Animal Joy by Nuar Alsadir review – is laughter the best medicine? | Books

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An outburst of laughter, maintained by Freud, is an eruption from the unconscious. It’s a belief that American psychoanalyst and poet Nuar Alsadir sets about unpacking in Animal Joy, her ruminative interrogation into the might and meaning of this vital mode of human communication. Understanding it better, she suggests, can open us up to a less constrained, more spontaneous experience of the world around us.

Splicing sometimes dense academic theory with provocations drawn from the fraught years of the Trump presidency as well as from her own personal and professional life, she covers topics as diverse as the equalizing properties of a New York subway car, the Brett Kavanaugh supreme court confirmation hearings , and computer viruses as “a form of art and a form of prophecy”.

It moves with the associative fluidity of a talking-cure session

An early portion of the book draws on an episode she has previously mined in a Granta essay, describing her initially bruising time at clown school, where she was eventually given the pointed stage name “Next!”. Later, she recalls a laughter yoga class with an instructor who was a hugger (the author herself is not), and describes corpsing during a panel debate when her microphone played up, booming her voice into the room at suddenly increased volume just as she uttered the word “ejaculation”. Though unguarded, she brings to these personal vignettes the same precision she applies to her descriptions of concepts such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s “addressivity”, or the unexpected overlap between Lady Gaga’s worries about sex and Plato’s warnings about laughter.

Throughout, a cohort of comedians including Ali G, Eddie Murphy and Sarah Silverman rubs shoulders with Lacan and Žižek as Alsadir probes the ways in which humor can convey the emotionally troubling, how it can be a force of resistance, and express healthy forms of aggression that protect against “the wilder kinds”. Of course, it can also be a conduit for malevolence: Iago’s machinations in Othello, she notes, have something in common with “not-jokes” – as in: “You’re pretty – not.”

As a poet, Alsadir has been shortlisted for the Forward prize, and her attention to language and literature is a rich and constant pleasure. It allows her to draw impish meaning from typos and erroneous autocorrections, and yields some wonderfully startling sentences and images. “The only part of our skeleton that we reveal to others is our teeth,” she writes at one point.

Writer Nuar Alsadir. Photographer: Joseph Robert Krauss

Though not svelte, Animal Joy takes the form of an extended essay. It moves with the associative fluidity of a talking-cure session, even as it directs the gaze to the wordless nether regions of the mind. It provides section breaks and recurring motifs but none of the familiar, reassuring rhythms and resolutions of chapters, and at one point, a quote from Nietzsche floats alone on a page: “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

At its best, this freeform structure feels profoundly playful, evoking Helen Keller’s response – referred to by Alsadir – to learning what jumping is: “How like thought!” At other times, Alsadir’s clinical training, always there in the background, obstructs the flow. More anarchic interruptions come from her two daughters who, still in childhood, remain that much closer to the “animal joy” of the book’s title. During Alsadir’s own analysis, one of them was in the habit of knocking on the door and interrupting, and it’s the same here: again and again they intrude with an observation or a request, unwittingly flagging some deep psychic truth and bringing with them air and light. One of the most difficult aspects of motherhood, she admits of herself, “is snuffing out my children’s impulses, teaching them to disconnect from their interiors in order to display proper behavior”.

Towards the end, she cringes when thinking of all the ways in which her book might be exposing her. We learn that she’s a musophobe (someone with an extreme fear of mice), that she was once married to a man who called her a pill, that she is an Iraqi-American and the daughter of an obstetrician. Do we really learn more than she wishes to reveal though? Either way, her writing is at its most immediate, most alive, in these snatches of memoir, and they left me wishing for more. (Of course, it’s in the nature of such a profoundly self-aware text that it also leaves you wondering what your own critical response might say about you, the reader – about your unexamined depths, your shallows.)

How best to describe this book? Poet that she is, Alsadir is wary of adjectives—the fewer the better, she believes. Indeed, she goes so far as to dub them “the canned laughter of language”. Better, then, to press it upon you with another of her pocketable quotations, this time from Orwell, who declared that “every joke is a tiny revolution”. The same might be said of Animal Joy. It will leave you feeling enlightened and emboldened, and will even make you laugh.