Critical scholarship on happiness provides a way to read comedic young adult fiction that foregrounds and investigates representations of happiness. This paper draws on the work of Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant in order to explore the ways in which comedy interrogates social constructions of happiness that serve to exclude or to constrain young people who are portrayed as outsiders. The result is a narrative representation of individual subjectivity and of society that examines the promise of happiness and the fantasy of normative happiness scripts. In Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Alyssa Brugman's Alex as Well, comedy functions to encourage a re-evaluation of happiness and to question its appeal.
Keywords: comedy; young adult fiction; happiness; optimism; Ahmed, Sara; Alexie, Sherman; Berlant, Lauren; Brugman, Alyssa
Critical scholarship on happiness provides a way to read comedic young adult fiction that interrogates representations of happiness and that contests idyllic notions of the child and of childhood. Recent critical theory, particularly that of Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant, has re-evaluated substantially the concept of happiness as a social construct. A limited amount of critical attention has been paid to representations of happiness in literature for young people, however, with the last sustained study undertaken by Fred Inglis and published in 1981. Inglis argues that "[n]ovels, like paintings or music or sport, should hold out to children the promise of happiness, and the certainty of laughter" (305), adding that "a laughter-maintaining language holds back the forces of darkness and depression, and keeps a large space open for the play of those great names--joy, freedom, happiness, and so forth" (306). The contemporary young adult texts explored in this paper were published over a quarter of a century after the appearance of Inglis's sustained study and challenge this sentimental idealization of literature for young people.
The twenty-first-century child is not depicted in young people's literature as an inexperienced or innocent figure, not shielded from the "forces of darkness" to which Inglis alludes. As Beverley Pennell observes in her discussion of narrative reconfigurations of adult/child relationships, "the 'good' child is no longer the one who is dependent, biddable, submissive or naive" (12). Contemporary children's and young adult narratives represent childhood frequently as complicated and diverse, challenging Romantic and nostalgic representations of child lives. Not surprisingly, then, the comedic texts considered in this paper scrutinize and ultimately undermine the promise of happiness. They exemplify the burdens placed on young people by discourses of patriarchy and consumer capitalism that promise a form of happiness at their conclusion. By exploring the unattainability of such happiness scripts for non-normative subjects, these texts reveal the restrictive nature of scripts that pledge such rewards or consequences to readers. The comedic devices foreground what traditionally might be considered contentious in fiction for young people--sexuality, fragile mental health, poverty--and explore the impact that conventional happiness scripts have on those who do not or cannot conform. As a consequence, happiness can function as "a judgment," "a missile," and "an exclusion of possibility" (Ahmed 199, 201,217) and consequently can highlight the idea that what constitutes happiness for some leads to alienation, persecution, and anxiety for others.
The comedic narratives on which I focus, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Alyssa Brugman's Alex as Well, construct non-normative subjectivities explicitly in relation to agency rather than to conventional notions of happiness. Accordingly, agency is entwined with self-knowledge, individualism, and multiplicity rather than with the values of conformity and conservatism reinforced by normative happiness scripts. The result is a narrative representation of individual subjectivity and society that showcases for readers the dangers of the promise of happiness and its related fantasies. According to John Stephens, a script "expresses how a sequence of events or actions is expected to unfold" (14), whereas schemata are "knowledge structures, or patterns, which provide the framework for our understanding" (13) and which shape our awareness of such matters as genre conventions and gender roles. Deriving from cognitive linguistics, schemata as well as scripts are "powerful [reading] strategies for investing normative cultural ideas with richness and subtlety" because they "enhanc[e] understanding of relationships between selfhood and otherness and inform social action designed to foster equity and social justice" (34). Stephens argues that "[c]reative works involve a further level of connectivity between the pre-stored, dynamic knowledge representations bound up with everyday life and the stereotypic plot structures that readers use to anticipate the unfolding story logic of creative works" (14), adding that "the process of connecting apparently deviant or merely unexpected events may involve readers in unfamiliar insights and perceptions, or may even transform the script into another way of understanding the world" (14). By playing with heteronormative romance scripts, happy family schemata, and happily-ever-after endings, for example, Alexie and Brugman resist dominant social ideologies that drive traditional happiness scripts and that present alternate views of others and the world.
Ahmed and Berlant both explore, in their work, the hazards inherent in the promise of happiness. Ahmed highlights "the work of feminist, black, and queer scholars who have shown in different ways how happiness is used to justify oppression," particularly "how happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods" (2). Her argument encourages the importance and the freedom of being unhappy as it offers insights into the limitations of the promise of happiness (217). Her "aim is to follow the weave of unhappiness, as a kind of unraveling of happiness, and the threads of its appeal" (18). My aim is to consider the close relationship between comedy and tragedy in narrative and to foreground the unhappiness of protagonists as a way to convey the restrictive and often unjust effects of conventional notions of happiness. If we consider unhappiness to be a result of the failure to achieve happiness, then the value of not pursuing normative scripts becomes evident. Comedy critiques the social stipulations and regulations of what happiness should mean for adolescents by evaluating the impact of happiness scripts perpetuated by social norms and constructs of normativity.
