Online Edition: Summer 2001

Comedy after Postmodernism by Kirby Olson

Comedy after Postmodernism

Kirby Olson

Texas Tech University Press ($29.95)

by Brian Evenson

In Comedy After Postmodernism Kirby Olson chooses to rethink comedy in terms of an aspect of the work of Gilles Deleuze and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Literary Criticism, argues Olson, has traditionally asked, in its definition of its canons, the question "What is great?", judging works on aesthetic terms. Recently, that question has been revised--because of a growing sense of what ends up being excluded when those judging greatness are white, stodgy, and male--to be "What is just?" In the light of postmodernism, Olson believes, the question might be rephrased as "What is odd?"

Olson's project, then, is one of recuperating the odd while allowing them to remain odd. He's interested in particular in the comic, in those writers who are considered not sufficiently weighty, not sufficiently serious, the writers that seem to be "dismissable at one end of the spectrum as light or silly and at the other end as deranged or perverse."

In an introduction and five chapters, Olson brings poststructuralist theory to bear on five comic writers, and sometimes (perhaps appropriately) he does so quite eccentrically. Edward Lear is discussed as a Deleuzian landscape painter who escapes definition, Beat poet Gregory Corso in terms of a theory of the food chain. French ex-surrealist Philippe Soupault, Olson suggests, offers theories of friendship in the place of Andre Breton's heavier drive toward eros and traditional sacrificial notions. P.G. Wodehouse is described as a social scientist who critiques Alexandre Kojeve's master/slave extrapolation of Hegel. Punk writer Stewart Home "makes possible the radical terminus of the attempt to contrast identity politics and humor," while mystery novelist Charles Willeford offers an intense critique of the nature of judgment.

Olson is at his best at one of two extremes: either when he dives into the language of the writer at hand to examine it adroitly or when he becomes conversational, taking a comic turn himself. His chapter on Willeford is perhaps the most carefully theoretical, but throughout the book Olson manages to provide odd insights into odd writers, making cases for their significance. Are they cases likely to be listened to by those asking "What is great?" and "What is just?" Probably not, but Olson is ultimately not trying to make comic writing less minor. Rather, he wants us to be aware of the possible value of this minor literature, to accept it in its own terms, and finally to see those terms in their real potential.

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Summer 2001 Table of Contents