The Value of Comedy

After being set yet another text to read on my degree course about dark, depressing topics, I began to wonder why it is that we never study anything happy. This is not the first time I have considered this – my course mates and I actually asked the lecturer we had for the first half of this term whether she would set any short stories with an upbeat tone. She thought about it, and admitted that no, she hadn’t set any happy short stories, and the fact that this was not a conscious decision made me think about it even more.

There is a general trend through the study of literature to study texts that explore darker themes, with sad endings. In my sixth form, I studied a total of twelve texts, and one of them – The Importance of Being Earnest – was a comedy. The rest consisted of five tragic plays, two novels with murder as a central, recurring action, two poetry collections exploring the futility of life and the sad state of society today, and one graphic novel about the Holocaust. Delightful. Then at GCSE, it was Of Mice and Men and An Inspector Calls that we studied, To Kill a Mockingbird before that, etcetera, etcetera. But why is this? It seems as if we almost give texts that are tragic a higher value, but why?

It could be considered that texts that are comedies are seen as having less value, as they aren’t necessarily texts that we think about afterwards. When the curtain goes down at the end of All My Sons after the gunshot, the audience are left thinking about the morality of the characters’ actions, and how they could have reached a less tragic conclusion to the one that they have seen. But when the curtain goes down at the end of The Importance of Being Earnest, the audience are left smiling, maybe talking with the people that they are with about the hilarity of some of the scenes. This difference does not mean that Wilde’s play does not include explorations of themes related to humanity, but instead that these explorations are not as often noticed. In this instance, the only way to give more value to comedies is to give them literary value, in a sense, by studying them more widely.

Do we feel that if we take simple enjoyment from a piece of art, it is worth less than something that leaves us churned up inside? This idea could be less wacky than it sounds – think of popular fiction. More often than not now, a text being ‘popular’ means that it is less valuable, ‘popular fiction’ is used as a derogatory term by some literary scholars and snobs. But how does that make any sense – surely a text being more popular means that it’s better?

Or is it simply that we view comedy as trivial? To do this would in itself be stupid – it will be the comedy produced now that will clearly portray to people of the future the attitude towards politicians, celebrities, and culture at large. Think of the representations of Donald Trump seen on Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show in the USA, and how so many of our most famous comedians have used Brexit and the US Election as fuel for their latest routines. It is this that are the clearest representation of the populous’ current opinion of the state of the world, and whilst that can be taken from tragedy, comedy, at least today, has more immediacy than its counterpart.

One of the comments that I remember in our lectures on Shakespeare last term was made by our lecturer comparing A Midsummer Night’s Dream to other Shakespeare plays. She pointed out how cleverly crafted the whole play is, how the characters have to be on and off stage at just the right times for the doubling of roles that more often than not occurred. It was clear how planned the play was, and how it also made points about members of Shakespearean society. Hamlet, by contrast, is a train wreck. There is no way that Shakespeare started off with a plan in writing it, better to just kill everyone off. Now whilst I’m not in anyway saying that Hamlet is not a good play (I love it and the characters more than you can know) it is strange that it is studied so much more than the masterpiece that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the latter is more of an ‘introduction to Shakespeare’ play that you study in year seven and never consider again, moving on as you mature to the more ‘serious’ topics.

Whilst I don’t deny that the darker themes explored within a lot of tragedy need to be shown to the world, it would be strange to say that comedy cannot also explore these themes, and sometimes in a very interesting way. Why not study a tragedy, and compare it with a comedy that contains the same themes, and see how the two different genres explore the themes differently? Surely that’s more interesting that comparing two explorations of a theme from the same genre – but I may be speaking too subjectively.

My brother actually gave up studying English Literature at A Level because ‘everything was too depressing’. I’m not saying that we should completely cut out the tragedy, but some variety would be nice.

And hey, as a writer, I know how difficult good comedy is to write. So can we please just give it a bit more of a chance?