Similarly, Berlant's writing exposes the artifice that underlies the concept of "the goodness of the good life" that is "promised by capitalist culture" (Cruel 163, 167). Through film analysis in Cruel Optimism, Berlant explores depictions of children who feel compelled to attach themselves to their parents' "perverse approximations of the normative good life" (166), fantasies that have been unachievable in these parents' lives. She ascertains that, "to understand collective attachments to fundamentally stressful conventional lives, we need to think of normativity as aspirational and as an evolving and incoherent cluster of hegemonic promises about the present and future experience of social belonging that can be entered into in a number of ways" (167). The young adult texts I examine challenge the hegemonic promises Berlant discusses by resisting coming-of-age scripts that conclude with neat endings that reinstate conformist, conservative ideologies. Instead, these narratives remain open, symbolic of the possibilities that may arise from rejecting traditional happiness scripts.
Ahmed and Berlant are skeptical of forms of optimism that ironically harm rather than empower. They reinforce Lisa Duggan's suspicions of hope, which she associates with "normative prescriptions about the future" and regards as associated "with race and class privilege, with imperial hubris, with gender and sexual conventions, with maldistributed forms of security both national and personal" (Duggan and Munoz 276). As Berlant explains, "A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing" (Cruel 1). In her exploration of the process of cruel optimism, she considers "[m]isrecognition" to be "the psychic process by which fantasy recalibrates what we encounter so that we can imagine that something or someone can fulfill our desire" (Cruel 122). She argues that "[s]tupid optimism is the most disappointing thing of all": "the faith that adjustment to certain forms or practices of living and thinking--for example, the prospect of class mobility, the romantic narrative, normalcy, nationality, or a better sexual identity--will secure one's happiness" (Cruel 126).
As employed in Alexie's and Brugman's narratives, comedy ridicules the faith in the idea that happiness follows an adherence to the status quo. Conventional avenues to happiness do not guarantee security, acceptance, or joy. The "history of sentimentality around children that sees them as a reason to have optimism" (Berlant, Cruel 171) is rebuked by teen focalizers who use comedy to demonstrate an acute awareness of the hopelessness of their situation and the challenge that exists when "the good life" (Berlant, Cruel 2) is unfulfilling or unattainable. This paper focuses specifically on the function of comedy in constructing representations of adolescent subjectivity in which the promise of happiness is an empty one. In the narratives I consider, happiness is conveyed as elusive and fluid--a range of possibilities--rather than as a prescriptive life lesson, a reinforcement of social norms, or a cautionary tale used to sublimate the figures of young people as obedient, naive, and in need of protection.
Despite the popularity of comedy in literature produced for children, attempts to theorize its function and effect are only at an incipient stage. Kerry Mallan, Michael Cart, and Walter Hogan address humour in children's literature, but each views comedy within a distinct framework. Cart's study focuses exclusively on American children's books, Hogan's is organized around social settings and life stages, and Mallan's is part of a literature support series for schoolteachers at the primary level. Journal articles that deal with children's literature and comedy are published intermittently, with one popular topic being the contentious nature of Roald Dahl's humour (see, for instance, Culley; West). My aim here is to provide a more expansive study of the creative, pedagogic, and affective benefits of comedy in literature produced for young people. My research highlights the function of comedy as a challenge to conventional social formations, an understanding formulated by theorist Henri Bergson, who stipulates in his early twentieth-century study Laughter that "[t]o understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the use of its function, which is a social one.... It must have a social signification" (7-8). A key framework for my investigation is the critical discourse of narratology, which I use as a theoretical and analytic tool for the purpose of legitimizing comedy as a subject for literary criticism and celebrating the social signification of comedy in young adult literature.
1. The Outsiders
Contemporary fiction that offers a first-person focalizer who challenges or rejects the status quo through comedy continues the tradition of comedic classics such as J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, in which central character Holden Caulfield is quick to dismiss "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" (5). Robyn McCallum argues that Salinger's "marginally taboo language and subject matter" and his "first-person vernacular, using the voice and language of a teenage boy who feels alienated" and a "tone that is frank and confessional," have become conventions of the young adult genre (216). David L. Russell's paper on the comedic character Pippi Longstocking, created in 1945 by Astrid Lindgren, labels her a female "bad boy" akin to the main characters in Rudyard Kipling's Stalky & Co. and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (175). Russell argues that sophisticated examples of bad boy and bad girl stories lie in the fact that they offer "a commentary on society through the eyes of a rebel who questions conventional habits and mores, and who boldly maintains a vociferous and independent voice" (175). Alexie's and Brugman's texts embody the kind of voice Russell highlights. The confessional, self-reflexive nature of these narratives invites readers to occupy an empathic interpretative role. By privileging the protagonists' innermost thoughts and opinions and therefore putting non-normative subjectivity at the centre of the narratives, these novels are well positioned to encourage their readers to critique social constructions of happiness that are dogmatic and exclusionary.
Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (featuring art by Ellen Forney) is an illustrated novel in diary form, told from the point of view of Junior, a Native American teenager who leaves his reservation in the hope of better opportunities at a "rich, white" (45) school. Alexie's award-winning novel appeared on the American Library Association's "most-challenged" list in 2010 and 2011, with censors typically citing "sex, profanity, racism, and an anti-Christian message" as explanations for its inclusion (Winstead). (1) Complaints resulted in the book being banned and removed from the school curriculum in Stockton, Missouri; the school board also voted against a proposal to return the book to the high school library with restrictions (Penprase). Susan Bernardin, a specialist in American Indian and United States literatures, asserts that "Alexie unsettles readers of all kinds by refusing to play by the rules" (153). The controversy generated by Alexie's work reveals the often contentious nature of comedy when its target is power hierarchies, dominant social ideologies, or topics deemed taboo or inappropriate for young people.
The black comedy of Forney's illustrations and Alexie's words exposes and interrogates the impact that racial tension, domestic violence, and social injustice have on Junior's childhood and his sense of self. Comedy does not shield readers from this reality but rather exposes them to it. When Junior's best friend--his dog, Oscar--gets sick and his parents cannot afford to take him to the veterinarian, his father shoots the dog to put him out of his misery. Junior wants to hate his parents but he knows that they "came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people. Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands" (11). The repetition of "poor people" in this passage and the history that he constructs for his ancestors within the biblical terms of the story of Adam and Eve convey Junior's bitterness toward the injustice of his inherited poverty and inequity and toward the powerlessness he feels at its inevitability. The intertextuality of the Judeo-Christian narrative of the first human beings believed to be created by God demonstrates how Native Americans have always been positioned as marginal within such narratives.
Forney's art provides an additional layer of comedy, critiquing the promise of happiness and the function of hope when hopelessness is a reality. The images support Jose Esteban Munoz's criticism of what he terms "naive hope that tells us 'everything is going to work out fine, don't worry be happy'" (Duggan and Munoz 278). The self-portrait of Junior poking fun at his brain damage and its subsequent side effects is captured in a cartoon that depicts a pigeon-toed, cross-eyed, gap-toothed boy with thick-rimmed glasses and the title "ME IN ALL MY GLORY." A speech bubble reading "Th-th-the RAIN in Thpain" mimics his speech impediment (5). The caricature of Junior's physical problems emphasizes the challenges he faces as a result of his brain damage: his picture captures what makes him different from others and why he belongs to the "Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club" (because that is "what happens to retards on the rez" ). His sarcasm about this treatment and the inclusion of the self-derogatory humour in this self-portrait convey not only the tragic effects of Junior's birth defects but also the violence and the prejudice he faces as a result. Many readers are likely to be uneasy about Junior making fun of these circumstances. The irony of the sketch title conveys that, in an image-driven society, Junior is far from glorious. His mocking makes readers acutely aware of how superficial and cruel humanity can be, but it also draws their attention to the importance of humour in surviving this cruelty. The intertextual reference to Eliza Doolittle's attempts to cure her speech impediment in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady establishes Junior as the underdog who is undergoing a transformation to better himself. This early acknowledgement of his low socio-economic origins and his physical differences suggests the primary terms of the struggle he will face to reinvent himself as an equal in a world that values conformity, materialism, and physical perfection. The Pygmalion intertext also functions to highlight the impact of class on Junior's story. It brings to readers' attention the way in which Indigenous identities typically are associated with lower socio-economic status, an association that reinforces cultural marginality. Living on the reserve compounds his challenges, given that "we reservation Indians don't get to realize our dreams. We don't get those chances. Or choices. We're just poor" (13). The black comedy employed by Junior in his first-person narration interrogates the values of consumerism and conformity; because the narrative is focalized through Junior, readers are given access to his interiority and are positioned to value him beyond the labels attributed to him by society.
Brugman's Alex as Well is about a protagonist named Alex who was born intersex with "a penis but not a normal-sized penis" and with "no testes, but ovaries" (20). She has been raised as a boy, but the novel begins at the point when she decides to self-identify as a girl, against the wishes of her parents. Brugman has spoken about her decision to write the novel and questions why there are not more books about transgender, cross-dressing, or intersex teens when issues of gender and sexual identity are so common in young adult fiction ("Gender" 7). Her novel challenges the patriarchal, heterosexual nature of traditional coming-of-age scripts. Alex is bored by people's reactions to her ambiguous gender and need for absolutes, including the lawyer she visits in an attempt to obtain an amended birth certificate in order to enrol in a new school: "[H]e really stares at me, and he's doing what people have always done as long as I can remember ... trying to figure out if I am a boy that wants to be a girl, or a girl that wants to be a boy. I'm staring right back because Crockett has hairs growing out of his nose. I don't care how busy or important you are, you can attend to stuff like that" (15). Her defiance, coupled with the superficiality of her reprimand of Crockett, works to imply that his view of her gender self-representation is equally as shallow as her judgment of his grooming. The complex and contentious nature of queer gender representation is explored by affect theorist Heather Love, who believes that "fine-grained accounts of affect are really important for addressing a whole host of non-normative and minoritarian experiences, queer, trans, and otherwise" (Chinn 125). In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Love writes, "The history of Western representation is littered with the corpses of gender and sexual deviants. Those who are directly identified with same-sex desire most often end up dead; if they manage to survive, it is on such compromised terms that it makes death seem attractive" (1). Love discusses the importance of such feelings as loss, shame, and loneliness, which are "tied to the experience of social exclusion" (4). Alex reinforces the impact of this social exclusion; much to the discomfort of those around her, she exists in "a very grey area" (15). She emphasizes this with a playful analogy, describing herself as "the Earl and Countess of Grey" (15).
