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Pandora's Happiness Box,
This review is from: Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from the New Yorker (Hardcover)
When Pandora opened the forbidden box, all the evils of the world emerged. Only Hope remained to support people. Humour is Hope's offsider, without which Hope is only grim determination. There's nothing grim in this collection, granting the sole exception that so many of the "dated" pieces display a disturbing timelessness. Thurber's 1933 article on Mr. Preble and Frank Sullivan's articles from the same era are examples. No matter, this collection from The New Yorker spans time, topic and technique with enough variety for any reader. Broadly divided into such subject areas as "Spoof," "Words of Advice" and, my favourite, "The Writing Life" the assembly of wit can be approached from almost any direction. The editors caution you not to read it cover to cover, - "put yourself on a diet" - but such advice is unwarranted. The variety of the chosen selections passes you from one piece to the next without choking. Within the topic areas the essays are chronologically arranged. Knowing that, you may chose an area and read at random.
A collection as large and varied as this necessarily lacks universal appeal. Tastes in humour vary as widely as in religion or politics. Groucho Marx is mostly unknown in this generation, but on stage, TV and here in print, displays why he was revered as a comic for many years. On the other hand, Remnick and Finder let Steve Martin convince them he's funny. Others remain to be convinced, but his inclusion in this collection still is justified. There is more than just the issue of generations involved. "Classical" humourists abound here, James Thurber, E. B. White and Robert Benchley. From the same era, however, Upton Sinclair would seem an intrusion - until you read "How to be Obscene."
As the chronology of each section progresses, it's clear that much of today's humour varies from early styles. Garrison Keillor is not really funny, but offers light-hearted philosophy in his submissions. Veronica Glen's "My Mao" can only be described as feeble, but is characteristic of the sort of humour the Cold War often evoked. Woody Allen's "Kugelmass Episode" lifts the tone with a whimsical fantasy published in the same year. Selections such as these point up that the collection is of "humour" and not "comedy." The distinction may be thin, but the editors have shown how deftly they have chosen when reviewers here assert the humour is "head" humour and not "gut" humour. Comedy is "gut" humour. "Head" humour suggests reflection and offers an alternative, and often plausible, version of real life. Many of the pieces here provide just that inspiration. Allen's fantasy of Kugelmass presents an update of Thurber's "Walter Mitty," showing how ageless this type of humour can be.
It's impossible to review this collection without commenting on the final piece. Notes on the typefaces are normally of interest only to printers and other publications specialists. Bruce McCall's "A Note on the Type" will almost certainly be overlooked by the inattentive. His satire is the chief reason to read the collection randomly, but it would be rewarding to learn how many readers had to be directed to it. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]