John Warner: The Funny Man

There’s a lot of craft I admire in The Funny Man. Initially, chapters alternate between the titular character’s first-person narration of his manslaughter trial in the present, and third-person narration of the funny man’s career arc. (For a while I was mildly irritated by the funny man’s namelessness, but it’s eventually justified; the novel is really about the nature of celebrity and the main character’s lack of a specific identity is significant.) It’s perhaps a third of the way through the novel that it pulls what for me was its best trick: at first it’s grittily naturalistic. The opening depictions of how a person richer and more famous than anyone I’ve ever met lives correlate so well with my limited experience of richer and more prominent people that they were almost too credible. But at a certain point it becomes clear that the funny man is an unreliable narrator (the nature and extent of the narrator’s unreliability is perhaps the novel’s second major concern). But the narrator’s transition into unreliability — and the novel’s shift from naturalistic fiction to satire — are both slippery and hard to pin down.

As a whole, though, the book didn’t work for me. Which could be almost as much about me as about the book.

I generally think it’s lame when a review of fiction or film criticizes the unlikeability or lack of empathy with characters, but the funny man was both contemptible and dull in a way I found hard to get past and impossible to root for. Partly this is because the novel’s theme requires both the standard rags/riches/rehab plotline and that the character be largely a cipher, a stand-in for the concept of celebrity with minimal individuality. But I’m also just not very interested in the phenomenon of celebrity. I’ve thought that at a certain level celebrities stop being human by most useful definitions of the word since Warren Zevon’s song “Splendid Isolation” pointed it out to me. I’m often weirded out when real people express opinions about the moral choices of the mysterious people in magazines with only first names in the headlines. So maybe I’m just fundamentally not the right audience for this book.

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about it, both while reading it and afterwards, so it had that going for it.

And I should mention that even if I didn’t like the book, I enjoyed some of its descriptions, for instance,

The woman is young, like right out of journalism school, and she had that green smell about her. She is tiny and dark, with short hair sculpted into a soft fin across the top of her head. She wears black exclusively. Her ears are small and pointed. She looks like an elf as raised and outfitted by eighties new wave musicians.

needs more demons? kinda.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

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