Tag Archives: Dorothy parker

Eschew Surplusage

IMG_1153Rule number 14. Eschew Surplages. This comes, as is natural, after rule number 13. Use the right word, not its second cousin. The man is droll. Mark Twain’s essay Fenimore Copper’s Literary Offenses, found in A Subtreasury of American Humor outlines eighteen of the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction- some say twenty-two” (519) of which he claims Cooper’s Deerslayer egregiously violates.

3. They require that the personage in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale (520 Twain).

Possibly one of the funniest scathing reviews I have ever read. And I say that as someone who liked the Deerslayer, in fact I read the whole series (many years ago) back to back. However, it is not as if Twain’s criticism doesn’t ring true – that’s what makes his ribbing so hilarious.

A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccaisined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick (521 Twain).

That Cooper gets the details wrong or does not attach himself to working out the engineering or logistical problems of his tales with any fidelity to logic drives Twain a bit nuts.

The difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it (525 Twain).

I find myself drawn to humor writing this time of year. A semi-conscious attempt to thwart the faux-holiday cheer that does nothing but strengthen my cynical heart, crowding out that other kind of heart one wants to foster. No, better that I search for some genuine joy.  That is how I have found myself reading  A Sub-Treasury of American Humor  edited by E.B. and Katherine White. I made the near fatal error of starting with Dorothy Parker’s Glory in the Daytime– she is funny in a “Oh Christ, get me a cocktail to laugh my sorrows into” kind of way, and not really what I was going for. But, I couldn’t help myself, Miss Parker or, as I like to call her- Our Lady of Cynical Hearts, holds an abiding appeal as my patron saint…

Miss Noyes was full of depths and mystery, and she could talk with a cigarette still between her lips. She was always doing something difficult, like designing her own pajamas, or reading Proust, or modeling torsos in plasticine (75 Parker).

Let’s not even talk about how the story ends.

Mark Twain, in the Critic At Work section of the book is the sort of writing that will cause one to break out into laughter all day long as his barbs circulate through the brain.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no life-likeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality […] its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are – oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that (530 Twain).

The Whites have compiled nearly 800 pages of humorous diversions. Hallelujah. I’m ready to face December.

Math with Miss Parker

Every time I open my Intermediate Algebra book to have a gander at the week’s lesson the same thought goes through my head, “What fresh hell is this?!”

Settle down, Dorothy.

I am usually relieved…more shocked really, to I find that I get it.  A few weeks ago I had a glass of wine and began hacking away at my homework. I don’t necessarily advocate drinking and Algebra, but it’s not a bad way to spend a Friday evening. Every time I put the answer into the computer (my class is online) I would scoff, “There is no way that ugly number is the answer.” But, I would be wrong. Wrong in my rightness, as usual. “Nice job!” the program would egg me on. I’d get a sort of sinking feeling; a voice in my head would say, “You don’t really know why that’s right do you?”

No Dottie, I don’t. Shut up.

But I couldn’t stop myself, even though I knew I would have to do it all over again to make sure I was reasonably competent.

It’s the stupid mistakes that kill me: the unforced errors. I am, it would appear, more than a little prone to them. I tried making a deal with the math gods: offering up 1 or 2 answers for every quiz and test I took, “Take them: my gifts to you.” They were mostly appeased.

That is until yesterday.

I had to take a quiz. I decided to take it at the college in the library. I pressed the “I am ready to start” tab: the commitment that small action requires is unnerving. The quiz is timed: once you begin you have to finish. I had had a pretty easy time with the homework, so I was feeling okay even though my day had started out on the wrong track when I ran my son’s ipod through the wash cycle.

No matter, carry on.

It was going swimmingly, a little too easy. I was working on the final problem on the scrap paper in front of me. I looked up to input the answer and a black screen looked back at me. I rose from my seat; so well accustomed to my ridiculous life I was not even slightly perturbed. “Excuse me,” I politely interrupted the librarian in my best sotto voce library-esque voice, “I’m in the middle of a timed quiz and my computer just crashed.”

She had no succor beyond sympathy.

By the time I reached my lodgings, my kind professor had emailed me to say that she had re-opened the quiz for me so that I could finish. In hysteric haste I finished the test and hit, with reluctant finality, “submit.” Half the answers were wrong. Fully half of them. Does an electronic demon possess every computer I touch? I wondered. No, of course not. The demon possesses me and mine alone. I had forgotten that every answer needed to be given in both its positive and negative form. I got all the answers “right,” and yet they were all wrong. Wrong in my rightness. Again.

I went for a walk. About a mile out it began to pour.