‘Simmering’ by Margaret Atwood

Simmering by Margaret Atwood, 1983 Continue reading


‘The Nose’ by Nikolai Gogol

Gogol, Nikolai 1836

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol, 1836

The magic trick:

Balancing conceptual symbolism and comedy

Typically, when an artist elects to use bold symbolism and conceptual commentary, they are trading in the chance at comedy (at least unintentional comedy). High pretension simply doesn’t blend well with a down-to-earth sense of humor. Somehow though, Gogol is able to achieve both simultaneously.

Consider that in “The Nose,” Gogol does all this: totally distorts the reader’s sense of realistic expectation, makes very serious critiques of a society based on superficial status symbols, and distances himself from the whole thing by throwing in funny asides in which the narrator basically says, “Wow, this whole story is really silly.”

It’s a wonderful tone – like Twain, Chekhov and Kafka rolled into one. And that’s quite a trick on Gogol’s part.

The selection:

Poor Kovalev felt almost demented. The astounding event left him utterly at a loss. For how could the nose which had been on his face but yesterday, and able then neither to drive nor to walk independently, now be going about in uniform?


‘The Greatest Man In The World’ by James Thurber

Thurber, James 1935

The Greatest Man In The World by James Thurber, 1931

The magic trick:

A very cynical and very funny government conspiracy

All good satire is rooted in misanthropy. The key, I think, is to keep the balance right. Too much misanthropy kills the humor. This Thurber piece comes close to tipping those scales in favor of the misanthrope, but in the end, the humor wins out.

The story’s joke is that the latest aviation hero’s detestable personality and personal history are a threat to a national security based on the promotion of clean-cut, patriotic achievers. Thurber skewers the media and the government relentlessly. It is a silly, absurd story, but the criticism of hypocritical American institutions wounds deep. And that’s quite a trick on Thurber’s part.

The selection:

None of this extraordinary interview was, of course, printed. On the contrary, the newspapers, already under the disciplined direction of a secret directorate created for the occasion and composed of statesmen and editors, gave out to a panting and restless world that “Jacky,” as he had been arbitrarily nicknamed, would consent to say only that he was very happy and that anyone could have done what he did. “My achievement has been, I fear, slightly exaggerated,” the Times man’s article had him protest, with a modest smile.