The Material

Artie was up for workshop today, and class was in an hour. He rehearsed his bit one more time in front of the mirror, something his roommates made fun of him for. Rehearsing in front of the mirror was for actors, according to them, not comedians. It was for vain people. A good comedian was the opposite of vain, they said (though none of them seemed to know what the word for that was). Artie argued that the best comedians were those who had total control over their slightest expressions, complete self-awareness, and how did one get to complete self-awareness without observing oneself a little bit too closely for a while, without a touch of vanity?

‘That’s the whole trick,’ his roommates had said. ‘To have one and not the other.’

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Artie said to his own face in the mirror. He thought it was a great way to open, acknowledging the audience’s doubts. ‘You’re thinking, This guy is too good-looking to be funny.’

Which was something he’d heard countless times.

‘It wasn’t always like this.’

Part of Artie’s four minutes today involved showing his classmates a blown-up photo of his teenage face (not the worst photo of him that existed, but a close contender) and pointing at different ‘problematic’ areas with a laser pen. The problematic areas were zits and crooked teeth, that kind of thing. Nothing crazy, nothing out of the ordinary. An unfortunate haircut. He’d been a bit fat, too, at the time, which wasn’t something anyone could believe when they saw him today, at twenty-four years old. He thought it would be funny, adopting a cold professor persona, presenting on his own face as if it were the map of an old battlefield, going over the forces at work, the opposing factions.

One of his roommates knocked on the bathroom door.

‘Your mom’s on the phone,’ he said.

‘I’m busy.’

‘She says it’s important.’

He pushed the door open and handed Artie the phone. Why did they even have a landline? Who was paying for this? On his way out, his roommate glanced at Artie’s teenage photo, the blown-up face printed on cardboard, and didn’t even smile at it.

‘Mom,’ Artie said into the phone. ‘It’s Wednesday. I’m rehearsing.’

‘I know, sweetheart, but Mickey’s missing.’

‘He’s not missing. He’s probably at Ethel’s.’

‘Have you heard from him?’

Wouldn’t he have told her first thing if he’d heard from his brother? Was there a joke to be made about this? Either to his mom, right now, or in general, later and for an audience, about how people didn’t think before they spoke?

‘Mickey’s a grown man,’ Artie said. ‘He’ll show up in a couple of days.’

‘That’s not the definition of a grown man,’ his mother said. ‘“Shows up eventually.”’

Wasn’t it, though? As opposed to ‘runs away from responsibility and severs all ties to start over elsewhere, never to be heard from again’? Didn’t being an adult mean pushing away that fantasy eighty times a day and judging those who gave in to it?

‘How’s Dad doing?’ Artie said.

‘Why are you asking about Dad now?’

Artie heard his father clear his throat in the background. You always thought he was going to say something, he cleared his throat so much, but Artie couldn’t remember him speaking the last few times he’d visited.

‘Well, his son is missing,’ Artie said. ‘I thought I’d ask how he’s taking it.’

‘Your father is fine. And even if he wasn’t, you think I would know? You think he would tell me? Have you met the man? You think that today, at fifty-six years old, your father is going to start expressing complex emotions?’

‘Not everything needs to be said,’ Artie said. ‘You can get a sense of how people are doing by just looking at them.’

‘He looks the same as always.’

Artie heard his father clear his throat again.

‘Is he wearing the black suit or the grey?’

‘Exactly,’ his mother said, but then caught herself right away. ‘You’re one to make fun. You always wear the same hoodie yourself. And pants, and shoes. I bet your underwear is all the same, too.’


‘You and your father, from the same cloth. A single outfit for all occasions, and incapable of expressing your feelings.’

‘I’m in the trade of expressing my feelings,’ Artie said.

‘You only tell jokes.’

‘I tell stories.’

‘You interrupt stories, is what you do. You stop when you get to the good punch line.’

‘That’s the concept,’ Artie said. ‘That’s the concept of comedy.’

