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A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, trans. Jessica Cohen

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The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is a shocking and breathtaking read. Betrayals between lovers, the treachery of friends, guilt demanding redress. Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dovaleh G provokes both revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance.
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I picked this book up the day after it won the Man Booker International Prize for David Grossman (and of course, Jessica Cohen, the translator); A Horse Walks Into A Bar suggested something dark and comic, and fantastically well written, given the acclaim of the prize.

That’s not what this is. A Horse Walks Into A Bar has a seemingly simple plot: we’re being narrated to by a member of the audience about a stand-up gig. He’s not comfortable at this gig, it isn’t his crowd, and he’s dogged by the tragedy of losing his wife a few years back and his job a little more recently than that. That undercurrent of grief is rendered stronger and more poignant by the subject of the stand-up’s set, and the fact that said stand-up is a friend of the narrator. The big problem with all this, though, is that this isn’t the novel we’re told to expect by Grossman’s opening.

A stand-up set has to be funny above all else; however it achieves that, it has to be funny and engaging. In retelling a stand-up set, A Horse Walks Into A Bar needed to grab the audience’s attention from the start, like the comic bounding onto the stage at the end of the introduction and telling a great joke. Instead, in something that will become a motif of the book, it’s a slightly shambolic opening, completely missing the chance at humour. Grossman’s book isn’t really about a comedy set: it’s about a man standing on stage and, interspersed with jokes, telling his tragedy. The opening very much embraces the unfunny failing, the shambolic element of this, but it doesn’t situate it as anything; it reads as Grossman attempting to write a good set and failing, rather than successfully writing a bad one.

Once the reader gets passed the opening and into the real meat of the novel, though, A Horse Walks Into A Bar improves – as, indeed, does its humour. Grossman slowly peels back the layers of artifice of both his narrator, a childhood friend of the comic, and of Dovaleh G., the comic himself; each reveals themself to the audience, whether of the set or of the book, and shows their vulnerability. The tragic presence of our narrator, and the tragic past of Dovaleh, are slowly exposed, and the links between them made clear; it’s a fascinating and deep, thoughtful, and empathetic piece of writing that really does cut to the heart of grief and loss and self-blame.

It’s also as the novel goes on that the humour of it improves; not so much of Dovaleh’s set, but of A Horse Walks Into A Bar itself. The way the narrator interjects into Dovaleh’s set, his commentary on the audience and the audience’s reaction to the comic, and even some of the jokes Dovaleh tells (without telling them necessarily as jokes) all lighten the mood expertly: this is a deeply dark novel, and a bleak one, but with a strain of black humour to leaven it.

I’m not sure I agree with the judges of the Man Booker International that A Horse Walks Into A Bar was the best book on their shortlist, but will admit that Grossman’s novel does reward a persistent reader: if you get past the faltering, clumsy start, there’s something deeply human to behold.

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