Nested Narratives

Dominic Thiem, the Austrian tennis ace and world no.8, is packing away his rackets after a hard won three-setter in Rotterdam. It was only a first round match, and he’s relieved to be through. What’s left of the crowd is filing out — it’s late now — when a shabby-looking journalist from a minor website comes bouncing up.

‘Dominic!’ the journalist cries, pulling out his mic, ‘What have you got for me? Tell me about it.’

‘I am happy viv my performance,’ Thiem says, while fumbling in his bag. ‘It vas a good match, and a good vin for me.’

‘Right, right,’ the journalist sighs. There’s a pause. ‘Say!’ he says suddenly, and his eyes flash — ‘A tennis ball walks into a hairdresser’s, takes a pull on a beer, wobbles, and says, “Wash, trim and blow dry!” The hairdresser looks at him. “Oh boy …” the tennis ball goes on, “I had a rough one last night.” The hairdresser rolls his eyes and says, “Take a seat.” The hairdresser does the wash, but then as he’s combing through the ball’s fluff, he keeps finding shaggy black threads. “What are these?” he asks. Tennis ball takes another long pull on the beer, grins, and replies, “Hair of the dog that bit me!”’

Dominic Thiem looks up at the journalist. ‘But vhy is a tennis ball havving a haircut? This is not normal. Oh, it is a joke. That is funny. Goodbye.’

* * *

This is an example of a nested joke — one which sits inside a larger narrative, with the interest deriving in part from the joke itself, and in part from its effect upon an in-narrative audience. Other examples of nested jokes or narratives include:

– the trouser joke in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame
This is told by Nagg to Nell as the pair sit in two dustbins. They seem to have almost nothing to say to each other, yet are reluctant to leave off and return beneath their lids. Nagg makes an effort and tells his joke; Nell hardly listens.

– the moth joke in Alan Fishbone’s Organ Grinder
This is told by the Fishbone character to his friend Marija as she undergoes a Caesarian section. Marija is conscious but without pain as she feels, on the other side of a curtain across her chest, the doctor fumbling around inside her. She asks Fishbone to tell her a joke for distraction; just as he gets to the punchline, there is a sharp cry and the ululating baby is hoisted into the air.

– the ‘Woke up, fell out of bed’ interlude in The Beatles’ A Day in the Life
This is sung by Paul McCartney between John Lennon’s ‘I read the news today, oh boy’ verses. The Lennon character sings in a melancholy key as he leafs through a newspaper. McCartney tells an upbeat nested story about dashing to work and going into a dream, which falls back to the Lennon character reading the paper.

– the Before the Law story in Franz Kafka’s The Trial
This is told by a priest to K. as the pair walk round a cathedral. K. is becoming increasingly surrounded by the impenetrable complexities of his legal case. Appearing initially to be able to give advice, the priest tells him a parable of the law, yet, confoundingly, it resists interpretation.

– The Murder of Gonzago play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
This is performed at Hamlet’s request before the guilty king. The plot is that of a lover killing his rival, and bears strong resemblance to the king’s own crime. Forced to watch it play out before him, the king is overwhelmed and flees the hall.

In these last two, the nested narrative does clear “work” within the larger or master narrative. Hamlet’s play-within-a-play is a deliberate stratagem to catch the conscience of the king, and having done so, drives the plot forward. And in The Trial, the priest’s parable is a kind of Trial-in-microcosm, and is used to deliver the statement of non-closure that sets up the end of the book. In both, obvious resonances exist between the nested and master narratives, and these serve to move things along.

But what about the other three: the sub-narratives nested within Endgame, Organ Grinder, and A Day in the Life? McCartney’s bit about getting up and going to work possibly bears some morning association with the image of Lennon reading a paper, but it’s tenuous, and there’s certainly nothing in Lennon’s final verse that would require McCartney’s bit to be there. And with both Beckett’s trouser joke and Fishbone’s moth joke, the nested narratives seem to come from different worlds altogether from the master narratives they sit inside.

Parallels can nevertheless be drawn. For example, in Endgame, there is perhaps a deliberate irony to the fact that the legless Nagg tells a joke about trousers. And then the trouser joke punchline, about the lamentable the state of the world, bleeds beautifully into the wasted landscape of the larger play. And equally, for the moth joke and Organ Grinder, connections can be found: the moth of the joke is on a comically doomed quest for meaning in life, which resonates with the Fishbone character of the book (likewise a seeker), and even with the baby being born by Caesarian section, whose infant quest is just beginning. But could we do this connection-finding-exercise also with the tennis ball joke and Dominic Thiem? Is the hairdresser within the joke, with his just-doing-my-job attitude, somehow an alter-ego for the workman-like Thiem? And is the sybaritic tennis ball a reflection upon the journalist, who notably ‘comes bouncing up’ in the opening paragraph, and who is ‘shabby-looking’, and so possibly hungover? Once you start going looking for connections …

