Caleb Crain on Taking Funny Things Seriously

In “Easter,” your story in this week’s magazine, a young man named Jacob goes with his mom and sister to visit his ailing grandparents in Fort Worth, Texas. His grandfather is a semi-retired doctor who got in trouble, because he liked to try the medications he could prescribe. The story of this visit is intercut with Jacob’s summoning up the memory of visiting a college classmate, Stu, and getting high. Besides the fact that these two episodes happen one after the other, in time, what made you want to so closely juxtapose them?

I’ve kept a journal since I was a kid, and it’s frustrating how often I didn’t write in it about what in retrospect seems like the important story. I think when I was young I wanted the journal mostly for defensive purposes; I wanted to set up a perimeter between me and the world. So, when I set out to plunder the journal today for my fiction, I have to read like a detective. What was I leaving out when I wrote this entry? Why? One idea behind “Easter” was to write about this obtuseness of mine—about the way someone like Jacob uses the act of writing to hide the world and hide from the world. Or tries to, anyway. I wanted to play with having a character who’s writing down one story while another is unfolding around him. Once I decided to make the juxtaposition, of course, parallels started to surface. (I should maybe say for the record that the only detail that my journal contributed to “Easter” is the Walkman.)

Initiations into smoking pot are often played for laughs, but here Jacob’s attempt to pin down the sensory mystery of it is taken quite seriously. Is it an attempt to take it as seriously as Jacob himself takes it?

One inspiration for “Easter” was that I told a therapist a family anecdote that I’d always told as if it were a joke, and he started to cry, to my surprise. Around the same time, a friend told me that, with his therapist, he was trying to unravel a funny story that he’d woven out of an episode of assault. The two conversations made me start thinking about the dismissal of feeling that can happen when an experience is compressed into a joke, and the story’s treatment of Jacob’s pot use is part of the experiment here with undoing that. Like Jacob, I sometimes underwent painful ruptures of consciousness when I tried pot as a young adult. At the time, I understood each of the breaks as a failure on my part—an inability to enjoy what my new friends were enjoying. After all, I was someone who was trying to wish himself heterosexual. Whenever I didn’t like what people around me liked, my reflex was to correct myself.

All that said, as Wile E. Coyote teaches us, the pain of others is, alas, funny, human nature being what it is. And, to the extent that Jacob’s overthinking of pot is funny despite (or because of) the fact that it results from pain on his part, it’s probably funnier if the author isn’t loudly laughing at the joke.

Jacob’s classmate Stu, a kicker on the football team, is described as beautiful, and the reader is instantly aware of the erotic tension that exists for Jacob. But how aware of it is Jacob?

Jacob’s overthinking on this point is mostly submerged, because a part of his self-disciplinary regimen is to train his attention away from his attraction to other men, and away from ruminating about what the attraction might mean. In this regard, Stu is a somewhat liberatory figure, though, because, as he is a kicker for the college football team, his beauty is almost a public matter, in his and Jacob’s social world. Whenever Stu is in a room, his beauty is, too, and no effort on Jacob’s part is needed to bring it up—or could keep it out.

A tragedy occurs during Jacob’s visit to Fort Worth. How do you insure that the event at the center of it doesn’t capsize the delicate balance of elements and observations to this point?

“Easter” is meant to be sort of a backwards detective story, so that, when you get to the end, you realize that what you were getting along the way were clues, and I hope the reader is carried forward by a sense of things falling into place. But it’s not certain what has happened—it almost never is in this kind of case—and I think that leaves the reader a little breathing room. What interests me, as a writer, is the way that people continue to be themselves, continue to have individual ways of understanding the world and talking to one another, even when the worst is happening. ♦

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