In this craft essay, Mike Scalise, winner of our 2014 Christopher Doheny Award for his memoir The Brand New Catastrophe, talks about writing the story of his illness, and how writers like Susanna Kaysen and Matthew Klam taught him to bring out the humor in some of the most unlikely scenarios.
When anyone asks me what I think is funny in literature, I immediately send them to Matthew Klam’s short story “Issues I Dealt With In Therapy,” which is not a funny story, until, finally, it very much is.
“Issues” takes place over the course of a wedding weekend “on a preppy East Coast resort island,” and follows the conflicted monologue of the best man, who swings hard between pride and debilitating resentment at the success of the groom, his grad school friend Bob, a DC operative in line for a top gig advising then-Vice President Al Gore. Throughout “Issues” Gore’s aides flank the wedding events in a nerve-racking pack, “wearing hairbands, talking on cell phones,” raising the potential for a visit from Gore himself, while our poor narrator—aimless, struggling in his relationships—sinks into the kind of single-serving, existential dread spiral that weddings can uniquely trigger. “He needed somebody to be his friend,” the narrator says about Bob, “to help him grasp what he’d become, but I also got the feeling he went in and out of remembering I was there.”
It’s a story, largely, about the flattening feeling of futility in the face of someone else’s upward trajectory—which, as I write this I realize is not a hilarious concept, and not really that new. But the story’s humor works precisely because of that familiarity, which Klam understands, and is patient enough with to finally turn on its side in a brilliant way.
Very often, the most effective humor in writing doesn’t come from a clever concept, or a turn of phrase, or a one-liner, or a bit of killer dialogue. Instead, it comes from the manipulation of carefully built structures, from the ways in which you introduce well known patterns, then undermine those patterns with revealing character action. I’m thinking here of Susanna Kaysen’s deadpan, yet hilariously dark conversations with her suicide counselor in Girl, Interrupted, or Tom Mota slicing up his business casual shirt and slacks as he enters a near-layoff crackup in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End. Or it’s Louis CK, on stage, pleading the very careful case that, based on common evidence, his four-year-old is an asshole. Each of these artists finds a way to present a rote human experience in a way we understand—discussions with medical professionals, the workplace, raising a child—and then suddenly deflate that understanding. The humor, in these cases, isn’t cosmetic. It’s a structural concern. It’s built into the foundation of a story, a slow construction of tension and release. And it often depends on cultural scripts like the one Matthew Klam plays with in “Issues”—the tried and true template of the early thirties, wedding dread spiral.
And what does Klam do with that script? He follows it to its most logical endpoint: the wedding toast, a hallmark so ripe with expectation that Klam’s able to put his narrator in a position to surprise even himself. “You’ve had a lot of jobs, Bob,” says the narrator, legs heavy and nervous, Al Gore’s team looking on. “You’re smart. Very smart.” Crickets. Awkwardness. And then, finally, as he mutters and fails to recall one of Bob’s ample successes—we’ve seen this all before, right?—we get this:
"Why couldn’t I have been at some loser’s wedding right now?” he says. “I wouldn’t have to remember so much. Can’t you stop and give somebody else a chance, for Christ’s sake?"
From there, the crowd loosens, and the toast unspools for the narrator in such a funny, fraught, yet electric way that owes everything to the slow construction of tensions and familiarities that came before it. I won’t ruin it for you—please, read this story yourself—but it ends with the narrator calling his old friend a “fat, pusillanimous, popcorn eating” lackey to a roaring crowd convinced it’s a loving roast. Bob, though, knows better, and as a result, our narrator realizes he probably won’t be meeting the Vice President of the United States that weekend, or seeing his old friend again.
I thought of Klam’s story often when it came time to write my memoir, which was, admittedly, about a very unfunny experience: a lifelong hormone illness I was diagnosed with at twenty-four. But I didn’t remember it that way. There were funny moments, and I wanted to write about them. It wasn’t until I began reading writers like Matthew Klam that I realized how to do that. The story of my illness was loaded with rote experiences—trips to doctors and weddings, jobs at offices—and at each one my illness proved, sometimes in very funny ways, to be a wholly destabilizing force. The fun (and, hopefully funny) part became determining why, then writing directly into the breakdowns.
Mike Scalise’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AGNI, Indiewire, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He’s an 826DC advisory board member, has received fellowships and scholarships from Bread Loaf, Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, and was the Philip Roth Writer in Residence at Bucknell University. His memoir, The Brand New Catastrophe, was the recipient of The Center for Fiction's 2014 Christopher Doheny Award.
About The Brand New Catastrophe:
Raucous family memoir meets medical adventure in this heartfelt, hilarious book exploring the public and private theaters of illness. After a tumor bursts in Mike Scalise’s brain, leaving him with a hole in the head and malfunctioning hormones, he must navigate a new, alien world of illness maintenance. His mother, who has a chronic heart condition and a flair for drama, becomes a complicated model as she competes with him for the status of "best sick person." The Brand New Catastrophe is a moving, funny exploration of how we define ourselves by the stories we choose to tell.