Funny Once by Antonya Nelson, 2012
The magic trick:
Getting sucked into the story’s world; feeling the same way the characters in the story feel about their forced normalcy
To recap: Tuesday saw Antonya Nelson dropping a bomb in the beginning and watching it smolder for the rest of the story; Wednesday saw Antonya Nelson pulling the pin on a grenade to start the story and then making us wait until the end for the explosion. So what’s next today from our friend from Houston?
The big teaser. That’s what next.
This story feels like it’s ready to explode from the very start. Ben and Phoebe do not appear well-paired. Phoebe does not appear well-paired with the world. She got dumped by her therapist on the first day. Nothing seems comfortable or built to last. And yet the relationships and routines in the story all purport to be very comfortable, all purport to be building toward forever. That, my friends, is a very bad combination. Nothing but pressure to fulfill roles and maintain appearances.
Something’s going to blow.
And the characters seem to feel this too. I love how Nelson does this. We saw on Tuesday in “Literally” that the characters mirrored the reader’s sense of impending disaster. They, too, were nervous, expecting the worse. Here, as the reader anticipates an emotion explosion, the characters also seek out the cause of this tension. Phoebe winds up playing on this by lying to the Lousises about her “condition.”
It’s a very, very cool way to engage the reader in the story. It’s not quite a Choose Your Own Adventure, but it’s close. You really do feel like you are part of the story as the characters feel your feelings and act on your emotions. And that’s quite a trick on Nelson’s part.
“… Ask me what the therapist asked me?”
“What’d she ask you?”
“He. He asked me if my husband demanded rough sex.”
“I know. Right after ‘What brings you here today?’ and me going, ‘I’m terminally unhappy,’ he asks about rough sex.” A strange opening gambit; Phoebe hadn’t mentioned marriage, husband, sex, or violence; she’d thought “terminal unhappiness” might sound sufficiently suicidal.