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Book Review: Droll Tales

Keenan Design

If you’ve never heard of the entertaining, sometimes wildly funny, off-beat writer Iris Smyles, it may be because she tends to shun traditional PR or mock it. For example, on the acknowledgments pages of her latest book, Droll Tales, a collection of 14 somewhat linked stories, she thanks, among others, some real organizations, but most are made up, such as The Suffolk County Aglet Society — an aglet is the plastic tip of a shoelace that allows it to go through the holes. She also prompts well-known artists and wits to praise her with their own loony comments. Previous books, Iris Has Free Time and Dating Tips for the Unemployed, which was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, evoked this: “Similar to War and Peace, only much funnier and shorter.” And, “I love this book but I wish it had more dogs in it.”  

The lunacy in Droll Tales begins before the actual so-called stories with a three-page glossary of terms not found in this book.  They are in no particular order or disorder. A list that begins with “soufflettic,” which means “to move like a soufflé,” and ends with “Lemon Merengue” — “to move like a whipped dessert.” Merengue, merengué, get it? “Metaphysics — a branch of science in which you sign up for exercise classes and don’t go.” 

For all the absurdity and antics, Smyles — with a "y" — never loses sight of the dark paradox of  life as painful, confusing, lonely, but also “fun, beautiful and, briefly ours.” 

The stories, varying in style, all surprise with cleverness. “Contemporary Grammar,” for example, a quiet story of heartbreak is told as 23 diagrammed sentences by a 5th grader on grammar test.

“Droll” Tales is full of oddball fun and carnival-like exploration of The Human Condition. The word “droll” aptly captures the nonsensical, impish quality of the lives Smyles briefly features, including one named Iris, who sometimes appears just to provide an occasional aside, such as noting that between (often nonpaying) jobs she’s translating Mallarmé into Pig Latin.

 At the heart of The Smyles’ style is self-denigration, non sequitur, fantasy, bizarre conversation,  outrageous punning, and truncated, left-hanging observations.

She puts on mounting tableau vivants from the art world in the opening story.  And in the last, a dentist who meets a group of hard-drinking oddballs at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. And they go underground together.  Hell as salvation. 

A bit much? Perhaps if taken all at once, but for sure, Iris Smyles is an original, planting herself squarely between parody and homage, ridicule, and empathy. She’s a lover of the subversive and surreal, who would have and hold onto what’s left in our fractured world of the humane and the artistic. 

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.