In The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez’s recent novel about Latin American immigrants living in a Delaware apartment complex, the Rivera family could use a laugh. Having moved from Mexico to find care for their disabled daughter, they are struggling to make ends meet, make friends, and make sense of a country where none of them speak the language. Arturo, the patriarch, asks his wife Alma if she would like to hear a joke:
“’Here’s one I heard on one of the American late-night shows. Why did the bicycle fall down?’ He scanned our blank faces, waiting for a response. When he got none, he said, ‘Because it had two tires.’
‘That doesn’t make sense,’ I said.
‘Well the audience laughed. Maybe the subtitles were wrong?’”
Though the book is written in English, almost all the conversations, this one included, are implied to be taking place in Spanish. This scene is just one of many in Unknown Americans that serves to highlight the struggle of an immigrant family trying to adapt in a foreign country. Alma gets lost on her commute home because she doesn’t understand the bus driver; she tries to communicate with her daughter’s teachers, with the local police unit, through a translator. But while Arturo’s failed bicycle joke carries lower stakes, it frustrates in an entirely different way: though he played by the rules, though he read the subtitles, the joke didn’t translate. Arturo and Alma don’t even get the pleasure of rolling their eyes at a bike that is “two tired.” They just grow increasingly weary in their confusion.
Jokes are funny when they land, and a funny thing when they do not. Their success is based not merely in their construction, but in context, timing, and execution: is there anything more annoying than a joke that has to be explained? Humour can be a great unifier, but that deepens the chasm when you don’t get the joke, which requires a common language and a shared cultural experience that can never completely be translated. It’s not fun to be left out of the conversation, but it downright sucks when you’re the only one not laughing. That stupid bike becomes a stand-in for the whole inside joke that is English-speaking America, into which the Rivera family is trying so damn hard to assimilate.
And yet, it’s still a funny passage. The reader can smile, not because of the cheesiness of the bike joke, but in recognition of the Rivera’s struggle to understand what is so familiar to their peers yet so absurd to them. The Riveras are conscious of the ways in which they are outsiders. They can recognize when a joke is supposed to be funny, even without getting the punchline; that’s where the pathos comes from. The flip side to this would be humour derived from an unwitting foreigner left out, a trope that can seem too easy and too cruel—but when it’s pulled off with grace, it can land with a bang.
Earlier this year, W.W. Norton rereleased Anita Loos’s 1925 farcical novella, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It is, in nine ways out of ten, the spiritual opposite of Henríquez’s novel, a story of an insider reaching out rather than a family of outsiders trying to break their way in. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, ditzy flapper Lorelei Lee travels across Europe, courting wealthy older gentleman in the noble quest to own a lot of diamonds. It’s a book with a dated premise but a modern sensibility, a 90-year-old bottle of champagne that’s managed to stay bubbly.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is narrated through Lorelei’s diary entries, and Loos fills them with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, colloquialisms and phonetic misunderstandings. It’s a funny book in which many of the jokes come from Lorelei’s relationship to language, although much of this was lost in the glittery 1953 film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe. Lorelei’s bastardization of English and other languages becomes part of the story (in France: “So he became all smiles and he pinched our cheeks and he kept on saying Sharmant all of the time because Sharmant means charming in the French language.” In Germany: “So then he said he thought that we ought to get off the train at a place called Munich because it was very full of art, which they call ‘kunst’ in Munich, which is very, very educational.”)
The humour comes from Lorelei’s ignorance and privilege; she is open minded when interacting with other cultures insofar as they can heighten her own image of worldly sophistication, but she doesn’t try to get beyond surface values. She is a foil to the Rivera family: both books see the potential for humour in being a stranger in a strange land, but the humour runs in opposite directions. We laugh with empathy for the Riveras, who try but fail in ways that we—and they—recognize; we laugh at Lorelei, who tries and fails without realizing it.
Lorelei’s priorities lie far beyond keeping up with the conversation. She has a taste for luxury bankrolled by wealthy older men, and her job is to keep peacocking herself as someone sharmant and adorable, someone to be both protected and seduced. Too much self-awareness would only hurt her cause. The Riveras need desperately to find humour in their situation, to accustom themselves to the language of those white, American-born, English-speaking gatekeepers of financial opportunity. Arturo and Alma might not be in on the joke, but unlike Lorelei, they will make damn sure that they never become the butt of it.