The Secret History of Urban Outfitters
by Evan Klonsky
Five years ago, I was drifting through an Urban Outfitters store in Manhattan, searching for a pair of discounted winter gloves, when a table of books caught my eye: A wood tabletop, ten stacks across and three high. As someone who considered himself to have literary interests, but unaware that the chain sold books, I had questions: What books did the young people who shopped here enjoy? What were they being encouraged to enjoy? What was I missing out on?
Naturally, I was over thinking it. There were a lot of cookbooks and self-help guides with swear words in the subtitles, satirical guides on subjects like knitting and homesteading. But then I came across something memorable, even though I can’t remember the title. It was a book on writing – not On Writing by Stephen King or The Elements of Style but a manual written by a guy who’d had some form of early-career writing success. He might have been a journalist or screenwriter or essayist. At any rate, I got the sense he was qualified to dispense advice on the matter.
This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you he wasn’t – that he was only a hack impressed by the sound of his own voice. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he laid out a rule so obvious I thought little of it at the time, but so true I can’t get it out of my head anymore: Good writing is humorous writing. If you don’t find anything remotely funny in the first twenty pages of reading something, stop reading.
It is a simple rule, one that we all objectively understand even if we don’t always follow it. For this reason, I think about it all the time – more and more as time passes. I feel it bubbling up any time I start reading a new book or piece of writing, fiction or nonfiction. I find it haunting me, almost, all these years later – rounding into sharp relief when I finished reading Donna Tartt’s debut novel from 1992.
The Secret History isn’t Tartt’s most famous book, but it is the only one centered on murder, which is always a good place to start humor-wise. A group of Greek language students at a small liberal arts college commit two of them, the first being an accident. Among other things it involves a satanic worship ritual, fasting, heavy drugs, and the sacrifice of a passerby deep in the Vermont woods. If you think that sounds like the fantasy of an academic with too much time on her hands, you’re not alone. Part of me wanted it to be that, too, enduring the lengthy digressions into Greek mythology and language. But two pages later I’d find myself laughing in ways that were unexpected, thrilling, and hard to describe.
Not because I can’t describe what happens. It’s because humor – true humorous writing – suffers most when you remove it from context. This is the trouble with criticism more broadly, the equivalent of having to explain a joke. I could tell you how the characters seem to experience very little remorse or self-awareness. How they don’t hesitate to off their own friend, nick-named Bunny – the kind of name you create for little reason other than comedic effect.
But then I think back to the advice I picked up at Urban Outfitters five years ago. I can’t possibly reproduce the experience in any good way, certainly not in any way better than Tartt, so I’m stuck.
Let’s try it this way: Here’s my own, very well-formed explanation for why humor has the effect that it does. The prevailing wisdom says that it’s all about tension and release, a kind of lubricant to the spaces between the actions. That’s only half of it. The book Humor 101 by psychologist Mitch Earleywine finds that 94% of people think that their sense of humor is average or above average. In other words, just about everyone you know thinks they’re at least as funny as just about everyone else you know. Setting the absurdity of that aside, it makes sense that we all identify with humorous narratives and situations. Oh, look how funny this is. Just like me! When viewed through this lens, humor seems a lot like a trick – a cheap laugh even. But cheap laughs work precisely because they appeal to our vanity. They lead us to believe not just that we can live inside a character’s mind or walk around in his or her life, but we can do it better.
This is the overwhelming sense I get when reading The Secret History. I don’t think I can improve upon Tartt’s words but I can see myself grazing her snow-steeped campus, shivering in a drug-induced panic like the characters themselves. I see scenarios that don’t even play out on the page. This is another way of saying I relate to the characters and their plight, which brings up point two in my Grand Unifying Theory on Humor Writing: Proximity.
The old adage goes, Tragedy plus time equals comedy. I find that tends to be the case in life more often than literature, where the narrator has dramatic distance. In The Secret History, we see this play out in moments like when the narrator Richard gets a midnight call from his friend and co-conspirator Francis, claiming he’s having a heart attack and demanding to be taken to the emergency room, only to decide at the last minute he’s fine.
It’s this proximity to pain that casts everything in a surreal light. Danger – even death – feels chokingly present at all times, hovering over the plot like a ghost.
I could cite a hundred more examples of this being the case but because of what I said earlier, I don’t think it’s all that helpful. In the off chance that you decide to pick up this very famous author’s less-famous book from 1992, I’d hate to cheapen it. In fact, I know I would.
Instead, I’d like to offer up an example from my own life. It happened several years ago, a year or two after the Urban Outfitters visit, when I spent three months cat-sitting in exchange for cheap rent. Every time I tell people about this period of my life, they laugh. The cats’ names helped – Tugboat and Mittsy – but that is not the entire context.
Four months before deciding to take the sublet, my girlfriend and I split up. We’d been living together for a year and a half and I thought of the arrangement as a band aid: House-sitting cats was better than living with my parents; a three-month lease seemed more reasonable than a year.
I can’t speak for my friends, but my suspicion is that my proximity to this dramatic life event heightened the comedic tension. It compelled me to see the world with wide-open eyes – the six-floor climb I took every day to reach the apartment; the broken buzzer system that forced me to toss keys out of the window to visitors like in the musical Rent. One night the electricity in the apartment failed and I started banging down my neighbors’ doors to come help. Another time, I sat outside the bar across the street and listened for a half hour to the bartender talk to her friend about her boyfriend’s PCP habit. I know this because I documented it in a series of excruciating journal entries that I shared with some friends at the time, unable to believe I did looking back on it. Years later, I understand more about why I did, which came down to a pattern: the breakup led to the weird apartment situation, which led to me paying closer attention to things. The pattern, however, ascribes too much meaning to the breakup as an inciting incident. Weird, funny, and mildly unfortunate things were happening all around me, all the time; the only difference was that I had a backdrop to paint them on – one that felt meaningful enough to share with my friends.
Memoirs often apply this method. Huge, life-altering events such as a death or medical diagnosis force people to key into aspects of their lives they may have never considered before. As readers, we identify with the feeling of sadness or loss as much as with humor. When an author can spice up the suffering with some humor, they’ve hit a sweet spot.
No matter how obvious all this seems to me now, I think the author of that writing book from Urban Outfitters would agree. He probably even described it in greater detail in his book, though I’m unable to confirm. I never bought it and while my efforts to find it online turned up nothing, that’s probably for the best. Sometimes there’s no substitute for learning through experience over books, especially when it makes you pay a little closer attention to the world.
Evan Klonsky has written for a number of national publications over his career including PopMatters, Newsday, Inc. magazine and Relix. He is currently at work on a novel.