Review Of Hume’s Fork
Copyright © by SuZi, 3/30/07
Cooper, Ron. Hume’s Fork. Bancroft Press.2006.
The quintessential function of comedy is didactic: it seeks to teach by the most powerful of persuasive tools –the chuckles and the guffaw. In order to induce a giggle, the voice of the narrator must ally and unify the point of view of the audience with that of witness, so that all ears envision the action from the same angle. Any disenfranchisement from this unity will result in the death of the joke; all possibilities for experiencing the lesson are lost. Any good griot can hold an audience enraptured. The profit for the audience is not only the joy of the joke, but the ecstasy of enlightenment potentiated by the story’s climax.
Most of the time, a savvy speaker will adopt a persona acceptable to some archetype in the audience. In our current comedic climate, cynicism seems ever seductive. Ron Cooper, in his novel Hume’s Fork , while apparently making use of this acceptable, cynical persona, instead shows us the travails of a character who, in truth, turns out to be perpetually naïve—a permanent child who, unlike the Peter Pan symbol of eternal, imaginative play, is a foil for our own cultural stereotypes.
Cooper’s character, Lagare Hume, is—at first glance—the kid who is embarrassed by his family and who escapes to academia. Cooper gently exploits the audience-reader’s preconceived expectation that the academic world offers an intellectual satisfaction otherwise unavailable: we are familiar with the myth of the ivory tower. That Lagare Hume’s academic specialty is philosophy serves as the subtlest of hyperbole here, for what mental methods can be further from the mundane machinations of our prosaic processes than thinking about thinking.
Indeed, Cooper romps through an entertaining history of philosophy as Lagare’s
internal meditations in encountering the plot’s simple premise(of a road trip
with the usual complications of unexpected events). The real glee comes as an
inside joke: any audience-reader remembrance of the history of philosophy will
see Cooper-Lagare’s portrait of various philosophic principles as pure parody.
In a scene where the two protagonists, Lagare Hume and Saul Grossman, are trying
to find a hotel room, this parody of philosophy becomes Lagare’s internal
Despite repeated rejections, I dialed all the numbers with Sisyphasean resolve. No, that was not it. Camus’s hero does not rebel in hopes of changing his state; his nobility, his self-created meaning comes from the rebellion itself. I was just desperate for a hotel room. Camus: accept the fundamental absurdity of life and
it your own. Me: bitch and whine every minute of it. Kierkegard: Only in dread
can a truly authentic and self-creating choice
be made. Me: I don’t need this shit. It seems like everything is
against me. Sartre: affirming facticity at the expense of transcendence
constitutes bad faith. Me: slam down the receiver, give up, cuss myself for
expecting anything more (32).
In this scene, Cooper’s created persona must confront his demons--his family—and in this confrontation comes Cooper’s most enduring lesson: the paradox of reversal—for it is the refuge Lagare takes in academia that eventually becomes overtly grotesque, shattering the stereotype of hierarchical collegiate castledom and kingdoms of power, peopled by an enlightened elite.
Cooper’s careful construction of this paradox at first appears similar to a
Rube Goldberg—the dominoes tumbling eventually pull the string that slams the
door—but this is a mistaken perception in a novel about our labyrinthine
mistaken perceptions. Cooper’s structure is one of whorls, matching arguments
of predestination to the fabrication of professional wrestling in a swirl of
language that allows the author’s linguistic consonance to evolve into the
synaethesia of the protagonist Lagare’s perceptual reality. At one point, the
narrative muses on the workings of perception itself:
Our tendency in the Western epistemological tradition –thanks are
due, again, largely to old Rene’ – is to analyze, to divide and conquer. Reason breaks opaque substance down into its
component parts, decomposes the too, too solid (or sullied, if you are one of those) flesh of the object of knowledge, cuts from the
booming, buzzing herd of wild nature a solitary specimen to
tame and call understood.
Obsessed with reason, that bureaucratic paper pusher of the mind, we align it with seeing, a prejudice reflected in the language.
[…] Rubbing, sniffing, nibbling, even listening are carnal, intimate,
and dank-grimy-crevice-entering, while looking is reflective, safe and clean.[…] So if sight is the most distancing sense, yet deemed paradigmatic, is it any wonder that for four hundred years, philosophers have struggled in certifying the reality of a world out there (152-153).
The conclusion at which Cooper has Lagare Hume arrive, and the reader-audience, is of “our overlapping matrices of relation to the things of this world”(153). Cooper’s gentle exposure of Lagare’s trailer-dwelling family as humane people confronts the prejudice toward rural people as somehow lesser than urban people: it is Lagare’s family who are more accepting of the symbolically oddball Saul Grossman than those characters in the suppositional stereotyped cast of theoretically pluralistic academics. That the participants of the philosophy conference demonstrate their acceptance of Grossman by a display of debauchery is the other half of Cooper’s reversal.
Yet the lesson here reaches beyond the deconstruction of the myths of social caste; Cooper’s luxuriant allusions seek to teach by the most atavistic archetype: the memory and perception that “the webbed tissue of sights, sounds, touches, tastes and smells[…] is the throbbing organism we call the world”(153).
If Cooper’s didacticism imparts a layer beyond the inward-outward journey of the plot, the dissolution of academic stereotype, the review of ontological endeavor, and how to change country recipes to be more health-conscious, it is to remind the reader-audience of the levels of humor itself. Cooper’s puns run amoke here, so much so that the allusion to a character from family legend—a traveling, local peddler who keeps goats—escalates into the myth of the satyr and the etymological origin for Cooper’s novel as a whole, of that of satire. The philosophical argument that forms the novel’s title, that “maybe we will never see beneath the surface of the world’s appearances, never peek beyond the edge of the ontological veil” (91) seems to be a likely thesis for a philosophical publication that might be read by six people on a rainy afternoon during after-class office hours—unless it was assigned, of course. Cooper chooses to gamble his idea on the potentially broader media of fictive narration; positioning himself as folktale teller—maybe in the liar’s contest—rather than run the risk of being either entirely unheard or poisoned in the bubble bath. Despite the pleasure of this message’s delivery, the fun does not leave the moral undone. It is the protagonist’s lesson to learn, and thus ours, that not only is there joy in being, but that being itself is a quiet joy.
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