My next collection of short stories, Punch Lines (Potential Books, 2022), is among other things an examination of various meanings and uses of comedy punch lines in our lives from the hilarious finish to the painful heartbreak or the political message. Punch Lines’ catchphrase is the thin line separating jokes and tears. My anthology is made up of examples of short stories that successfully balance that tightrope between jokes and tears. Punch Lines will be out later this year. Neither Mr. Gibbs nor I could resist an April 1st joke.

‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol translated by Ronald Wilks

A writer once told me that most people believed the ‘The Overcoat’ was about nothing. Really? A story about poverty, of our dreams of escaping our economic situations, and the sad but somehow comforting ending? How could someone be so arrogant, and certain, to sweep away ‘The Overcoat’? I’ve never spoken to that writer since.
Another Gogol anecdote. During the summers that I was a student I worked for the city of Toronto cleaning subway cars. The job was eight hours a day but there was really only work for four hours. The rest of the time I spent reading. One day this co-worker who I’d never met before, saw me reading a collection of Gogol short stories and said, “Gogol. A great Ukrainian writer.”
“Isn’t he Russian?” I asked.
“He was born in Ukraine.” He got up close to my face. “What’s your last name?”
“Popowich. A pure Ukraine name. Not Popovich? Popowich?”
“Right. Popowich.”

For the rest of the summer he would come by every day to see me and tell me about my last name. About Gogol. About Ukraine. Like many Canadians whose families came from elsewhere, our Ukrainian roots were forgotten by the time I was born. Except, of course, what our last names spoke of our pasts. I’ve thought about that man often since late 2021, his passion for Gogol, and especially his Ukrainian pride.

First published in Russian in 1842. First translated, as ‘The Cloak’, by Isabel Hapgood in St. John’s Eve, and Other Stories, Crowell, 1886. This translation available in Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector & Selected Stories, Penguin Classics, 2005

‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

Melville’s syntax has always baffled me. And for the first few pages of ‘Bartleby’ I’m always telling myself off for ever recommending this story. Then the sentences arrange themselves into focus. The characters Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut arrive on the scene. And I wish, hope, that this time Bartleby is going to make it through.

A few errant thoughts — should we read Bartleby’s line “I would prefer not to” as a catchphrase? Or that ‘Bartleby’ is possibly Melville’s attempt at breaking into TV with a pilot about dysfunctional law clerks? 

First published in Putnam’s Magazine, November-December 1853, and collected in The Piazza Tales, Dix & Edwards, 1856. Now widely available, including in Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, Penguin Classics. Available online at Project Gutenberg

‘My Wrongs 8245-8249 & 117’ by Chris Morris

Chris Morris’s radio series Blue Jam had a life-changing effect on my writing and my understanding of comedy. At some point I was working in an office building, high up on the twenty-seventh floor, with the blinds closed at all times. This was because of sound fears that people might have been spying on us from the hotels across the street. Sadly, the day-to-day routine of the job took away the romance of spying and bribes and classified documents.
One winter day a co-worker handed me the entire radio series of Blue Jam. The twisted humour was a perfect soundtrack for that job. But the most impressive part of Blue Jam was that the jokes weren’t chasing laughs. These were jokes that upended the listener emotionally. From our fears of being bad parents, of trying to cope with terrible doctors, of losing our child, and in the case of ‘My Wrongs’ of coping with depression. Morris captures depression with the many close-ups of Paddy Considine and Rothko the Doberman Pinscher and frenetic editing. In ‘My Wrongs’ we’re trapped in a sustained moment of disintegration without that moment ever being cheated by a false laugh.

