AA burst of laughter, argued Freud, is an eruption of the unconscious. It is a belief that the American psychoanalyst and poet Nuar Alsadir sets out to unpack in animal joy, his ruminative questioning of the power and meaning of this vital mode of human communication. Understanding it better, she suggests, can open us up to a less constrained and more spontaneous experience of the world around us.
Blending sometimes dense academic theory with provocations drawn from the difficult years of the Trump presidency as well as from her own personal and professional life, she covers topics as diverse as the equalizing properties of a New York City subway car, the hearings of Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. , and computer viruses as “a form of art and a form of prophecy”.
The first part of the book is inspired by an episode that she previously exploited in a Granta essay, describing her first bruises at clown school, where she eventually received the pointed stage name “Next!”. She later recalls a laughter yoga class with an instructor who was a hug (the author herself is not) and describes the corpse during a group discussion when her microphone played , blasting her voice around the room at a suddenly increased volume just as she said the word “cumshot.” Though reckless, she brings to these personal vignettes the same precision that she applies to her descriptions of concepts such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s “addressiveness” or the unexpected overlap between Lady Gaga’s sexual concerns and Plato’s warnings about the laugh.
Throughout, a cohort of comedians including Ali G, Eddie Murphy and Sarah Silverman rub shoulders with Lacan and Žižek as Alsadir explores how humor can convey unsettling emotion, how it can be a force of resistance and express healthy forms of aggression. which protect against “the wildest species”. Of course, this can also be a vehicle for malevolence: Iago’s machinations in othelloshe notes, have something in common with “no-jokes” – as in: “You’re pretty – not.”
As a poet, Alsadir was shortlisted for the Forward Prize, and his attention to language and literature is a rich and constant delight. This allows him to derive playful meaning from mistyping typos and misguided auto-corrections, and produces wonderfully surprising sentences and images. “The only part of our skeleton that we reveal to others is our teeth,” she wrote at one point.
Without being slender, animal joy takes the form of an in-depth essay. It moves with the associative fluidity of a talking healing session, even as it directs the gaze to the lower regions without witticisms. It features section breaks and recurring patterns but none of the familiar, reassuring rhythms and resolutions of the chapters, and at one point a quotation from Nietzsche floats alone on a page: “You still have to have chaos in you to be able to give birth to a dancing star.
At its best, this free-form structure looks deeply playful, evoking Helen Keller’s response – alluded to by Alsadir – to learning what jumping is: “Like thought!” At other times, Alsadir’s clinical training, always there in the background, obstructs the flow. More anarchic interruptions come from his two daughters who, still in childhood, remain all the closer to the “animal joy” of the book’s title. During Alsadir’s own analysis, one of them used to knock on the door and interrupt, and it’s the same here: they intrude again and again with an observation or a request, unknowingly signaling a deep psychic truth and bringing with them air and light. One of the most difficult aspects of motherhood, she admits to herself, “is stifling my children’s impulses, teaching them to disconnect from their interior in order to behave correctly”.
Towards the end, she cringes thinking of all the ways her book could expose her. We learn that she is a musophobe (someone who has an extreme fear of mice), that she was married to a man who treated her on the pill, that she is Iraqi-American and the daughter of an obstetrician. . Do we really learn more than she wishes to reveal? Either way, his writing is most immediate, most vivid, in those snippets of memory, and they left me wishing for more. (Of course, it is in the nature of a text so deeply self-aware that it also leaves you wondering what your own critical response might say about you, the reader – about your unexamined depths, your low- funds.)
How best to describe this book? Poet that she is, Alsadir is wary of adjectives – the fewer the better, she believes. Indeed, she goes so far as to call them “the canned laughter of language”. Better get inspired then with another one of his pocket quotes, this time from Orwell, who said “every joke is a little revolution.” The same could be said of animal joy. It will leave you enlightened and emboldened, and even make you laugh.