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Dean Gloster: Grief, Humor, and Resilience (Yes, the World Is on Fire, But We Brought Marshmallows)

Some of my favorite young adult novels are humor-filled stories of grief and loss. Sprinkled among the death, dysfunctional families, and dark moments, there are laughs.

One delight is Jandy Nelson’s spectacular debut, The Sky Is Everywhere, where Lennie is crushed with grief after the unexpected death of her older sister, Bailey. She scribbles aching poems, discovers herself in the light out of the shadow of her vibrant older sister, and begins to find love. She also makes a constant stream of killer funny observations that convince us of her terrific poetry chops even before we’ve read those poems, because she’s so breathtakingly effective in describing her classmates in metaphor.

Another is Adrienne Kisner’s brilliant young adult novel Dear Rachel Maddow, which just last week added the 2019 ILA Children’s and Young Adult Award for YA Fiction to the pile of its other awards.

In Dear Rachel Maddow, Brynn Harper is reeling from her older brother’s overdose death, from abandonment by her father, from getting dumped by her first girlfriend, and from her mother’s remarriage to the abusive stepfather Brynn calls Fart Weasel. Shoveled into the remedial track in her high school’s basement, Brynn tells us the story in a series of hilarious, searing, profane, self-deprecatory emails to her hero Rachel Maddow. The format is perfect, not only because it highlights Brynn’s terrific way with words, but also because political injustice at Brynn’s school is what gets Brynn energized to rejoin life. It’s a screamingly funny book that made me cry almost as many times as it made me laugh out loud. (Which was dozens.)

In both of those stories, terrible things have happened and continue to happen. (That is the nature of novels.) In both of them, the humor-wielding protagonists survive and thrive anyway, finding their way toward the light. And we readers take delight in their story, in part because the humor allows us to.

Humor lightens a serious story, adding contrast, and it gives us a little breathing space when grief or trauma might otherwise seem crushing. Humor also allows us to reframe terrible situations where we have little control.

Humor is a way of saying, “Yes, the world is on fire—but we brought marshmallows.”

Humor is a way of saying, “Yes, the world is on fire—but we brought marshmallows.”

U.S. prisoners of war who returned at the end of the Vietnam War came back after years of confinement, starvation, illness, neglect, and brutal torture. Follow up studies 30 years later found surprisingly low rates of medical, social, and psychological problems. One reason for their resilience was their group decision in captivity to use humor to reframe their situation and to assert control over one thing—how they responded—when they had so little control over everything else.

Humor helps us avoid being overwhelmed by the otherwise devastating. Yes, we’re all going to die, but some of us choose laughter, not despair.

Humor can also, however, be a reflexive way to avoid other feelings or to keep other people at a distance—a defense mechanism. Like other defense mechanisms, it isn’t ideal for all situations. And it gets in our way when over-used.

I used to be a stand-up comic, and I’ve used humor as a defense mechanism my whole life. It comes easily. But if you always use humor, then you’re entertaining instead of connecting. And if you use that as a one-note response to everything, you’re drowning out the wider symphony of human feelings.

There is, of course, even a wonderful YA novel that makes that point. Greg Gaines, the narrator of Jessie Andrews’ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, has a classmate, Rachel, who is dying of cancer. He decides to entertain her (and in the process, entertain us readers.)

Greg is often hysterically funny, but so constantly going on with self-deprecatory jokes that Andrews wisely varies the format of the book, to give us a break from Greg picking on himself, veering from narration to cinematic scripts, bullet points, lists, imagined dialogue in outline, texts, fake movie reviews, questions and answers, and fake headlines.

At the end of the book, Greg realizes that in trying to keep it light and constantly entertaining, he has missed his chance to actually connect with Rachel, to see her, and to be present with her instead of working for a laugh. He grows as a result, and begins to have closer relationships with his friend Earl. He even gives up his go-to comedy schtick and decides he’s not going to make fun of his current self anymore.

Because he didn’t stick with just humor, he has room to grow.

That’s why I like stories that deal with grief and which have humor in them much better than sketch comedy that never takes on serious topics.

As Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby put it so eloquently in her one-woman show, “Nanette,” comedy only has a beginning and a middle—a setup and a punchline. Stories, by contrast, have a beginning, a middle, and an end, where there is room for growth, change, and resolution—an ability to find, and land at, a better place.

“Nanette” is still available on Netflix, and it’s the most brilliant one hour and eight minutes ever produced in any media. Hannah Gadsby is funny—hilarious, really—and she pulls us along with that humor to visit some deep and sometimes dark topics: Homophobia, toxic masculinity, depression, misogyny, violence, gender identity, sexual assault, and internalized oppression. Along the way, she entertains and manages to deconstruct comedy and make full use of her art history degree. (Yes, really.)

One of my favorite writing teachers, after complimenting me on the humor in my novel in progress, went on to warn that working for laughs was, however, ice skating, and the form of the novel demands that we go deep and breach that surface.

But it’s sometimes dark down there, especially in stories about grief, loss, and trauma. Bringing some humor along can help light the way.

Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.

When Dean is not studying Aikido or downhill ski racing, he’s on Twitter: @deangloster


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