Warp Films, November, 2002; available to watch online here

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

Neddy Merrill decides one lazy fine Sunday to swim back to his home through all the swimming pools in the county. A funny idea. Almost a gimmick. But as Neddy gets home, summer has passed, the leaves have fallen, and Neddy’s confidence and youthfulness are gone and the gimmick has worn away. In darkness, he reaches his completely empty and abandoned house. That’s always what I remember first about ‘The Swimmer’. The darkness. As I’m reading it again, I get the sense of what is happening to Neddy, but I know I’ll lose the story’s meaning again. I can’t explain why. The story of Neddy Merrill’s emotional and financial downfall makes sense but the story slips away for me every time.

First published in The New Yorker, 1964, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper & Row, 1964, and The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1978; now Collected Stories, Vintage Classics, 2010

‘Lizzie & Sarah’ by Julia Davis and Jessica Hynes

‘Lizzie & Sarah’ was a pilot, made for BBC 2 that never got commissioned for a series. I’m watching it now with the sound off because I’m on a train and howling just at Davis & Hynes’ facial expressions. Their facial expressions read as if the two of them are acting in a normal sitcom pulling normal sitcom faces. But ‘Lizzie & Sarah’ is not a normal sitcom. This is a tough, bleak, show about domestic abuse. Every time I watch it I’m in awe of Davis & Hynes ability to pull the show off. The half hour that is available doesn’t show us something that could have been — the half hour stands as a perfect story on its own. 

BBC 2, 2010

‘Motherlogue’ by Ann Quin

If Ann Quin were a man would her writing have fallen into obscurity in the UK? Impossible. Her books would never have been out of print. Her comedy hailed. Her death would not be the first thing mentioned in articles about her but her writing would have lead. ‘Motherlogue’ is a brief example of how funny Quin is. This could easily have been a Nichols & May sketch. The story is a monologue from a hypercritical, and nosey, mother figure. A character type that is overused but with Quin all her jokes hit, and there’s a loneliness in ‘Motherlogue’ that elevates the story beyond mere parody. 

First published in Transatlantic Review 32, 1969. Reprinted in The Unmapped Country & Other Stories, And Other Stories, 2018

‘Citizen’s Arrest’ by Charles Willeford

My oversized opinion of Willeford is that he’s one of the most important American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Because he was a genre writer who wrote dark, critical, comedies about the male psyche, and because his male protagonists were almost always misogynistic, arrogant, assholes, Willeford was never going to attract the popular readership. But Willeford had the vibe of where America was at the end of WWII and where it was heading in the twenty-first century. For such a long-time reader of Willeford I’ll never forgive myself for not seeing where the US was headed five years ago – being run by a shady Willeford type, a kind of used car salesman in a bad suit and terrible hair.
‘Citizen’s Arrest’ is a perfect example of what Willeford excels at. A guy sees a thief steal a lighter at a department store and tries, and fails, to do have the thief arrested. There’s a great description of the lighter. A conversation with the thief who explains his routine. And a perfect last line of the story as the blame is turned on the narrator when a police officer asks, “Now, sir, what is your name?” 
What Willeford excels at is that he has never cheated the last line of any of his books or stories. His last lines are a masterclass in endings. They may not leave you feeling good about the situation you just read but their truth never makes you feel ripped off. They are both a summation, a revelation, and an often bitter truth that the reader wasn’t expecting.

First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, 1966. Reprinted in The Second Half of the Double Feature, Wit’s End Books, 2003

‘Black Nylon’ by Daniel Clowes

Originally published in the back half of Clowes’ comic, Eightball, the structure of ‘Black Nylon’ has always been an obsession of mine. Clowes wrote and drew the short comic as an inconclusive puzzle. Or maybe he didn’t? I’ve never been able to put all the parts together. And I’m not sure I want to because the fragmentation of the story has always left me with a feeling of loss without knowing exactly the meaning of the loss. The nameless superhero? actor? deadbeat dad? dressed as an old-style superhero, wanders through the comic trying to decipher the clues of his life. He meets his ex-ladyfriend. His arch nemesis, Hero Boy. He gets no answers. We get no answers.

