Why yes, a huge storm did blow out the power for millions of people in Northern California and it did indeed dump a ton of snow on the Sierra. And yes, we are all of us pretty wet here. But really, how bad a storm can it be when the princess plant outside your window still has big, blowsy purple blooms all over it, and the only snow you encounter is snow you’ve voluntarily driven to be in? (Which is the case with my husband and two of my boys, who are skiing this weekend, happy about all that snow, even though they’ve been warned that there is a LOT OF IT.)
We are weather wimps here in the Bay Area, we really are. That is why I’m a little nervous about my trip to London next week. What passes for cold here in the Bay Area looks a lot like spring to the good people of Great Britain. Do I have gloves? Well, no, unless ski mittens count and I’m afraid in an urban environment I’ll look like a total idiot if I wear my ski mittens to the theater, and anyway they’re so bulky I won’t be able to bring books if I bring them. A hat? Yes, in fact, I do. I asked for one for Christmas and it does cover my ears. But I know already I’m not going to do well in the coat department, in my Bay Area coat that I so rarely button up that I’m not sure it even has buttons. I’ll have to run from pub to pub, gloveless, and keep warm through the good offices of a lot of beer and tea. But not at the same time. I have standards.
Okay, here’s the literary part of this post. Today, in a cafe with the son who did not go skiing, I read A Comedy of Errors. The comedies are lovely books to take on a trip, because they are small. The Yale Shakespeares I checked out of the library are particularly small — that’s mostly because they don’t contain a lot of annotations and definitions. So you have to guess sometimes at what sexual joke is being made. You’re pretty likely to be right if you guess that a word or phrase refers to (a) a cuckold; (b) a woman’s willingness to engage in sex; (c) a man’s penis. Sometimes I go with all three, just to see what might happen.
A Comedy of Errors, for those who only dimly remember, is the earliest comedy, and the broadest and most slap-stick of them all. It involves twins named Antipholus — the sons of a merchant — separated at birth in, what else?, a shipwreck. Separated with them are another set of twins, named Dromio, who are their servants. Plausible? Well, no. But it is still very funny when the twins who are the travelers in search of their lost brothers come to town. Apparently, Syracuse, where they end up, is a very small town, because they keep running into each other with very funny results.
There is a lot to say about Shakespearean comedy, but today I am really only interested in one thing, which is plausibility. That subject arose when I mentioned the opening chapter of my new novel to my husband, a chapter in which a woman, who has run away to London to escape from trouble in her life back in San Francisco (no, this is not autobiograhical!) and packs in her suitcase a huge amount of cash, realizes, when she is waiting to go through customs, that she is not supposed to bring all that cash into the country. I thought this would be funny and interesting. My husband thought it was not plausible. She is a lawyer, he said. She would never do something that stupid.
Ah, but there you have it — in fact, people in books MUST ALWAYS do stupid things. You can’t have a book full of sensible people. That would be a how-to guide — you know, a book in which someone like Suzanne Summers tells you how to eat right and be fit. In a novel, Suzanne Summers would be secretly packing away quarts of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, while lecturing the world about how to be fit until her personal assistant, a plucky young woman from New Jersey named Margo, tells someone when she is drunk about the Ben & Jerry’s and then someone begins to send Suzanne Summers blackmailing letters in which she is told to do increasingly insane things, all of which are for the good of some segment of the population she despises like people who are a little fat (or a lot) and people who have big noses. Obviously, I would much rather read (and write) the novel than the how-to book.
And so it goes in A Comedy of Errors, the least plausible of plays. Does anyone care? I don’t think so. And that’s because we all want to laugh, and we want to be entertained, and we want to see just how far things will go before they are set to rights. That is the promise of comedy, I think, and the promise of the new novel I am writing. Just how much trouble can my characters get in before things are settled? I am looking forward to finding out, while I warm my hands by whatever heating system is in the pub closest to my brother’s apartment.