The OF Blog: Momus, The Book of Jokes

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Momus, The Book of Jokes

My name is Sebastian Skeleton.  This is my prison diary.

In the exercise yard today I heard two men arguing about whether it's possible for two men to be each other's uncles.

"Of course it is," said one (a child molester).

"No it isn't," said the other (a murderer).

"Look, it's possible for a man to have an uncle, right?"  said the Molester.

"Of course it is, I'm not disputing that," answered the Murderer.

"Then all I have to prove to you is that a man could have an uncle who was also his nephew."

"And how could that be?" the Murderer demanded.

"Because he would be an uncle via one union, and a nephew via another."

The murderer, who wasn't very bright, was quiet for a while as he tried to work out in his head whether this was possible or not.

"I need a piece of paper," he said. (p. 5)

Jokes are often elaborate constructions, requiring a proper amount of buildup before its punchline is delivered.  Jokes can be cruel, capricious creations, constructions that are designed to devastate one's self-importance or to deflate another's self-esteem.  And yet we laugh, often at the harshest jokes of all, those involving life's foibles.  There is something fascinating about those jokes, where we can simultaneously feel close and distant to the object of those jokes.

In his first novel, Scottish writer Momus explores those various facets of jokes in The Book of Jokes.  Starring a family doomed to live their lives via all of the jokes that have ever been told.  Remember a joke about pigfuckers?  Guess what, the narrator and his family have lived it.  Or how about the jokes involving a Murderer and a Molester in prison?  Well, if you want to know the punchline to that one, you have to read The Book of Jokes to find out.

The Book of Jokes is by its very nature a very atypical novel.  There is barely anything that could be called a coherent plot; it is, on both the surface and deeper within, a story predicated on jokes and how such jokes are played out.  There is a natural choppiness to this narrative, as the short, punchy chapters set up and execute various jokes.  Sometimes the narrator is a son on the receiving end of a rapacious father's hunger.  Other times, there are some darkly humorous tales revolving around Scots, sheep, goats, incest, and cheesemaking.

I have to confess that it is very difficult to review The Book of Jokes based on traditional criteria of plot (there is one, but it is contained within a concluding punchline), characterization (the characters are playing out roles in elaborate jokes, more or less), or theme (the joke's the thing, and Hamlet would certainly agree).  Perhaps this book is best judged by how well Momus executes these elaborate jokes.  In that regard, The Book of Jokes mostly delivers.  Although there are a few occasions where the setup or punchlines fall flat, for the most part, the jokes, cruel and mostly harmless alike, are delivered succinctly and with a proper amount of buildup and execution.  The recurring characters/punching bags serve to give a sense of continuity to these jokes, with the end result of some jokes building upon previously-executed jokes.  For those who enjoy humor, especially if it's humor at the expense of others, The Book of Jokes will be just the tonic for them.

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