The Jokes by Stephen Thomas
“I want to do something worthwhile with my life.” This is the line that closes “Taken,” the first story in Stephen Thomas’ debut collection of flash fiction, The Jokes. In this opening piece, the narrator is watching a Liam Neeson movie on a Friday afternoon, “feeling relaxed, drinking coffee, talking to people on Facebook and Twitter, looking at Wikipedia.” Despite how much consumption there is, it isn’t enough.
As a writer, Thomas’ job is presumably to write something worthwhile. He is a white, MFA-educated, fairly heteronormative cis male from a middle-class background. He fills his book with vignettes of a broad range of characters: a woman with bipolar II disorder, old gay men in the desert, a crowd of Ukrainian protestors. But even with all his privilege and perspective, the prospect of offering any new account of the world is a daunting one. As Thomas writes in the story “A fine balance”:
In a truly large room with futuristic curved white walls, hundreds of people of every description have loaded and cocked guns—machine guns, rifles, pistols—pointed at you, and are laughing at the possibility of you ever taking yourself seriously.
Between these people and you, dividing the room in half, is a one-way mirror.
You are on the reflective side.
Publication may be all the more daunting now because our public/private distinctions are shifting. It seems that the “truly large room” Thomas is thinking about could be the Internet, with anonymous critics from around the world taking to Amazon and Goodreads to troll authors’ books.
Even established literary spaces are transforming. Milkweed Editions recently published a collection of essays and interviews called Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, a book that aims to suggest to readers something of the wide range of forces at work in the literary marketplace today. Today, the book argues, our sense of what it means to publish a literary magazine, to be an author, to direct a press, or to buy a book is changing faster than it ever has before.
With close to two dozen compelling voices, Literary Publishing makes the argument that the most worthwhile thing we can do right now is to see each other—both technologically and socially—as diverse. “We are changing in tandem with the media that are bringing about the changes,” writes Sven Birkerts in his essay. We need to engage as many different platforms, genres, and points of view as possible. But one author in the collection suggests that what we really need is something beyond diversity. “It’s something like equity,” writes Daniel José Older, “a commitment to harvesting a narrative language so broad it has no face, no name.”
To approach equity, it helps to recognize that individuals are not equal. Individuals are born into systems of inequality and a narrative language with no face would have no one to speak it. Older seems aware of this difficulty. He argues for a faceless literature as a necessary struggle for today, so that it will no longer be necessary tomorrow.
A reader of The Jokes may be left wondering if Thomas actually cares about anything.
In my reading, Thomas’ writing in The Jokes strives for this kind of facelessness. Though he offers diverse characters, most of the pieces are only a few paragraphs to a page long. Some are as short as ten to 20 words. His characters are almost like ghosts—comedic ghosts crafted to be shareable, to cut through the buzz and pop of our online feeds and make us laugh for a moment; not out loud, but silently, in ironic recognition of the absurdity of 21st century life. The overall effect is such that Thomas’ little stories ping and reach, almost digitally, from disembodied mind to disembodied mind. Or at least he jokes about the irony of trying, as in a piece called “The thinker”:
A man who stands astride many problems of his age feels heavy with blossoming doubt. At his desk in his basement, he decides to write an email to a friend regarding one of these pet problems. He leans back in his chair, and, stabilizing himself with a foot against his desk, achieves balance on his chair’s two hind legs.
“Hm,” he thinks, “Hmmmmmmm.”
While he’s thinking, nothing else happens in the world.
The obvious problem that remains with this approach to facelessness, in the way that Thomas seems to have taken it, is that lots of things are happening in the world. In crucial moments, Thomas turns away from engagement with his minimally sketched characters toward irony. This stripped-down focus on irony might be funny—but it might also be read as flippancy. Something more worthwhile might be a stripped-down focus on issues. A reader of The Jokes may be left wondering if Thomas actually cares about anything.
But, stylistically, perhaps Thomas has achieved something important. Perhaps one of the best things a writer can do at this moment in history—especially a privileged writer—is to try to write as if they’re not a person at all.
Angus MacCaull lives in Nova Scotia where he is an associate fiction editor for The Antigonish Review and host of the reading series Print Preview. His critical work has also appeared recently in The Review Review and Prelude, and is forthcoming in CV2.