After I read the McGillis piece, a series of questions surfaced for me: What are the ways in which humor is embodied? How does humor get (re)articulated through bodies? What are the meanings of different kinds of humor and how do they weigh in/on the body and how does the audience make meaning of them? I really started to grapple with these questions and the ways in which “the body has been a source of humor” (.258) as I read Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.
In Everything, Everything, Yoon chronicles the journey of teenager Madeline Whittier, a self-identified multiracial Japanese and African American girl who believes that she has a dangerous and life threatening auto-immune disease. Madeline lives her life (or her semblance of a life) in her decontaminated house under the supervision of her mother and her nurse, Carla. Quarantined in her home since an infant, Madeline knows little of the outside world and has capitulated to the demands of her disease out of necessity. Madeline’s very body becomes threatened when she makes contact with the outside world (her sickness is embodied quite literally here).
Early in the novel, Madeline describes the condition of her disease in relation to how it fueled her passion for reading and the ways she interacts with books (by labeling them as her property), she remarks: “I don’t know why I do this. There’s no one else here except my mother, who never reads, and my nurse Carla, who has no time to read because she spends all her time watching me breathe” (.1). Here, Madeline deploys humor not only to explain her medical condition and the impact it has on her body (“basically, I’m allergic to the world”) but she also utilizes humor to convey the ways in which her disease regulates her interactions with and navigation of the world (specifically, the world inside her house). For Madeline, humor allows her to cope with a medical condition that could ultimately be a death sentence. It helps her processing and speaks to her desire to not be the object of any one’s pity. Madeline does not want to be restricted to the confines of her house, though she realizes that this is her social reality and thus humor becomes a vital part of how she traverses it. The humor expressed early in the novel speaks to the ways in which humor can create necessary space and/distance from excoriating human experiences, a line of reasoning that McGillis draws, as he states “we can realize that the humor provides us with a necessary distancing from the death so that we can take in the lesson this death delivers” (.263). Madeline was distancing herself from her illness and the significance and power it had over her life through the deployment of humor. Furthermore, Madeline arguably pokes fun at her disease in an exaggerated fashion that is characteristic of humor in children’s literature—for instance, when she says she’s allergic to the world. Madeline isn’t literally allergic to the world (only certain triggers) but by exaggerating Madeline constructs herself as aberrant, as different, a notion that speaks to McGillis’ assertion that “the point is that much humor for children is exaggerated, fantasy writ large, a reminder of the monstrous and the freakish. The freakish serves, as Susan Stewart asserts, to normalize the person reading about or looking at the freak, ‘as much as it marks the freak as an aberration’ (.267).
Later in the book, the plot really thickens and humor gives way to a teenage love story. Whereas humor is how Madeline initially copes with her condition, she later hinges her future, desires, and ambitions on her next door hunky neighbor, Olly. Madeline falls in love with Olly and doesn’t really rely on humor to explore, process, or understand (which felt so problematic to me)—Olly becomes more important than coping and figuring her own thing out and the novel’s emphasis on embodiment shifts to consider the ways in which love inhabits and affects the body (heart racing, flutters, butterflies, Madeline’s “body blushing”) and how perceptions and realities of health operate inside and outside the body (when Madeline describes feeling well versus when she feels like she feels like she’s been “doused with kerosene and lit with a match” (.224; .234). Near the conclusion of Everything, Everything, Madeline discovers that she doesn’t have a life-threatening auto-immune disease. Rather, it is implied that her mother has an undiagnosed mental health issue that surfaced after the deaths of Madeline’s father and brother when she was a baby. I think it’s worth considering how humor shifted, evolved, and (dis)appeared throughout the novel (as well as broader dynamics and themes of masculinity and femininity, gender, sexuality and race).