THE FUNNY IN MEMOIR: Alison Bechdel, Dinty W. Moore, and Trey Popp
A Craft Essay by Beth Kephart
A few years ago, a friend who had first come to know me through my books and was slowly coming to know me through myself—our emails, our occasional actual conversations, our letters, our back-and-forth gifts—sent a note my way that included (I’m paraphrasing here; none of my friends speak as strangely as I write) this question:
How is it that I’ve known you for all these years and I’m only now learning that you are funny? Why have you hidden your funny?
I wondered then, I wonder now, what frees me to precipitate the giggle. And why I so rarely feel so free. And why funny isn’t in most of the books I write, why I tend, on the page, toward the not-hilarious me.
Writing funny, especially in memoir, is a surprisingly recherché talent. Every spring semester at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach memoir, the ratio of funny submissions to not-funny submissions is, on average, one: everything else. This semester our funny was the work of Jonathan, who had me choking on my chortles at 4 a.m., as I read lines like these:
My mother dresses me. Everything from purchasing the clothes to what I’d be wearing that day is her decision. I don’t particularly care—after all, I have something to wear and it’s comfortable and so be it. I imagine though that this becomes a chore for her: young children grow quickly, which means that old clothes became too small, too quickly. The solution, obviously, is to buy a size or two larger and let the kid grow into it. My shirts get so big that at times they stretch to my knees. This stroke of insight and ingenuity is well received by my peers and classmates alike.
“Why are you wearing a dress? Are you a GIRL?”
Jonathan is an unassuming writer—a non-writer, he claimed, choosing (for reasons that remain beyond my reach, since he did all the work and then some) to audit the class. But he had made us laugh out loud during COVID lockdown, inside our Zoom boxes, where he appeared against a borrowed backdrop so that we would not be exposed to the ramshackle of his purportedly unkempt habitat. Nothing non in achieving comicality, I tried to tell him. I hoped he could hear me through the ether.
I recently read three funny memoirs, back to back to back. The first, Black Mountain, Blue Field: A Journey Through Montenegro, is a small-press glory by Trey Popp. It retraces the journey Popp took, years ago, as a 26-year-old whose every job up until that point “had been aimed at piling up just enough money for a plane ticket away from the confinement of an actual career.” His destination this time was Montenegro, a country that held some keys to family history. His traveling companion was his 82-year-old grandfather—hard of hearing and gabby, opinionated and generous, silently displeased with the Yugo Popp rents to carry them forward on their journey:
It looked like a very slightly upgraded go-cart. Inside was a steering wheel the size of a salad plate and, quite close to it, the upright back of a nonadjustable driver’s seat. (I’m six feet five inches and all of it is legs.) Like the rest of the interior, the seat was upholstered in a black fabric that was several degrees Celsius shy of spontaneous combustion.
Popp is an exquisite writer—as capable of explicating complex political and ethnic histories as he is of limning landscape, as at home in the long twist of a lyric sentence as he is with the ping-and-pong of transcribed dialogue, as good at rendering silence as he is as crafting ambient noise, and, most importantly for our purposes here, as adept at the absurd as the sublime. It helps that Popp’s grandfather is one of the most fabulous characters to ever cross a memoir page. But we wouldn’t know that if Popp hadn’t written him with such acute and tender-hearted prose:
His natural charm cloaked a mind that old age was calcifying. He was attuned to his children’s lives and his grandchildren’s march from one milestone to the next. But otherwise it seemed as though the last decade’s worth of experiences had been deposited in his memory like loose sand exposed to a constant wind, which would begin to erode deeper recollections—if that process hadn’t already begun.
Popp took a tape recorder along for the ride. Much of the funny arrives by way of tape transcriptions—bursting conversations, misdirections, accusations, revelations—that are all fastidiously well-framed. Funny, too, are the scenarios this grandkid and his grandfather find themselves in—the unforced errors of preposterously inadequate lodging, the surprising surround sound of newly discovered relatives, the endearing determination of Popp’s grandfather to find Popp a girl to love.
But all this funny would remain just and only funny were it not for Popp’s gorgeously rendered moments of self-reflection and -discovery, the sublime that I alluded to earlier. Like this:
As I thought about the profound leap of faith he had taken to say yes instead of no, it dawned on me that somewhere along the line I’d gotten love backwards. I’d imagined it purely as an outcome. But that’s only half of what it was, and the lesser half. What made love sublime was its power to bloom from mere intention. Love was a premise, not a consequence…. Love above all was a choice, a determination made without regard to conditions met.
