Namwali Serpell’s Bungee Chord or Humour in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How To Pronounce Knife by Tom Halford

You’re on one side of a gorge, and I’m on the other—twenty feet between us. Let’s respect the distance and the drop. We both know that any kind of metaphorical leap will surely fail.
About two hundred feet away from the gorge, I’d like you to picture the Self. Think of it as a plump silhouette baking in the sun. Next to it is an open hole that leads to a bunker. There are two philosophers inside. Do you know Iris Murdoch and Charles Taylor? It’s fine if you don’t. I don’t really know them either. Let’s throw David Parker into the bunker as well. They’re talking about the Self in moral space.

Let’s be honest about the language that comes out of the bunker. It doesn’t express or emote as often as it obfuscates. And that is why the Self has remained for so long the way it has, a vacuous dud sipping Cuba Libres in the sunlight.
The Self assumes its interior world is a reflection of the exterior, that inside and outside are the same. There’s an unopened book that Iris Murdoch shoved beside its bum yesterday morning before she went on one of her bike rides.
She said, “You absolutely must read ‘Randy Travis’! It’s brilliant!”
Then she pedalled in circles around the bunker until one of tires exploded. Pop!
If the Self had taken the time to consider the book, it would have seen a little pink rectangle in the grass with a tattoo on its face:

How To
Pronounce
Knife

SOUVANKHAM
THAMMAVONGSA

The Book has an eye at the O in “How” and another at the O in “To”, a nose at the U in “Pronounce,” a top lip in “SOUVANKHAM” and a bottom lip in “THAMMAVONGSA.” It sprouts arms and legs, and tapping the Self on the knee, it says, “Read me.”
The Self is exhausted. “Not right now,” says the Self. “Maybe later.”

It sips its Cuba Libre and lounges. Iris Murdoch pops her auburn bowl-cut hair helmet out of the bunker. She shouts, “Blargh! The sun! It’s blinding! I’ve forgotten how bright the blasted sky gets!”

Charles Taylor pokes his grey head into the sky. There is something vaguely bird-like in his movements. Smiling, he says, “Heard you shouting up here. Thought I’d check on—my goodness that’s bright! What would Plate say about that?”
“Plate? Plate would only think of the sun as a metaphor of the ideal and the true,” says Iris Murdoch. “But what we need is to ‘see in a pure light the hardness of the real properties of the world, the effects of wondering causes, why good purposes are checked and where the mystery of the random has to be accepted.’” (496)

Charles Taylor says, “Well put, Iris. Abundantly clear. I for one believe we need the metaphor of the sun in order to situate ourselves in moral space. We find ourselves in moral space when we have some sense of our own identity in relation to the Good, the ideals to which we aspire.” (28)
Flicking his hand out and making a mouth with his thumb and pointer finger, David Parker shouts, “And we must always remember that we are living by more forms of the Good then we can ever be aware of.” (175)

Hi hand disappears, and it’s as though some cruel god is listening because another sun appears in the sky. Then two more appear, followed by three flaming circles, each one roaring too much good heat. Murdoch and Taylor duck back into the bunker.
The Self stands and sips on its Cuba Libre. Dumping a little of the black liquid on the book to drown the flames, it glances down at the bunker and laughs as a thick haze fills the landscape, breathing in the grey indeterminate soup of scorched grass and charred wood.
If it cannot lounge in the sun and sip its Cuba Libre, what else is there to do?
The little singed pink book coughs, and with big, pleading eyes, it asks, “Read me? Can you read me?”
The Self lifts up the book and the two begin wandering through the smoke and fog.
“It’s just that get sleepy when I read,” says the Self, “I’d rather you read to me.”
The book agrees and says, “I’ll read you a story called ‘Randy Travis’.”
“Sounds good,” says the Self. “If we keep walking, maybe we’ll stumble onto a hotel. Maybe even a hotel with a pool.”