First published in Eightball #18, Fantagraphics March 1997. Republished in Caricature, Fantagraphics, 1999

‘My Life Is a Joke’ by Sheila Heti

When I started reading ‘My Life Is a Joke’ for the first time I wasn’t sure that the story could live up to the title. But then there’s this ramblingly funny perfect paragraph about an ex-boyfriend desperate to have his memory remain alive after he is gone. The paragraph ends with him, his wife, his son and his son’s wife, and his grandchildren all dead, and the narrator’s matter-of-fact observation that after this “the life of my first boyfriend will be through.” The narrator turns out to be already dead herself. There’s an incredible description of being buried. And the story ends with a “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke. I’ve been struggling to explain why the story works so well. I can’t. All that I can safely say is that from the title right to the last line of the story no joke feels unearned. And really, the audacity to us a chicken road joke that doesn’t end up undermining the entire story. I mean goddamn.

First published in The New Yorker May 4, 2015 and available to subscribers to read here

‘Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann

Readers might get bored three-quarters of the way through The Trial. Readers might not finish The Castle (I hear some of you thinking even Kafka couldn’t). But there’s no excuse not to read ‘Metamorphosis.’ Surely, you’ve read it? Shame on you if you haven’t. Kafka makes Gregor Samsa more human the more Gregor transforms into a bug. The scene of Gregor with an apple lodged in him! If Kafka had an ounce of arrogant motherfucker in him he could have dropped his pen right then and there.
A few errant Kafka thoughts. I was with a group of writers talking about ‘Metamorphosis’ and all of them agreed that the ending was a complete mystery. What does Grete stretching at the end mean? they kept asking. I wanted to say that the Samsas looked pretty happy to be rid of Gregor but there was such a passion amongst those writers for understanding Kafka solely as an unknowable puzzle I sadly kept my mouth shut. Later, one of the writers said they had a friend who spent ten years reading only Kafka and that after ten years announced, “The meaning of Kafka is that there is no meaning.” I’ve worried about that writer’s friend far more than is necessary.

First published in German, as ‘Die Verwandlung’, in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915. Widely translated in English. The translation I read is from Metamorphosis & Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2015

‘Merde’ by Leos Carax

One of my failings as a person, beyond my poor foreplay technique, my addiction to winegums, and my inability to digest wheat, is my lack of faith in the film anthology. I’ve never been convinced that a series of short films by different filmmakers that are then thrown together can ever truly work. This meant I watched TOKYO! with my arms crossed and a judgemental stare. At least I tried to maintain this stance. Then Leos Carax’s ‘Merde,’ the second part of the film, hit the screen. This short film has an absolutely deranged rampaging performance by Denis Levant as a green-suited wild man, maybe a Godzilla stand-in, storming through the streets, sewers, and screens of Tokyo. Like all of the recommendations I’ve made, ‘Merde’ sustains its special energy until the last scene. If you, like me, are a film anthology disbeliever, start with ‘Merde.’ If you have issues with foreplay please seek professional advice.
A poor quality copy of ‘Merde’ to reel you in:

From the anthology film TOKYO!, Liberation Entertainment, 2008

‘What To Do With A Million Years’ by Juno Calypso

The artist, Juno Calypso, created a small book to accompany her gallery show, What To Do With A Million Years. Calypso spent time alone in a subterranean luxury bomb shelter and the book is split into four sections, an archive of newspaper clippings of the luxury bomb shelter, pictures of the home, photographs of Calypso embodying the space, and the eerie titled Immortality Archive. When you see the photographs in person you become immersed in the isolation of that bunker space, of erotic space in nuclear bunker space, of a person’s imprint on architecture, and especially the visual language of Las Vegas space which always speaks to elsewhere (and because it’s Las Vegas lacks subtlety). I’ve always read ‘What To Do With A Million Years’ as a short story about one a woman’s subterranean post-nuclear dream house and the artist who went to live there for a while.

Aldgate Press, 2018