Similarly, Ahmed's argument highlights the importance of acknowledging emotions and the power of affect, particularly the importance of the freedom to be unhappy, "including the freedom to be happy in inappropriate ways" (222). She explores the "unhappy effects of happiness" (2) when she considers "feminist critiques of figure of 'the happy housewife,' black critiques of the myth of 'the happy slave,' and queer critiques of the sentimentalization of heterosexuality as 'domestic bliss'" (2): happiness can be used to oppress individuals and to enforce social norms. Paradoxically, comedy can function as a creator of joy by making things funny and as a disruption of joy by exposing the follies and foibles of humankind. Evaluating happiness is equally complex. Ahmed observes that being perceived as a "good subject" requires "making others happy"; "to be bad is thus to be a killjoy" (20). It is in this context that Ahmed makes her argument that "[t]o kill joy ... is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance" (20). The unhappiness experienced by the non-normative protagonists of these novels suggests the complexity of happiness and the restrictive nature of traditional happiness scripts. To use Ahmed's terms, these characters help to "give the killjoy back her voice" and convey "how it feels to inhabit that place" (20). The experience of outsiders represented in these narratives provides a raw account of the unhappiness of those who strive to but do not "fit" normative scripts.
Alex as Well utilizes a dual-focalizing "male" and "female" central character to convey intersex subjectivity. The "female" Alex is the dominant focalizer, Alex having made the decision to identify as a girl despite her parents' wish that she remain a boy. This dual narrative voice exposes readers to the complexity of Alex's identity and the clashing needs, emotions, and points of view she navigates inside her head. Brugman's novel draws often on gender stereotypes to construct her "male" and "female" Alexes. Her male identity is conventionally masculine--aggressive, lustful, risk-taking--while her female identity is consumed with beauty, fashion, and being accepted by her friends. Male Alex "looks at me and sees a hot chick ... I look at him and see a chimpanzee tugging on his little noodle" (6). An extract such as this reveals the competitive and at times uncomfortable battle that takes place inside Alex's head, given that her subjectivity clearly is fragmented. Alex refers to herself with the collective pronoun "we" and asks readers directly to keep her "male" and "female" selves separate. Her reasoning is that "[i]t makes more sense ... like two ordinary kids.... Because the alternative is a little bit freaky" (24). She feels that readers would find her intersexuality confrontational and confusing because that is the reaction of others around her. At the same time, however, this strategy of keeping these selves separate acts to reject gender binarism, as readers always are conscious that these two narrating voices are, in fact, those of a single human subject. Alex's conversational tone alleviates the guilt readers may feel for finding Alex's intersexuality uncomfortable or confrontational. Her humour is self-deprecating. For example, when she describes her Tudor-style house complete with a turret and a really bad layout, "male" Alex suggests that the house is a metaphor for them: "[H]e means I have an inner turret somewhere compartmentalising all my crap and I'm badly laid out downstairs" (25). Alex is able to laugh at herself, but the metaphor serves also to critique the rigid societal attitudes about the categories of sexuality and gender.
By playing with scripts and schemata and by empowering those who "deviate from the paths of happiness" and "live in the gaps between its lines" (Ahmed 223), comedy provides liberation from normative representations, cliches, and generic conventions, as well as from the ideologies and assumptions that drive them. Rather than view the experience of these protagonists as bleak or depressing, readers can use the unhappiness of Junior and Alex as a way to assess the impact of normative scripts for happiness on those who are considered other. Ahmed argues that rewriting happiness from the point of view of the wretch--which she defines as "a stranger, exile, or banished person" (17)--will "give us a different angle on happiness" by allowing us to consider "those who are banished from it" (17), "a pedagogic lesson on the limits of the promise of happiness" rather than "a feeling that should be overcome" (217). Writers who cast those considered wretched, silenced, or stereotyped as tragic figures in the role of narrators or focalizers demystify the qualities or circumstances that render these figures "outsiders" in the first place.
The distinction between comedy and tragedy can be fragile at times, so that representations of happiness often are entwined with representations of unhappiness. In Alexie's novel, black humour is used to explore the space between these emotions. Junior negotiates the tragedies in his life through his drawings. After the death of his beloved grandmother, who was killed by a drunk driver, and of his father's best friend, who was shot in the face by another friend while drinking, Junior ponders how much loss a person can endure: "I felt helpless and stupid. I needed books ... and I drew and drew cartoons" (171). Junior's subsequent cartoons and his stream-of-consciousness narrative mock God. He scorns his mother for attending church every day and his father for going on a "legendary drinking binge": "It was all booze and God, booze and God, booze and God" (171). Junior equates religion with alcohol as just another way to numb pain. Neither brings solace. His cartoon conveys his anger at God and Jesus: "They were mocking me so I mocked them" (171). The cartoon depicts Jesus looking cranky, standing on a puddle of water with his arms folded while the apostles roll around, laughing and pointing at him. The caption reads: "Jesus farteth and burpeth in harmony! Miraculous!! John 11:35am" (171). This blasphemous parody of biblical verse uses scatological humour to satirize the ethereal image of Jesus by depicting him as an ordinary human being with ordinary bodily functions, but it also conveys what little hope religion can offer Junior and the empty promises it makes while his family are trapped in a cycle of tragedy.
