I keep saying, but people don’t believe me: I am a grumpy old man, and have no sense of humour. Can I help it that people laugh at my writing? That shows their sense of humour, not mine.
In olden days, like last century, I carefully plotted and drafted and designed. This included events that made my characters laugh, and presumably my readers, although I need to confess: I have rarely if ever observed a reader of my stories laugh (or do anything else, even read).
Nowadays, I don’t do things this way. My characters say whatever they want to, do whatever they want to, and often override the grumpy old man.
In fact, people tell me that things I write do make them laugh, in both fiction and nonfiction. So, I tried to illustrate the humour by using a magnet. Lots of pins came from the various haystacks, but, since I don’t set out to amuse but rather to entertain and instruct, each of them needs considerable context. I find endless explanation to be boring, and that’s the last thing I want.
There is the odd snippet that will be funny on its own, like Nat Kyros, the foremost historian of the planet in Sleeper, Awake, introducing himself as “Nathaniel Tarzan Kyros.” This is in contrast to Flora’s first view of him:
- He was shorter than her five foot nine, and the description that sprung to her mind was, What a weedy little boy! He had narrow shoulders, untidy straight brown hair and a narrow, olive-skinned face. He was clean shaven, except for a fringe of brown beard all around the edges. He wore what to her was a wraparound skirt, leaving his scrawny, hairless chest bare… Apart from the beard, this fellow seemed about sixteen to her, not her idea of the best historian of the past millennium.
In my Ehvelen stories, Gardel started as a teenager of no importance, but ended up the most powerful general of the Doshi. I deliberately gave him a sense of humour. Here he is in The Start of Magic:
- Saleem squared his shoulders, gave the Midgets a last hating glance and growled, “We will not die. We must stay alive. Those Midgets made a mistake. We will return: for revenge and for women.”
Gardel grinned at Krand. “You must not die. If you die, honoured Saleem will kill you.”
Later, apparent magic stops the attempted crossing of the great river: stones and burning logs falling out of a clear sky, and then…
- Gardel was the last in Grumo’s line, too far back to be in danger. At first all he saw was the terrible confusion ahead. Horses were neighing, men shouting. He climbed on the saddle, and saw fire rise from the shore, soar high, then plummet into the melee. “It is magic!” he shouted. “Stay here and rescue others!” He organised the men at the tail end of the upstream lines. Each managed to rescue a few others. By then, they were far downstream. They turned their heavily encumbered horses back east. The horses were exhausted when they finally reached dry land. The men were also in a bad shape: chilled, tired, demoralised. The group consisted of five horsemen, and twelve others they had rescued. Only four of these were Harila’s men, because the downstream lines had received most of the missiles.
“You are good man,” one of these said to Gardel. “What should we do now, eh?”
Gardel grinned, “I am a young man only. You are older. Most of you are older.”
“Oi, but you are good at thinking.”
Another stranger glared at Gardel. “Why did you save mostly Fists, eh?”
There was the silence of tension. Gardel looked at him. “We saved anybody we could reach. You Leaders were mostly too far away.”
“Or maybe this was a trap, eh? If you weaken honoured Harila enough, maybe your Sabadar can become Suletain, eh?”
“Or you are crazy. You drank too much river.” Gardel moved closer to his horse, pretending to pat him while drawing his dagger.
“Little boy. Your tongue is too big. I shall rip it out!”
“I have a wish for you.” Gardel grinned at the man. “May your ears turn into assholes, and drop shit onto your shoulders!”
The man jumped at Gardel, who struck him in the midriff with the pommel of the dagger.
His victim bent double, hands to his stomach, fighting for breath.
“You are now twice dead,” Gardel said. “You would have drowned, except Krand rescued you. Then you attacked an armed man. Again you are dead, except I do not want to kill a comrade. Now, will you listen to sense, eh?”
I trawled through Hit and Run, and found plenty I’d laugh at if I’d read it in someone else’s book, but again, it’s embedded. And, as I said, I refuse to give long explanations. OK, here is an early scene:
- It was bound to happen, sooner or later. I sat on the toilet before going to bed, and there he stood. A wide grin replaced the scowl on his face, without dislodging the cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth.
“Go away!” I said aloud. I felt my cheeks burn although all he’d have seen was me sitting. What I sat on was irrelevant. All the same…
“Sorry, old Duck,” he answered, not at all repentant.
“Next time, you might intrude on me having a shower. This is intolerable.”
“Yeah, or entertainin’ a gentleman?”
“Those days are over for me. And anyway, all my life, I only, um, entertained one gentleman, and he was my husband.”
“Funny ya look to me the way ya are. Me, I’m sitting on the toilet, too, but I can see and feel meself standing in yer place, looking at ya. How’s that?”
“I still don’t understand it. But my psychologist–remember that word?”
“I’m not stupid! Ya told me once.”
“All right. He showed me that you and I had a connection in a previous life.”
“What bullsh–t is that?”
“He gave me an experience in which I went back to some time in the past, before I was born. I was a man at that time, in America, and–”
He blinked out of existence.
Second, here is Sylvia’s first meeting with little Tommy. See if any of it makes you laugh:
- The foster home was an anonymous red brick building behind a six-foot tall cyclone fence. Otherwise, nothing distinguished it from other houses in the quiet suburban street. The driver held the door while I opened my umbrella, then he hopped back to wait in the taxi. I’d told him of my mission during the half-hour drive.
Knowing I’d have to carry the umbrella, I’d left the wheelie frame at home, and instead used my walking stick to approach the gate.