“Do you wonder,” asks the book, “if when those philosophers were talking about the Good—if a better metaphor would have been what we are doing—wandering through smoke, not knowing where we’ll end up?”
“I have to be honest, I’ve never wondered that,” says the Self. “I find that kind of thinking to be hard on the head.”
“‘Randy Travis’,” says the book again. “I’ll read it.”
The Self listens as they walk, and after a few minutes, it says, “Go back to the part about Amen. Can you read that again?”
“My mother did not know what Amen meant,” read the book, “but she guessed it was something you said at the end of a sentence to let people know the sentence was finished. ‘Three apples, Amen,’ she would say at the corner grocery store. Because of this, our neighbours thought she was religious.” (Thammavongsa 44)
The Self spits out a gulp of Cuba Libre. Wiping its lips, it chuckles.
“Should I have laughed at that?” it asks and tosses its drink away, the glass bursting against a charred boulder.
The book holds its two little hands out to indicate uncertainty. “It is constructed like a joke,” it says. “Are you laughing at the ignorance—that she is making a fool of herself, or are you laughing with her, admiring her confidence?”
“I was laughing without really thinking about it,” says the Self. “But now that I do have to think about it, I was probably laughing at the mother and laughing with the daughter. I don’t know. Is that good, or is that bad?”
“I’m not certain if it’s one or the other. I’ll keep reading,” says the book.

The Self listens as it walks, peering through the mist for the neon letters of a storefront. It is craving cool, clean air, a cold drink and a comfortable place to sit.
But it is still listening as it is looking.
“Stop there,” says the Self in between laughs. “Read that again, the part that begins with ‘One morning.’”
“One morning, my mother gave me some money,” reads the book, “to buy one of those teen Bop magazines so we could find a mailing address for Randy Travis at the back of it. She brought out a card printed with a pink heart on the front, but because she couldn’t read or write English, she told me to write a note to him for her. I did not know what to write. I must have been about seven. What could I know then about the language of adult love? While she curled a few strands of hair around a finger and broke in small fits of giggles, I stood there unable to decide how to even begin a sentence to him. I didn’t like how she was acting, and I was afraid of what would happen to my father if Randy Travis ever wrote back. So I wrote, I do not like you. My mother would never know what I had written.” (Thammavongsa 47)
The Self hacks out a smoky laugh. “Did you notice the Mother laughing?” it asks.
“A fit of giggles,” says the book.
“She seems fun,” says the Self.

“Do you remember when Iris Murdoch had too much air in the front tire of her bike, and it popped, and Charles Taylor said, ‘Holy jumpin’!’? Do you remember that?” asks the book.
The Self says it remembers. “That was only yesterday,” says the Self.
“I think that’s all it is. Just like that,” says the book. “The mother just kind of fills with pressure and pop!”
“She’s like a tire?” asks the Self.
“There are many ways to laugh,” answers the book.
“Okay, I’m not saying I care about any of this, but I have to ask,” says the Self. “The philosophers are always talking about the Good and the sun, and to be honest, I think it’s all just a bunch of talk, but what does my laughter mean if I want to be good? I’m not saying I want to be good, but what does it mean?”
The book sighs and says, “Do you know my author? Read my lips: SOUVANKHAM THAMMAVONGSA. I heard her say that laughter can be a sword and laughter can be a shield; you can use it to defy people and you can use it to talk about pain. If you can laugh at the pain, then it can’t destroy you.” (Paris Review).
The Self says, “Buddy, you’re going to have to explain that to me.”

The book says, “Maybe humour helps us to negotiate the Good by creating a space where we can talk about everything that is not good. I worry I am starting to sound like my cousins in the Self-Help section. The truth is that I think laughter is more like instinct than thought. You hear something, and it fills you up, and then you are like Iris Murdoch’s bike tire. Listen to this story. This is what I mean. This one is called, ‘End of the World.’” The book reads for a few minutes, and then says, “This is the part. Are you listening closely?” It reads, “‘My father was often at the centre of these parties. A wave of laughter would crash in from the living room and when I peered inside he would be there, telling everyone his stories. The one everyone seemed to love to hear him tell was the ‘Yes, sir’ story, and even though they had all heard it before, he would begin the story as if they hadn’t. He told them how he said ‘Yes, sir!’ in English at work whenever anyone told him what to do, but he said it with the tone and force of a ‘Fuck you!’ Then he marched around the room and saluted everyone like a dutiful soldier, saying in English, ‘Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Yes, sir!’ Each time. He cackled with glee at how people at work thought he was so polite and nice.” (Thammavongsa 97)
The Self leans back and laughs like it is barking.
“This is precisely what I was warning everyone about!” Comes a creaky shout from a warn out throat. A grey-bearded man appears out of the mist, his short, broad frame crunching over the charcoal earth. “I heard you laughing, and I order you to stop the comedy!”
“Yes, sir!” shouts the book.
“Yes, sir!” shouts the Self, laughing.
“The world is on fire, and you laugh your way through the wreckage,” says this ancient man. “You cackle at others’ ignorance and pain. You delight in your own malice, and for that reason, your laughter is a vice. Such representations of humour, I believe should be left to the lower orders and to the outsiders. It can bring us no closer to the Good. In fact, it pushes us further from it.” (Morreal)

