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Book Review: With One Eye Open: Humor by Polly Frost

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The writing in the witty and waggish With One Eye Open, a collection of Polly Frost’s humor pieces, seems to sometimes — not to put too fine an exclamation point on it – come from the perspective of “the human equivalent of a Jack Russell terrier!!”

Sorry to be so upfront, but I feel I can take such reviewing liberties because the author herself has taken the courageous and confessional step in admitting, in the teachable moments of the chapter “Goodbye!” how the use of the exclamation mark(s!) has come back into heavy rotation today among those who have given up the charade of dignity or self-respect for antics akin to yapping, palpitating poodles!!!

Frost of course considers the influence and of modern-age Facebook, Twitter, and email communications when, say, she has to gauge a friend's mood if he or she seems insufficiently emphatic: “Why didn’t they write ‘Hi Polly!!!!’?” And are they being sarcastic if they simply write ‘Congratulations.’ rather than ‘Congratulations!!!!!!!!?’”

But Frost, who has been called "the Edith Wharton of her generation," certainly enters uncharted territory when exploring academic terrain, though the use of the exclamation point may tend to punctuate and add novelty to the study of  hundred-year-old American literature:

And when I read books now, I find myself beginning to wonder what Henry James was thinking when he wrote: ‘Live all you can – it’s a mistake not to.’ Dude, it should be: ‘Live all you can!!!!! It’s a mistake not to!!!!!!’ Then the reader will go, ‘Awesome! I’m there with you, Henry! Rock on with The Ambassadors!”

In the Preface to One Eye, we ourselves get a brief but two-eyed peek at what Frost — once she had emerged from the high seriousness of being the “Edward D. Wood Jr. of child creators” — was thinking after her young adult hopes of earning Chekhov or Dostoevsky status were questioned, and her avante garde short story reading was shot down by a giggling creative writing class. (The experimental short story was called “Untitled,” but I wonder if it might have had more mass appeal as “Untitled!!”) However, as so often happens, an astute teacher, impressed with another side of Polly, sensed a different path for the hot-under-the-collar scholar, telling her not to waste her time trying to write literary fiction. Because “you might be able to do something with funny.”

Indeed, With One Eye Open is testament to that sagacious suggestion, a collection of 25 short stories and pieces, the bulk of which were written in the last two years, appearing in such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Narrative magazine, while being anthologized in two of The New Yorker “best of” humor collections, as well as the just-released Humor Me anthology edited by Ian Frazier. Such a variety of outlets is matched by the array of topics, from blogaholism, to iPuppies, to the inner voices you really don’t want to hear as you somehow find yourself paragliding down to earth in a kicking-and-screaming fulfillment of a New Year’s Resolution, to parents on Facebook posting photos of the kids, to the new Paleo-diet-and-fitness craze, to how friends get together today, and the diagnosis of Intrusive Amateur Therapist Disorder.

Of course One Eye, with all the wit and wordplay at the reader’s ready, contains such marvelous displays of writing flair not only as a consequence of Frost’s craftsmanship in fashioning stories and vignettes from her life and observations, but, in the case of “Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way,” as a way to chronicle her writing experiences – from the aid afforded by such movements as New Age mind-mapping to the advent of the internet — in order to selflessly educate promising writers. Whether helping people deal with addictions like “pumping up your ranking as an Amazon reader-reviewer,“ outlining the early days of The Polly Frost Reblocking Seminar of the 1980s when the “aspiring writer needed to move to New York City or – even worse – a university town,” then going on to describe the instructional evolution to The Polly Frost Boot Camp for Shutting you Up!, Frost shows that she’s innovation on tap… or just plain tapped out of the stuff:

                                 Day Three
Devoted entirely to our Trademark 12 Hour Intensive, “A Mind Mapping Guide to Silence.” Explore what it’s like to keep your thoughts, jokes, anecdotes, and recipes to yourself. Advance warning: We won’t be having a “talk back” afterwards!

“Notes On My Conversations” describes plenty of talking and talk back but also holds some silence-is-somehow-golden speaking restrictions on “kaffeeklatsches, yammers, retorts, insinuations, complaints, tipoffs, disseminations and greetings.” Unfortunately, the remarks are in variance with the writing-centered “Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way” previously bandied about, and touch upon a time time when Frost ceased writing to devote herself to “what I felt was my true art form: conversation.” We are indeed lucky, nevertheless, to have the inclusion of this written retrospective of Frost’s  dialogues, from the Early Conversations, where you can read about her seminal influences and her theory about the “constant intrusion of subject matter” from such upstarts as Socrates and Heine; and the Middle Works, when “More and more, I challenged the assumption that I couldn’t speak unless I had something to say,” while, in questioning the role friends played in conversations, “I became interested in the idea of using non-friends – people who were no longer speaking to me, strangers, inanimate objects.”

