Whenever I read a book that really captures my idea of modern life, it’s always one of the hilarious/depressing variety (a combo that I tend to gravitate towards). I think Nick Hornby’s How to be Good made the mold for this one: middle-aged woman hates her husband, hates her kids sometimes, makes witty observations about “bleeding-heart liberals” and “people like us,” who believe in good things theoretically, but don’t actually do anything. Cue quirky outside character and fast-paced dialogue. End with a scene more grim than the one we started with.
Why does dark comedy seem to be the best way to express our modern problems? Because most of us can’t even talk about this stuff to our best friends without throwing in a generous dose of self-deprecation and self-defensive jokes. Got a pesky debilitating mental illness? Make a quip about taking your “crazy pills,” or forever hold your peace.
I’ve recently added two books to my collection “People these days. So sad, but with a finely-tuned sense of wit!”: The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, and The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews.
For the sake of laziness, and because I’m super-busy on Twitter right now, I will now refer to The Financial Lives of the Poets as Financial Lives. It’s no surprise that Hornby gave his stamp of approval to this recession-themed tragicomedy. We’ve got a sad-sack (but kind of cool and self-aware, obviously) middle-aged protagonist, Matt, complete with journalism-induced unemployment and a quietly failing marriage plotline that gives a nod to Facebook (he only knows about his wife’s maybe-infidelity because he reads messages between her and an old flame). He’s terrified that they’re about to lose their (way-out-of-their-league-in-the-first-place) house. He doesn’t tell his wife because of the whole macking on the ex-boyfriend thing, so naturally, he decides to sell pot to make some cash, you know, just for a while. He’s realizes that in these stressful times, there’s a whole untapped market of grown-ups who used to get high, and are now nostalgic and desperate enough to start again, provided there’s a completely non-threatening, loafer-wearing dealer in the picture.
Is it a really a spoiler if I say that his stoned path to redemption fails spectacularly?
I wouldn’t be able to stomach a story that hits so close to home (newspapers are all dying, you can’t make a living as a journalist anymore – lalalalala!) without the funny parts. I confess I skimmed the actual poetry passages (see Twitter comment, above), but the dialogue in Financial Lives made it for me: funny, natural, chock-full of zingers. If this book were a song, it would be catchy as hell.
At first, it sometimes seems like books peppered with modern references (7-11, automated phone systems, Facebook, Wilco?) are trying too hard. But after I get used to all the brand names and band names, I wonder why more books set in the present-day don’t include these inextricable parts of our lives.
Here’s an example of Matt’s particular blend of sad-sackness:
Perhaps the most pathetic thing about long-married guys like me is the delusional list that each of us keeps in our heads, a list of women we think are secretly attracted to us. Amber was always at the top of my delusional list. Even now, in my beaten-down state, I can’t help but have a kind of muscle-memory that she’s crushing on me a little (ooh, out-of-shape, middle-aged unemployed guy, yum) – an assumption for which there is absolutely no evidence.
Makes fun of himself? Check. Apes modern speech patterns? Check. Sad? Hmm, pretty sad, but maybe not soul-crushingly sad.
No, when I’ve got a hankering for a story that will tickle my funny bone and make me question the point of it all, I turn to Canadian fiction.
The Flying Troutmans has its own smart-ass, pop-culture-wise narrator. However, while Financial Lives is mostly funny, with the darker recession-themed plotline to add depth, The Flying Troutmans is mostly depressing, with some snappy dialogue to make you not want to kill yourself.
Hattie is forced to give up her free-wheeling life in Paris (which is, surprise, actually not so fun, since her flaky Ashram-bound boyfriend dumps her but promises to communicate telepathically) to go back to Manitoba and take care of her clinically depressed sister Min’s kids. She loves the kids, but doesn’t relish the idea of being saddled with them forever, so they all pile into a van and head stateside to search for the children’s father, who was long ago driven off by the mercurial Min.
At first the children seem pretty standard: the sulky, reticent teenage boy and the eternally chatty, uber-quirky, purple-haired eleven-year-old Theodora. But Theodora (aka Thebes) isn’t just cute-weird. She’s desperately attention-seeking, heart-breakingly pathetic, socially-alienated weird. And her penchant for speaking in faux hip-hop lingo even though she’s a “skinny white kid” isn’t just played for laughs:
Pop says when Lo wakes up we’re outie, she said.
Thebes, I said. This talking thing? The way you talk, it’s –
No, no, she said, shhh, please don’t tell me how to talk. I have to do it this way, okay? I won’t always. She looked like she was about to cry again so I told her no, no, it was fine, she could talk however she wanted, it was stupid of me to have brought it up, we were good.
Thebes is a bright, creative, compassionate kid who also happens to be compulsively annoying for some very good reasons. I think this character hits a few extra nerves for me because she reminds me of someone I love, who also talks and talks and talks, often out of nervousness or just plain excitement. This run-in at a bronco event made me burst into tears:
She yelled out the numbers in German and then French and then Spanish. She was very excited and had to be reminded constantly, by the family of haters behind us, to sit down and stay down, they’d paid their money to see the bronco bustin’ and dang if they were gonna have some wild foreign retard leapin’ up every second and blockin’ their view.
[...] She watched the rest of the cowboys silently. Tears were running down her face and getting mixed up with the cotton candy.
Let’s go, I said. I grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the bleachers and down the ramp and outside into the not-so-fresh night air. Lights were flashing and people were laughing and screaming. We walked over to a dark, empty piece of grass behind a heifer barn and sat down.
Go ahead, I said.
It’s just that . . ., she said.
I know, I said.
It’s just that . . . I’m not retarded, she said.
I know that, I said.
I just want Min, she said. She never yells at me. She thinks I’m beauti–
You are, I said. She couldn’t get very far past that before it all erupted and she was sobbing in my arms and then all the captive little heifers in the barn next to us joined in, crying and lowing like a bovine choir of angels in solidarity with Thebes.
I love that this book reminded me that beautiful writing doesn’t have to sound old-fashioned or stuffy. And both Financial Lives and The Flying Troutmans made me realise that an author shouldn’t have to ignore Converse Chucks or social networking or lame attempts at ebonics to write something with meaning.