Both Junior's and Alex's struggles can be read as examples of a new genre hybrid, the situation tragedy, as defined by Berlant in Cruel Optimism: "In the situation comedy, the subject whose world is not too destabilized by a 'situation' that arises performs a slapstick maladjustment that turns out absurdly and laughably, without destroying very much. In the situation tragedy, the subject's world is fragile beyond repair, one gesture away from losing all access to sustaining its fantasies" (6). Both Alex and Junior operate in a liminal space in which the fantasy of happiness scripts governs, but the achievement of those scripts remains elusive and the terms of those scripts are understood as constrictive. Specifically, both characters struggle with prescriptive notions of happiness as defined by a consumer capitalist, heteronormative, racially divided society. When Alex is forced into telling the truth about her intersexuality at school, she reflects, "It was fun to play being normal.... I don't even think I can go back to being a boy now. I'm just going to be this endless in-between thing that everyone despises" (199). The humour Alex has used to negotiate her pain gives way to her grief--she will never be considered normal, thus her attempts at normative happiness are futile.
The self-reflexive nature of Alex's narration provides humour at those times when her situation is bleakest. Her narration addresses readers directly on a regular basis, inviting their opinion. Alex forces readers to consider the textual qualities of the book: "We're just the one person. Did you get that already? You guessed it from the blurb, right? I put in some clues" (14). This obtrusive narration enables readers to be more aware of the ways in which stories are created, dominant ideologies are being promoted or challenged, and readers are being positioned. Alex often plays games with reader expectations. For example, when describing her art metal class teacher, she quips: "Sounds all arty and casual, right? Sounds like she's got rings on her fingers and bells on her toes tinkling around the classroom sprinkling encouragement like a big nurturing teacher fairy?" (42). The nurturing teacher schema and the school-story genre are evoked--"You can imagine that Susannah is going to be all supportive and I am going to blossom under her tutelage. I will make an art-metal cage and find my inner spirit ... and set my soul free"--and then are promptly destabilized: "Susannah is actually an art-metal dictator" (42). Brugman offers such cliches of beauty as "butterflies," "white doves," "attractive people smiling," and "some green grassy hillside with unicorns grazing in it" (42), only to shatter the fantasy with the teacher dragging a disobedient student by the ear across the room. Alex's narration undermines familiar conventions and stereotypes to present a view of reality that often is callous and cynical. Patrick Colm Hogan argues for the importance of not leaving emotion out of the study of narratology, because its integration creates a "wealth of possibilities" for understanding discourse and, in particular, reader empathy (79). Alex's obtrusive and confessional narration encourages readers to feel with the narrator as well as to interrogate the circumstances surrounding them.
The distinction between how girls act and how boys act is one that Alex finds impossible to sustain. On one occasion, Alex sings loudly, "RRROXANNE!" during class and is punished by the teacher: "Turns out, girls don't do that" (75). Alex struggles to separate the sets of behaviours and actions attributed to masculinity and to femininity, as Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity in Gender Trouble might predict. The intertextual reference to the 1970s song "Roxanne" by The Police (about a man who falls in love with a prostitute) is viewed by the teacher as inappropriate for a schoolgirl to be singing at the top of her lungs. The parallels between the subject of the song, Roxanne, and Alex are evident: both are controversial because of their sexuality and make some people uncomfortable because both live forms of femininity that, while different from each other, are seen by authority figures and by conventional social attitudes and practices as contentious. Alex's mother calls her "a pervert" (8), people view her as "unsavoury" (13), and she evokes "an emotional response" in people, "fascination and loathing" (15). The irony is that Alex understands the sacrifice involved in "performing" and surrendering her identity for social acceptance. Singing because she feels happy, Alex is disciplined because, in her teacher's view, she is not expressing her happiness appropriately, nor is she attaching it to an acceptable happy object. As Lisa Duggan remarks, happiness and optimism "can operate as the affective reward for conformity" and are reserved for "those who endorse domination and call it freedom" (Duggan and Munoz 276). Alex's display of happiness does not conform to gender and sexual conventions, and therefore she is denied freedom of expression in the school context. Alex is an outsider, like Roxanne, and unconventional characters are not commensurate with finding happiness in socially acceptable ways.
The comedy in these novels arises out of their narrators' critical perspectives on societal beliefs about what happiness is or should be for teenagers. Happiness is not always found at the conclusion of a situation or a conflict. It is not an antidote to unhappiness. By aligning young readers with focalizing characters who epitomize what traditionally has been considered "other," comedic narratives can position readers to interrogate the allure of happiness. The genre of the situation tragedy highlights the unfairness of the world and the attendant precariousness of happiness, calling into question the belief that good things happen to good people. Significantly, these narratives challenge the dominant paradigms of identity formation in young adult fiction by constructing complex, funny, fallible narrators who seek the freedom to be happy in ways that lie outside normative discourses of gender, sexuality, and class. The comedic outsider becomes emblematic of the struggle that occurs when an individual fails to identify with an ideologically driven culture.
