E.R. Franks’s Life is Funny, One More Time

Posted: May 26, 2009 in alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, E.R. Franks, more than four narratives

I’ve found a review of Life is Funny, discussed in my last post, that I wrote back when the book was pubished in 200.  It takes quite on different slant on some of the same aspects of the novel:

Life Is Funny is about as shapeless a novel as they come. It has eleven main characters, most of them students at the same New York City high school. Each chapter is a monologue in which one of these young people tells about, or perhaps merely thinks about, events in his or her life, in a voice unlike all the others. Only two characters get more than one chapter, and while some of the characters figure as major or minor players in the stories of others, some don’t. As well as shifting from character to character, the book moves from time to time, over a period of seven years, so that the events described are distant from each other even when, occasionally, they happen to the same people.

What holds these diverse fragments together? Technically speaking, a little too much. Unconnected characters just happen to visit the Statue of Liberty at the same time or end up on the same farm miles from their New York neighborhood. But despite these coincidences, Life Is Funny successfully conveys a sense of the confusion and incoherence of being alive. Life’s essential shapelessness is exactly what the novel is about.

In exploring the bewildering business of being alive, E. R. Frank provides her young protagonists with an environment filled with condoms, strong language, and bloodshed, and with an amazing assortment of problems. Here are just some of them: interracial tensions, disloyal friends, friends in trouble, friends who commit suicide, being bullied, being a bully, repressive parents, parents who are mentally or physically abusive (or both), absent parents, foster parents, fathers or brothers who are sexually abusive, sexual confusion, virginity, lack of virginity, pregnancy (both one’s mother’s and one’s own), termination of pregnancy, self-afflicted violence, bed-wetting, poverty, shoplifting. Not to mention bad hair days.  As described in Life Is Funny, life seems to be anything but.

Nevertheless, Frank insists, it is. The novel’s title emerges from the mouth of Gingerbread, the adopted son of an interracial couple, a strangely round-faced boy who suffers from attention deficit disorder initiated when he was born addicted to crack. His girlfriend, Keisha, says, “I asked why he laughed so much, and he said, like it ought to be plain as day, Because life is funny, and maybe that’s when I for real started to fall in love.” Gingerbread voices the principles by which just about all these characters live and which the novel is clearly recommending: being able to respond positively, with joy and with a great deal of resilience, to the confusion and incoherence that are part of being human. Some readers might be surprised that Frank specifically allows her characters the joy of sex–a commitment to bodily pleasure rare in books for young people.

Frank tends, perhaps, to make things a little too easy, focusing on stories that end happily toward the conclusion of the book in order to create an argument for optimism in the face of trouble. But Life Is Funny remains an enjoyable novel for young adults, imaginatively and honestly conceived, intricately plotted, and energetically written.

This appeared in The Riverbank Review.  I seem to have become more cynical since then.

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