I'm consistently drawn to humor in fiction, especially in first-person narratives, where it opens up a story's dramatic possibilities and emotional range, and does so efficiently. George Saunders, Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson are contemporary authors able to achieve this effect. Generally, this type of humor is less concerned with jokes—those small, amusing twists of logic—than with a grand and often sad irony; an irony that affords us, as readers, a sudden and nuanced glimpse into character and/or situation, dragging us below the surface of what a character wants us to see, to where the story most often lies.
Reductively speaking, humor relies on the unexpected. There is the premise – an iteration of the normal—and the punch line—the revelation of the absurd. But while the formulation is simple, the execution, like most matters of craft, is much more challenging. Timing and phrasing matter, but writing humor is essentially a hunt for a plausible irony, for a situation with the potential to surprise the reader in a believable and meaningful way. There is risk, yes, but the introduction of this irony—the separation between how things seem (or how they're described) and how they are—can develop narrative tensions that give a story momentum. Sometimes it questions the reliability of the narrator, as in Tim O'Brien's Tomcat in Love or Nabokov's Lolita, where the reader tries to reconstruct events based on the prevarications and distortions of the narrator. Or it illuminates the inward feelings of a character, as opposed to his or her outward actions (see: Caulfield, Holden). The possible tensions are manifold precisely because humor seeks to subvert expectations. Its addition can inject levity into the seemingly calamitous and gravity into the seemingly light-hearted, making humor like a literary spice rack.
Humor also can close the emotional distance between narrator and reader. In Lolita for instance, Nabokov's first-person narrator, Humbert Humbert, engages in an escalating series of immoral and criminal acts, beginning with molestation and ending in murder. Yet somehow we, as readers, don't feel as distanced from him as we should, or perhaps like to. At certain points—his rivalry with Quilty, for instance—Humbert wins our sympathy. So how is it that Nabokov is able to have readers ask of his monster, "Is he really a monster?" Chiefly, it's the pity we feel for poor old Humbert. And it's the irony of such a vain, pompous man in the throes of such obvious and unconscionable destruction that develops this pity. Armed with this irony, we're encouraged, as readers, to tackle the moral contingencies of the story with more agency. "Look at this tangle of thorns," Humbert demands of us in the opening pages. But before long we're able to feel the scratches.
The first-person voice is a great narrative engine. It provides the reader with inroads and can imbue a story or character with curiosity, urgency, intrigue or confusion. It can help an author articulate a unique and keen perspective. And it can guide the reader through meaningful action. But even captivating voices wan in their allure if there is no tension to the voice itself. Humor, by introducing the element of irony, can create that crucial tension, pushing us deeper into the narrative, forcing us to stop taking characters wholly at their word. Then we've truly entered the story.