‘I know, sweetheart. I like it. I like laughing. I’m just saying, the things you say onstage, they’re not stories. They’re the funny bits from larger stories. You cut your stories in a way that you never go into what’s moving about them, so I’d argue you actually do the opposite of expressing your feelings. You run away from feelings.’

‘That’s very insightful, Mom. Thank you for your critique.’

‘It’s not a critique. If you dove into your feelings onstage, you wouldn’t be funny. Feelings aren’t funny.’

‘Okay. I need to get ready now.’

‘Offstage, of course, you can tell me anything.’

‘I know.’

Artie also knew that he couldn’t end the conversation on an I know, how dismissive I knows were.

‘Mickey’s fine, Mom,’ he said. ‘Probably at Ethel’s.’

‘I don’t like that he still sees her. She’s too old for him.’

‘That’s a very retrograde thing to say.’

‘Do you think it’s my fault?’

‘What? That Mickey’s attracted to older women?’

‘That he’s an addict? I drank so much when I was pregnant with him. I was still bleeding like usual, I didn’t know I was pregnant before month four.’

Artie’d heard the whole guilt shtick before, its various built-in excuses. It wasn’t the first time Mickey had gone missing. Their mother using the word ‘addict,’ however, was a recent development. He didn’t like it. Maybe it was the word itself, though, not her saying it. ‘Addict’ made his brother sound weak, or like he was in a perfume commercial – eyes half-closed in some supermodel’s wake, unable to resist the smell coming off her dramatic neck. That’s what the word was for now. Ads. The world of commerce wanted you addicted to snacks, to apps, to some new show on TV. ‘Your New Addiction Is Here!’ – that’s how commercials went now. People in high places wanted you addicted at all times, addicted and obsessed – another word they’d managed to make the public believe had positive connotations. The product didn’t matter – in fact, the need for it disappeared the minute there was no supply left, proof that no one had ever been addicted to it in the first place. What had to be kept constant was the flow of trash to be passively ingested. But Mickey needed heroin. Not just any substance. When heroin was gone, heroin had to be found. It could not be replaced by a spin-off, or the new fragrance by Yves Saint Laurent.

Artie thought it was like rape – the word ‘rape.’ How ‘rape’ used to mean someone being dragged into an alley by a stranger, gagged, beaten up, savagely penetrated, and left for dead behind a trash can. How ‘rape’ had now come to encompass any sexual act performed without obtaining verbal consent. He was okay with that, in principle: words taking on larger meanings, larger responsibilities over time – language was a living entity, it adapted to its speakers. But then it seemed to him that when that happened, other words had to step in to fill the vacuum left by the bigger word’s promotion. He felt there should be a word for what ‘rape’ used to mean. He wondered how women who had been left for dead in alleys felt about it. The new meaning.

‘Hello? Am I boring you?’

‘No, Mom, of course not. I was just thinking.’

‘Thinking about what?’

‘Thinking about rape.’

‘Jesus, what is wrong with you?’

‘About the word “rape.”’

‘Don’t even think about using that word onstage. You can’t make fun of rape.’

‘Who said I wanted to?’

‘You don’t think about anything unless it’s for a bit.’

‘I think about Mickey pretty often, and I’ve never mentioned him onstage.’

Artie’s mother thought about it for a second.

‘That’s because addiction isn’t funny,’ she said. ‘It isn’t funny at all.’

‘Neither is rape,’ Artie said.

‘Forget about it. Just don’t ever say the word. Only women comedians can use it onstage. Women comedians who have been raped themselves.’

‘Make me a list, okay?’ Artie said. ‘A list of what I can and cannot talk about onstage. That way we don’t have to keep having these conversations.’

‘That’s a great idea. I’ll put it in an email.’

About three more minutes were devoted to saying goodbye. Artie promised his mother he’d call Ethel, see if she’d heard from Mickey, and after hanging up with her, he took his cellphone out of his pocket, thinking he would do so right away. Olivia had tried to call him, though, while his phone was on silent, and his priorities were instantly rearranged.

Photograph © smwright


The material coverThe material cover

This is an excerpt from The Material by Camille Bordas, published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK and Random House in the US.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top