But is was the Late Period, circa 2005, when, Polly, fed up with the complacency of the accustomed cocktail party chitter-chat, the cadaverously ashen aphorism aftertaste, and the bon-mot drought of the aught-aughts, sought refuge in the whole new development:

In August, the whole Street Talking Movement was coming to a boil. I was one of the ones who felt that the talk going on inside restaurants (‘Check, please’), office building elevators (Seventeenth floor, please’), as well as hotels and theatre lobbies, had lost its vitality. Outside, it was all new and experimental. I no longer wanted to talk to people. I wanted to talk at them.

Although I felt that my Street Talking should be primarily an urban phenomenon, I did once yell at a combine on the edge of a wheat field in Saskatchewan.

When I went back indoors in October, I was attacked by the critics. I felt I had exhausted the rant and rave, especially in STREET-CORNER CONVERSATION WITH PASSING CARS. I needed fresh forms. I was dying to work with the toast, the waffle, and the quibble. And in order to do so, it was imperative that I once again sit down at the dinner table.

Fresh forms would have to wait, however. It was a simple return to form, the writing stint, that the great conversationalist returned to with equal enthusiasm and jocularity. In the have-fun-will-unravel “Fast Forward to the Past,” an eras-and-errors mash-up sees a scientist and a fifties throwback crawl into a malfunctioning “retro-temporalizer” which inadvertently sends them back or ahead to the sixties/neo-sixties, seemingly populated by people from the fifties. “Hippies” who serve them martinis spiked with LSD, and who wear love beads with suits, apparently “got their idea of how to dress from watching TV. They look like the hippies Jack Webb lectured on Dragnet.”

“Tabloid Dreams” most definitely brings us back into the 21st century, as we follow a scene at the office of Olivia Morton, editor-in-chief of the tabloid weekly Them magazine, as she congratulates male staffer Tyler for his PR push on a new, and nonexistent, celebrity named Madison. A disapproving Tyler, though, balks on further assignments after he has also been made to invent the hunky married co-star, Matthew, so that the unseen twosome – Madishew – can “run off” for a salacious getaway.

But wait, there’s more: “Matthew needed a humiliated former child star ex-wife, Kaitlyn,” Olivia explains to Tyler, “who needed a lesbian lover slash personal trainer, Desiree, to help her get into the kind of shape that would get the attention of billionaire hottie, Brayden.” And if you think Them’s next step in the great tabloid circulation wars – giving Madison a “baby bump that’s growing in reverse” – is a little, well, out there, just wait until the Twilight Zonish end is submitted for your inquiring mind. 

Given her penchant for drollery, surreal-tinged parody, wry absurdity, and satire, there's more than just trace evidence or isolated evocations of S.J. Perelman or Robert Benchley in these writing. Such stories as “New Carbs” have that postmodern Algonquin conjuration even as it takes as its topic a morning talk show-style study of “good carbs” with their fiber and vitamins, and unhealthy “bad carbs,” — and blends it with smidgens o' subplots that center on a rendezvous with a Frenchman and an escapade with gregarious patrons of a waterside bar:

Feeling woozy inspiration, I challenged the hunky, sunburned stranger next to me to a bet: whichever one of us said “oligosaccharide” slower would buy the next round of Blue Hawaiis. He eyed me up and down, then agreed. Soon everyone in the place was shouting “oligosaccharide” and demanding that I dance on top of the bar. How could I refuse? Never before had I cared less about how my behavior appeared to others. My conclusion: Silly Carbs often lead to excellent exercise sessions.

Just as Benchley had a proclivity for presenting "the commonplace as remarkable" – as James Thurber noted when he referenced his influence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Frost, whether it’s carbohydrates, or conversation, or punctuation, also has the wit and wherewithal to take the quotidian and make it quotable, or put drollery into the doldrums.  

Polly Frost has also proven that, with With One Eye Open, she's indeed been "able to do something with funny” — and with an exclamation mark or two, to boot!

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