The man who never laughed out loud
by David Finkle
[ fiction - january 09 ]
"I have never laughed out loud."
- Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Once upon a very recent time, there was a man who declared in an unfortunate interview released to the public that he had never laughed out loud. The man was an author, and when he made his statement - admission? boast? confession? - in response to being asked what he had read last that made him laugh aloud, it was unclear whether he meant to say he had never laughed out loud at anything at all or whether he had never been prompted to laugh out loud by anything he'd read.
That there was confusion over the two possible interpretations was immaterial, however, because many of those made aware of his blunt reply were just as appalled at the possibility that he might never have read anything that caused him to laugh out loud as they were by the thought that nothing at any time whatsoever had caused him to laugh out loud.
Although family, friends and associates of the author were initially surprised when the author issued his comment - with no apparent qualm, it can and should be noted - they attached little lasting importance to it. Many of those around him actually thought he had improvised the remark to bait an interviewer asking silly questions. They were well aware that the author disliked giving interviews for the very reason that interviewers often arrive unprepared, thinking to get a rise from their subject through the introduction of provocative (read insipid) queries.
Convinced their family member (friend, associate) did laugh out loud and regularly - despite their not being able to put their finger on a specific incident or specific incidents - they began to listen for the out-loud laugh that would confirm their contention. Many of them even began attempting to make the author laugh out loud by various methods, such as telling (clean and vulgar) jokes - some gleaned from that infamous ceaseless joke-mill: the internet.
Only when nothing they attempted yielded the hoped-for results, yielded nothing more than a wry smile on the author's ascetic face - nothing more than a few wrinkles at the corners of flecked green eyes peering out from rimless glasses - did they realize the author had told no lie.
Only two people knew he hadn't been dissembling, both of them women: his mother and his wife. His mother had known from the author's infancy, because when she cooed over him in those first months expecting the giggles - well, gurgles - she heard from other infants, she received only solemn, seemingly inquisitive, possibly censorious returned glances. She was tempted to despair but decided that no two children are the same and that she'd given birth to a child who might not laugh out loud but had compensating abilities, talents, gifts, genius even.
The author's wife, who was a somber so-and-so herself, took the author's disinclination to laugh out loud as a sign she'd found Mister Right, that's to say Mister Right For Her. She was a young woman who believed the frivolity to which out-loud laughter attested was in no way a desired character trait in a world where, at the end of the day, there was nothing about which to laugh out aloud. One of the reasons she loved the author as deeply as she did was his drawing the line so adamantly and finally at laughing out loud.
So while the author's admission made all but two of his family, friends and associates slightly uncomfortable, they took the attitude that he was that way and there was no changing him, no compelling reason to. Nobody's perfect, they said to themselves and sometimes to each other - certainly none of them were - and they let it pass.
There was, though, one important corner of the author's life where letting it pass was not an acceptable solution, was in no way a suitable option. The author's publishers were worried - very worried - and may have had cause to be. They were about to bring out the author's newest novel, which is always a touchy event where literary fiction is involved.
They had a sizable financial stake in the author, a stake that for the first two novels had paid off with handsome sales figures. All well and good, although past sales figures promised nothing more than early interest in a next book. No guarantees. The publishing house had paid through the nose for the manuscript and on releasing it couldn't afford to let it lie there like a lox - certainly not in a prevailing economic downturn.
Any preliminary interest, no matter how promising, had to be coddled and tweaked
So there was marked concern - especially among the sales force - that any perception of the author as someone possibly lacking a sense of humor could be a fatal detriment. The publishing-house staff buzzed to one another in sentences like, "Would you want to read a book by someone who doesn't laugh out loud? Or can't?" The frequently repeated questions usually elicited no spoken response for the simple reason that they was regarded as rhetorical: The "no" was so implicit it was virtually explicit.
Some questions weren't rhetorical, of course, and centered around what could have made the author utter such a categorical statement. Speculation abounded - perhaps the author was depressed, acting out an unexamined childhood trauma, setting himself an arcane challenge, playing an obscure prank, losing an already tenuous grip on himself.
