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The Material by Camille Bordas review – when life is one long joke

The Material by Camille Bordas review – when life is one long joke

For any standup comedian, “material” is everything. Yes, it will require editing, fleshing out, road-testing, but the quality of the material is crucial. Does it pulse snappily through to a meaningful resolution? Is it insightful without being mean? Sharp without being cruel? And most vitally of all, is it actually funny? Certainly the six students and four tutors on Camille Bordas’s very fully imagined university MFA in standup are ready for every moment of their lives to be mined for material.

The Material, Bordas’s second novel to be written in English (the first two were in her native French), slams together this constantly revolving cast of characters for 18 continuous, frantic December hours. Moving from edgy faculty meeting to eviscerating workshop to “active shooter on campus” lockdown (it turns out to be a prank call) to, finally, a comedy battle against a rival Chicago improv group, almost every interaction along the way is examined for its potential as “material”.

Very rarely – even when (maybe especially when) facing imminent death from a gunman outside the locked door, or grudgingly drafting a public letter of apology – does a single one of these characters fail to inspect the moment for its standup potential. The result is an examination of the insecurities of a dozen individuals who have all set themselves the 24/7 task of being funny on demand.

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It’s an intense ride. There’s Artie, who’s too good looking to get laughs; Olivia, who’s in hiding from her own past, and Jo, who passionately believes that Andy Kaufman is still alive, somewhere. Among the tutors, Kruger still craves his ungiving father’s approval and Dorothy wonders if her loneliness has become a crucial prop for her act. Meanwhile, her long-ago ex, now a comedy superstar, is about to join them for a semester – in spite, or maybe because of, his recent misdemeanours (punching a standup rival and a tendency to suggest marriage to one-night stands). And yet even he’s having trouble working out how to make any of that into material.

Camille BordasView image in fullscreen

The precise but workmanlike writing flits in and out of these heads with exhausting frequency – often effortlessly, occasionally clunkily. Nearly every interchange is accompanied by an interior commentary from (at least) one of the participants, examining its future potential as, yes, material. Confronted with the idea of epiphanies, Dorothy “agreed with herself, but almost pretty much immediately with the opposite of what she said”. For Kruger, mid-target shooting in the woods, “the truth was he was haunted by what haunted all artists, the question of whether or not he would respond to his own work”.

Let’s just say that this is a novel about artists and what they think about all day – and it doesn’t exactly demolish any myths that their every waking moment is spent self-examining and remembering and theorising. I’m no standup so I can’t comment on the veracity of this, but it seems an exhausting way to live, let alone make a living. Is this what Bordas wants us to feel? But with its determinedly meandering plotlessness, the novel will ultimately stand (up) or fall depending on how much it makes you laugh.

Source: theguardian.com