Whenever someone tells me to shut up, I try not to return their thanks with a big-hearted “You’re welcome.” After all, I’ve just been told to shut up. But the title of Annie Choi’s new book makes me wonder whether I’m guilty of a tacit rudeness. What’s the polite reply to “Thanks for shutting up”? Cold, dead silence? Or that cheeky, cheery “You’re welcome?”
Hard as I looked, I didn’t find the answer in any of the hilarious essays of Shut Up, You’re Welcome: Thoughts on Life, Death and Other Inconveniences. Instead I found sprightly anecdotes galore and prose technique to rival the best humorists now working in this style.
Korean-American, LA-based Choi writes comedy for the page: standup-flavored material that’s meant to be read rather than heard. That’s not at all the same thing as writing for performance. In the books of some comedians (or their gag writers) seem to drip-feed a transcript of somebody’s act. It takes a doubly literary skill—joker and essayist—to narrate the funny so that it reads well. And it’s rare that a writer can pull it off as neatly as Choi does.
“I like underwear. I like the things it does for me and everyone who wears it. When used properly, underwear prevents chafing, keeps things warm downstairs, and plays a vital role in public health. People have been wearing it for a long time; archaeologists have found loincloths that are seven thousand years old. It’s actually a surprise when someone doesn’t wear underwear – whether the surprise is pleasant or unpleasant depends on the circumstances.”
This sweetly understated passage opens the first of two chapters about a single piece of lost luggage. There’s underwear in the luggage, so its loss serves as the pretext for an in-depth panty essay. “...In college, I found myself making out with a guy and having a horrible realization: My underwear was not sexy. In fact, it was disturbing, a bit surreal maybe. Like underwear made by David Lynch and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”
Set-up, punchline. That quasi-standup quality again. The subject matter helps—it’s in the comedic tradition to fixate on awkward trivialities like ugly and missing underwear—but here it’s mostly down to style. Of course, in writing you can’t rely on gesture, face-pulling, ad libs, or any other of the performative aspects of actual standup. Instead, you have all the thrills of punctuation, syntax and paragraph structure.
Shut Up, You’re Welcome mixes three literary forms: written monologue, mock epistle and dialogue-driven narrative. The content comes from the mundanities of Choi’s personal life: those unsexy panties, her first encounter with an avocado, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, being forced to watch musicals. So the book opens with a typically chatty letter saluting, “Dear Musical Theater”:
“Let me be frank: I do not understand you. ...Listen, if a guy came up to me wearing a white mask and wanted us to be lovers, I would Mace him. ...If a group of cats were whining in an alley and prancing around the garbage cans, I’d have them spayed or neutered.”
I couldn’t agree more. Still, for someone who claims to hate musicals, Choi knows a surprising amount about them. Dozens of them.
Though the book starts out as a letter, it never really reads like one. (Oral exhortatives such as “Listen” tend to evoke speech, not correspondence.) Gradually we meet Choi’s family and innumerable zingers. On camping with the ‘rents: “Camping means poison ivy, which is nature’s version of an STD.” About Choi’s hard-driving mom: “She easily burns through a tank of gas every other day; the hole in the ozone layer is shaped just like her car.” On getting agitated: “I hate it when people tell me to relax or calm down. It makes me feel like my batshit outbursts aren’t warranted.”
What’s the wrong way to deal with a purse snatcher? Run him down, recover the purse…and then keep chasing him. In this anecdote, monologue gives way to expertly handled dialogue. Annie’s dad is cast as the straight (or set-up) man:
“Why you chase [the purse-snatcher], Annie? Very stupid. Very, very stupid.”
“I know, I know, you don’t have to tell me.”
“You had lot of money with you?”
“Yeah.” I have a part-time job at the university housing office. It pays $5.15 an hour, which means $5.15 is a lot of money. “Eight dollars.”
“That’s it? That all you have?” My father gasps. ... “How can you survive with only eight dollar?”
“By not spending more than eight dollars.”
“Annie, always carry cash.”
“I do, and I also have a bank that carries cash for me.”
“Always have twenty dollar in you wallet, just in case.”
“So the guy could’ve made off with twenty dollars instead of eight?”
“Annie, think. What if there’s emergency?”
“You mean, like, if someone mugged me?” I sniff. “Then I wouldn’t have any money.”
“What if you stuck somewhere?”
“Like where? In some magical place that doesn’t have any ATMs?”
“Eight dollar won’t help you.”
“Neither will twenty.”
To my ear this absolutely works. The stilted ESL accent of the set-ups—where’s the indefinite article?—somehow makes straight feel even straighter.
Probably the most literary chapter is “Hex Marks the Spot,” in which a hexagonal kitchen table develops as a metaphor for family unity and the triumph of tradition over common sense. The Chois’ refusal to replace this battered, splinter-inflicting furniture…and their botched efforts to refurbish it…symbolize the uneasy fit of a transplanted set of values. This is really what most of the anecdotes are about: a woman trying to cope with the residue of another culture, mostly in the form of parental wisdom, without getting unduly annoyed.
Hard as it is to find something negative to say about Shut Up, You’re Welcome, it’s not impossible. Late in the book a soul-searching quality enters in and displaces much of the wit. Choi explains why she doesn’t want marriage or kids; notes the challenges of finding a serious partner who doesn’t want them either. Is this the humor-essay equivalent of a comedy-drama—light at the outset, gloomier towards the end? To be fair, it’s good technique to bring out your best material early. The drawback? After a brilliantly funny first half, the late chapters arrive as a relative downer.
Some people—sad people, in my view—will ask if Choi’s book is “relatable.” They’ll want to know how it squares with their own experiences, apparently as a prerequisite to being able to laugh. The answer—some of it is maybe too relatable (as in an overfamiliar chapter about learning to drive) while the rest won’t be relatable enough. Most readers won’t recognize themselves in Choi’s anecdotes. I know I don’t.
But then, you don’t have to be a Korean-American Valley girl to get into this stuff. Shut Up, You’re Welcome stands as a mature work of unusual comedic skill. Choi even tackles Korean cuisine without joking tastelessly about barbecued dog. This shows amazing restraint. Most humorists wouldn’t be able to resist.
Will George writes about humor and lives in Toronto. He even has a website (www.willgeorge.co).