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The book says, “Please forgive me for speaking up. You are clearly a great man, but if you pay close attention, you will see that humour is always connected to desire. I want to be this way, or I want to be in love that way, and the moment that a desire is revealed, that moment is often—but not always—humorous. The Good is tangled up in our desires of who we want to be. Humour helps up confess who that person is and sometimes how far we have fallen from the mark.”
The Self sighs and looks around for a liquor store. It wonders how long it will be forced to suffer through this dialogue.
The man shouts, “If I pay close attention? Do you know who I am? My name is Aristocles. All my life people have been paying attention to me! Those balloon brains in the bunker know me as Plate. And to respond to your ignorant point, yes, I have been paying close attention, and to become an ideal, you have to remove yourself from certain desires.”
The Self turns to look at the elderly man. “Wait a second,” it says, “you’re Plate.”
“Yes, I am Plate! But my real name is Aristocles.”
The Self laughs. “Look at you. Those dorks have wasted their lives. Listen, Plate, what do you do for fun? We’ve been out here walking for like forever. Where is your favourite watering hole?”
Aristocles ignores the question and says, “To the philosophers, I am series of well-formed thoughts in a stack of papers. I am transhistorical, timeless, endlessly important and not just because I give them something to do, but because I am not in that bunker, sweating and laughing and defecating. If I was human and flawed and full of foolish desires, they wouldn’t be saying, ‘Plate this and Plate that.’ I would no longer be an ideal. And the only way to get to the Good is to aspire to some kind of ideal. Humour notoriously breaks down ideals.” (Morreal)
The book says, “But what of those people who wrongly assume they are striving to the Good? What of those who are not aware of some unchecked desire for power or recognition or love? This is where Iris Murdoch is very right. When you laugh and are willing to be laughed at, you confess openly and without shame that you do not embody the Good, that you are flawed and driven by ignorance and vanity and fear and self-interest. If you let yourself be struck by humour, if you let yourself be hurt, then maybe you become aware of your own foolishness. The only route to the Good is an indirect one, one with a constant openness about what is not good in the Self. And one way to be open about the uncomfortable aspects of who we are and how we hurt is through humour.”
Aristocles slams his first into his palm and says, “Human beings are not in control of their laughter. It is not thought. It is emotion!” (Morreal)
“Pop!” says the book. “You must’ve been watching through your binoculars when Iris’s tire went kablammo.”
Aristocles grabs the book. It squirms as he opens it and reads out loud: “After a moment, she pointed to the puzzle’s edge and then the floor, where there was nothing. ‘It’s dangerous there,’ she said. ‘You fall off.’ ‘No, you don’t,’ I said. ‘The world is round. It’s like a ball.’ But my mother insisted, ‘That’s not right.’”
The Self wonders if it should say something. “Maybe you should chill out, dude,” it musters.
Aristocles glances at the Self and then back down to the book. He mumbles to himself as he speed reads, and then he slows down again: “‘It’s flat,’ my mother said, touching the map. ‘Like this.’ Then she swept the puzzle to the floor with her palm. All the connected pieces broke from each other, the hours lost in a single gesture. ‘Just because I never went to school doesn’t mean I don’t know things.’ I thought of what my mother knew then. She knew about war, what it felt like to be shot at in the dark, what death looked like up close in your arms, what a bomb could destroy.”
Aristocles closes the book, passes it to the Self, and he says, “I didn’t know you were also serious.”
“Let’s keep walking,” says the Self. “There’s got to be something out here.”
Aristocles walks with them.
“Only sometimes am I trying to be funny,” says the book. “But that is proof that when we laugh, we are not just laughing at ignorance or out of ignorance. There are complicated queues that we follow when we laugh. The person telling the joke nudges us on the shoulder and says, ‘Here this is funny’ or ‘No, this is not really funny’ or even ‘Maybe you find this funny in the moment, but later on it will make you think about your own laughter.’”
