- Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- Year: 2009
- Pages: 240
You may not realize it, but Ben Karlin has impressive comedy bona fides; he was, for a time, the executive producer of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report before leaving Comedy Central in 2006. He was also a writing lead on the wildly successful America: The Book under the same auspices.
Thing’s I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me is a relatively short anthology, collected/solicited by Karlin, of mostly humorous pieces about romantic breakups. Or it would be, if its writers didn’t so often stray from the assignment, but that’s not such a bad thing.
My general dislike of anthologies is well-documented; I generally find that the end result is inconsistent, and that for every gem, one is forced to endure three or four literary drudgeries. Though calling Things I’ve Learned “literary” is being perhaps a little generous (for the most part, these are humor writers and not writer writers, if that distinction even makes sense and isn’t terribly prejudiced), I find that it tends to follow the same pattern. The introduction by Nick Hornby is as uncommonly good as we might expect from a well-known novelist prefacing a book of comedy dispensers, and the rest vary from surprisingly good to torporously bad.
Since the theme of the book is being dumped, one might expect little more than a list of “Women…. amirite?” jokes in variously juvenile fashion, but Karlin, to his credit, has assembled writers with talent; some of their products are more or less effective in context. Stephen Colbert, perhaps one of the biggest comedy names in the table of contents, has a short piece which is largely a sight gag (so heavily redacted as to let the imagination run wild); Neal Pollack’s story isn’t about a girlfriend at all, but rather a somewhat poignant piece about his cat wrenched back into humor(?) via a detailed retelling of an incident wherein he once accidentally got a volume of his semen on said cat’s fur. Tom McCarthy’s Christian summer camp romance may actually be my favorite, though admittedly it’s much less funny than it is an all-around excellent story turned clever by its readers own sense of retrospection. Dan Savage is the token gay writer who, while his story is certainly memorable, comes off as a bawdier and less talented David Sedaris.
So what do all these disparate stories about the literal or figurative loss of a female of some species at some point in time ultimately have in common? Relationships serve as a litmus test for the personalities of the writers, as foils for their latter-day writing projects. Though written under the auspices of comedy, most of the pieces in Things I’ve Learned… strike me as more melancholy and navel-gazing memories than thigh-slapping yarns. Certainly there are funny things in them, but they’re largely situational, such as Tom McCarthy’s younger self’s fervent, Pentecostal reception of the “Holy Spirit”, or Pollack’s odd and isolated inclusion of the cat/semen joke at the beginning of a long and somewhat sad story about how much loved his pet for reasons entirely unrelated to masturbation. In other words, the humor in this book is mostly of a dry and understated variety, layered along the sides and crevices of general sensationalized autobiography. It works better than I make it sound.
What’s also interesting is the way in which the writers don’t necessarily lean on self-deprecation: there is some of that, but most of it is a sort of retrospective angst, focused at the awkwardness and humiliation and heartbreak that often accompanies one’s first relationship. In Dan Savage’s case, it was a confirmation of the sexual orientation he had suspected for some time; coming from a guy who is now known for dispensing relationship advice (or sometimes simply straight-up sex advice), it seems somehow comforting that his initial woolly and disconcerting early experiences either didn’t break his stride or in fact contributed to his apparent confidence and satisfaction later in life. Or, in Tom McCarthy’s story, the tendency toward miscommunication, however highly stylized, cannot be ignored: though Tom the character is barely a teenager, his poor decision to make assumptions about his beloved’s motivations is a common thread throughout relationships of all ages, and whether or not Tom really did rediscover these letters in his 40s and realize what a fool he’d been, the effect is still worthy of a Hornby novel.
When you begin to realize these things, you’ll also come to understand that the book’s title, Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me is not necessarily a joke at all. In many of the stories (excluding those whose intent is clearly and solely comedic), the focal point is a life lesson which narrative simply happens to be funny.