The Book of Jokes [Reading the Dalkey Archive]


The Book of Jokes



Original publication: 2009

Original publisher: Dalkey Archive


The Book of Jokes is first original Dalkey Archive  title to be part of this series, and woo-boy is it a doozy. If you’re playing “Offensive Dalkey Archive Content Bingo,” you’re all set! There are jokes about incest, religion, women, pedophilia, murder, shit, penises, farmyard animals . . . and probably a dozen other potentially offensive bits, all wrapped up in a semi-metafictional story that eschews realism in favor of something much more unhinged and provocative.

In other words, it’s your average Dalkey title: a NSFW that values form over content, exploring the idea of what a novel can be rather than producing a straightforward depiction of “life.”

It’s also very entertaining and a delightful (yes, I’m going with “delightful”) representation of three key elements of joke telling that left me literally (yes, literally) laughing out loud, receiving deservedly strange looks from everyone on the bus, in the bar, at the library. (All places I would not recommend reading this filthy book.)

(Also: probably not a great idea to read from over Zoom, at a staff meeting. Just saying.)

But before we get to the meat of the matter, what is this book and who is Momus?

Last things first: Momus is Nick Currie, a Scottish musician and rabble rouser, whose songs include “Michelin Man” (for which he was sued by Michelin Tire Company for using their mascot as a metaphor for “hypersexualized rubber fetishism”[1]), “Walter Carlos” (for which he was sued by Wendy Carlos, since the song “postulated that after post-sexual reassignment surgery, Wendy could travel back in time to marry her pre-surgery self”[2]), but also “The Hairstyle of the Devil,” and “Good Morning World.” Not to mention, he was an influence on Jarvis Cocker and Pulp and Suede—and was friends with Justine Frischmann of Elastic (1990s Chad just swooned)—and worked with Cornelius. (If you want a fast introduction to his music, Public Intellectual: An Anthology (1986-2016) is a great place to start.)

So yeah, controversial, but also quite influential and a serious, respected musician and artist.

And The Book of Jokes is the first of six novels (The Book of Scotlands, The Book of Japans, UnAmerica) along with a memoir from FSG entitled Niche: A Memoir in Pastiche. (I don’t know the backstory for how Dalkey came to do this book, nor why Niche appears to only be available as an audiobook only . . . )

So, although it’s fun to play up the controversial, enfant terrible aspects of his life and art, that’s not entirely fair. Controversy sells—and invites cancellation—but being an artist across decades, across media is such a curious challenge. (Both David Bowie and Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X come to mind.) When you’re a true working artist, there’s so much more at play—so many songs, so many books, so many performances. And sticking just his writing for now, The Book of Jokes is an absolute blast that’s hard to put down—except to laugh—and, to continue proving Momus’s credentials to an imagined audience unaware of his work, this books was favorably reviewed by the L.A. Times, who compared him to John Barth and Robert Coover. (Two other Dalkey authors.)

So what is The Book of Jokes actually about? Well, being trapped in a narrative determined by dirty jokes—what else?

Call it “joke dharma,” if you like. Bad jokes, dirty jokes are, to my world, what the force of gravity is to yours. They shape every event in my life, and in the life of my family. I am not sure why it is so, but that it is, I cannot doubt. As a result, I live in a grim mirror world. I am a character trapped in a book of jokes—jokes, furthermore, which are in very poor taste.

Our narrator, trapped in this bizarro world in which life is like a blue Cinemax stand-up special, is in jail, where he has two companions: a molester and a murderer. The triad (back to this idea in a minute) decide to escape and, since obviously none of them have committed the crimes for which they were imprisoned, agree to commit the exact crimes they were convicted of, so that, in a weird, karmic way, they make up for the time they’ve already spent behind bars.

That storyline runs throughout the novel, serving as a clothesline off of which to hang one offensive story from Sebastian Skeleton’s life and childhood after another. It’s not entirely satisfying in terms of a “plot,” but it functions the way it should, starting from a conversation about whether someone could “have an uncle who was also his nephew” and ending with a quite satisfying twist: “We weren’t speaking to you,” we say, speaking to you.

But for me—someone who pretends, too frequently, especially when intoxicated, to have aspirations of doing stand-up comedy, one-time, some day—this novel is primary a taxonomy of joke structures. (Or at least three particular structures.)


Joke Structure #1: The Unexpected Ending

One theory of what makes funny things funny is the way in a joke’s set-up takes you right up to the edge of a relatively reasonable explanation, but then veers. The unexpected is what catches you off guard and, especially when it transgresses certain taboos, allows a momentary catharsis in the form of laughter.

Momus takes this to the extreme, sure, and, in that extreme, pulls out a few different laughs.

“Okay, Dad, here’s another. One dark, stormy night a couple are in a car driving fast through a foreign city. The car breaks down and the husband has to go and get help from someone who can speak his language. He’s afraid to leave his wife alone in the car, so he winds up the windows and locks the car before leaving. When he returns the car is in the same state he left it in, but his wife is dead, there’s blood on the floor and there’s a stranger in the car. Explain what happened.”

