December 2009

Michael Schaub

fiction

The Book of Jokes by Momus

The cult favorite Scottish musician Nick Currie has taken Momus as his stage name, a reference to the Greek god of satire who was banished from heaven after mocking Zeus, and just about every other god in the pantheon. Naming yourself after the most famous god to joke truth to power tips your hand, of course: It's almost like having a bumper sticker on your car that reads "Jokes Are No Laughing Matter." Humor is famously hard to pull off; it's even harder if you think, even for a minute, that what you're doing isn't, at least to some degree, unserious. It's hard to tell, listening to Momus's music, whether he takes himself very seriously or not at all. It's that contradiction that has caused his work to be greeted with devotion by his fans and shrugs by those who don't get it. And nobody seems really sure whether there actually is anything to get.

It's likely that his debut novel, The Book of Jokes, will be received with the same confused reactions. The book is gleefully postmodern, and only a novel in the most technical sense: it's meta-jest, a long joke about jokes, and it is, by turns, funny and horrifying. It's no surprise that Momus turns out to be a talented writer -- his lyrics have always been wholly original and sometimes brilliant, and he's worked previously as a journalist. The surprise is that he comes pretty close to pulling off a nearly 200-page-long joke about jokes without coming off as pretentious, precious, or in love with his own voice. It's not perfect. It's overlong, even given its slim size, and it's so convoluted in parts, it sometimes veers toward incoherence. But it's very funny, and even though his literary influences are sometimes apparent -- Genet, Calvino, and (obviously, given the subject matter) Rabelais -- it's definitely original.

The two protagonists of the novel are (as near as I can tell; Momus, perhaps deliberately, isn't overly clear on who is speaking when) Sebastian Skeleton, jailed with a murderer and a rapist with designs on him, and Peter Skeleton, his son, who tries to explain the family to the reader. The Skeletons live in a glass house -- this is probably significant, but hell if I can figure out why -- and they live their lives in what seems to be an alternate reality where jokes control the machinations of the universe. Got it? Of course not. Remember that this novel is itself a joke; the premise doesn't have to make sense, which is good, because at no point does anything in this book come close to making sense.

Chapters alternate between Sebastian and Peter. The former spends his time plotting an escape from prison with the murderer and the rapist; the latter recounts his childhood growing up in a family governed by jokes. Here's Peter trying to explain his situation:

Call it "joke dharma," if you like. Bad jokes, dirty jokes are, to my world, what the force of gravity is to yours. They shape every event in my life, and in the life of my family. I am not sure why it is so, but that it is, I cannot doubt. As a result, I live in a grim mirror world. I am a character trapped in a book of jokes -- jokes, furthermore, which are in very poor taste.
"Poor taste" is an understatement; it is, in fact, one of the only moments of understatement in this book. The jokes that govern their lives involve rape, incest, pedophilia, bestiality, and death. It's uncomfortable stuff -- in parts, Peter performs oral sex on his father after Sebastian has raped Peter's sister, and he's sexually mutilated by his grandfather. These aren't the kind of jokes that you actually, you know, laugh at. But by taking the jokes to their logical conclusion -- anyone who's been to college and had at least one friend with an unsettling, sick sense of humor has heard these -- Momus forces the hand of the reader, asking him or her to confront why we think some things are funny and some are taboo.

Momus's prose is elegant and practiced; the contrast between his somewhat formal writing style and the startlingly offensive subject matter is effective, and maybe the main reason this book succeeds to the extent that it does. And it is funny, in an unbearably grim way. His funniest moments aren't his forays into black humor, necessarily; he's actually at his best when he's a little restrained. (In one of the book's funniest passages -- it's almost a throwaway line -- Sebastian describes the weather: "The brilliant afternoon began to cloud over now, and a spring chill spread through the air. April is the cruelest month! And it was only March.")

As the book spirals toward its climax, you begin to wonder whether Momus has concocted nothing more than a shaggy dog tale, the kind of joke with a long, elaborate setup, and a punchline that makes no sense. The last several pages make it seem that way. But Momus ties it together with the last sentence of the book, bringing everything home in a totally unexpected way. It's a little heartbreaking, it's very funny, and it's intensely clever -- one sentence that actually redeems, and comes close to explaining, some of the more meandering and inexplicable passages earlier in the book. Momus's novel is a lot like his music: It's an acquired taste that I'm not really sure whether I've acquired. I can't say that I understand this novel; I suspect that understanding, though, wasn't what Momus was going for here. And it is, after all, more of a joke than a novel. I'm not sure I get it. But I'm pretty sure that doesn't matter.

The Book of Jokes by Momus
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564785610
200 Pages