In this, our third installment of what gives a book the elusive element of fun, I’m going to talk about something that may seem obvious, but which is hard to quantify: wit.
In these times where far too many people treat ignorance as something of which to be proud, the word “wit” seems at times to have fallen into disrepute. It carries with it a vague aroma of snootiness, of elitism, of cruel jibes delivered over dry martinis by callous sophisticates.
But wit–which I define as intelligent, incisive language that also manages to be amusing–is one of the things that can make a book fun to read. As just one example, take the works of Laura Lippman. Laura writes two kinds of books: her standalones, like her most recent book I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, are engrossing, heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and gorgeously written; her Tess Monaghan series, about a female PI in Baltimore, are all of those things, and they’re also huge fun to read. The difference is wit. When Laura writes of a character, as she did in her book IN A STRANGE CITY:
Tess Monaghan couldn’t help thinking of her prospective client as the Porcine One. He had a round belly and that over-all pink look, heightened by a rash-like red on his cheeks, a souvenir of the cold day. His legs were so short that Tess felt ungracious for not owning a footstool, which would have kept them from swinging, childlike, above the floor. The legs ended in tiny feet encased in what must be the world’s smallest–and shiniest–black wingtips. These had clicked across her wooden floor like little hooves.
you can’t help but see him, and you can’t help but smile at the image, if you don’t actually laugh out loud. The wit comes from the delicious, wicked sharpness of the picture.
Sometimes wit comes out of a deadpan description of the mundane that ignores the big, dark, sometimes even scary thing that’s really going on. The humor comes from the dichotomy created by the characters’ apparent obliviousness or nonchalance about the rabid elephant in the room. Examples are the opening conversation in RESERVOIR DOGS, or this exchange from Donald E. Westlake’s BANK SHOT:
Kelp drove one-handed for a minute while he got out his pack of Trues, shook one out, and put it between his lips. He extended the pack sideways, saying, “Cigarette?”
“True? What the hell kind of brand is that?”
“It’s one of the new ones with the low nicotine and tars. Try it.”
“I’ll stick to Camels,” Dortmunder said, and out of the corner of his eye Kelp saw him pull a battered pack of them from his jacket pocket. “True,” Dortmunder grumbled. “I don’t know what the hell kind of name that is for a cigarette.”
Kelp was stung. He said, “Well, what kind of name is Camel? True means something. What the hell does Camel mean?”
“It means cigarettes,” Dortmunder said. “For years and years it means cigarettes. I see something called True, I figure right away it’s a fake.”
“Just because you’ve been working a con,” Kelp said, “you figure everybody else is too.”
“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.
Kelp could deal with anything at that point except being agreed with; not knowing where to go from there, he let the conversation lapse.
Often, wit takes the form of an impossibly perfect and well-composed comeback, the sort of riposte that you realize no human being could ever come up with on the spur of the moment, but which you wish you could. Like this exchange from Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP:
I grinned at her with my head on one side. She flushed. Her hot black eyes looked mad. “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped. “And I don’t like your manners.”
“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said. I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”
It’s sort of like one of those Eric Clapton guitar solos where he tears off on a phrase so long and harmonically complex that you can’t imagine a human mind creating it, much less doing so on the fly.
Other times, wit isn’t so elaborate, but instead lightning quick, like the jab that you don’t see till your opponent’s pulling it back and you’re wondering where that ringing sound is coming from. Ken Bruen is a master at this sort of thing, as in this quick yet perfect description of a cop at a traffic stop:
He wasn’t wearing shades, but he wanted to…and badly.
Note that you’re unilikely to find the works I’ve quoted above are to be found in your bookstore’s humor section. some of them, like Our Ken’s work, are downright dark. All of them have humor, however. Smart, witty humor, and that’s one of the things that makes them fun.
Tell us, O ‘Rati: Who are your favorite witty, fun writers?