The best of funny stirs us beyond laughter. It rattles around in our bones, and hearts.
My second foray into memoiristic funny was Dinty W. Moore’s To Hell with It, a book whose subject matter, range, and tone are announced in the subtitle—Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno. Moore suggests (funnily) that Dante’s infamous guided tour to the afterlife might just as easily be titled The Medieval Traveler’s Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Where to Eat, Where to Stay, What to See.
Moore also suggests (in all seriousness) that the ways that we hold fast to baked-in notions about “our inherent sinfulness and the idea that we might suffer mightily at the end, not just for a while, but forever” do not “make our lives more tolerable, more productive, more worth our limited time.” Raised a Catholic in a family burdened by a dark history, the son of a sweet and charming man who drank excessively, a writer and teacher whose life has been marked by depressive episodes, Moore uses scholarship, humor, personal stories, and personal confession to underscore his considered belief that we are not all inherently bad people. That maybe, while we are alive, we should less burdensomely live.
Moore, for example, takes on Dante’s Third Circle of Hell—gluttony—by registering for the Twenty-Sixth World Chicken Festival’s 96.7 FM Kool Gold Hot Win Eating Contest of London, Kentucky. He has his qualms. The competition is fierce. He ultimately cedes to the moment:
Finally, the DJ shouts “One minute left,” and I experience a sudden burst of gustatory endorphins, chomping down more chicken in sixty seconds than I probably did in the previous four minutes, shoving and biting and pulling chicken apart with my hands, seeing that bucket empty out a bit, and hearing an unexpected voice in my head that says, “You’re gonna win this thing. You’re some kind of animal.”
Does Moore’s foray into competitive chicken-wing consumption underscore his innate sinfulness? He doesn’t actually think so:
I didn’t win the hot-wing-eating contest, but maybe I didn’t come in last either. While the gustatory rapaciousness exhibited by my fellow chicken-chomping competitors was unquestionably gross, it was also fun, and I don’t at this moment feel particularly sinful. Not enough to condemn me into the jaws of Cerberus, in any case.
It’s funny, of course—the scene, the language. But it wouldn’t be nearly as funny if Moore were not equally intent on exposing the perils of living with guilt, of imagining ourselves sinful, of nearly giving way to darkness. If Moore didn’t undergird the funny with naked honesty: “As I write this, I am one year older than my father was the year he died, and looking back, I see my life so far as one attempt after another to seal the void, plug the crater, erase the absence that defined me.”
The third book of my three was The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel. A graphic memoir, the book bills itself as “a deeply layered story of [Bechdel’s] fascination, from her childhood to adulthood, with every fitness craze to come down the pike.” Which is to say that the book is obsessed with Bechdel’s obsession with self-improvement and possible self-transcendence, the desire, as she writes for the “slackening of the ego’s grip.” We see Bechdel skiing, running, climbing, biking, weight lifting, yoga-ing—faster, longer, higher, more—as one would expect from an exercise-centric book. But we also meet historical others who sought to outpace themselves, to “solidify” themselves, to quiet the noise in their heads by pushing their bodies to bodily limits—people like Margaret Fuller and Dorothy Wordsworth and Jack Kerouac. Bechdel uses history the way other memoirists use flashbacks.
Bechdel pins deadpan prose to waggish art. She is sly and wry inside her captions. She draws the cartoon version of herself with astute exaggeration—swinging from New York City subway car straps, throwing off monsoon-quantity sweat, cycling upside down on snaking, climbing roads. The simple lines in her drawn face convey a colossal range of expressions—curious, confused, smug, enraged, meditative, epiphanic, in the zone and very much out of it. Her depicted postures—ranging from slumped to truly superhuman—are both self-effacing and hysterical. And when the words and the captions and the dialogue bubbles and the images aren’t quite enough to produce the intended result, there is, often, a nearby cat that makes its own silent but pithy commentary on the moment.
In Bechdel’s hands, the graphic memoir form, with its multitude of layers and convolutions, dissects humor into its daedal parts—the words said and not said, the self-aggrandizing and negating, the ambitions that provoke and pierce, the serious stuff of trying to outrun ourselves and the funny-sad-too-true consequences. She achieves all of this while grounding us in the history of brilliant people being both brilliant and profoundly hapless.
This, then, is what funny inside the memoir is—a layering of light against dark, habit against hope, goofy against just being human. Goofy, because goofy is being human.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning writer of more than thirty books in multiple genre, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist. Her new memoir in essays is Wife | Daughter | Self. Her new craft book is We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class. More at bethkephartbooks.com.