Women in Love

On Patty Marx, Christopher Hitchens, and funny women.

Life is long and the world is small—so much so that you occasionally encounter one of your former boyfriends turning up as a thinly disguised character in one of his previous girlfriend’s satiric novels. Or so a swirl of prepublication rumor led me to believe. Naturally, I was most eager to get my hands on a copy of Patricia Marx’s rather weirdly titled Him Her Him Again The End of Him, the book-cum-poison-pen-letter in question. Wouldn’t you be?           

Additionally, there’s the fact that Marx is a former writer for Saturday Night Live, was the first woman elected to the Harvard Lampoon, and now writes occasional comic pieces for The New Yorker, meaning that she’s been certified by various arbiters of American humor as “a funny woman.” This is an exceedingly rare genus, at least according to a recent Christopher Hitchens throw-down in Vanity Fair, titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Clearly, when it comes to sexual politics, Hitchens likes to get the ladies hoppin’. His argument is that men are simply more motivated than women are to be funny since men want sex from women (whereas we can all get it any time, on demand).  And if a guy can get a girl to laugh, real open-mouthed, teeth-exposed, “involuntary, full and deep-throated mirth … well then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression.” You know what he means. Deep throated. Women also aren’t funny because women are the ones who have to bear the children, these children might die, and you can’t really make jokes about that.

Now, this is a rather fascinating portrait of female nature and relations between the sexes, though it’s unclear to which decade it applied—it has the slightly musty air of 1960-ish Kingsley Amis, wrapped in nostalgia for the merry days when  sexual conquest required an arsenal of tactics deployed by bon-vivantish cads on girdled, girlish sexual holdouts. “Oh Mr. Hitchens!” you imagine one of the potential conquests squealing at an errant hand on nylon-clad knee.

By contrast, the unnamed heroine of Marx’s Him Her Him Again The End of Him is pathetically eager to have sex whenever possible with a man possessing absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever. The “him” is Eugene Lobello, a philosopher and academic Lothario who relieves the inexperienced protagonist of her unwanted virginity at the advanced age of 21, while both are postgraduates at Cambridge. Not only is Eugene not funny, he’s utterly charmless, except—inexplicably—to the insecure and self-deprecating heroine. Her friends all think he’s a pretentious twit who’s jerking her around, but having bestowed her virginity on him, she’s apparently able to forgive him any form of churlish behavior. All she really wants is for the purportedly brilliant and infinitely narcissistic Eugene to think she’s smart: Thus she develops a subspecialty in the erudite quip, a source of the book’s funnier moments. On William Empson: “Don’t you think a better title would be Seven or Eight Types of Ambiguity?”

There’s nothing more alluring than an unreliable boyfriend, and Eugene plays the role to the hilt, not least when he dumps the heroine to marry and impregnate the annoying and sniffly Margaret. (Quips the abandoned protagonist: “Hypochondriacs make me sick.”) Her creative solution to Eugene’s romantic flight is to rent the apartment directly above the newlyweds, where she can smell the curry odors wafting up from the dinner parties they don’t invite her to. Clearly, Marx is sending up the overly familiar terrain of Women Who Love Too Much—and you’d definitely like to get this girl on Dr. Phil for one of his tough-talking butt-kickings—though the humor ends up being far more at the heroine’s expense than at Eugene’s. Eugene may be the ostensible target—saddled with lines like “Your kisses are so recondite, my peach, that they are almost notional”—but she’s the one who relentlessly loves such a buffoon. These characters live in different comedic universes: He’s cartoonish, obtuse as an Oxbridge Homer Simpson, whereas her self-reflections often have the ring of real human pondering. She’s not unaware that Eugene doesn’t love her, and that arguing and pleading and phoning a lot is a good way to “make someone who was hitherto lukewarm really detest you.” Unfortunately, the less he loves her, the more convinced she becomes that “he and I could have been just the thing.”

And remains convinced. Seven years later, Eugene turns up in New York, where our still terminally insecure heroine now lives, having landed and been fired from a number of jobs (including one as a writer on a Saturday Night Live-like TV show called Taped But Proud), and she readily takes up with him once again. Eugene is in training to become a psychoanalyst (as a philosopher, he’d specialized in ego studies), and, though still married to Margaret, he lures the heroine into an affair that drags on for years. As a shrink, he’s no more reliable than as a boyfriend: His pillow talk consists of divulging all his patients’ secrets, and in the end it turns out he’s been sleeping with one of his more attractive analysands, for whom he—yet again!—summarily dumps the heroine.

If there’s humor to be milked from the (tragically, all too common) situation of loving someone who doesn’t love you back, or from the variety of self-abnegating female behavior on display here, let’s call it the humor of painful recognition. The comedy hinges on a willingness to recognize the element of truth in the parody. But the humor of painful recognition is also an inherently conservative social form, especially when it comes to conventional gender behaviors, because it just further hardens such behaviors into “the way things are.” The laughter depends not only on our recognizing the world as it supposedly is, but on our leaving it that way; it questions nothing. Consider, by contrast, someone like Sarah Silverman, whose scabrous humor, delivered in that faux-naive girly voice, leaves exactly nothing the same. When Silverman takes on female abjection—most famously, “I was raped by a doctor. Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl”—the clichés are demolished, not upheld; the world as it was is turned on its ear. * The laughter isn’t from painful recognition, it’s the shock and pleasure of smashing conventions instead of toadying to them.

If Hitchens is right and women are less funny than men, this insight applies to the public sphere alone. Women can be scathingly funny in private, especially when it comes to finely honed observations about the romantic conduct of men. And here Marx is a particularly keen observer. I must say that I was disappointed not to recognize more of my own ex in Eugene, apart from a few superficial similarities—that is, until I came to one small moment between Eugene and the heroine, after he re-enters her life. All that happens is this: The two of them are on the couch; he looks at her intently, makes a beckoning gesture with his forefinger, and says, “Come here.”

That did have an awfully familiar ring to it. Back when I was on the receiving end of the move, I remember thinking that it seemed a bit Cary Grant-ish. But it never actually occurred to me that I was getting recycled material. I also admit that it never really occurred to me how funny it was. All I can say is that if even our most intimate moments turn out to be pre-scripted, well, obviously these can be anxious endeavors: Failure hovers, rejection looms. I suppose there’s a small buffer of security in playing a part, or relying on what worked before. To the extent that women generally refrain from publicly mocking male seduction techniques (despite the comedic gold mine of material), I’d say that a bit of social gratitude is in order. It’s not that women aren’t funny, we’re merely being polite—perhaps too polite. But then where would heterosexuality end up if we weren’t?

Correction, Jan. 26, 2007: An earlier version of this article quoted Sarah Silverman’s joke about being raped by a doctor imprecisely. (Click here  to return to the corrected sentence.)