2. (Not So) Sweet Valley High
Comedic narratives subvert coming-of-age paradigms by interrogating the correlation between happiness and normality and by revealing how narrow definitions of happiness can be. Cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley suggests that "[t]he reader has a set of mental schemata; in reading some of these are invoked, and they may also be challenged" (55). By manipulating genre conventions and reader expectations, comedy draws readers' attention to how they are conditioned and positioned to respond as well as to the freedom that follows if these are destabilized.
Berlant redefines "genre [as] an aesthetic structure of affective expectation" (Female 4). She resists the idea that genre is always normalizing, however, arguing that "only sometimes is the taking up of generic form the taking up of a normative norm (a norm to which valorization is attached). Sometimes conventionality is a defense against norms too, a way to induce proximity without assimilation ... ; and sometimes it's a way of creating another, counterconventional, space" (Berlant and Prosser 181). Alexie's and Brugman's comedies provide such a space by undermining heavily gendered, ideologically driven genres (particularly heteropatriarchal romance and varieties of happy families) and rewriting happiness scripts to value imagination, diversity, and experimentation over normality. Alex in Alex as Well interrogates genres that limit her intersubjective relationships and her sense of self. Alex is in love with her new friend, Amina. She ridicules gendered, cliched romance narratives as she challenges readers: "You can see what's going to happen, can't you? I'm going to fall in love with Amina ... , and it's going to be really, really complicated and totally unrequited, ... because Amina won't just reject me, she will be repulsed by me. She will tell everybody about my noodle, and then I'll have to top myself in a really brutal man-way" (35). Alex's narration draws on typical coming-of-age romance trajectories of unrequited love and rejection. Her sarcasm highlights the futility of her crush because her intersexuality places her at odds with the heterosexual nature of patriarchal romance scripts. She presents readers with an alternate storyline: "Maybe it will end up a different way. Maybe I have happened on the only other one of whatever it is that I am. We will be hooking up and I will discover that she has a noodle. And we will laugh and laugh!" (36). This alternate script seems unlikely against the backdrop of the conservative society that is assumed as the context for both character and readers, and the possibility of Amina also possessing a penis reads as a ridiculous fantasy scenario. Nevertheless, Alex's satire of traditional romance scripts challenges readers to consider what makes one script more plausible than the other and what else can be explored or achieved by moving beyond time-worn gendered happiness scripts.
A specific romance script that is invoked in Alex's story is that of the Sweet Valley High teen romances. The first novel in this series created by Francine Pascal was released in 1983 and has generated numerous editions and spin-offs. Amazon's description of Double Love sells Sweet Valley High as "a world of good girls and bad girls, hot boys with fast cars, perfect tans and natural highlights ... all under the Southern Californian sun." The covers, mainly graced with blonde-haired, fair-skinned male and female teens either in love or in conflict, are dominated by ideals of heteronormativity, white normativity, and consumerism, consumerist ideals where masculinity and femininity are oppositional and physical beauty and money ensure popularity, love, and happiness. Despite the obvious incongruity between Alex's situation and the world of Sweet Valley High, when Alex goes to stay with a foster parent because she no longer wants to live with her parents, she yearns for a "Sweet Valley High" narrative, where she gets to "go and live with Ned and Alice in Sweet Valley, and have a twin who is a beautiful cheerleader, instead of an imaginary wanker" (181-82). On the one hand, the reality of Alex's situation makes the world of Sweet Valley a mocking advertisement for family relationships, a personal identity, and a form of self-worth she will never attain. On the other hand, Alex's bitter description of her masculine self as a "wanker" suggests that she still desires this kind of normativity and that she understands that she has been set up by such young adult narratives as the Sweet Valley High series to desire it. Alex's desire is representative of Berlant's argument, in Cruel Optimism, that "[w]e are incited to have compassion for fruitless and even self-undermining--cruel--desires" (171), and that this is part of the training in "cruel optimism" (178). "[T]he goodness of the good life" (163) might more accurately, in Berlant's view, be labelled "'the bad life'--that is, a life dedicated to moving towards the good life's normative/utopian zone but actually stuck in what we might call survival time, the time of struggling, drowning, holding onto the ledge, treading water" (169). The intertext of the familiar romance script of Sweet Valley High demonstrates the training in "cruel optimism" that Berlant discusses.
Alexie likewise explores the detrimental impact of putting faith in empty promises of happiness that accord with familiar romance conventions. Speaking of the place of Indigenous peoples in the big picture, Alexie states, "[W]e're usually just the extras, the brown folks at the edges of the screen" (qtd. in Bernardin 152). Bernardin argues that Alexie transmutes the way in which American popular culture has "long made a romance out of genocidal violence, casting it in entwined languages of elegy and romance, of fantasy and faux nostalgia. Noting the formula, he reformulates it" (152). One of the ways he does so is through parody. Junior's sister elopes in the hope of finding a happier life. She likes romance novels that "featured a love affair between a virginal white schoolteacher or preacher's wife and a half-breed Indian warrior" (38). Junior's parody of these romance covers--complete with exaggerated cleavage, a bare-chested, long-haired Indigenous man with bulging "half-breed muscles," and alliterative title choices like "Lummi Lust" or "Yakama Yearning" (38)--poke fun at the gender and cultural stereotypes perpetuated in such novels. The fact that Junior's sister, a smart, creative girl who loved to write but kept it a secret, is "trapped in those romances" (39), however, conveys the appeal that such happiness scripts have for those who feel lost. The promises offered by such scripts are so seductive that it is difficult for young people to ignore or to reject them.
