“This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” So wrote man of letters Horace Walpole to the Countess of Upper Ossory in 1776. But what of those that thoughtfully feel or feelingly think? Those to whom the globe is a lump in the throat just south of the intellect’s cool laughter and just north of the heart’s dark sentiment? What of all of us, like Lear’s faithful Fools, who, seeing the blasted heath for what it is, a universe of contradictions and fateful inversion, laugh so hard we cry?
The portfolio of fiction we’ve assembled here comes from our mutual interest in exploring this tragicomic territory, discovering how some of our favorite contemporary writers locate themselves on the map of this world, and in the process, map the world itself. The lenses are diverse: suburban decay and urban madness, natural catastrophe and personal atrophy, the collapsing family and teetering psyches of individuals who find themselves strangers in their own mirrors. The styles range from the explicitly experimental to the ostensibly traditional. The voices from monomaniacal to conversational, from Gothic to near-slapstick. And yet, these works share a certain logic, an urgency in their need to adumbrate that mysterious nexus where comedy and tragedy might meet.
A corporately manufactured flood that prompts a bureaucracy of zealous safety managers into useless high gear is George Saunders’s subject. Tova Reich conjures Charlie Hertz, who is rather overly anxious to tie up the loose ends of his eighty-nine-year-old mother’s life. Quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s definition of farce—”accelerated tragedy”—Joyce Carol Oates slyly sketches a locus of ultimate learning, a Plato’s Republic of the absurd. Gilbert Sorrentino’s trilogy touches on the impossibility of friendship, love and marriage—”the bitter mystery Yeats ascribes to love”—while Rebecca Brown writes of a family devoted to cigarettes more than anything else in the world. Ben Marcus hilariously invokes a pseudoscholarly tone in a power-hungry mother’s raging letter to her son (who conversely hates her back). A catalogue of teenage suicides, accidental deaths, murder, alcoholic poisoning and death by other means preoccupies Elisabeth Cohen’s black comedy. Hamilton Fisk, Paul West’s colorblind Nazi prisoner protagonist in “The Grand Illusion” is obsessed with escape, yes, but also his ersatz olive-green Wehrmacht uniform. In ten slice-of-life fictions from hell—or else the evening news—Lynne Tillman limns the absurdity of Everyman’s tragedies. Punch and Judy are revisited by Robert Coover, the former condemned like some murderous Sisyphus to bludgeon his fabular friends over and again, thus paying the price of immortality. Lusty “domineering crotchstick of unexampled ugliness” Queen Gloriana meets her end (a case of venal parametritus) in Alexander Theroux’s comedy of ill manners, but not before driving her court mad. Jonathan Ames documents the uneasy relationship between a troubled would-be novelist, his imaginary butler and the aunt and uncle who love him but would rather he stopped guzzling in secret. In “Instructions for Optimum Growth,” Paul Maliszewski enumerates the lengths to which a devoted cultivator must go to produce a proper crop. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a puzzle in the mind,” Diane Williams’s narrator declares? confesses? knowingly winks? toward the end of a puzzling mind game. The fruit salad in Dale Peck’s harrowing short is as wrenchingly “funny” as the victim’s last words. A sexually tempestuous mother preys upon her daughter’s life and those of others, in Rikki Ducornet’s narrative of jealousy and the contradictory nature of love.
The poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, “A man doesn’t have time in his life to have time for everything … Ecclesiastes / Was wrong about that. / A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, / to laugh and cry with the same eyes, / with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them …” Within each of these stories, and within the portfolio itself (which might be read as a mosaic, a singular kaleidoscopic vision), the dual mask of laughing and crying serves as witness.
These are stories of being, in the fittest and fullest sense, desperately alive.