The front door opened, revealing two women. In front was a very neatly dressed girl who seemed barely in her 20s, with dark hair and immaculate makeup. This had to be the protective worker. Towering behind her was a tall, very solid, middle-aged woman with beetroot-coloured hair, wearing a sensible jumper and a pair of jeans–working clothes for a lion tamer. Three little faces peered through a window left of the door.
I made my all too slow way from gate to door. When I was close enough to be heard over the sound of the rain, I said, “Good afternoon, I’m Sylvia Kryz.”
The young woman answered. “I’m Miriam. Um… I didn’t expect you to be, um…”
“So old?” I gave her a grin and she responded. The woman behind chuckled.
I started struggling up the three wet, slippery concrete steps. The woman eased past Miriam and came out into the rain to help me up with strength that would have served a labourer. At the same time, I sensed the kindness.
“Mrs Kryz, I’m Helen Haddaford, and I do hope you have some magic for my little wild beast.”
“Does he know I’m coming?” I closed my umbrella, leaning it against the wall. We entered and Miriam closed the door.
“I tried to tell him, but he just swore at me. I don’t think he is receptive to being told anything.” Helen led the way with a brisk stride, then looked behind and slowed to match my tortoise pace.
Walking beside me, Miriam said, “My Head of Section knows of this problem with young Thomas, of course. No doubt that’s why she agreed to your involvement. But…” she looked sideways at me, “do you really think you’ll cope?”
“There are no guarantees, but, you see, in all the world, Tommy has an emotional connection with only one person: his big brother. Once he realises I am taking him to Charles, whom he calls Chuck, I predict he’ll be eager to cooperate.”
At that moment, Helen stopped in front of a shut door. “Tommy,” she called out loudly.
“F– off!” came a thin voice, and something banged against the door. I suppose he’d thrown an object.
“Tell him someone’s here from Chuck,” I suggested, knowing that my voice wouldn’t be strong enough to reach his attention, even if it reached his ears.
Helen shouted, “Tommy, you want to visit Chuck?”
There was a long silence, then his little voice, without the anger, “You’re not trying to f–’n trick me?”
“No Tommy, it’s true.”
Miriam said, “Tommy, if you promise to act OK, we’ll open the door so we can talk.”
Helen produced a bunch of keys from a pocket, selected one and opened the door. Her stance was like that of a rugby player ready to tackle as she pushed the door inward. There was resistance to the movement, and I could see why: rubble covered the floor. At a glance, I identified pieces of a child-sized wooden chair, a wardrobe door lying flat, chunks of plaster, and a tangle of bedclothes.
A metal mesh covered the inside of the window, the kind they have on security flywire doors. The wall had several big gaping holes, all at little boy level.
The child who stepped out didn’t look like a monster, any more than Charles looked like a murderer. I immediately saw the facial resemblance, although Tommy had straight dark hair, much browner skin and black eyes. I wondered if his father might have been Chinese or Japanese.
Helen said, “This lady is willing to take you to visit your brother. Do you know where he is?”
“Sure. He’s in the pen ‘cause he offed some people and got caught.” I was shocked at this casual mention of murder.
I spoke from half behind Helen, not wanting to risk coming any closer at this stage. “Tommy, my name is Sylvia Kryz, and–”
His face lit up into a beautiful smile. “The old Duck! Chuck’s been talking lots about ya before he got pinched!”
“You be respectful,” Helen said, but I waved a hand to stop her.
“That’s right, Tommy. He sometimes calls me the old Duck. But, the last time he spoke to me, he asked if he could call me Aunt Sylvia. If you like, you can call me that too.”
“OK, who gives a sh–t? Ya gonna take me to him?”
He was covered in white plaster dust. “Would you like something to eat and drink first?” I asked.
“Maybe we could go to the bathroom, and you can wash and change into neat clothes, and we’ll ask Mrs Haddaford to get you something nice.”
He looked truculent again. “Why the f– do I need neat clothes to go to jail?”
“Because we want Charles to be proud of you.”
“Charles? He’s Chuck.”
“Where is the bathroom?” I asked Helen, who pointed behind us. I turned and started walking as I answered the little boy. “Yes, Tommy, in your family everybody called him Chuck, and he’s told me why. Your mother gave him that name because she was often sick while pregnant with him. Do you think that’s a nice way to name a child?”
As I’d hoped, he stepped after me to continue talking. “Nah, guess not.”
“I refuse to call him a name that was meant to hurt him. Chuck is short for Charles, so to me he is that or Charlie, never Chuck. But you call him whatever you like.”
He was walking beside me now, at ease, holding back to my slow pace. “Chuck said you’s the best person he ever met. I reckon he’s right.”
“Thank you. I hope we can be friends too.”
“Sure. Anyone gives ya a hard time, I’ll bash the sh–t outa them.”
Miriam chuckled behind me, but I took the offer seriously. “Thank you, Tommy. I’ve never had a knight protector before.”
“Night or day, I don’t give a f–. I’ll bash ‘em.”
I have deliberately inserted humour in From Depression to Contentment, because laughter is an excellent antidepressant. Naturally, it has terrible side effects like healthy breathing, relief from sadness, and a move toward a positive frame of mind. For example, in the set of notes before the book even starts, I have “Links to web pages are scattered throughout. Since clicking them in some versions (e.g., paperback) is not particularly effective, I’ve listed them all, as well as all the homework tasks at [then I give a link].”
Do I find any difficulty with generating a laugh? Again, my friend Gardel provides an answer. In the (unpublished) Fourth Story of the Ehvelen, as a 19-year-old, he said to the ruler of all his people, “Honoured Khan, life is too short for the seriousness it deserves.”
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Then, do visit the nice ladies I have listed here. They are my fellow conspirators in Rhobin’s Rounds.