As farcical as Junior's romance cover parody is, he comprehends how powerful these stereotypes and happiness scripts are when he realizes that his sister "was trying to LIVE a romance novel" (90). Junior concedes that this takes "courage and imagination" as well as "some degree of mental illness" (90). His sarcasm highlights the unattainability of such desire, as the reality of his sister's life on the reservation is the antithesis of any romance novel. Junior's bookcover parodies gradually become darker and more subversive to comment on his sister's futile death. Gallows humour conveys his anger--"How do we honor the drunken death of a young married couple? HEY, LET'S GET DRUNK!" (212)--and the guilt he feels for leaving the reservation: "She had burned to death because I had decided that I wanted to spend my life with white people" (211). In the foreground of the image, two members of a couple hold each other but have crosses for eyes and fire at their feet; in the background, a trailer is on fire. It is a macabre mockery of the idealized romance covers that Junior is reproducing. The lust-filled title "Burning Love" (213) is ironic: instead of happiness and freedom, Junior's sister's quest for the perfect romance has returned her full-circle to a life of alcoholism and tragedy. Junior's parodies interrogate the damage that can be done by following a set of unattainable conventions or instructions in order to find or to obtain happiness. The gallows humour ridicules the attempt to follow scripts in order to live "the good life," particularly when conventional good-life fantasies hold few possibilities for those who are "unseated by the tables of happiness" (Ahmed 20).
Romantic archetypes become another tool of oppression and exclusion for those whose sexuality, gender, culture, class, or level of ability prevent them from identifying with or following them. Junior poses the question, "How do I make a beautiful white girl fall in love with me?" (81). His answer: "[C]hange the way you look, the way you talk, and the way you walk. And then she'll think you're her fricking Prince Charming" (81). Alex, too, thinks that her odds of a school accepting a "transgendered freak" are unlikely: "Why, our English Master wears French knickers, and our Scripture Mistress has a very handsome Fu Manchu. You're going to fit right in!" (16). The sarcastic tone and the use of stereotypes serve to discredit the practice of drawing on conservative, xenophobic, parochial genre ideologies to uphold normative happiness scripts. Parody and satire can undermine popular paradigms that uphold conventional, conservative ideologies at the expense of change, freedom, and evolving ideas of happiness. Comedy can function as a remedy for Berlant's "cruel optimism."
3. Stupid Optimism
The hallmarks of comedy are to entertain, to surprise, and to activate laughter--this would suggest that comedic fiction embodies naturally a sense of optimism. A sense of hope and positivity certainly are promoted in timeworn happy endings. Inglis views the nurturance of optimism as a responsibility of writers for young people: "If it is not a duty, it is surely a necessary virtue in children's novelists to offer their readers confidence and hope in the future" (297). Berlant's focus on "stupid" optimism challenges such notions of "duty" or "necessary virtue": "Achieving conventionality," she points out, "is not the same as achieving security" (Cruel 126).
Forney's illustrations are cartoonish and deceptively simple, because, superficially, they appear to offer a reprieve from the seriousness of the subject matter. The ironic, hyperbolic, and irreverent nature of many of them, however, underscores the injustice of Junior's predicament and mocks his quest for a better life in a prejudiced and hierarchical society. Ahmed refers to the "political economy of hope--where hope itself is unevenly distributed" (188). Alexie explores this uneven distribution of hope through Junior's question of whether or not hope is determined by the colour of a person's skin. Junior's reference to Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities--"[L]et me tell you, we Indians were the worst of times and those Reardon kids were the best of times" (50)--contrasts the poor quality of life for Native Americans with the opulent living in the "rich, white farm town" (45) for the young people who attend Reardon school. Alexie's manipulation of the opening sentence in Dickens's novel points to the cultural divide that exists and the resentment and injustice that stem from this social inequality. Above the illustration, Junior uses an analogy: "[H]ope for me is like some mythical creature" (51). The illustration of a flying horse among a rainbow and smiling clouds is childish and idyllic. The inclusion of the word "white" in the accompanying caption undermines the idyll by shattering the fantasy. Junior is under no delusion that hope is for everyone. His musings of whether or not hope is white encourage readers to consider this also. When Junior quizzes his parents as to "[w]ho has the most hope," they reply automatically and in unison, "White people" (45). Certainly in Junior's experience, hope does discriminate. The happiness he searches for is constructed by a society that distributes wealth, power, and opportunity unequally. Equating hope with a mythical creature treats the concept as a fantasy, something unreal and unattainable.
