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Everyone and their Hist and Lit tutor has a theory of when childhood ends—or really, when theirs ended. Puberty? Columbine? 9/11? But whatever the endpoint, hardly anyone disputes the premise: There is childhood, and then it’s over. The ending is generally seen as a premature and inauspicious development.
The tragedy of childhood’s end is at the crux of “Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations,” the debut collection of comedic shorts by Simon Rich ’06–’07. From the second-grader who realizes that the Silent Game “isn’t actually fun” to an instant-messaging teenage girl whose “innards R swarming w/2morous growths,” Rich’s young characters expose absurdity with the regrettable wisdom of adulthood.
“Ant Farm” is mostly gloomy and almost always hilarious in its take on the absurd, whether that’s education, religion, or war. In 57 sketches that can be read in under a minute each, Rich finds humor amid the darkest of scenarios: a lonely math teacher’s test questions (“5. A math teacher is frightened 95% of the time. How many hours a day is he frightened? What is he so afraid of?”), a Crayola color-namer’s recent colors (“Sad Red…Really Sad Blue…Divorce Sienna…Divorce Brown”), and a host of other scenes that form a whir of brief, existential episodes.
By playing with our notions of youth, Rich pulls off in short bursts what Roald Dahl did so well in his novels. Children are endowed with the mannerisms, insights, and burdens of adults. And the adults, well, they sound like children.
The achievement, aside from laughs, is an emotional work that often draws deep meaning, as in the title bit, which envisions the predicament inside a child’s ant farm: “We always end up hitting glass. We lost ten men on the last tunnel: Brian, Jack, Lawrence… Why don’t we just give up? I mean seriously, what’s the point?” This is the rare book of comedy that, however irreverent, is also genuinely powerful.
Of course, premature adulthood is a fitting theme for a 22-year-old author who earned a two-book deal from Random House before his Harvard degree. Not to mention Rich’s arguably greater distinction last month, when the New Yorker published three pieces from “Ant Farm” in its humor column. Among Harvard writers, only John Updike ’54 managed to publish in the magazine at an earlier age.
Rich and Updike are, not incidentally, both former presidents of the Harvard Lampoon. (Crimson form, tradition, and a tinge of institutional jealousy demand that I now describe the ’Poon as a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.) And, yes, Rich is the younger son of vaunted New York Times columnist Frank Rich ’71. That could generate some publicity for the book, but Gawker and others will make better sense of lines like, “Fuck you, Dad. I’ve got bigger plans,” and the book’s underlying theme of familial tension.
One short, the opener, skewers Abraham during a painfully awkward walk down the mountain after that Biblical tale of paternal betrayal, the Binding of Isaac. But however brilliant the set-up, Rich is most skillful in his dialogue. A jittery Abraham pleads to Isaac, “How about some Rocky Road? Chocolate? I’d get you some strawberry, but hey, your name’s Isaac, not Isaac-Marie—am I right? Ha! Seriously, though, if you want strawberry, I’ll get it for you. I’ll get you whatever you want.” The shifts in pitch are, beyond funny, downright elegant.
Rich’s tone could be called Undergraduate Glibly Dark (UGD), a type of humor in which laughs are punctuated not so much by smiles as vicious slams of your fist in the Adams House dining hall. It will be familiar to that segment of Harvard’s population—Lampoon types, Advocate types, VES concentrators—or “mostly messy-haired people,” as Rich’s former blockmate Nick McDonell ’06 put it in his novel, “The Third People.”
The bite of UGD is often soft, which may be why Random House sent the book straight to paperback. But the message is always fierce, like the character who tells a woman at a cocktail party of the three possessions he would bring on a desert island—“Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ James Merrill’s Collected Poems, and my lucky Sonic Youth T-shirt”—then actually ends up stranded with those items. Starving and naked, he laments, “Every few hours I flip through the Merrill anthology in the hope that one of his poems will be about fire building or water purification or how to make medicine, but so far they’re all useless.”
UGD bears the same tone that marked the Lampoon during Rich’s turn as president in 2005, when the funniest bits always bore his initials. About half of the pieces in “Ant Farm” were first published here on campus, which means the book is more a greatest-hits album than the “mostly original stuff” Rich promised, in a Crimson interview, when his book deal became public 15 months ago. And since almost all the best sketches are recycled from the Lampoon, you have to wonder whether Rich can repeat his achievement in the second book he’s committed to write.
Still, this one is a success, and it left me pondering some jokes long after I’d put “Ant Farm” aside. Above all, I kept returning to the tale of that IM’ing teenager with cancer and hepatitis C who believes God has “4saken” her. It’s a jarring piece, which pulls off both the funniest and most powerful use of an emoticon in, perhaps, the history of comedy. The girl writes, “i’ve decided 2 stop praying. Y should I? i h8 god. He sh@ on me & I h8 him. All i can do now is w8 4 death.”
“ :( ”
—Reviewer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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