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The Wrestler's Cruel Study: humor and high art

A.V. Club Staff

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month's selection, Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Leonard Pierce: One of my hobbyhorses—one which many people have told me that I’ve ridden right into the ground—is that I don’t often feel that critics are very fair when judging a literary work that is too open about its sense of humor. Though plenty of “high” art, from Shakespeare to Joyce to Pynchon, is obviously meant to be funny, it seems all too often that a novel isn’t allowed to be great if it’s got too many jokes in it. When we discussed Then We Came To The End in Wrapped Up In Books a few months ago, I interviewed author Joshua Ferris, and he confirmed that this was his experience as well; he admitted that at least part of the reason for the narrative break involving a lead character’s battle with cancer was so that critics wouldn’t approach the entire book as “merely” funny, and award it the kind of literary merit points that only “serious” writing deserves.


Happily, I think this is changing; after 60 years and way too many grim-faced performances, most critics now seem to recognize that Waiting For Godot is supposed to be a comedy, and writers like Flann O’Brien and Stanley Elkin are finally being reassessed as deserving a place in the canon alongside their less joke-prone peers. Obviously, when talking about The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, one’s reaction to the humor is of paramount importance to overall appreciation of the book; it’s clearly meant to be a comedy, albeit a deeply philosophical one, and if you don’t react well to its sense of humor, you’re not likely to enjoy the rest of it, either. (I think this may help account for the somewhat schizophrenic reviews it got on release; even a lot of the positive reviews seemed to tag it as a sort of high-minded trifle, an elevated shaggy-dog story, while a small few took the opposite approach: that it was a great and meaningful book that also happened to be very funny.)

It’s no secret which camp I’m in. Tomorrow, in our closing discussion, I want to talk about the book as philosophy, as literature, as “high” culture blended deftly with “low,” but I also believe it’s a truly funny work of fiction, a nice blend of literary humor, slapstick, comedy of manners, and light satire. If you like your laughs broad, it gives ’em to you broad (the bloated wrestling triplets Prime Rib, Prime Rate, and Prime Time come to mind); and if you like your laughs subtle, it gives ’em to you subtle (the doppelgänger detectives Brodsky and Gapski, eternally trying to provoke each other in identical ways, trying anything to distinguish themselves from each other and only succeeding in becoming more and more alike). It’s not likely that this will turn into anything like a Simpsons quote thread, but I’ll mention my two favorite comedic bits in the book: first, the way Deep Rat constantly does small, subtle acts of evil—jabbing people furtively in the ribs in crowds, and jumping the turnstile even when he has money for the subway—just to keep up his end of making the world a little bit worse; and Primus Muldoon’s hilariously put-upon reaction, and his ultimate response, to being asked to stage a battle between Santa Claus and Satan to determine who is stronger, a bit that cracks me up every time.

I’d love to hear from everyone as to what they thought of the book’s humor, whether it worked for them, and how they thought it blended with—or fought against—the more highbrow literary merits of The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, the success or failure of which we’ll discuss tomorrow in the last installment.

Donna Bowman: It’s clear from the previous installments that I am wavering on the side of the first reviewers you mention. I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, though, since I suspect Dobyns might be up to something I didn’t quite grok. But I think that the question of whether the book works as humor is quite closely tied to the question of whether it is meaningful.


I thought the Santa/Satan wrestling match was a hoot. It was a moment where I felt like Dobyns was letting the logic of his story carry him away, going where the characters wanted to go rather than where he wanted to take them. (Feel free to infer that I sensed the opposite happening for the bulk of the book.) I could laugh at it because the folks that get exercised by it in the book are clearly wrong to do so. And maybe that’s a key to my ambivalence about the rest of the book. I felt like I sometimes disagreed with Dobyns over what was an obvious target for humor. I objected to the reduction of the heretics to territorial gangs because I don’t regard religion as primarily a turf war, for instance.

But I couldn’t help picturing the film version as I was reading. Wouldn’t it be a perfect—maybe too perfect—Coen brothers project? The straight-faced philosophical discourse, the two-faced coin twirling and glinting as it flies through the air, the henpecked Wally Wallski making his third trip back to the lion’s den to ask a further favor. I tend to think that the Coens are both dead serious and in sympathy with their characters’ attempts to understand their lives via the application of ideas. Their version might convince me to read Dobyns differently.