Whatever the impulse, whatever the impetus, reaching an accurate analysis was meaningless, because the comment had been made. It was out there. No figuring out from whence it originated was going to change things.
Not when the author's comment was being picked up by other outlets - repeated on literature blogs, for instance - when there were chilling rumors of allusions to appear in The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement.
With those pressures in the air, the pubbery powers reckoned they'd better do something before the situation took on a larger life of its own, before the situation grew geometrically to the point where every book-selling and book-buying Tom, Dick and Harriet was snickering over it.
Word passed down from the top office that something must be done. But done discreetly. No one from the publishing-house president on down wanted to offend the author, not if offensiveness could be avoided. Meetings on the issue were hush-hush, restricted to carefully selected personnel - the author's editor, the vice president of publicity, chief among them.
To keep the author from suspecting anything was up, a memo went out specifying that nothing was to be said to the author about the quote. It was hoped that as far as he knew, not a soul in the company had seen the quote - with the exception of the publicity honcho who had arranged the problematic interview and who had lived to regret it and who would be expected to have secured the clipping.
The initial plan was simple. On the pretext of introducing some of the authors under contract to the publishing house to others under contract, a luncheon would be arranged. This was something, oddly enough, that had never before been done, despite the house having a rather plush dining-hall and a celebrated chef - not to mention myriad authors impressed with each other's reputations.
There was a catch to the luncheon, though: Only authors known to be especially witty or, maybe more crucially, downright, knockabout funny would be asked.
The lunch took place. The authors sat around the table with the publishing-house committee members. As hoped, the conversation was bright and fast-moving. The authors, both men and women, were breaking each other up such that the four-course meal, which under ordinary circumstances might have lasted two hours, lasted more than four rib-tickling hours.
The participants were gagging on their food. They were carefully timing when to sip from their libations for fear of spitting on each other. They were slapping their thighs so that their napkins continually slid to the floor. They were gasping for air. They were embarrassed by uncontrollable snorting. They were - some of the older ones - concerned about unstoppable bladder leakage, about unmanageable flatulence.
No need to identify the one person at the table who exhibited none of these reactions, who remained completely contained, who let no critical expression rest on his face, who neither expressed enjoyment at the shared amusement. No need to identify the one person who instead sat with the generic smile of an adult at a children's party glad to see the youngsters enjoying themselves but at the same time removed from their puerile enjoyment.
Since none of the guests had been vouchsafed the real motive behind the invitation, they left thanking their hosts and declaring they hoped that in future there would be many get-togethers like it. A few remarked among themselves and to the pubbery employees that they suspected one of their number hadn't shared their good time and wondered whether a different one of their number had done something to offend him.
The in-house hosts assured the revelers that everything was fine but when once again alone together concurred in their conviction that something must be done. They recognized that the easily discernible subtext of the parting comments was a consensus that no one was eager to spend time again in the company of that unresponsive guest.
So the lunch-throwers sat down together once more to see if they could develop a better plan.
As a matter of grim fact, they were so upset that they agreed they'd better stockpile several plans. If a second plan failed as the first one had, they'd be ready to put a third into action immediately. If the third came to nothing, they would have a fourth ready to spring and so on.
"One of them is bound to work," they said with whatever assurance they could muster, though they could see in each other's eyes that not a single, solitary one of them was convinced.
They were right not to be, as confirmed when the plans were set in motion, one by one. Roasting the author at a comedy club to which the best comedians in the land belonged was woefully ineffective. Setting someone up in front of the author to slip on a banana peel tanked. Strong-arming an editor at a hoity-toity magazine to commission a high-toned piece from the author about a professional clown school fizzled out. Setting the author up at a screening of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times on a double-bill with Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot was a bust. Sending the author a collection of Alan Funt Candid Camera videos came a cropper.
Worse, the increasingly desperate tactics were at the same time increasingly obvious to the author. No fool he, he saw fairly soon after the strategies were put in place what ruse lay behind them.
