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Recently, Salvatore Attardo, editor of Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, in a personal comment, quipped, “humor research is not funny.” He receives submissions regularly from those erroneously supposing his journal to be a collection of humor rather than a serious scholarly journal analyzing humor. But, as the very presence of a scholarly journal on humor indicates, comedy research is gravely serious. Indeed, humor scholars argue that their research is weighty enough to enlighten multiple disciplines. This difference, between sharing a joke and studying the means and effects of comedy, is a useful distinction in discussing Elaine B. Safer's Mocking the Age: The Later Novels of Philip Roth, which proposes to study how Philip Roth uses humor in his later novels. Safer admirably rehearses and shares many of the humorous moments in Roth's works since 1993, from Operation Shylock through The Plot Against America. However, in choosing to paint the broad strokes of Roth's comedy, Safer does not close the book on Roth's humor, but opens up Roth's comedy to more specific, probing questions from humor studies: What would a closer rigorous scrutiny of Roth's humor uncover? Which subgenres of humor besides mockery does Roth use most? What would a close reading of his techniques and methods of humor look like? What further questions would a careful indexing or cataloging of Roth's methods [End Page 438] of humor bring forth? In other words, on what other disciplines or concerns might Roth's utilization of humor shed light?
In examining Roth's later works, the argument that Safer offers is that Roth is funny—wickedly, darkly funny—and that he uses that humor to comment on the social environment in America and the failure of the American dream. In doing so Roth also brings his pen to bear on autobiographical issues, issues of the self, issues concerning the Jewish American dilemma, and historical issues. However, since Safer is content in her purpose to give a wide-ranging assessment of Roth's writing over an entire decade or more, during which he wrote almost a book a year, more focused questions receive only surface treatment. Safer ends up covering multiple times ground already tilled by previous Roth scholars and students of postmodernism. We never get a probing analysis of the layered purpose and more profound substance of Roth's mockery. One gets the feeling that connections to the currents underneath are still waiting to be unearthed. The question remains: What unique or revelatory twists on the familiar Rothian themes does a probing look at his humor reveal? Most readers know Roth is funny and that Roth comments on the American dream and the social issues of our times. Due to her survey approach, Safer only occasionally sheds new light or points to novel insights into the ideas behind Roth's critique of the American age; veteran students of Roth will not find much they have not heard. On the other hand, less informed readers will find themselves enthralled by the postmodern and scatological turns of Roth's stories and will find themselves chuckling at Roth's literary antics as Safer describes them.
Indeed, what could be more fun than a romp through Roth with a focus on humor? Even in what we may assume is the last third of his career, Roth is still bitingly funny. Safer's book is enjoyable because it is a walk down memory lane, calling up some of the funniest moments of Roth's oeuvre. In fact, those readers unfamiliar with Rothian themes might find enjoyment in reading Safer, because she manages to make it seem as if Roth is all comedy all the time, and she pulls together many of the basic themes of his works under the rubric of comedy. But this also sometimes creates a disjointedness. In her attempt to complete a comprehensive survey, yet tie it all together under the theme of humor, Safer sometimes stretches points. For example, she makes an attempt to find...