In one of the fiction sessions during last week’s Summer Writing Institute, a classroom discussion of Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” and Donald Barthelme’s “The School” led to a brief detour, toward which I steered us, about punchlines.
A great punchline, in a piece of writing, doesn’t have to be funny, but it does have to contain within it the cumulative power of everything that’s come before. It requires the entirety of the preceding pages to do what it’s doing. We like to think that’s what all ending lines do. But a lot of books, stories, etc., reach their peak and then peter out for a few more paragraphs (or pages), and the prose may be nice, but it’s not the same.
The lines we discussed, by Barthelme (“I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly”) and Johnson (“And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you”) do have that power. I call them what I do because of Portnoy’s Complaint, where Philip Roth has labeled the last line (“Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”) as the punchline.
And now you’re going to be given some of my favorite examples, for identification. They are not all full-length books, though many of them are, and they are not all fiction, though ditto. They should all be one sentence, but I have cheated on a couple.
My favorite punchline of all time, by the way, occurs after 450 pages of set-up, and is obscure enough that I’ll just make it the first one:
1. Everything he hated was here.
2. “Well,” said George, “you better not think about it.”
3. It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.
4. Milo had become the idea of himself, a permanent fixture of the third person and past tense, his widow’s loss of appetite and trouble sleeping, the absence in places where we look for him, our habits of him breaking, our phantom limb, our one hand washing the other.
5. “Meet Mrs Bundren,” he says.
6. He braced himself for this big fucking scream.
7. And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.
8. Everyone seems pleased with the way I’ve taken command.
9. But for all that ignorance, still—that image of Tzvi in my mind, underground, holding that baby, dressed in a way that could make him a foreigner or a hipster or an accident or a transplant from another time—I’ll at least know the purpose of the rest of my life.
10. Oh do it, do it, you motherfuckers, do it do it you fuckers finally, finally, finally.
11. “I lied,” he said. “There is no bad news.”
12. She held out her trembling hand to K. and had him sit down beside her, she spoke with great difficulty, it was difficult to understand her, but what she said
13. Very quickly he stepped on the gas and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the galloping shower into Mobile.
14. The only people around were Don and one of Sue Ann’s macrobiotic friends and somebody who was on his way to a commune in the Santa Lucias, and they didn’t notice Sue Ann screaming at Michael because they were in the kitchen trying to retrieve some very good Moroccan hash which had dropped down through a floorboard damaged in the fire.
15. Then she remembered what she had been waiting for.
16. But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out—somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking toward a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door—a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus.
17. Another nail in his coffin. His.
18. Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?—come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.
19. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
20. The three extra days were for leap years.
21. But the room contained, unfortunately, a group of academics, and we couldn’t quite believe what had happened to us.
22. She just… died.
23. “I am tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now…”
24. Could the truth be so simple? So terrible?
25. “It’s really something,” I said.