Tasha Robinson: I feel like the “Is this humor, or art?” question isn’t that far removed from the “Is this literature, or entertainment?” question that came up (semi-facetiously) in our Master And Commander livechat, and I’m just as uninterested in the question now as I was then. I hate categorization questions; they always seem to lead to perfectly respectable, well-crafted books being shoved into pigeonholes and unfairly dismissed by snobs. Even arguing that Cruel Study is an intellectual and philosophical work rather than a low comedy strikes me as lending an unwarranted credence to the theory that it can’t just be both. Yes, it’s funny. (The unlikely but hilarious point where Brodsky and Gapski both buy the same lime-green suit, each of them hoping to wear something so outlandish that the other would never try anything similar, was a high point of the book for me. So was the narration’s musing over who most needs or deserves one of the president’s F-16s to sell.) Yes, it had some philosophical points to make for me—not so much in all the religious maundering, or the more concrete issue of whether the Wrestling Federation has a better or worse understanding of human nature and human needs than Primus Muldoon, but in Dobyns’ explanation of Gimmicks, and how we need and use them, and how masks help us define and see ourselves in the way we want and need to.

Like Donna, I wasn’t always 100 percent sure I was in on the joke. Recognizing some of the source material—“The Frog Prince,” “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” any number of stories that became Wally Wallski and aquavit-seeking runner Seth—led me to squint at anything that seemed odd or off-kilter or just not funny enough, and wonder whether there was a reference I was missing. (What are we to make of “Deep Rat” as a name? Is there a proximate source for Gapski and Brodsky? Is Sparrow from anywhere in particular?) In this sense, maybe the book needed a little more humor and a little less philosophy, if only because humor tends to disarm. Sure, there’s always the possibility of “Is this supposed to be funny? Am I just not getting the joke?”, but I suspect readers don’t tend to work as hard to unpack humor as philosophy, because if the joke isn’t funny, it’s the writer’s fault; if the reader isn’t smart enough to get the intellectual point, the blame may lie elsewhere. I was largely comfortable with Cruel Study’s humor, but there was certainly enough philosophy in it to occasionally make me anxious that I wasn’t digging deep enough into the references to fully understand.


Zack Handlen: Now that I've spent two entries bashing on this poor book, I can finally say something unequivocally positive about it: I thought it was very funny. If it hadn't been, it probably would've been completely unbearable, right? The pair of feuding cops was a terrific gag: on one level, it's a clever commentary on duality, on hating what we see of ourselves in other people, on the singularity of Gimmicks (personality is a Gimmick, right, and a wrestler wouldn't get very far if they let someone else steal their style), and on the other level, it's just a pair of supposed authority figures who keep engaging in hateful, childish pranks.

I struggled more with Wally's storyline, because I think it was supposed to be funny, but I couldn't get past how irritated I was by Claudine. Dybons creates strong caricatures, and more than a few times I was reminded of A Confederacy Of Dunces. I'm not sure I'd consider Cruel Study to be high art, but I don't think that has anything to do with the gags—it's a personal thing. I found the humor of the book to be largely infectious and effective, and when I did finally lose my connection to the story, it happened when the jokes stopped being so accessible. But there were enough of them to pull me along, anyway. It's like getting rewarded for your patience, and it puts you more on the side of the author.


Todd VanDerWerff: Zack gets at something that took me out of the humor (and the narrative more generally) from time to time: I just couldn't get past how Dobyns made so many of the characters into broad caricatures. I learned to get past it with Claudine, who honestly was ruining the book as a whole for me for the first 200 pages or so, but I could never get past it with Rose, who never seemed important enough to spur the entirety of this narrative, or many of the obviously-supposed-to-be-funny wrestlers, either. The other wrestlers seemed to devolve into racial caricature so often that I couldn't help but wince, and while I suspected that was part of the joke, I kept waiting for the punchline. It was like one of those episodes of South Park where the sole purpose is to make a politically incorrect joke.