Berlant poses the question: "What happens to optimism when futurity splinters as a prop for getting through life?" (Cruel 19). In the absence of happy endings or reinterpretations of what happy endings look like, these novels replace optimism with possibility. "The happy future is the future of the perhaps," Ahmed claims (198), not the cliched happily ever after. Through the comedy they employ, Alexie and Brugman shun happy endings and leave their readers to ponder the uncertainty of their characters' futures. Ahmed uses a boat metaphor to convey the idea that "[w]hen things go astray, other things can happen" (198). She asks readers to picture the happy boat, the one we expect will cause our happiness in the future. What happens if it is empty or only half full, or if it fails to arrive at all? She advocates a "revolutionary happiness" as a possibility instead: "[I]f we allow our boats to flee," she suggests, happiness would "be alive to chance, to chance arrivals, to the perhaps of happening. We would not wait for things to happen" (198). In these novels, happy endings are replaced by the fear, the ambiguity, and the liberation of limitless opportunities; they deviate from tying up plot points neatly and reinstating dominant ideologies. Instead, both novels leave the closing open for interpretation and possibility.
Junior and Alex could be said to allow their boats to flee and to remain alive to chance. Alexie's ending is an emotional one, reuniting Junior with his best friend, playing a game of basketball. The ending replaces a sense of closure with the sense that, for Junior, this is a new beginning. When Junior asks Rowdy if they will still know each other when they are old men, Rowdy responds, "Who knows anything? ... Now quit your blubbering ... and play ball" (229). The ending recognizes the precarious nature of the future and the likelihood that Junior will not settle for a life constrained by the limitations that class, culture, and history have placed on him. The anticipation of possibility, however, is etched with sadness. Rowdy remarks, "I was reading this book about old-time Indians, about how we used to be nomadic.... Hardly anyone on this rez is nomadic. Except for you.... You're an old-time nomad.... You're going to keep moving all over the world in search of food and water and grazing land. That's pretty cool" (229-30). Rowdy's analogy acknowledges Junior's bravery, the powerful connection with his heritage, and the evolving nature of cultural identities. In order for Junior to seek happiness and fulfillment, however, he must venture forth without his "tribe":
I hoped and prayed they would someday forgive me for leaving them. I hoped and prayed that I would someday forgive myself." (229)
The bittersweet ending conveys both the guilt Junior feels for leaving and the injustice of his predicament.
Billboards in Alex as Well frame the narrative and are symbolic of Alex's ongoing quest for acceptance and happiness. At the beginning of the narrative, Alex passes a billboard with a beautiful, healthy, educated girl on the front wearing a school uniform. Alex decides, in a split second, to go in "with my new Clinique ironed-on face" (8) and enrol as a girl. A billboard is mentioned at the end of the story, too, except that this time, the billboard features Alex from one of her modelling gigs: "It's me up there, arching my eyebrow, in a bowler hat, with the drawn-on moustache, blowing a kiss" (223). It seems that Alex is still performing at the end of the novel, just as she was with her freshly painted makeover in the opening. Alex is admired as an object of beauty in the fashion world for her androgynous image. Ironically, the androgynous look for which she is admired is the very reason her family and her community ostracize her. The initial billboard attracts Alex in her search for a fresh start. It embodies her hopes of being "normal" and of gaining social acceptance. The irony of closing the story with the billboard is not lost on Alex, who concludes, "It's me up there, dressed like a girl dressed like a boy" (223). She does have the last laugh, but it is fleeting, as her initial hopes for recognition and acceptance are unrealized at the conclusion of the book. She is estranged from her family, she endures ongoing bullying, and, although she has moved into shared accommodation, she is incredibly lonely. Brugman and Alexie emphasize that the unpredictable nature of life and the complex nature of human beings are at odds with the idea of happy endings and linear plot lines. The end of each novel is not the end of the pursuit for happiness for each character. Sometimes the idea of happiness shifts and is replaced by a new object or goal. Sometimes the idea of happiness is shattered by the realization that it is not the reward promised, and sometimes the attainment of happiness provides only temporary joy or relief.
Oatley believes that "[a]rt proper is produced when an artist goes beyond stock responses to express emotion creatively.... Emotions are particularly transformative for us as readers when we too can respond creatively" (61). Comedy encourages play, experimentation, and imagination. It is not always forward-thinking or constructive, as it has the potential to offend and to perpetuate stereotypes as well as to challenge them. When employed by writers such as Alexie and Brugman, however, it operates to fulfill a creative function by constructing an affective and interrogative reader position. Through the comedy employed in these narratives, readers are encouraged to see the limitations of conventional happiness scripts. Alexie and Brugman represent the promise of happiness as a fallacy. When writers refuse the promise of happiness, they question its function, its very appeal. They interrogate the power of social ideologies that shape representations of happiness and reveal how closely such representations are entwined with social norms and power. They transform conventional happiness scripts and schemata to celebrate fresh perspectives less concerned with what happiness should be and who deserves it, and more concerned with the possibilities and the liberation that arises from reworking the script.
(1) When asked if he ever feels the compulsion to censor himself, Alexie responds in a conversation with Ed Winstead, "I refuse to censor myself.... As I write more honestly more kids will make their way toward me. And in subverting their repressive parents kids will learn the value of subverting the repressive nature of all authority figures."
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Nerida Wayland is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Macquarie University in Australia, from which she also holds a Master of Arts in Children's Literature and a Bachelor of Arts, Diploma of Education. Her research explores the creative, pedagogic, and affective power of comedy in children's literature.