“How To Tell a Story” by Mark Twain
Humor is notoriously hard to comment on. (For good reason: good humor works on a subtextual and unconscious level, which means that it’s too complicated to explain. Like the bottom of the ocean, the workings of the unconscious are largely unexamined. We embrace and ingest comedy, but still hold it suspect. It’s why comedy doesn’t win Oscars.) In this short article, Twain tries to parse the difference between a funny story and a humorous one. Twain finds the latter to be estimable and uniquely American. Instead of winding up for the punchline, the humorous story is told dead-pan, and is often funnier because the narrator seems to be unaware of how funny it is.
“Playing Doc’s Games-II” by William Finnegan
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
In the mid-1980s, William Finnegan, an avid surfer since childhood, lived in San Francisco. There, in a city where most residents think there is no surf culture, Finnegan fell in with a surfing zealot. This fanatic, Dr. Mark Renneker, is the subject of Finnegan’s 1992 profile in The New Yorker. Renneker is a complicated figure because of his religious and crazed devotion to surfing in a city with unforgiving (often quite cold) surf. In many ways, this profile covers Finnegan’s development of a connoisseurship, a complicated love of waves. The irony is that he comes to write about surfing for the first time at the same moment that he was finally becoming serious about something else (journalism). The complexity of this work is grounded in how terrifying and brutal surfing can be, how often surfers will inspect the surf and decide stay to ashore, fearing that it exceeds their limits, but day after day, returning to the sea, like a gambler to a casino, hoping to find that one great wave.
Upon hearing that Finnegan was giving a talk at Hunter College, I looked him up and found the previously mentioned profile. It was this talk that inspired me to read Barbarian Days, a book that I was previously not interested in. At the talk, I asked him a question about the New Yorker profile. I wondered if writing about surfing, something he claimed to have never written about, betrayed anything about this hobby. (This is cliché question, to wonder if putting something down in words betrays the essential and assumed unknowability of lived experience, but he suggested as much in the profile, so I felt compelled to ask.) Was anything lost in the process of recording the experience? Did surfing change after writing so earnestly about it? (He often refers to waves as “lumpy,” indicating, to me at least, that surfing a wave is texturally something I can barely approach imagining.) Something had changed, he said: it was the time in his life when he became a full-time writer. While writing the book, he imagined the part of his life in which he gets to San Francisco (where it would overlap with “Playing Doc’s Games”) that the tone would change. That it would be a postlapsarian shift. But his agent knew better, and the tone remained even throughout the book. The content of the 1992 profile was re-engineered. What was betrayed, he said, was the subject of his surfing life in San Francisco, Dr. Mark Renneker. He hated the profile.