It's difficult to imagine a story set during World War I being funny. As author Judith Claire Mitchell puts it, people don't often expect the "genocide and laughter combo." But Mitchell's first novel, "The Last Day of The War," which follows young and flighty Yael Weiss as she goes off to wartime France in pursuit of love, is just such a creation, one that pairs humor and serious material. And it isn't the last of its kind.
In the first installment of this semester's Creative Writing Reading Series at Saint Mary’s, Mitchell treated her audience to an excerpt from her new novel-in-progress, "A Reunion of Ghosts." The story is introduced as the "joint suicide note" of three sisters, a "partnerless, childless, even petless, sorority." If, at this point in the reading, the audience was still expecting a gray and somber recollection of what drove these three to such ends, they were about to be pleasantly surprised.
"Midnight Dec 21. That's our deadline," the three sisters announced, "And we do mean deadline."
The story goes on to recount the first suicide attempt by the eldest sister, Lady. Twenty-three years ago, she found herself divorced, involved in an affair with her married boss, addicted to alcohol and television, and fast developing a crippling fear of ringing telephones. But she insisted – to herself, to her sisters, to the reader – that she was fine.
Mitchell explained that she was attempting to capture the mentality of contemporary women. "We're ironic, sarcastic, [we] hide our emotions ... nothing hurts us."
It is this apparent detachment, the dismissive ease with which the sisters can say that Lady had a "predilection to suicide and puns," that made this story so brutally humorous.
But it’s one thing for a character to muse, with a wry and morbid wit, on how her suicide note will read that she is "killing [herself] because the hardware store refused to honor its returns policy." It’s another to actually recount that desperate act. Mitchell did not end her story in safe terrain, instead taking the audience through a detailed description of how Lady attempted suicide, a sequence which retained the story's dark humor ("no noose is good noose"), while adding a dash of poignant clarity.
"She realized she was wrong. It was not her time yet."
In the Q&A following the reading, Mitchell suggested that her ability to infuse humor into such complex and serious subject matter may have to do with her Jewish heritage. She explained that she was rather shocked that so many readers found "The Last Day of the War" to be a humorous novel. "I thought I was writing a very serious book!" she said. But she intended "A Reunion of Ghosts" to be as unapologetically funny as it is, and was heartened that the audience found it so.