Book jacket hyperbole has always baffled me. Why does an industry built on a foundation of expertly crafted language sell itself with made up words like ‘unputdownable’? I understand the need to sell the book to the potential buyer in as efficient manner as possible – reading a couple of chapters is usually impractical so the cover, the blurb and a random page somewhere in the middle often have to suffice. Some of it is just plan ridiculous though. So good you will shit out an eyeball! A book so full of unputdownableness that the rest of your life will be tinged with disappointment! I made those ones up, but they seem familiar, no?
I’d be more impressed with honest recommendations. ‘I quite liked it,’ seems so earnest and humble that it is hard to doubt. Mostly these ridiculous claims are just all bombast and white noise, utterly immune to any sort of qualification. Except perhaps the ones that claim that they will make you laugh. Or rather not just laugh, but laugh out loud, laugh uncontrollably, howl with laughter, etc. This is a claim that can be qualified. Did you laugh uncontrollably or not?
Admittedly I don’t tend to read a lot of books that sell themselves on their ability to make you laugh. I like humour, sure, but I like humour that is tempered with sadness and that doesn’t necessarily cause anyone to howl with laughter. (Who actually does laugh in a way that sounds like a howl?) For years I don’t think I ever once laughed out loud whilst reading, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find the books funny, just that I like a kind of gentle comedy that isn’t about laughing loudly. But then, there I was, quietly reading The Universe versus Alex Woods, when I laughed out loud. Not even just a laugh either, it was a snort. A kind of wet noise that usually accompanies a cold but occasionally slips out when I am laughing. I kinda took myself by surprise with it, too. I can’t remember the last time a book did that to me.
It’s not a joke, the bit that made me laugh. It was a moment. I could type out the sentence in particular and I have no doubt that it won’t make you laugh, because without the preceding 150 pages to set it up and contextualise it, there’s nothing funny about it. Explaining to my wife what it was that had caused me to snort (what I wouldn’t do for a gravelly chuckle, but no, its a snort for me,) took a while because I knew that without all the background and setup I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. So I had to give a lengthy of redux of the story so far in order to have that one line make sense.
I’m not even sure jokes are actually all that funny. We can all see a joke coming and, to me at least, it justfeel like they are trying too hard. There is pressure on the recipient of a joke to have some sort of reaction. That’s why we groan; we know we need to make some sort of noise, and laughter is hard to fake. (Wandering magicians suffer a similar burden, I felt guilty the last time I saw one and failed to react when it turned out the rope bundled in his fist was no longer knotted. I just never expected it would be.) But a moment like the one in The Universe versus Alex Woods just earned a totally genuine reaction. It’s better than a joke, really. Its a coming together of many different elements of the book in a way that is perfectly satisfying. So there you go, The Universe versus Alex Woods; no jokes and one big laugh.