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Living in the Present

‘The present is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands’ – Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)

She sits, mug of tea cupped in her hands, and observes. She knows that she is in her home, and that she lives there with her family, but she does not remember their faces, or how she came to be here.

The voice comes from the speaker. ‘Live in the moment.’ She breathes in. Breathes out. Centres herself. Forgets that the speaker is there.

Her children come down the stairs – she knows, now, that there are stairs just outside of the kitchen, but it is something, she realises, that she did not know before this moment. Or maybe she did, and she simply forgot. Everything before this moment seems so cloudy in her mind. She leaves her mug of tea to make her children breakfast, and as soon as her back is turned, it disappears from her mind, as do her children’s faces. Her task remains in mind, and she wonders as she puts the bread in the toaster whether she has ever done this before. She certainly can’t remember doing it if she has.

She has a husband, she knows that for a fact. But she does not remember any of his individualities at all. Why did she marry him? She feels a strange claw grip in her lower abdomen as she realises she does not know where he is.

Her phone screen lights up.

The message on the screen reads ‘Greg’ in bold letters, underneath that, ‘Thinking of you, have a good day xx’.

Of course, her husband is Greg. He has a job. He is at his job. She remembers, although she still has no idea what his job is. Or who he is.

Her children soon leave the house, and she is left with a cold mug of tea wondering what they look like.

The speaker comes on again. ‘Breathe in. Breathe out. Live in the moment.’

She does as she’s told, forgetting the momentary fear about a stranger instructing her movements. As she hoovers the house, she wonders how the mirror got to be on the wall, or how the violet stain came to be so ingrained into the carpet. All her brain comes up with is that it does not matter, but she finds herself unable to stifle the worry. How did she even get to be in this house?

The doorbell’s sharp trill interrupts her thoughts. She turns off the hoover and abandons it.

The silhouette of the man on the other side of the door is visible through the frosted glass. She has a fleeting thought that it could be her husband, but despite still not remembering what he looks like, she knows that this man is not him. A feeling curls its way into her stomach, making her feel nauseous and clammy. She pushes it away and opens the door.

She recognises the man in a blurry sense. He wears a clearly expensive suit, his hair is very carefully styled, his face full of the tell-tale plump that only botox provides. She takes this all in whilst resisting an incredibly strong urge to slam the door in his face and lock herself in. She cannot recall why she feels that way, so she simply stands.

‘Hello, how are you feeling today?’ His voice carries a smooth control that only increases her panic.

‘Confused.’ Something within her tells her that this man knows why she feels this way. And how to stop it. But he simply offers his hand to her.

‘Come with me, I will help you.’

Every part of her screams against it, but she takes his hand and steps out of the house nonetheless. ‘I am still in my slippers!’ she says, suddenly embarrassed.

The man only smiles at her. ‘So you are. Would you like to change into shoes?’

She can sense that it is not a question, but nods anyway. She takes a step backwards, releasing the man’s hand and looking for a pair of shoes that are hers. She slips into a pair, leaving her slippers neatly in a gap.

The speaker fires up again. ‘Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.’ She obeys.

The man has not moved when she turns back to him, and he proffers his hand again. She takes it, and steps out, squinting at the bright light.

‘Where are we going?’ she asks. She knows there is something wrong with the question before he turns to her with a patronising smile.

‘Do not worry about where we are going. You have been there many times before. Just live in the moment. Appreciate the world.’ He turns away from her as he says this, and does not look at her again. Not as he opens the door to the back of the car, not a glance in the rear-view mirror as he gets in and locks the doors, not as he drives her through winding streets, not even as he opens the door to let her out of the car. He stands aside, lets her climb out and take in her surroundings before closing the door and walking away. She has no choice but to follow him.

‘In here please.’ He steps aside and lets her through a metal door into one of the giant concrete bricks that make up the surrounding landscape.

Flashes of memory come to her now. She knows that she has been here before, she knows that when she left here she never wanted to come back. She knows that there is no turning back now.

