If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from Dan Rhodes’ Marry Me, it’s a Wildean one: mutual misunderstanding is the key to a lasting marriage. This tongue-in-cheek book, a droll collection of 80-odd comic vignettes, skewers dewy-eyed perceptions of marital bliss, offering dysfunctional tale after dysfunctional tale in which hearts are broken, egos are shattered, and attempts at intimacy are greeted with derision, bemusement and in some cases downright calamity (an episode in which a woman ends up electrocuting herself with her own tears springs to mind). Occasional flashes of warmth serve to temper the cynicism, but this is wry stuff indeed.
For Marry Me, Rhodes takes a cue from his hit flash fiction collection Anthropology and again embraces romantic conflict as a running theme. This time around, each sketch is a first-person account relayed by a man who’s engaged, married or considering one of the two. The stories themselves are bitty – only a handful exceed a whole page – but even in their brevity manage to capture the trying, and occasionally overwhelming, degree of compromise required to sustain a monogamous relationship. That Rhodes pulls this off with nary a speck of mushiness is a testament to his comedic might, though it has to be said the humour varies somewhat in quality as the book progresses: there are plenty of hilariously zany and biting gags to be sure, but alongside the zingers are a fair few groan-inducing duds.
The sketches that hit the highest notes are the ones in which the punchline neatly subverts the preceding narrative. Take ‘Freud’ for example:
I never seem to meet the kind of girl I would like to settle down with, but after reading Sigmund Freud I realised where I had gone wrong. I took out a lonely hearts ad that said: Do you resemble this woman? If so, I would be interested in marriage. Underneath was a photograph of my mother. Unfortunately, it didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. I only received one reply, and although she seemed quite promising on paper, I got to the rendezvous to find I’d been corresponding with my sister.
I don’t know what she was thinking. If anything she takes after our father’s side of the family.
The deadpan tone ridicules the absurdity of armchair psychology and undercuts the speaker’s blasé regard for marriage in one fell swoop – a swift one-two, with the added delight of a Freudian pun. Wordplay doesn’t always factor in as a primary comedic device, but the episodes in which it does are some of the most amusing. From ‘Predictable’:
Starlight told me she had decided to call time on our marriage. When I asked her why, she said I had become too predictable. ‘I don’t know what I would do without you,’ I sobbed.
She shook her head in exasperation. ‘I knew you were going to say that.’
Again, the tone here is dry and removed, downplaying the profound sorrow of a disintegrating relationship in order to highlight it. ‘Cordial’ takes a similar approach, the protagonist speaking in pragmatic, distinctly unromantic terms that mock both the small-mindedness of those who regard marriage as a rigid, eternally durable institution and the imprudence of those who consider it a pro tempore contract to be terminated on a whim:
Along with the traditional vows, my bride and I promised one another that we would always remain on cordial terms. As I gazed into her beautiful eyes and slipped the ring on her finger, it felt so wonderful to know that if things were to go wrong, even to the extent of a third party becoming involved, we would at least be civil about it.
At first glance, Marry Me looks like a novelty book, and indeed with its illustrated cover and dip in/dip out structure it wouldn’t be out of place as a lighthearted Valentine’s Day gift. That said, Rhodes incorporates enough tenderness to elevate the book beyond your standard coffee table read. Behind every flagging relationship lurks grief in some capacity, and Rhodes’ witty wisecracks serve to underscore the gravity of the conflicts they parody. His flair for comedy is evident to be sure, but his true strength is tingeing his anecdotes with a hint of profundity, one so subtle readers are left questioning the author’s sincerity. The speaker in ‘Happiness’ sums up the effect perfectly: ‘It was strange. It was almost as if [he] really meant it.’