I have no idea where the misconception came from that satire has to be funny. Satire can be funny on occasion, but as it is a means of criticizing society, there are going to be times that it won’t be funny in the slightest. The things one person finds problematic in life, another person is going to believe devoutly – meaning there is always going to be someone who doesn’t get the joke no matter how funny you make the satire.
Classic satires like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where he equated Stalinist Russia with a barn yard revolution and showed the leaders of the revolution becoming as corrupt as the usurped masters, isn’t funny at all once you understand what’s being depicted. Yet, for far too many people, it’s become a silly cartoon to be taken at its surface value where you laugh at the antics of the funny animals.
For the modern satirist to be successful, which in my mind means getting his or her audience to question the status quo, he or she has to find a way to bring their audience to the point where they see how ridiculous things are, without their attention being diverted by the humour.
The other major difficulty facing a satirist is ensuring the object of the satire doesn’t become the object of audience affection. If you start identifying with Homer Simpson or Archie Bunker, how are you going to see them as the objects of ridicule they are supposed to be? If a character is to represent an area of malaise in society, what does that say if the audience feels sympathy for him? While it could mean society is a lot worse off than the author thought, it usually means the character’s creator hasn’t been as honest in his depiction as necessary.
In his latest novel, Callisto, Australian author Torsten Krol has created a character who, while not necessarily unlikable, isn’t going to be someone most of his readership are going to want to admit identifying with. Odell Deefus is what most people would call a few bricks short of a load, or any of the other euphemisms people might have for the genuinely stupid. If his IQ were any lower, he could be considered developmentally challenged, but not in the heartland of America, Yoder Wyoming, where Odell was raised.
As Odell is our source of all information for his little adventure in 21st century real-politic, he’s not about to admit he’s what a generous person would call slow. He goes out of his way to draw our attention to his great intellect by informing us he’s read The Yearling sixteen times. (It won the Pulitzer Prize, so it can’t be a book for dumb people.) Odell is intent on reassuring us about his intelligence because he wants us to take the story he’s about to recount seriously.
Once he starts telling us the story, we begin to understand why he’s so desperate to assure us of his grip on sanity and his ability to think straight. Through an amazing series of coincidences, misadventures, misunderstandings, (there are a lot of those when Odell is involved), and straight out stupidity, Odell ends up involved with a scheme to run drugs into a local prison, a murder investigation, and the attention of the good folk at Homeland Security on suspicion of terrorist activity. To think it was all because he was making his way to the enlistment centre in Callisto, Kansas so he could do his patriotic duty and go over and kill some of them Islamic extremists.
He figures he stands a good chance of being signed up, even though he doesn’t have a high school diploma, because they now have a test you can take instead. They’re so desperate for recruits they’re offering a bonus for signing up, so they’re not going to be too bothered about whether a fellow’s graduated or not. Besides, what else kind of work is available these days for a guy without a high school diploma? Nope; the army is just thing for a guy like Odell, and the millions of others like him across America.
Odell is not the only character in the book, but he is the centre of everyone’s attention from the moment his car breaks down on the outskirts of Callisto on his way to the recruiting centre (which had been closed for about a year by the time Odell gets there, due to lack of interest.)
Most people meeting Odell for the first time realize what a golden opportunity he is for whatever plans they might want carried out. A born-again Christian preacher, drug running prison guards, a right wing politician, the FBI, and the boys from Homeland Security all see him as the answer to their prayers. What none of them count on is Odell’s own unique way of seeing the world and how it will enable him to thwart them at every turn.
Torsten Krol, (who’s a bit of a mystery as he does no publicity and only communicates to his agent by the Internet, leading to intense speculation as to his true identity), has created in Odell Deefus a character who is almost too naive to believe. Yet, once we learn to accept Odell’s vision of the world and allow ourselves to see it through his eyes, everything he does makes perfect sense. Torsten has imbued him with an emotional depth and honesty that is humbling. For we, like all the other characters in the book, have the tendency to stop treating him like a human being and only see the surface fool.
Krol exposes our own callousness through Odell, and we can laugh all we want at how he’s being deceived by the other characters in the book until a couple of things strike us. What happened to our compassion that this person who is being treated like dirt by everyone around him elicits our scorn instead of our sympathy? The second thing is to slowly realize that if we’re laughing at him for still buying the line about duty and patriotism being more important than civil rights, and that if we’re laughing at him for any of the things he’s honest enough to admit being taken in by, then aren’t we laughing at ourselves just as much because we’ve been taken in, as well?
The world Odell Deefus lives in is the same world we live in. While some of the characters are slightly cartoonish, they are very real representations of the types of people they represent in our world. Beneath the buffoonery reality is our world in all its stark ugliness; and in the end, not even Odell’s delusions can protect him from it. To me this is satire at it’s finest. Krol creates characters and situations that are nearly cartoon, but have enough reality in them for us to recognize them as our own world, while ensuring all the while we are laughing at ourselves without knowing it.
Not everyone is going to like Torsten Krol’s depiction of life in America or enjoy the book much for that reason. Unfortunately it’s not always a pleasant thing to look in a mirror and see yourself on a particularly bad day, and that’s what Torsten Krol has done. He caught America in the midst of a very bad day.