Two people wearing all white suits walk up to her, one moving behind her and restraining her arms, the other facing her, wearing a smile.

‘Hello again. I hear you are having some trouble. Are you ready to feel better again?’ The woman standing in front of her is blank faced, talking to her as if she is senile.

‘What are you going to do to me?’ she whispers.

‘Do not worry, you will feel better soon. Come with me now, it will make everything so much easier.’

She does not move. A sharp push in the base of her spine forces her to move, and she realises the person behind her is pushing her forwards, through this empty room, towards the next door. If she thinks about it, she can remember what the person behind her looks like, the way their white suit hangs off their tiny frame, their bleached white hair that perfectly matches the colour of their suit.

She struggles in a vain attempt to get herself free. The grip on her only tightens.

‘Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.’ The voice stills her, its presence in her ear unexpectedly restrictive. She tries to fight the urge to obey, but all she manages to do is make her breath shake.

She is forced down on to a reclined chair and strapped in at her wrists, chest, and ankles. The two white suits leave the room, and a woman in a lab coat walks in.

‘Hello, Lisa, is it? I’m Georgia.’

Her breath quickens. Is that her name? It sounds right, but how can it be? How can she not remember her own name?

Georgia looks confused. ‘You don’t remember?’

She does not give her an answer. ‘Please don’t do this to me,’ she whispers, ‘I want to remember. I don’t know who I am anymore.’ Her cheeks are wet. Georgia looks at her in shock and offers her a tissue before realising the restraints that encircle her arms. Georgia dabs at her cheeks.

‘It’ll make you feel better, I promise.’ Georgia does not sound as sure as her colleagues.

She is not sure of her memories, but she knows that she has not seen this woman before. She only shakes her head and turns away.

‘Right, the first step, here we go.’

The liquid in the syringe is unnaturally blue, and the fear escalates as it is pushed into her veins. She gasps as vivid memories flood back into her mind, straining against the straps as visions of her family dance behind her eyes. Her name is Lisa. She is thirty-six. She has been married for ten years. ‘Please,’ she gasps out, ‘Please, no more.’

‘Are you in pain?’ Georgia halts the rest of her preparation.

‘No, I remember. I remember everything.’ Her cheeks are wet again. ‘Please don’t take this away from me, please.’

Georgia hesitates. ‘It will make you feel better.’ She sounds as if she is convincing herself more than anyone else.

Lisa shakes her head. ‘No, it won’t, I’m sure of that, please, let me live.’

‘I have to do my job. Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be, we know what’s best for you.’

‘How can you say that when I have no idea who the people I love are unless they are sitting right in front of me?’ Lisa knows she is winning even as her voice shakes – none of the doctors she has met have ever let her talk this much.

‘That is one of the unfortunate side effects of the cure…’

‘Cure? This is torture!’

Georgia breaks. She puts her head in her hands and begins to cry, at which point two others walk into the room. They push past her, pick up the syringe and inject step two into Lisa’s arm as she screams.

A week later, sat at home, she receives a letter that simply reads,

I am so sorry. I will try to fix this.

Georgia

She does not know who Georgia is, or what she is apologising for, but she feels bizarrely content.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing – A multi-faceted novel exploring issues of the past, present, and future

Madeleine Thien is no stranger to awards. Across the total five books that she has written, she has accrued six awards and has been shortlisted ten times in total. This book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, tackles the complex issue of communist China. Thien is no stranger to writing about complex issues as well – her second novel, entitled Dogs on the Perimeter, was about the aftermath of the Cambodian Genocide. From reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, it is clear that Nobel Prize Laureate Alice Munro was right when describing Thien’s first novel as the debut of a ‘splendid writer’.

