Charles Dee Mitchell's Reviews > The Book of Jokes

The Book of Jokes by Momus
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's review
Mar 28, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: contemporary-lit
Read from March 28 to 31, 2011

Ever feel like your life is a joke? Meet the Skeletons: Young Sebastian, his sister, and their parents. They live in a glass house where their lives are ruled not by the laws of nature, but by the laws of jokes. The family history and its present, ongoing predicaments are the subject matter of a repetitive series of for the most part rather well known jokes. Do I even need to mention that they are almost entirely dirty jokes. Sebastian seems somewhat aware of this situation, but powerless to break the pattern -- or even very concerned about doing so. When he finds himself in his drowsy Grandfather's bus, he knows he will be among the screaming, panicked victims of the fatal crash and not go peacefully in his sleep like Grandpa.

Sebastian announces that this is his prison diary, an institution where his only friends are a murderer and a child molester. Their decision to break out and commit the crimes of which they have been falsely accused provides some forward narrative for the book, interspersed with Sebastian's childhood memories. For a time his family adopted the lifestyle of Japanese aristocrats of the Heien period, but whatever their affectations they never escape their glass house, the embarrassments and ordeals of their father's ongoing affair with a goose, or their mother's decision to leave them for a lesbian lover. Another source of the children's embarrassment is the prodigal growth of Dad's penis, which becomes so enormous he must either wrap it around his body or arrange for its special conveyance on wheelbarrows or other contraptions.

Momus, the author, is the Scottish songwriter Nick Currie, and throughout the book he proves himself to be one of those people who, when given the chance to tell a joke, lights up with a special verbal fire, treasuring every word as he reaches the usually already known punch line. When Dad takes the children on one of their joyless beach holidays, they sail to the Isle of Bute for the staged entertainment. The narrator writes of these shows, "In avant-garde vaudeville this was axiomatic: you needed to go further to get to, essentially, the same place."

So it is with The Book of Jokes. The book is less than 200 pages long, but not very far into it I wondered how Momus would be able to keep this up. But I realized, towards the end, that it is not a matter of how well he will perform his joke, it's a matter of how well we, the readers, can take it.
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