You’re a sucker if you read The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs

November 3, 2019

(Originally published August 25, 2018)

Ostensibly a spot for humor, for years the column has instead hosted either one-joke parables that would be too bland for a priest to tell in his homily, or a series of sub-Catskills-level jokes held together by the vague outlines of a “topic” that, almost invariably, reads like the editor understands some sort of reference to the modern world is at play, but rephrased everything to appeal to 75-year-olds.

Otherwise wildly talented writers somehow end up publishing an inconsequential 400 words that, at best, will one day resurface as a footnote in a particularly exhaustive biography. And either way the final piece ends up, it can be reduced to a single pithy explanation of the banal observation cum “joke”.

Female French celebrities who dismissed #MeToo were ignorant of power dynamics.

Gender-reveal parties are dumb.

Having a dog is as involving as having a boyfriend. (With a healthy sprinkling of anti-Semitic sentiment.)

Which makes it all the more baffling when an actually funny piece with ambitions of being more makes it to the Shouts & Murmurs spot in the magazine. Unfortunately, there’s no way to immediately tell when the New Yorker’s S&M is going to be painful or pleasurable or both, but the last time this happened, we only read it because it carried Larry David’s byline.

Up front, you need to know that neither Seinfeld nor Curb Your Enthusiasm are our jam; we stan for The Simpsons (Seasons 1-8) ‘til we die. But David’s name jumped out in the March 5, 2018 issue’s table of contents, so we figured we’d give it a chance. “No Way to Say Goodbye” won’t be anthologized for the next 300 years, but it’s also perhaps the best Shouts & Murmurs entry we’ve read since becoming a subscriber several years ago.

That’s likely because “No Way to Say Goodbye” is a proper story, and not a list of statements. It’s told in Larry David’s trademark rhythms, with a Davidian turn just a few sentences in. It’s 1942, and a soldier is preparing to ship off for war. His beloved accompanies him to the train station...

“And promise you’ll write to me.”

“Of course I’ll write to you.”

“Every day.”

“Every day? Hmm. Well, I’ll certainly try. I mean, I’ll be in a war. I’ll be fighting. But, sure, if I have the time to do it, I will.”

At which point we sense that the departing soldier thinks much more of himself than Alice. The confrontation builds and builds, and even when it reaches what appears to be its absurd crescendo, the soldier doing his best to maintain the fiction that everything is as he planned while Alice throws her ring in his face, David still has one more crank to turn.

You see, the soldier explains, Alice was owned. Writing letters from the front is a pain in the ass, and all the other guys agreed. So, really, from that perspective, she was dumb and he was right all along.

The joke is that a World War II soldier isn't actually all that interested in writing letters home to his sweetheart, at least not every day, and she's insulted by that because ha ha she's unreasonable and so is he and isn't this all absurd? That makes it “average SNL sketch level” instead of “instantly forgettable”, which is faint praise for sure, but also counts as a goddamn miracle that it made it to the New Yorker’s pages that way.