorous) opinions of the world around them, or even – in the worst cases – picking up bits of scenery, and poking holes in them. For this reason, as far as I can see, these kinds of self-referential novels that poke (humorous) holes in the fabric of the story work best – perhaps only work – as a first person story. Your main character is cracking jokes about the story they are in, and you are hearing their voice tell you (the reader) about that story.

All of Christopher Moore’s side-splitting novels, from Lamb (about Jesus) to Bite Me (about vampires) to A Dirty Job (about Death) are narrated as first person novels. The glaring exception to this first-person rule is, of course, Douglas Adam’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I’ve never finished, because I find it nearly unreadable. Without the first person perspective, suspension of disbelief ain’t there for me, at all. Yet despite the device of the first person narrator, I also find it hard to find credible the character of Bob Howard, our hero, in The Apocalypse Codex. Two quick examples will suffice to make my point about emotional credibility.  To set the scene for the first example, Bob has just been summoned to confront demons from another world. The demonic figures we met in that first passage I cited are characters that figure prominently in this summoning. The night he finds out that this nightmare is real, Bob and his wife cry each other to sleep.

In the morning, our fearless writer, Stross, could have Bob tell jokes to his wife to try to defuse the tension and fear. This would have been natural organic humor – a joke that would have maintained the internal consistency of the story, and would have made us like Bob better. However, Stross chooses to have Bob make comments to the reader about his experience in a way that mocks the seriousness of the plot point: “I stand up and we embrace, awkwardly because of the coffee mug glued to the palm of my right hand (it’s a shape-shifting leech that feeds on fatigue poisons in my blood; it’ll fall off when I’m fully awake).” This is funny, but it’s doubly funny because the beings he is about to confront would potentially feed on human beings in the same manner, so we are uncertain (as readers) how to read this observation. Is it gallows humor? Is it a great observation on coffee itself? Or is it just lazy writing?

Later that same day, Bob goes in to work, and instead of worrying about his wife, he worries about his toiletries: “When I go into work later that morning my first stop is the armory, just to draw a new and unused protective ward and a pair of mummified pigeons’ feet in leather bags. I draw the line at toothpaste, though.” This would be really funny, except for the fact that Bob will probably never see his wife again. It detracts from our enjoyment of the story, instead of adding to the story’s richer depth. And it wouldn’t have been that hard to make it contribute – Bob could have made both references as dialogue spoken to his wife or another chracter, and built a deeper emotional connection with her. Instead, Stross decides to involve the reader in his sideways observations.

So how does one use humor to build a connection to characters? One example is found in the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. In this set of novels, the character of Severus Snape veers dangerously close to the self-parody, what with all the black flapping and snarky comments and obvious glares.[2] What saves these moments is the fact that the other characters – especially Harry, with whom we are usually traveling in a close third perspective – do take Snape very, very seriously indeed. It’s hard to laugh at someone who you believe may kill you any second.[3] So instead of readers laughing at Snape, we end up laughing at the other character’s over-the-top reactions to Snape. The story itself remains internally consistent. Characters take Snape – and the story – very seriously. We care more about Potter (and Snape) as characters with emotional connections.

Unfortunately, in Bob Howard’s first-person story of The Apocalypse Codex, it is not so clear that Bob Howard takes the story he lives in very seriously at all. More than once, it almost seems as if Bob will brush aside the scenery, walk through the set and violate the 4th wall – and he’d do this just to get a cheap laugh or tell a dumb joke. We don’t care as much about Bob or his wife. I would argue that this tendency toward internal jokes damages his story in all sorts of ways, not just in terms of creating extra (and unnecessary) emotional distance between his characters and his readers, but also in terms of not allowing us to take his plot-driven novel very seriously at all as a coherent story.

