The Different Modes of the Chaplain

Comedy and Tragedy for the 21st Century

As you might have seen with the most recent two posts, I’ve had a fraught couple of days. So Nora and I had a long talk last night, a lot of which had to do with the functions that writing accomplishes in the world. It was pretty wonderful, and made me realize all over again just how lucky I am.

She’s described a lot of my work in the wake of The Adjunct Underclass as “academic chaplaincy,” talking with people by phone or by email to help them know that they’re not alone. Even the book itself did that work, letting readers of all stripes know that the emotional dislocation and disrespect they experienced was normal, should be expected, wasn’t shameful, wasn’t a weakness. I said to Nora that my fiction was intended to have that same effect. All of my stories, no matter when or where they’re set, are about someone who has done all the right things, looks successful enough from the outside, and feels as though they haven’t reached what they’d hoped for. Or had quit hoping altogether. And my stories are there to say to readers, It’s normal to feel stuck. It’s normal to feel like your success doesn’t look like it showed in the catalog. But you have the capabilities already within you to reinvent yourself. You don’t have to accept who and where you are. There’s more possible. It’s an attempt to offer a different mode of chaplaincy, through fiction.

And Nora said something really interesting, which I’ll paraphrase since I wasn’t taking notes and it was eleven o’clock at night. She said, “I’ve never looked to fictional characters for role models or life lessons. I’ve never looked at a character, no matter how much I’ve identified with them, and thought that I could take lessons for my own progress.” And I think that’s not surprising; she’s an ethnographer down to the bone, learning about others, constantly focused on the experiences and the welfare of those around her. She reads with empathy, learning what it must be like to inhabit those circumstances, that time and place, that culture, that body. She focuses outward.

I guess I’m more selfish. I read lots of things both to imagine those lives and to re-imagine my own. We can go through all kinds of dollar-store psychology about what our reading says about our personalities, our ego stability or fragility. Whatever. I do think, though, that neither Nora’s nor my style of reading are idiosyncratic. Both modes exist in the world.


I’ve written extensively about my desire to write hopeful books, to act as a countervailing force against a literary landscape that seems daily to become more lurid, more hopeless. That would, in the classic distinction, make me a writer of comedy (books with an upward arc) rather than tragedy (books with a downward arc). Comedy isn’t necessarily funny; it’s just about ascent rather than decline.

And just today, Katy Waldman in The New Yorker wrote about the work that comic novels do. I’ll leave aside her extended discussion of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, and Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man, as well as her recommendations for comic novels worth reading during the quarantine. Instead, I’d like to highlight an important distinction between two different functions of comedy, a distinction that pretty closely mirrors Nora’s and my conversation of last night.

Waldman differentiates between stories intended to lighten our load and those intended to help us adjust and reshoulder our load:

Russo, whose protagonist often wavers between sorrow and hilarity, wants to emphasize that applying a comic framework to life is a choice. Hank refuses to play the straight man in his routine with the universe. Seriousness poses danger; better to make the cracks than to endure them. In this sense, Hank’s clowning illuminates his character, even invests it with tragedy, and Russo offers an alternative to the Wodehouse novels. Bertie is an innocent portrayed ironically; Hank is an ironist portrayed sincerely. One path leads to escapist distraction, whereas the other leads to a set of implied instructions: This is how humor might help—or fail to help—a person cope…. What is our disposition toward a fickle universe? Do we claim agency through humor? Or strive for a jolly and wide-eyed surrender?

Katy Waldman, “Two Paths for the Comic Novel (and the Funniest Books to Read in Quarantine), New Yorker, April 27, 2020

This is absolutely my experience. Some novels are about agency, about recognizing our absurdity and taking action nonetheless. And others are just fun, page-turners that help us get through a hard day. As Waldman says:

From an aesthetic perspective, one vision—pessimistic or optimistic, active or passive—isn’t better, or funnier, than another. But there’s a larger truth here. Before the shelter-in-place orders, I was not seeking out the books that made me laugh as a kid. Now I am. This fact somehow seems to get at the essence of comedy—an art that becomes more real, more fully itself, within a shared, tragic frame.

And that’s the work of comedy as chaplaincy, the recognition that things really ARE fucked up and that we have a responsibility to be honorable anyway.