That’s not funny

I hate writing negative reviews of books. There are so many awesome books out there that I would far rather spend my time and words directing people to things I think they would love. Plus, a lot of times the books that I don’t like aren’t bad, exactly, they just didn’t work for me. So rather than a negative review, let’s consider this more of a question about why I am sometimes so out of sync with what other people think.

I recently finished The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, which is essentially a series of interlocking short stories about the staff members of an international newspaper based in Rome. The paper is in the process of going out of business, and the book tracks both how the paper came to be and how the staff members are dealing with its slow decline. The book got wonderful reviews, many of which mentioned its humor. The New York Times Books Review called it “alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching.” Janet Maslin in the New York Times said it was “smartly satirical yet brimming with affection.” When you look at the reviews on the Amazon page, you get a lot of big-name publications using words like “funny” and “charming,” saying that you’ll laugh and cry, etc. I thought it was horrible. Not badly written, I actually think it was very well-written. But I found it heart-breaking and full of awful people,  plus some good people that awful things happen to. I only kept reading because I assumed that somehow things were going to get better and the book would resolve in a satisfying way. Instead, the things that happened to these characters got worse and worse until the very end when I had to remind myself very sternly that these were all imaginary people and there was no reason to let the horrible things that happened to them ruin my day. I wish I could pull an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and remove the memory of this book from my brain, I found it that upsetting. Again, I’m not saying this was a bad book–it clearly had a huge impact on me. But not every book is for every person and I long ago decided that books about the small tragedies of everyday life are just Not For Me. What is baffling me here is the number of people who seem to consider this book funny. There was nothing in this book that I thought was funny. There were things that the characters seemed to think were funny, but my reaction to that was that those characters were horrible people for laughing at the pain of others.

I had a similar experience with The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. Reviews for this called it “uproarious,” “entertaining,” and “funny.” But I should have paid way more attention to the words like “bittersweet,” because then maybe I would have realized that the book would just make me feel bitter, minus the sweet. The title here is pretty self-explanatory, but this is a novel about a guy with multiple wives who is struggling to keep all of them happy and support his family. Again, I found nothing funny here. The only things that I can imagine someone else might find funny just made me cringe because they seemed to be drawing humor from the fact that the characters were not happy or successful and would never be happy or successful. I went in expecting something at least somewhat witty or entertaining and ended up despairing about how we all just die alone and there’s no point in even trying to talk to any one else since it will all only go terribly wrong.

I don’t expect every book out there to make me laugh–I do recognize that the point of some books it to tell a sad story or to point out more poignant aspects of life. And I am fine with a sad book. One of the best things I have read in recent years was The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and that made me sob and sob on the train like a crazy person. What I find odd is when I read these reviews that say that I will laugh and cry, and I can’t even see why anyone would ever laugh. When sources I trust repeatedly refer to the humor in a book, I don’t expect that book to leave me feeling horrible about myself, and the people in the book, and humanity in general, which is how I felt after both of these. Considering how far off my reactions to these books seem to be from the norm, I can only assume that I have some sort of enormous comedic blind spot.

Have you read either of these books? Did you like them? And more importantly, did you think they were funny?

2 comments on “That’s not funny

  1. Liz says:

    I’m with you – these are not funny books. I liked The Lonely Polygamist more than I liked The Imperfectionists as a whole – the latter had, for me, some moments of excellent construction and writing – but I can’t look back on either and say they were funny. Humor is an odd thing – there’s just no generalizing it.

  2. Anna says:

    Ooh, The Book Thief was so good! I don’t specifically remember actually crying during it (though I’m sure I did, I’m not made of stone), but lines from it still come back to me at random times. For some reason, the girl describing the lodger as having hair like feathers really registered with me, and I think about that line at least once a month.

    I also leant The Book Thief to a friend with whom I’ve sort of lost touch, but I also have about 5 of her books, so I figured that one Book Thief is probably an equal trade to 5 other books.

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