Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich

Even a funny joke can pall if you hear it over and over too quickly. And a book of stories that's entirely built on one single joke needs to be read over a long period of time to stay funny. [1] So, if there are any authors out there contemplating putting together a book of funny stories, my big advice would be to use several jokes.

A counterexample to that advice, for example, is Simon Rich's recent story/essay collection The Last Girlfriend on Earth, and Other Love Stories. That book collects thirty short pieces -- all fictional, in various styles, all humorous, mostly in the vein of a New Yorker "Shouts & Murmurs" piece, though generally not that hermetic -- in the space of barely two hundred pages. And every single one is based on the Standard Sitcom Relationship, Junior Division: she is romantic and demanding and inexplicable, while he is oblivious and distracted and always does the wrong thing.

Admittedly, that setup is not, technically, a "joke." But it is the basis, in one way or another, for every one of the pieces in this book. Individually, any of them would be quite funny. But, in aggregate, they begin to look like a failure to understand that women are actually people, and not just puzzles to be solved or prizes to be won.

In a book of thirty love stories, one might hope that some would be from the point of view of a woman. Or one, at least. But Last Girlfriend is entirely male -- yes, the first story, "Unprotected," is technically told by an inanimate object, but you would have a hard time arguing that object is feminine. If you're looking for an example of the male gaze, this is a pleasant little one: Rich's heroes spend all of their time looking at women, and none of that time understanding what they see.

Still: a lot of this stuff is very funny. It would have been funnier, though, interspersed with pieces that had slightly different jokes. And it would have been less unnerving if it had been interspersed with pieces that sometimes made an effort to look at things from a point of view that isn't so young, nebbishy, and entirely male.

But, if you like that joke, Rich does some awesome things with it. And if you have enough time to spread Last Girlfriend out through, you could manage to completely enjoy that joke every single time.

[1] In this particular case, I took nearly two months, and that wasn't long enough.

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