Thursday, October 02, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #273: Coyote V. Acme by Ian Frazier

Humor is always subjective: if you don't laugh at something, it's just not funny to you, and no amount of explanation or special pleading afterward can change that. And the same joke can strike someone very differently in different circumstances: what was funny one day might be inappropriate another day, or even horribly callous.

So the fact that I've been saying for years that this book -- Coyote V. Acme, the second collection of Ian Frazier's short comic pieces, originally published in 1996 -- is amazingly funny has to always be taken with that in mind. You are not me, and even I might not be the me that originally read a book.

I did not laugh out loud at every single piece in this book: there, I said it. A couple of them, I can even admit, remained opaque to me this time, in that very New Yorker-y humor style, where you have to get the reference to even know what's being satirized. (Most of the work here, though, was at least big-smile funny to me on this particular day.) That's the main failure mode of this form of humor, and explains why some of it dates so badly -- see my review of a Victoria Geng collection of mostly '80s work for the extreme version of that. The great originator (and probably the greatest practitioner) of the form, S.J. Perelman, nearly always placed one or two newspaper clippings at the beginning of his pieces, to show exactly the place where his sublime comic imagination lifted off from.

The modern writers in that mode, though, often leave off the clippings: perhaps they're considered gauche, or too on-the-nose, for an ephemeral humor piece in a weekly magazine. So Coyote V. Acme  does not always explain what it's making fun of. This can make a piece like "Webbing" -- in which a mid-80s Long Island pool party is interrupted by a Nazi invasion -- somewhat opaque: I liked it, and found it amusing, but I think there's some specific cultural commentary (maybe about the Brat Pack, literary and movie version?) that passed me by.

The title essay, though, was timeless when Frazier wrote it, and it's still a small masterpiece of comic writing: it's the filing from Wile E. Coyote's lawyer against the company that provided a long string of devices that mangled, burned, mutilated, and blew him up when he attempted to use them. There's also a fun, pugnacious chamber drama about three Impressionist painters working in the same plein air field; a good parody of those "ask for money from a rich guy" newspaper columns that inexplicably flourished a few decades ago; an insurance application for soap-opera characters; the answering-machine message from the No-Show Jobs Hotline; the self-explanatory "Boswell's Life of Don Johnson;" and a tell-all interview that tells even more than usual.

Frazier also has some pieces that are somewhat experimental, such as an extended riff on the phrase "she had a laugh that was like brandy by firelight," providing several dozen brandies and their appropriate laughs, and a college commencement in which the college president is being possessed by a demon. And there are several pieces with the clipping up front: about Bob Hope's golfing experiences; riffing on a fatuous movie-poster line "The government gave her a choice. Death. Or life as an assassin" by providing the tax form that embodied that choice; and several others. He doesn't completely avoid the introductory quote -- in many cases, like a chamber drama involving about a dozen places and relationships and inanimate objects that various reviewers said "were the main character" of various novels within a short time, the quotes are absolutely essential.

But this is all essentially intellectual humor, based on specific cultural knowledge mostly coded as high art or serious-person concerns of urban Americans of the '80s and '90s. Any reader coming for somewhere really disjoint from that background will struggle to see where much of the humor is supposed to be -- but that's the case for all humor beyond the broadest physical comedy. And Frazier is really good at this kind of humor: he's sly and playful and good at finding a new angle to look at familiar ideas. I might have to temper my praise of this book going forward, if I want to be totally honest, but it is really funny a lot of the time, and that title essay deserves to live as long as Chuck Jones's work does.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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