From the blurb of Thien’s Man Booker Prize nominated novel, you would not be able to predict how emotionally heart wrenching this book is. It describes the story as ‘a history of revolutionary idealism’, and from that ideas are evoked of far flung tales often featured in historical novels, that seem to lack a sense of personality – as a reader, you don’t get the feeling that they were there, more that the story is being reported by a far-off observer. However, the personality in this novel is so prevalent that the story created seems so very real. Due to the book’s historical nature, and the use of multiple time streams, you know exactly what is going to happen to the characters. Amazingly, Thien still has the ability to surprise and keep you guessing from page to page. It is in this that the book is differentiated from a historical novel – it is not about the historical events, but rather about characters that just happen to be a part of them.

The story centres around a young girl called Li-ling, whose English name is Marie, living in Canada with her mother. The opening of the novel informs you of Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, committing suicide, in a way that shocks both due to its placement and the detached tone in which it is reported. Shortly after this, Marie’s mother receives a letter saying that the daughter of one of her husband’s friends from his life in China is in need of refuge, away from the prying, ever present eyes of the Chinese government. When the girl, Ai-ming, arrives, she carries with her the key to Marie’s father’s past. Through the stories that Ai-ming tells her, the Book of Records that her mother gives her, and her own travels to China, Marie pieces together the story of her father and his friends, Sparrow and Zhuli.

Although Marie is the character that provides the overarching narrative to the story, it is the story of these three friends that as a reader you are more interested in. Sparrow is the son of a highly praised officer of the People’s Liberation Army, which led the Chinese Communist Party to victory in the Chinese Civil War; Zhuli is his cousin, ten years younger than him, who was sent to live with his family when her parents were taken to a re-education camp. Kai is the only member of his family who survived the collectivisation that occurred during the Great Leap Forward, and he lives with his uncle in Shanghai. The three of them are musicians of the Shanghai Conservatory. Throughout the novel, their friendship and relationships develop, as well as their roles as musicians in a communist society. As the party turns away from music, denouncing it as reflective of the bourgeoisie, taking their instruments, their music, their freedom of expression, and destroying it all, the three friends find their friendships tested, whilst they battle with their own identities and how they fit into this way of life.

One of the amazing things about this novel is the way that Thien ties the true events of the past in with the narrative. Ai-ming is fleeing China after the protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre, and the novel’s climax centres around these same events. The land reforms that tear Zhuli’s family apart were seen across China during the Great Leap Forward, often sparked by findings such as that of the people of their village – they find that the basement was left standing after they knocked down the house of Zhuli’s father, Wen, and find various forbidden items, including books and musical instruments, within it. What happens to He Luting when his affiliation to Debussy comes under criticism as the Chairman of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was so horrific that the Conservatory as it stands today is called the He Luting Conservatory of Music – although the latter fact is unmentioned within the novel, the denouncing of He Luting is the beginning of the trouble for Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai as musicians. When Marie goes to China to attempt to find Ai-ming, who returns to China shortly after she gets her application as a refugee in the United States of America approved, Marie speaks of the issues of finding her due to ‘the Great Firewall’. None of these associations seem contrived, either, the plot flows naturally through them whilst highlighting the difficulties of life in China under the Chinese Communist Party, both in the past and in the present day.

These characters provide fantastic representations of the effects of living in communist China, and Thien furthers this through the conversations that take place throughout the novel between all of the focal characters and the people that they all meet on their journeys. The impersonal and almost robotic way they parrot their ‘Long live Chairman Mao’s and such, before any proper conversation takes place, contrasts so violently to the normal way in which the central characters casually talk to each other that the depersonalisation created by the revolution is painstakingly clear. No-one is allowed the individuality of talking person to person, they instead have to become simple carbon copies, all part of a machine, and all constantly reminded of their great leader and how fantastic their life is.

