Humor is most easily identified in contrast. We grasp for comedy in the midst of tragedy. It’s a release, a pratfall from the emotional high-wire that we traverse just to get from one end of the day to the other. Mary Roach’s approach generally involves exploring little-known areas of science and honing in on the goofy, weird stuff that crops up around the edges. Her masterful prose bridges the gap between the true and the odd, and you can’t help but laugh.
With Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Roach finds herself in the world of military science. There’s a lot of science that goes into our military endeavors, and Roach engagingly finds the strange with her usual aplomb. She plays her own curiosity against, for example, The Chicken Gun, which shoots frozen chickens at airplanes to test how the windshields and engines might fare in the event of “birdstrike.” She’s so charming, funny and informative, it’s easy to miss the skillful comedic talent that goes into making us laugh while we learn.
But Grunt also goes into places where Roach finds herself treading on more delicate ground. Here her authority as a writer interested in the very human comedy of life is (once again) understated, but wildly effective at apprehending the complex emotions we as a society and soldiers as individuals have with regards to sending our best and our brightest into battle. As Roach writes about the miracles of surgical re-construction now available, she reveals the wry humor of the men and women in harm’s way. You might miss the subtle shift, because Grunt is consistently funny even when Roach is speaking to the most difficult subjects.
Roach is a superb storyteller both in miniature and in a grand scale as well. When she is focused on a particular topic (stink bombs, diarrhea, etc), she brings us in with deft characterizations of those she meets, and of herself as well. She knows how to craft a speedy topic arc, let us in on some weird secrets and make us laugh. The chapters are little miracles of comedic non-fiction, so well done we might miss the mastery.
Roach’s little stories are not mere episodes, however. She’s on to a larger vision as well, one that is definite enough to leave us thinking about the big picture. In Grunt, that big picture is quite funny, but also sweetly charming and filled with a kind of brave hope. The bravery is evenly distributed; the scientist and the soldiers are breaking new ground. And Mary Roach is as well, with this book and her entire oeuvre. Science and humor are both so very human in her eyes, and especially in her prose. Between the words, there’s always room for a pratfall.
I’ve been speaking with Mary Roach about her writing since I received the earliest ARC of her first book Stiff. It’s really fun and really easy, because she’s both smart and funny. To find out just how smart and funny she is, check out this un-edited interview, by following this link to download the file or listening right here. And yes, it is in the iTunes podcast as well.