“Well,” explained Dad, “the car broke down because the husband crashed it, killing his wife. The stranger was a policeman, investigating the crash. The man had been afraid to leave his dead wife alone because the area was a notorious necrophilia black spot.”

“A necrophilia black spot?” asked Luisa. “What does that mean?”

“It means a place where there are a lot of people living who like to fuck dead people,” explained my father.

“Are they marked with traffic signs?” asked Luisa. [. . .]

“No,” I said, “no, top marks for imagination, Dad, but that’s not right. The wife was about to give birth. They were on their way to a hospital. While the man was fetching help the baby was born, but the wife died in childbirth.”

“You’re an incredibly boring person,” said my father.

The real joke in there is the “traffic signs,” but you can only get there via the absurdity of the father’s “guess,” which is its own sort of set-up.


Joke Structure #2: And and and and and and and and

Here’s where I attempt to tie this post into the one on Djuna Barnes’s Ryder . . .

So, as I was reading this book—and trying to explain to friends and family why I liked it so much—and what kept coming to mind was The Aristocrats. Not only for the filth baked into every telling of that joke (Bob Saget’s and Sarah Silverman’s are still legendary), but for the overstuffing, the endlessly adding to the jokes, the improv that never stops . . . because whatever you add in there only makes the joke even funnier.

It’s not as dirty, but in college I would love to get really stoned and tell the “horse’s ass” joke. The one in which a young kid, let’s call him Jimmy, goes to the circus, and gets called out of the audience by a clown so that he, Jimmy, can be part of a joke—THE GREATEST MOMENT OF HIS LIFE—and the clown says, “are you a horse’s head?” “No . . .” “Well then, you must be a horse’s ass!” Massive laughter erupts from throughout the big top, and the kid, poor little Jimmy, who’s friendless and saw this chance, him, in the spotlight with a clown!, to be his one shining moment after which, duh and or obviously, Bethany would totally read all his love notes (reminder: never write love notes), pisses his pants so gushingly that everyone—even in the nosebleed section—can see the stream pouring down his bare legs, darkening the sawdust at his feet. More laughter. It’s fucking hysterical. More embarrassment for Jimmy. And a sudden, lifelong, Captain Ahab level quest for revenge.

That set-up—which is fine in its own right, premised upon a bit that, if we’re being honest, isn’t really all that funny—functions as the launchpad for the (stoned) joke-teller to just start riffing. Sure, there are beats that must be hit—Jimmy prepares and prepares, has a second meeting with the clown, fails, regathers his strength, trains again, finds the clown a third time—but the joy is in the details.

LIKE WITH RYDER the information, the message is not the point: it’s how you get there.

Where do you take Jimmy? Exactly what sort of preparation does he go through before the ultimate confrontation with clown? As the (stoned) joke-teller, you can send him to Comeback University. Or to Mars. Maybe the Amazon to spend a decade gathering wisdom from a tribe that specializes in getting verbal revenge. Whatever you want to do, (stoned) joke-teller, go for it! The more ludicrous the better. Go all out, make the joke lasts 30 minutes (or, well, ten? stoned joke-tellers are prone to exaggerate), add as many detours as you want, then land it with the extremely simple punchline.

And, of course, about three-quarters of the way through The Book of Jokes, after several other examples of the “and and and and and and and” joke structure, we finally get the aristocrats joke.

“. . . When he comes, a huge bucket of sperm is tipped over us from above and the curtains swing shut as we writhe about in it.”

Farquar looked thunderstruck. “And what do you call this act?” he asked.

“I can’t think of a name,” said my father.


Joke Structure #3: The second time is annoying, the fifth time is golden

I am so guilty of this! (And NOT just when I’m a stoned joke-teller!)

Trebling is one thing—the threes that pervade folklore, joke telling (“a molester, a murderer, and a narrator meet in prison”)—but when you take a particular line, a short bit and turn it into a motif that recurs and morphs and structures a comedy set, a night, a novel . . . that’s so much funnier. Instead of playing it twice for tragedy, and thrice for comedy, play it ten times and make it more and more outrageous.

I absolutely can not give away what the running gag is in The Book of Jokes, which is killing me and, I swar, if you get me on the phone, I’ll tell you the joke AND make it extra dirty! For now though, trust me, it’s good. (And I’m neither stoned, nor telling the joke!) The original joke is great, and every single iteration got me—even when I could see it coming a mile off—and the final variation brings the whole thing home.


Anyway, since it’s “Dalkey Music Week” on Three Percent, I’m going to leave you with these lyrics from Momus’s “I Want You, But I Don’t Need You”:

I like you, and I’d like you to like me to like you
But I don’t need you
Don’t need you to want me to like you
Because if you didn’t like me
I would still like you, you see
La la la
La la la

I lick you, I like you to like me to lick you
But I don’t need you
Don’t need you to like me to lick you
If your pleasure turned into pain
I would still lick for my personal gain
La la la
La la la

I fuck you, and I love you to love me to fuck you
But I don’t fucking need you
Don’t need you to need me to fuck you
If you need me to need you to fuck
That fucks everything up
La la la
La la la


[1] From Wikipedia

[2] Again, Wikipedia

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