“Are either of you interested in getting something to eat?” asks the Self. “I’m practically dying here.”
“Quiet,” answer Atistocles. “This is important.”
The book reads the rest of the story while the Self and Aristocles listen.
Eventually, the book says, “Here, this is how it ends. ‘The other night, I saw an image of the Earth on the evening news. I had seen it many times before, and although my mother was not there, I spoke to her anyway as if she was. ‘See? It really is round. Now we know for sure.’ I said it out loud again, and even though it disappeared, I knew what I said had become a sound in the world. Afterwards, I went to the bathroom mirror and stared at the back of my mouth. I opened my mouth wide, saw the hot, wet, pink flesh, and the dark centre where my voice came out of, and I laughed, loud and wild. The sound went into the air vent, and I imagined people living in the building wondering to themselves where a sound like that came from, what could make a woman laugh like that at this hour of the night.” (105)
The Self says, “Whoah. That ending was, uh, that was a good ending little buddy.”
“And you have to remember,” says the book, “that she’s laughing at a reflection of herself.”
The Self says, “I think I get what you mean. That’s so deep. That’s just so incredibly—deep.”
Aristocles reaches out and tries to grab the little book back again, but the Self senses danger and steps back.
“How can you argue about control? She said wild! Wild laughter!” shouts Aristocles. “If you snuck into the bunker, you would ruin everything!”
The Self says, “Lighten up, man.”
Shoving Aristocles back, the Self walks away with the book.
The two move through the thick charred funk of air, the Self’s lungs filling with grit and smoke. For too long there is nothing but uncertainty and unknowingness and ambiguity and ambivalence, and then a voice hollers out for them to stop.
Looking down, the Self realises it is at the edge of a cliff. There on the opposite side of the gorge is a woman. The book shouts, “My author!”
Souvankham Thammavongsa looks faraway on the other side of the gorge, an indecipherable smile on her face, her hands outstretched ready to catch the Self and the book if they can make the leap.
To their left, the writer and critic Namwali Serpell is walking toward them. She says, “Try to fling yourself towards the author. Try to try to feel what the characters are feeling, to laugh as they laugh.” (58)
The Self takes a step back and runs with the book in hand. The gap is wide, but for a second, it looks as though the leap is not impossible. At the peak of its jump, it sees the author is still ten feet off. It shuts its eyes and clamps its teeth. This is going to be embarrassing.
But the Self does not smash into the hardness of the real properties of the world. It feels something pulling on its back. It slows and springs up, landing back at the edge of the cliff.
Serpell explains, “I connected you to a bungee cord when you weren’t looking. The point is that you never reach the other side. You need to know that you’re going to fail before you leap. Each time you jump, though, do it with all your strength, as though you will make it.” (58)
The Self runs and flings itself into the air, sees the face of the author, then plunges straight down, and as it is falling, you can hear its laughter echoing up out of the gorge. It will jump further next time.


Works Cited

  • Channing, Cornelia. “Laughter as a Shield: An Interview with Souvankham Thammavongsa.” Paris Review. April 23, 2020.
  • Morreal, John. “Philosophy of Humour.” The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Fall 2020.
  • Murdoch, Iris. The Fire & the Sun : Why Plato Banished the Artists. Oxford UP, 1978.
  • Parker, David. The Self in Moral Space: Life Narrative and the Good. Cornell UP, 2007.
  • Serpell, Namwali. Seven Modes of Uncertainty. Harvard UP, 2014.
  • Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Harvard UP, 1989.
  • Thammavongsa, Souvankham. How To Pronounce Knife. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.

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