Indeed what would happen if — daringly — we put the tennis ball joke into Endgame, and swapped out the trousers joke, swapping that one instead into Organ Grinder, or The Trial or Hamlet? How about swapping the moth joke into A Day in the Life (‘Woke up, fell out of bed / Stretched my wings and licked my leg’)? The jokes wouldn’t be or do exactly the same thing, of course, but we can still find resonances. With the joke of the tennis ball having a haircut swapped into Endgame, for example, we may lose the legless Nagg/trouser irony, but there would still be the irrepressible, bouncing mobility of the ball to create a contrast. Moreover, the black-haired dog that bites the ball within the joke would neatly prefigure the toy black dog that, later in the play, Hamm and Clov bring out, and which, ironically, is a useless three-legged ball of fluff that’s incapable of biting anything. And on top of this, there would be a remarkable prefiguration of the pivotal scene with the ball and dog that then appears in Beckett’s next play, Krapp’s Last Tape (‘I sat on for a few moments with the ball in my hand and the dog yelping and pawing at me […] In the end I held it out to him and he took it in his mouth’). So you see, things are happening. Or, to try another: if we swapped the trousers joke from Endgame into Hamlet, say, again we lose something (the specific murder plotline), but in its place we gain an intriguing portrait of a rotten world and God’s failures within it, which would resonate powerfully with Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is a man?’ speech. And now on a roll, if next we swapped the moth joke — a narrative hardly lacking in the Kafkaesque — into The Trial, then the connections practically make themselves.

In a journal article of 2015,[1] the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar (best know for Dunbar’s number[2]) makes an interesting point about jokes in relation to mentalizing. Mentalizing is the process of imagining what’s going on in someone else’s mind (also called ‘theory of mind’), and is a necessary part of understanding any character-based joke. To get the tennis ball joke, for example, we have to figure out what the hairdresser is thinking, and what the tennis ball is thinking, and, to some extent, what the hairdresser thinks of what the tennis ball is thinking. Though this particular joke is not part of Dunbar’s article, what is outlined is a study of a sample of jokes that are assessed for the number of levels of mentalization they involve (how many orders of, he thinks that she thinks that he thinks …), and how funny they are (as rated by an online and then a student group). In bald terms, the findings of the study are that the jokes get funnier as the number of levels increases, but that this peaks at the natural limit of how many levels a human brain can process (five to six). Dunbar theorises that this added funniness is because we ‘appreciate higher mentalizing complexity’ — the additional levels that more sophisticated jokes require us to resolve mean more and more fun … until, that is, we basically tap out.

One thing that’s obvious when thinking about this in relation to nested jokes and narratives is that the act of nesting itself has the immediate effect of boosting the number of levels. When the tennis ball joke is nested within the conversation between Thiem and the journalist, the joke shifts up to the heady orders of thinking about Thiem thinking about the journalist thinking about the hairdresser thinking about the tennis ball — a substantial increase in mentalizing complexity. But why would making something more complicated like this make it funnier — or, in the case of nested stories that aren’t jokes, just somehow richer, and more resonant?

One possible answer is to do with the fact that when stories are nested, the levels are not all stacked in a single pile, but rather, in two piles that sit in a kind of narrative superposition. We can think of the levels of the nested story as one unit, and the master story as another, thus chunking the levels out. This makes the overall processing operation considerably easier, and potentially allows more levels to be added than is possible using a single pile. What’s more, we can then look for resonances between the various levels. And as I tried to suggest above, while some nested narratives will have very strong resonances (e.g. x in the master narrative is the same x that features in the nested narrative), you can probably find resonance of some form or another for any nested narrative. This applies to nestings intended by an author, but even to unintended nestings, as created by swapping nested narratives over. Because the truth is, all narratives are so full of vibrations that when you put one inside another, it’s almost inevitable that you get a complex mix of resonance and dissonance, producing the exactly kind of bittersweet chord that we so delight in finding in art. It’s not the complexity alone that’s pleasing, but the way one thing moves in and out of time with another.

The point that’s powerful that emerges here is a reason as to why nested narratives can be successful even when they do no narrative “work” (work in the sense of moving the plot forward). Why? Because they set up higher level mentalizations that are comparatively easy to process, because they can be chunked out, and — the doozie — because, in so doing, and almost inevitably, they set up resonances between the levels that are innately satisfying.

[1]  ‘The Complexity of Jokes Is Limited by Cognitive Constraints on Mentalizing’, Dunbar, R.I.M., Launay, J. & Curry, O. Hum Nat (2016) 27:130;
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