Starting from Happy

It's one thing to crack a funny joke or two, another to sustain biting wit for a whole book—and still another to remain blisteringly funny over the course of a career. Patricia Marx, a former writer for Saturday Night Live whose hilarious "On and Off the Avenue" columns for The New Yorker help put the zing back in Christmas shopping, has channeled her zany, sarcastic humor into an offbeat modern love story, Starting from Happy.

Marx's first novel, Him Her Him Again the End of Him (2007), found the screwball humor in its narrator's hopeless, pathetic, ongoing infatuation with a total cad. When the pompous, ten-timing jerk meets an untimely Howards End-style demise involving a shaky bookcase, we guffaw with delight. Starting from Happy looks at barely requited love from the other side of the gender divide, and our attachment to Marx's oddly matched pair is so strong that we're not even thrilled to see them meet timely ends.

For this second novel, Marx digs deep into her bag of comedic tricks, letting loose with both verbal and visual gags. In hundreds of "chaplettes" and dozens of graphs and cartoonish drawings, she tells the unlikely story of science researcher/hypernerd Wally Yez's lifelong passion for lingerie designer Imogene Gilfeather. Some of the humor is sophomoric—such as the sequence of 201 "La la la la's" helping her reach a required word count in the "Prolegomenon" she's forced to write after every famous writer asked to provide a foreword begs off—with even Joyce Carol Oates citing "a bout of writer's block."

But Marx is fearless—she'll try anything for a laugh—and she keeps them coming right through the index and end pages. Imogene's mother, who is introduced as a woman who "divides her time between being glad she brought a sweater and wishing she'd brought a sweater," has no wrinkles, "the result of her having committed early on to a life without smiling." Sour Imogene lulls herself to sleep counting her divorced friends and, later, "counting the grandchildren in her circle who'd been rejected from the nursery school of 'their' choice." The quotation marks around "their" show just how articulate punctuation can be.

Given Imogene's occupation, there's a run of underwear jokes, including strangulation via "the Isadora Duncan bra" from Featherware's "Last Dance" line. The lingerie buyer at Saks, whom Imogene desperately wants to impress with her special occasion Passover Let My People Go bra, is described as "Taciturn in 12 languages." When Imogene declines a date with Wally because she's fitting a D+ cover girl, he replies, "Tell her that if she needs a tutor..."

The main source of humor in Starting from Happy is friction-induced, sparks flying from the rub between exuberantly, irrepressibly positive Wally and consistently negative Imogene. Commenting on her endearing hero, Marx writes, "Life tries hard to bring us down, but it faced a dogged athlete when it played with Wally." Early in their courtship, Imogene e-mails Wally, "I can promise you neither time nor devotion." He replies, "I'll settle for one or the other…You pick."

 In her running commentary, the authorial stand-in, called Patty, explains, "Wally was big on slim chances. 'One hundred percent of big lottery winners had infinitesimally small odds of becoming lottery winners' was one of the truisms Wally lived his life by."  And Patty herself comes in for comment, in postmodern style: A few pages later, Marx writes, "Patty would like it known that she was highly impressed with herself for spelling the word infinitesimally correctly on the first try." More trenchantly, she addresses "readers who have felt themselves swept with consternation regarding the brevity of the chaplettes," countering pointedly, "And what about life?"

Starting from Happy is filled with nods to other cartoonists, including a drawing of a juvenile delinquent's fingerprint with hidden "Ninas," à la Al Hirschfeld. A child's-eye view of world geography, complete with the "Carrot Being" sea,  evokes Saul Steinberg and Maira Kalman's witty New Yorker covers, while a guide to pasta shapes acceptable to a picky eater brings to mind Roz Chast's neurotic diners. But Marx imbues her book with a saucy flavor all her own, and Starting from Happy has a sweet al dente give to its bite that's pretty irresistible—even to picky readers.

July 29: On this day in 1878 Don Marquis was born.

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