Ian Frazier, Lamentations of the Father — June 27, 2010

Ian Frazier, Lamentations of the Father

Cartoon of a vexed father slipping on a child's wheeled toy and falling backwards, a vexed look in his eyes. The [mag: New Yorker] sort of humor gets its canonical expression in S.J. Perelman, whose style is probably best captured in his classic essay “Insert Flap ‘A’ And Throw Away.” I can’t find any full copies of that essay on the web, though Language Log grabs some choice quotes.

At the risk of analyzing [mag: New Yorker] humor to death, it tends to combine a) an excerpt from a real-life newspaper article, which it then expands into b) an absurdist interpretation of that same article, typically including c) the narrator making an ass of himself. It may also include d) the male householder trying and failing to grasp some shred of dignity (see Perelman quote, above).

Ian Frazier does all of these things. What makes him different from Perelman or Woody Allen or any of a long line of absurdist [mag: New Yorker] writers is that Frazier is not funny. I am sorry to declare this. I laughed a few times during [book: Lamentations of the Father], but mostly I had no choice but to step outside the frame and note, “Yes, I see what you’re doing there. I see that you want me to laugh.” Whereas when you read a Perelman or an Allen or a Steve Martin essay, you’re too busy doubled over laughing, in tears, to think about what the author is trying to do.

Perelman brings something else to the enterprise that Frazier just does not have it in him to use: a crazy, effortless, ridiculous command of the English language. Perelman is the man who uses the word “firkin” in two of my favorite sentences ever:

He is a hearty trencherman, as befits a man of his girth, and has been known to consume a firkin of butter and a hectare of gherkins in less time than it takes to say ‘Bo’ to a goose.

and

Of course, five cents in those days bought a good deal more than it does now; it bought a firkin of gherkins or a ramekin of fescue or a pipkin of halvah…

These are sentences that don’t need to exist. They are very, very silly. They add up, through steady and deliberate accretion, to endless belly laughs. They are cleverer than anything I will probably ever come up with in my life. By writing for [mag: The New Yorker], Ian Frazier has placed himself beside these sainted authors; he cannot avoid a negative comparison.

So my advice is to skip [book: Lamentations of the Father] and go straight to what Frazier was aiming for in his cargo-cult-comedy exercise. Read any of Woody Allen’s short collections ([book: Without Feathers], [book: Side Effects]); [book: Most of the Most of S.J. Perelman]; or the [mag: New Yorker]’s own collection, [book: Fierce Pajamas].