To cite one more instance, Bob is constantly talking about the (funny) ways that computers interact with the sorcerous world. To wit, Bob observes that his computer’s security is set up to react to insecure content: “And when I say isn’t cleared, I mean that any attempt to type certain codewords for restricted or confidential topics will cause smoke to rise from the keyboard. Laundry IT have a very literal-minded approach to designing firewalls.” This is funny, sure, but does it help us to get a coherent picture of a realistic sorcerous IT department? The answer is No. It seems like a child’s imaginary game of an IT department that thinks it can do spells. Which is to say, perhaps it is a commentary on the whole “imaginary” enterprise of creating stories. Perhaps Stross is telling us that all stories are simply “children’s imaginary games.” If he is doing this with such humorous asides, then he’s undertaking the same sort of enterprise that critics have been engaging in regarding the “realistic novel” for the last fifty years or so.

What happens when a story becomes about the act of story-telling? Italo Calvino comes to mind. So do other meta-storytellers like the new abstract writers and experimental writers throughout the 80s and 90s. In fact, various writers over the last fifty years have critique the straightforward telling of a tale – Susan Sontag, for example, was at the ramparts for decades, decrying the coercive influence of the novel. Yet in her latter years, it is interesting to observe that she turned – like eminent French critic Julia Kristeva – to the comforts of a “straight” narrative, in her “romance” The Volcano Lover. Something about an internally-consistent “serious” novel speaks to our deepest human longings must more than a good (or bad) joke.

In the worst cases, I’d argue that the humorous SF/fantasy novels of Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony serve the purpose of breaking down the idea of fiction as creating an hermetic and internally consistent world. When a story is a meta-commentary on the act of telling a fiction, it exists as ironic commentary on the activity itself. This is true whether that’s through the technique itself, such as Calvino, Sontag, or through humor like Anthony, Douglas Adams, and others.

There’s a fine line though, in the “Xanth” novels of Piers Anthony, where he is not critiquing the act of writing the story, so much as he is allowing his characters to critique the story they are living in, and mock it. It is an act somewhat akin to the day-to-day humor that we have when we tell someone about our very bad day, and turn that day into a series of good jokes about ourselves. In stories that perform this magic trick, the main characters take their situation – and the fabric of the story – very seriously indeed. Yet such “serious” stories can still manage to contain a great deal of organic humor. This is actually a lot harder to do than it looks – characters have to be authentically real down to their bones for a character-driven “serious” novel to carry off a hilarious situation.

In this regard, I think of James Herriot’s wonderful first book All Creatures, Great and Small,[4] which paints a convincing picture of a country vet, with both pathos and bathos evident – broad comedy is side by side with observations of human and animal tragedy and sadness. What holds Herriot’s (fictional) narrative together – and what made so many readers convinced that it was absolutely biographical – is the utter grounded-ness and believability of the narrator. The protagonist takes the story seriously, even as chaos is erupting around him. In this way, humor is more honest to the story that the characters live in, and readers empathize with the main character’s perspective.

In summary, let me be clear that I would very much like to write stories that contain internal humor. My recent efforts in limning the character of “Liam” in Sinful Folk try for some humor, with limited success. But I’d like to avoid the ironic or sarcastic meta-narrative observations that have the effect – in my opinion – of pushing readers forcibly away from emotional engagement with my story. I don’t want my readers to snicker and sneer: I’d much prefer them to really connect, to laugh and to cry, in a real and honest way.



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[1] As I found out to my chagrin when I let a friend who is my target novel for this novel read an early chapter. He did not realize I wasn’t taking a character directly from Stross, but was referencing the historical Angleton. Basically, Stross is screwing up historical figures for the rest of us who want to write “serious” novels about that same history.

 

[2] For a broader take on the inherent self-parody in the character of Snape, I’d refer you to “Potter Puppet Pals,” available to the discerning reader on YouTube. It’s hilarious, and oh so very sharp on Snape and Dumbledore, and other foibles found in the series.

[3] Although as Harry learns in the third book, perhaps that is indeed the only way to truly confront your fears – by laughing at them. I refer you to The Prisoner of Azkaban, and the use of Riddikulus.

[4] Some of his latter books do not as successfully hew that line of believability and taking his characters seriously. Fortunately, however, Herriot never falls into the meta-narrative trap of being funny for the sake of being funny.

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