He would have connected it to his increasingly infamous quote without help but he didn't need to. He'd been aware from early on that the quote had become notorious.
What he was really doing by submitting to the various tests was tolerantly playing along.
Only to his wife did he confide what he was up to. "They're trying to make me laugh out loud, but they won't be able to," he said to his adoring spouse, who herself had only laughed aloud on very few occasions - when she was still a young girl and couldn't, as she explained to herself, be expected to know better. "I just want to see how far they'll go," he said.
For their part, the publishing execs suspected the author was on to them, but as he had said nothing and they certainly hadn't, they continued on their course with increased resolve.
They felt they had no choice. The day was fast approaching when bound galleys of the author's third novel would be sent to early reviewers - any of whom might be disposed to assess the book not only on its merits but also on the author's blatant quote.
Reluctant to broaden their search beyond the house, the committee decided they could risk letting the discreet cat out of the bag by opening their appeal to the staff in general. The committee members - whose meetings were secretive, although the numerous tactics had many in the house's larger population putting two and two together - were fearful that memos, written or e-mailed, could be leaked.
Tossing some caution to the wind, they held a series of assemblies for all employees during which they announced they were looking for ideas on how to make people laugh out loud. They further said that the winner of the in-house competition would receive a bolstered year-end bonus. They added that for reasons to be revealed at a later date, the contest was not to be discussed outside the building with families, friends or associates.
They were no more explicit than that, but few at these gatherings weren't able to guess exactly what was going on - and those who didn't guess were filled in by those who did.
The race was in play. Entrants from all echelons made themselves known, and their suggestions - vetted by the committee so that only the most promising ones were actually tried, and, of course, surreptitiously - ranged across a wide spectrum. Employees in the sales department, the marketing department, the cafeteria, the mail-room, the janitorial closet attempted everything from reciting to the author out of a Henny Youngman joke collection to thumbing through semi-pornographic Pablo Picasso etchings for the author's viewing, to setting renowned opera singers yodeling at the author to tickling the author with fingers or peacock feathers.
One contestant even contrived - when the author was called on false pretenses for a photo shoot in the building - to jump from behind a potted ficus tree and go "Booga-booga!" That ploy elicited no more than the author's green-flecked eyes rolled behind his rimless glasses towards the rococo vaulted ceiling.
But the sorry truth is that everything essayed came to naught.
The company powers were at their wit's end. So was the author, for by this time he knew for sure what was up and the publishers knew that he knew. He also knew the publishing-house reluctance to release the book with circumstances remaining the same in an ever-worsening commercial climate.
Wanting no delay on the manuscript he believed to be his best (don't all authors think their latest is their best?), he fessed up to his editor and through his editor to the other deciders that he was cognizant of the attempts to make him laugh out loud and that he was prepared to cooperate with them.
The author's acquiescence might have been greeted with satisfaction brimming over into gratification had there not been one small problem. Not so small, really: Everyone involved with producing ideas - and that was just about everyone at the publishing house working in no matter what capacity - had run out of them.
News of this situation ran through the building and through branch offices where recruitment had been extended some weeks past. Worry was widespread that although the author had finally volunteered to undergo any test put to him, there were no tests left in the pipeline. The possibilities, far as anyone could tell, were exhausted. Everything anyone could think of had been tried and found wanting.
Dismay reigned over a book that the publishing house had hoped would be a blockbuster at a time when a blockbuster was sorely needed.
Yes, dismay reigned, until an intern who had only working at headquarters for less than a month stepped forward.
He had an idea, which he passed on to his boss who, his head shaking uncertainly, passed it on to his boss who also shook his head but who, on the supposition that beggar's can't be choosers, passed it on to his boss until within less than an hour, it had been passed to the front office.
There, the chief executive officer also shook his head but, out of a desperation beyond desperation, said with reluctance to the upper-level executives he'd gathered around him, "We've tried everything else. Might as well try this. E-mail the author immediately and have him come in."
A secretary who held the title editorial assistant hurriedly followed orders.
