Gallows Humour: What's The Best Joke You Heard in Prison?
Years later, I still think about this story from time to time. I can’t say that I know exactly why. Maybe it’s because it’s so bizarre, or maybe it’s because it’s such a distilled moment of irony, or even serendipity, if it had a happy ending. It doesn’t really have a happy ending because it doesn’t really have an ending. In many ways, it’s still happening now. Maybe I think about this story so often, years after I first read about it, because it’s a good bar story, one of those stories that could end up having a moral if told by the right person under the right circumstances, and because I think it says something about literature and reading. However, I haven’t figured out what that something is yet.
There are two books that feature here: the first is Marcel Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, which you might encounter in its English translation either under the title Remembrance of Things Past, or as In Search of Lost Time. Here’s what I know about it: it’s a huge undertaking to read, as it’s not only massive but also hard to keep track of because of its many characters and detailed accounts of what little plot binds it all together. It’s also one of the most acclaimed literary works to date, and has inspired many great writers in the last century. I have never read a single sentence from it, and I doubt that I ever will, since I’m slower than the average reader and I struggle keeping up with shorter and easier books. I felt this way before and after reading about this particular story.
The second work that comes into play is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Strictly speaking a trilogy, in my English edition it’s just over 1300 pages, and it took me a while to read it. Each book of the trilogy is set during a three-month period, with Book One covering April to June, Book Two July to September, and Book Three October to December. What I realized only once I finished the book, was that I had started reading it in April 2014 and finished in December of that year. There is a passage in Book Three where one of the two main characters, Aomame, has to go into hiding. She is a wanted person, and a contact that she has arranges an apartment for her, and instructs her to go there and wait for him. She goes to the apartment, and sees that it’s very neat, everything is new. It probably came pre-furnished. Her contact was good at this, and a reliable ally. When he shows up, he tells Aomame that she cannot leave the apartment for at least three months because everyone is on high alert. He will bring her clothes, food, toiletries, and everything she needs, every week. She agrees, but the main problem here would be boredom. So, he offers to bring her as many books as she wants, and also has a few recommendations of his own. He tells her “If you think of anything else you need, write it on a piece of paper and leave it on the kitchen counter. I’ll make sure you get it the next time we bring supplies.” She tells him that she thinks she has everything she needs, at which point he asks her about books or movies she wants. She says “I can’t think of anything I particularly want.”
And here’s the story. It was published in The New Yorker and you can read the whole thing there, but here’s the good part. Daniel Genis is a writer, translator, ex-publisher. He’s also an ex-convict. He spent a decade in prison being charged with five counts of armed robbery. Genis was apparently the kindest thief out there, often repeatedly apologising to his victims as he robbed them. In fact, a couple of them avoided being robbed simply by refusing to give him their wallets. His reason was that he had become addicted to heroin, which cost him several hundred dollars every day, so of course he was indebted to the kind of people you don’t want to be indebted to. Hence the robberies. In prison, instead of becoming a bodybuilder or a guy who’s known to locate certain things from time to time, he spent his time binge-reading. By his account, he read over a thousand books during his time there. He started by reading books that related to his situation: Dostoyevsky, gulag memoirs, Malcolm X’s autobiography, you name it. Then he moved on to broader topics like philosophy’s favourite subject of good and evil, balancing heavy thinkers like Pascal and Schopenhauer with the sci-fi pulp of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. With the variety of people than inhabit American prisons, he started picking up a range of books based on recommendations. His reading list expands with queer memoirs, books about the civil rights movement, religious texts. And at some point, while spending an extended period of time in solitary confinement for unauthorized exchange of goods (selling coffee to fellow inmates), he read Proust’s seven volumes. It took him a full year, and he was aided by two academic guide books annotated in French, and a French-English dictionary. He said that In Search of Lost Time was the book that helped him most, not only in appreciating literature, but also in making sense of the time he was spending in prison.
Daniel’s story is fascinating to me. On the one hand, it is because I sort of shamelessly romanticize that kind of forced devotion to reading. No matter how much I love books, there’s no way I can afford the time, or get rid of all the distractions that multiply monthly in the age of internet, to sit down with the books I want to read for hours on end. But it was prison for him, and I wouldn’t want to insult his reality with my naive romantic idea of reading. The fact is, he completely stopped reading after he was released. If he hadn’t gone to prison, he probably would never have read Schopenhauer, or Ulysses, or indeed In Search of Lost Time. But he did go to prison, and he did read Proust. And some time after he read that, he would also read Murakami’s 1Q84. While reading the third volume in 1Q84, he would reach the passage I mentioned earlier, in the volume’s second chapter:
“If you think of anything else you need, write it on a piece of paper and leave it on the kitchen counter. I’ll make sure you get it the next time we bring supplies.”
“Thank you. But I think I have everything I need”
“How about books and videos and the like?”
“I can’t think of anything I particularly want”
“How about Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? If you’ve never read it this would be a good opportunity to read the whole thing.”
“Have you read it?”
“No, I’ve never been in jail, or had to hide out for a long time. Someone once said unless you have those kinds of opportunities, you can’t read the whole Proust.”
When Daniel read this, he said that he laughed harder than he ever had in all his years in prison. I doubt that I would’ve had a different reaction. What are the odds? We all (at least sometimes) read books to feel connected to characters through common experiences. We look for elements that we understand, and in turn feel understood. We feel less solitude in whatever it is that we look for in art. I have often read about characters going through experiences similar to mine, and I have felt closer to them, and to the material itself. I have even read passages in novels that are eerily similar to things I have written myself (which is both discouraging because I’ve felt I couldn’t use that material anymore, and hopeful, because what I write has an equal chance to get published at some point). But how often do you come across a paragraph like this, a piece of writing that encapsulates a year of your life in such an uncanny way? 1Q84 is 1300 pages. Murakami probably threw that in as a little side-note that ultimately has no bearing on the plot or the characters’ lives at all, and which could’ve easily been cut if he had an editor who wished to publish something more palatable in size. And yet for Daniel, that may be the most memorable piece of dialogue of the book, or in fact of any book. So I guess one of the reasons why I think of this story so often may be because you never really know how something you write might affect someone else. I also wonder if Murakami has heard of this story, because I’d love to know his reaction as well. I wonder what he’d make of this...
Successfully impersonated a student of English literature and is now doing a masters in Publishing. Interested in the direction English literature is taking in the 21st century, noir comics, beautifully shot films. Can bore you to death with Hollywood trivia, extensive knowledge of Leonard Cohen, and La La Land.