Fortunately, the book has so many other jokes and so many other kinds of jokes that it ended up being very, very funny for me. Dobyns even gets in some much better jabs at political correctness than the caricatures when he talks about how the other wrestlers used to roll their eyes when anyone would ever question just why someone would want to be a bull (in that lengthy origin story for Taurus). I also quite enjoyed how the narrative got more and more out there, and the humor of the story shifted to match. It starts with amusing character gags and puns and such and has almost completely shifted to jokes about the cosmos itself by book's end. The book's philosophical sections would be well nigh unbearable without these jokes to undercut them, and I was smirking frequently.


As far as whether the humor kept me from appreciating the book as much as I might a more "serious" work, I don't think it did. It's odd in that humorous literature often seems to have a lesser reputation than, say, humorous films, but I did wonder just how much of this Dobyns was taking seriously and intended for me to take seriously. I wouldn't say that I needed this to have a serious core to it, but I do think that the book kept holding me at arm's length and wanting me to appreciate how clever it was rather than getting deeply involved in it. It was clever enough for this approach to mostly work, but I was never able to take it to heart beyond the times it made me chuckle. That's not a bad thing, but I did want Dobyns to suggest that some of this had more of a meaning and purpose to it, and I'm not sure the author ever did.

Ellen Wernecke: Overall, I also found this book very funny, but I have to get in line to heap on the Claudine character whose reappearances were never funny. What struck me about her characterization was that she seemed to be the only one for which Dobyns could derive no sympathy, no shred of humanity from within the shrill-voiced shrew. Zapo's rambling monologue about his legs and Marduk's occasional slow-wittedness were played for laughs, but also with an interval of understanding as to how they got there. Not so for Claudine, and in the passage leading with the "death gargle of the stymied voice of male hegemony," the narrator goes out of his way to make the same cruel joke about her over and over.


Still, there was a lot of humor in the book that I liked. References to Michael's previous life, such as when he's talking to Brother Thomas and trying to remember what he was taught in Sunday school, inexplicably left me in stitches, perhaps because they contradict Primus Muldoon's Marduk origin story of "discovering" him like a fresh and untouched creature. I was fascinated by Muldoon's chapters and the way they were peppered with wonky similes like when he compares his mustache to a fur coat on a bear. The Apophis-the-snake non-speaking interview sent up the heated rhetoric of the announcer and the puzzling casting choice of having a full-grown man "playing" a snake. That I hadn't necessarily expected this book to be so funny definitely added to the humor, but I preferred its more subtle jokes to more elaborate set-ups.

Emily Withrow: It's rare that a book makes me laugh out loud, but this one absolutely did it for me. I enjoyed much of the ludicrous stuff everyone mentioned above, but more than anything, the Santa vs. Satan match did me in, especially the part where Satan chases Santa around the ring, swinging at him with Santa's own detached leg. Brilliant. I'm smiling just thinking about it. Really, the blend of "humor and high art" is not only what saved this book for me, but made me do a complete about-face. (In fact, during one of my laugh-out-loud moments, my husband said, "I thought you were hating that book." But no, that was 50 pages ago!) I could stomach the philosophical detours because Dobyns was so funny while putting forward all of his ideas and was never too self-serious.


Dobyns wraps any serious philosophical ideas in familiar yet fantastical characters and settings, making what's normally dense material immediately accessible. If you come to the text with an understanding of Nietzsche, some of these plays are likely richer for you. But though I suspect I missed out on some references, it didn't really affect my understanding or enjoyment of the story. I didn't need a companion piece to follow it (though I probably could have used one). Once I stopped obsessing about the references, relaxed, and went along for the ride, I enjoyed it immensely.

On Claudine and other stock characters: Like everyone above, I disliked Claudine and other stock characterizations, but there's probably an argument to be made somewhere about masks and gimmicks. The narrator seems to acknowledge this at times when talking about Claudine, saying her "aggressiveness is the result of her being the plaything of male hegemony." Then again, that explanation comes in the middle of a lengthy, self-conscious description of her ugliness. There's some winking going on here, but it's fairly cryptic. If Claudine is wearing a mask, it's the one assigned to her by our narrator, and arguably by the "male hegemony" he keeps mentioning. I was able to relax about these characters once I read them as archetypes or masks, like the evil stepmother or some other character whose only purpose is to act upon another, more central character.


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