The author arrived by taxi in something like forty-five minutes and when he'd alighted from the elevator to the top floor was shown that second into the CEO's office. He was guided to a chair and requested to sit facing, of all people, the intern, who was holding a sheet of paper.
The author was told that when he was relaxed and comfortable, he should nod his head and the intern would begin reading from the sheet of paper he held. He was also informed there would be no point to his forcing a laugh, because forced laughter is easily detected.
This last piece of instruction was not especially relaxing or comforting for the author, but he said there would be no forced laughter issuing from him. He added that he'd issue no forced laughter because he had already tried forcing laughter and even that much he was unable to do.
There was silence in the room, an expectant hush, while the author composed himself. The woody aroma of hope and anxiety tinged the air. After a minute during which you could have heard a pen drop - or even a quill - the author solemnly nodded his heavy head.
The intern, of course a literary-looking type, began to read. He read without noticeable affect but simply began intoning several convoluted sentences.
The author sat with a neutral expression on his narrow, clean-shaven face with its high brow, deep-set green-flecked eyes under heavy lids, straight nose, thin-lipped mouth and commanding chin.
The intern continued to read.
(As he did, others in the room who had not previously met him began suspecting he was himself an aspiring author. He just had that look. In addition to which it wasn't much of a guess: every third person in the company was an aspiring author.)
When the intern had read perhaps six or seven sentences - each sentence circuitous, anfractuous, drooping with weighty phrases as apple-tree branches in the fall sag with their ripe and overripe apples - the author's face started changing. His brow began to furrow, his eyes to shine, his nose to wrinkle, his lips to curl, his chin to bob.
The intern had only finished one or two more sentences (maybe three minutes had elapsed by then) when the author began to emit sounds that were distinctly reminiscent of an incipient laugh.
At the intern's completion of another sentence, the author did what he had never done before:
He laughed out loud. It was a laugh that rumbled first from his chest and then from somewhere far deeper within him. It was as if his legs, his feet were laugh factories.
The intern did not stop reading but went on at the same steady, uninflected pace.
The author's laugh reached where it threatened to become uncontrollable. When he tried to speak, he could only get his remarks out haltingly.
"What is this?" the author finally blurted. "You must tell me what this is."
His body was beginning to shake so that the chair in which he sat looked as if it might tip over.
"It's so pretentious," the author said in fits and starts.
"Pretentious" was emitted in four separate blasts. His laughter filled the room in such a way that everyone around him began to laugh as well.
"I can't stand it," he said when he and everyone else was rollicking - with the exception of the intern, who stuck to his reading.
"Wait a minute," the author choked out after some of the people in the room were sprawled this way and that on the floor they were so overtaken by the need to laugh. "I know what this is! I know what this is!"
The author tried to say what it was but remained laughing so hard that it took another minute for him to form the words and speak them.
"I know what this is," he repeated. "This is a passage from the fourth chapter of my new novel. It is, isn't it? I wrote it. That's my writing. It's a howl!"
Anyone might have thought that such a revelation would have been sobering for the author - any author. But no, this author only laughed harder.
The cacophony of laughter took another few minutes to subside, during which the CEO signaled the intern that no more reading was required. Good thing, too, since there wasn't much left on the sheet of paper to which the intern had copied the excerpt.
"Never you mind," the CEO said to the author. "Now we can publish the book and publish it as is. Your readers old and new will eat it up."
"You mean," the author said, "I can't even revise that segment."
‘You can if you want," the author's editor said, "but here's my advice. When you go on your book tour, talk about having to revise one section because when you heard it read to you, you laughed out loud."
And that's exactly what happened. The book was published with the paragraph read aloud by the intern reworked and one or two others slightly revised.
On talk shows where books are promoted and at book signings where books are sold, the author chatted volubly but never pretentiously about how he came to write and polish the book.
It shot to the top of best-sellers lists and to the top of critics polls.
All of which leads to the story's moral, which is this: Books only truly deserve to be published if the authors know how to laugh out loud.