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The Funny Man
By John Warner
Reviewed by Yair Ben-Zvi
Not what I expected. If you know me based only on the reviews I've written then you can be forgiven for not knowing that I'm a big admirer of comedy generally and stand up comedians specifically. Carlin, Hicks, Hedberg, Kinison, Seinfeld, Rock, Dangerfield, CK, Williams, they are all, to me, and when they're at their best, a close approximation to true modern philosophers. They make it all bearable by making it ridiculous. And I'm reminded as I write this of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and its use of Aristotle's Book on Comedy from the Poetics, that stolid truth and the human capacity for levity need not always be mutually exclusive.
But unfortunately, the comedian as a profession isn't something that's gone into in any real depth in this novel. A few vague statements here and there about 'the hierarchy' of joke makers and a few generally popular names thrown around that anyone with an internet connection or half an ear to pop culture will know about. Hardly a 'from the trenches' account.
However (and this took me most of the book's length to realize) this book is a parable, even an allegory, though sadly a somewhat failed one which slowed me down somewhat. Unfortunately Warner seems to want the best of both worlds. He wants an Everyman that can be anybody, but that also is a definite somebody. This stretches the novel uncomfortably and leads to an odd case of authorial displacement syndrome as there are definite times when the writer seems lost in his writing.
What's clear though is that this is a cultural indictment of the modern American moment. Of the crassness and vulgarity that has replaced true wit and sharp writing with excess and pathetic pandering to the lowest common denominator, gleefully smirking and bandying about the title of 'satire' as if it's means something. Think the high priest of this movement, think Seth MacFarlane and most of his output in the last few years and you'll understand. The book is a calling out of the kind of immature interpretation of nihilism that says nothing, attempts nothing, and wonders why the culture is at its tipping point. On that score, the book is well executed. Modern American culture, as depicted here, really seems as though it's on its last legs, and maybe, just maybe, that's not necessarily a bad thing, if we can elevate ourselves from the detritus.
But as for the story itself and not just the statement it's trying to make, it is, I'm sorry to say, clunky, and not that conducive to the message it's trying to convey. There were a handful of moments here and there where I almost wanted to call the book 'Kafkaesque' but the book lacked Kafka's grace and subtlety, not to mention his descriptive powers regarding the highs and lows of humanity. Yes, Warner gives us a shallow media and image obsessed culture with hints of 'true love' scattered throughout with the main character's first wife and (spoiler) later love interest. But none of it is done convincingly.
And that is the major failing of the novel. Warner goes to great pains to detail his protagonist's fall and, concurrently, the state of modern American culture and its gradual descent into moral and qualitative decrepitude. But when it comes to his character's ascent and his, we're told, eventual redemption or even potential for said redemption, the book comes off trite and frankly a bit rushed. Maybe had Warner devoted more pages to his protagonist's struggle to evolve it would've made this a true Sisyphean struggle in the vein of Camus, Absurdist even.
But he doesn't. And what we the readers are left with is a sinking culture and an unlikable protagonist that's difficult to even empathize with. With all the apparent negativity I've expressed this far you may be surprised to find that all in all, I did enjoy this book. It's unpleasant, even grotesque at times. But never unnecessarily so. Despite the writer's uncertainty of his form, his message is clear and it's a direly needed message for this time and this culture. This book is not mindless, it's not even heartless. It has heart and mind, disarmingly so, that may even soften a hardened cynic just long enough to say what it needs to say, that the bar can be raised again.There's more than meets the eye here and it's certainly deserving of a read if only to know that underneath the waste of modern culture there is still something worth knowing and even worth saving.
Out of 10: 7.3