Whilst being a novel centring on demonstrating the history of communist China, Thien also explores the universal themes of love, loss, friendship, and identity. As well that, she covers issues very relevant in today’s society such as censorship and the plight of refugees. There was a recent report in the Economist about how the Chinese government has taken the internet – expected by many people from other countries to be a democratising force in China – and twisted it to their advantage. With the Great Firewall, as mentioned by Marie when she is attempting to find Ai-ming in China, the government now has the ability to block just certain pages on websites that contain keywords that they wish to restrict, and even prevent texts containing similar keywords from ever reaching their intended recipient. They can just delete them. And yet, this is not an issue that is talked about enough in our Western-centric society. Should we, so often vocal about the necessity of freedom of speech when it directly affects us, neglect to talk about the ongoing issue in China – and other countries across the globe – just because we don’t see it? Thien provides a clear platform for these issues within her book, bringing them to a Western audience.

Thien also masterfully highlights generational differences and similarities through the spanning of the story across multiple generations – though it is Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai that we mainly hear about when the narrative switches to the past, it is Zhuli’s parents, Wen the Dreamer and Swirl, that we are first introduced to. There is no fear when they first fall in love and get married, but as the revolution continues, Wen is stripped of his land as a wealthy landowner, the rest of his family beaten to death in front of him, and him, Swirl, and Zhuli are reduced to living in a hut and farming. Zhuli is not even allowed to attend school in the village due to Wen’s previous status. After Swirl comes back from the re-education camp, to live with Big Mother Knife – her sister, and Sparrow’s mother, who Zhuli is also living with – she is changed, fearful and distressed by her experiences. Some of the discourse that she and Zhuli have clearly demonstrates the generational differences created by their vastly different experiences of the world. Yet Big Mother Knife and Swirl go off to find Wen the Dreamer, after hearing news that he is still alive due to a letter he gave to Sparrow, just like Sparrow and Kai do when they follow Wen’s advice to locate Comrade Glass Eye. The generations are divided but also united by their experiences of hardship and their search for answers.

Such a personal touch in the novel can only be created through the personal links that Thien has to the topic and her characters. Although Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not autobiographical, Thien does share aspects of herself with the character of Marie. For example, Thien has also lost a parent, and after she lost her mother in 2002, she went travelling, visiting China alone, partially to connect with her heritage. She and her mother had planned this trip together before she died. She said herself that her father ‘instilled an idea of China’ in her that ‘exerts a hold on’ her. Aspects of her life have also clearly influenced the novel in other ways. The issue of censorship of art is very close to her own heart, as she was a lecturer of Creative Writing at Hong Kong University from 2010 to 2015, before the program was abruptly shut down during Hong Kong’s crackdown on free speech. She wrote an article for the Guardian on this matter, in which she states that the move is ‘plainly intended to limit free expression’, and also likens the protests in Hong Kong prior to the clamp down to the Tiananmen Square protests, which obviously play a key part in her novel.

Moral, social, and political implications aside, this is also a beautifully written book. With the majority of the narrative centred around three musicians, music features heavily throughout. The way that the music is written in this book means that you can almost hear it, perhaps because of the vivid descriptions of not only the notes being played, but also the passion behind them. I had never consciously listened to Prokofiev before, but when Zhuli is playing her violin, ‘following Prokofiev up high porcelain staircases’ with the utmost concentration as ‘the notes chipped into one another’, every note serving to ‘elaborate this unending melody’, it was as if she were playing the violin right beside my ear. Whilst in a literal sense, the music cannot be heard, the music can be understood, and that is all that matters in understanding these characters.

The only complaint that has been made about this book is the dappling of Chinese words throughout. But these words serve to highlight the cultural differences and multiculturalism of the world. Marie has Chinese heritage, and to ignore that in favour of just accepting her Canadian side when her story is so interlinked with China’s history would be unnatural. The Chinese words extend the personal link that Marie has to this world that she is delving into – she is not someone looking for reports of the facts, she is searching for the answers that she so desperately desires about her father’s past.

Given the beautiful way this book is written, and the many things it brings to light and makes you consider, it is abundantly clear why it has received the critical praise that it has. Thien is definitely more than worthy of such accolades.