Book Review: Texts From Jane Eyre

Mike Smith
4 min read
Texts from a Hilarious Mind
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To read a book is to spend hours with the mind of its author. I’ve read books before that left me feeling afterward as if I’d just spent an interminable bus ride with a schizophrenic missionary; or been trapped at a party with the world’s dullest narcissist; or been lectured to for hours by a know-nothing teacher with terrible breath. But thankfully, this closeness with the mind of an author can also be amazing. Recently I had the pleasure of reading the new book Texts from Jane Eyre—and, by doing so, of getting to spend some time with the mind of its brilliant, hilarious author, Mallory Ortberg. The book’s premise is simple: Literary characters and authors from throughout history had access to cellphones and text messaging—and here are their insanely funny texts. There’s Circe from The Odyssey, trying to text Odysseus to come over for dinner while Odysseus bemusedly demands she turn his crew of pigs back into humans (“turn them back into humans first and we’ll talk” / “uuugh / Finnnneeeee” / “and turn them back into REGULAR humans”). There’s Oliver Twist texting his master at a workhouse (“please madam / it being Christmas and all / might I / if you would not object / might I be allowed to eat the cheese the rats have / left behind in the traps?” / “the rat-cheese? / you impertinent boy / that’s the most important cheese of all”). There’s Mr. Rochester texting with Jane Eyre (“I KNEW IT / DID YOU LEAVE BECAUSE OF MY ATTIC WIFE / IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT” / “yes / Absolutely”). There’s William Carlos Williams texting his lover (“i have eaten everything / that was in the icebox / you should probably go the store again” and “i have eaten the little red wheelbarrow / that was in the icebox / and upon which so much depended / forgive me”). There are also characters from Shakespeare, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby, Cormac McCarthy and dozens more.

Texts from Jane Eyre is smart—it’s one of the smartest, most original, most literate works I’ve read in years, but more than anything, it is funny. It is so funny. I laughed out loud on every other page. I brought it to my writing group, and my friends took turns reading exchanges out loud as we all doubled over laughing. Another friend later stole my copy so she could read it on her own. If the book has any shortcomings at all, it’s that its selection of parodied texts is anglocentric—drawn almost entirely from British and American works—with a notable lack of Russian, Asian, African and minority writers. I would have loved to have seen what this author could have done with Crime and Punishment, or Basho, or Amos Tutuola—but let’s hope that will be addressed in a second volume someday.

I’m always lamenting that there aren’t more funny books—more authors as funny as P.G. Wodehouse or Jack Handey or Allie Brosh—but with people like Mallory Ortberg writing now, I feel encouraged about the future. Ortberg has written for
Gawker, The Atlantic, New York magazine and elsewhere, and is perhaps best-known for the general-interest website she co-founded, The Toast. Go there to find, “Oh No! You’ve Pulled Yourself Too High Up by Your Own Bootstraps!” and “Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History,” both of which are hilarious. Ortberg is commonly regarded as one of the funniest people on the internet, and it’s easy to see why—even her Twitter feed, @mallelis, is a reliable source of laugh-out-loud, intelligent hilarity. Texts from Jane Eyre may be the funniest book of 2014, and like just about all of Ortberg’s work, is a wonderful opportunity to spend time with a brilliant mind. A friend just texted me that there are copies in at Bookworks, and wherever fine new books are sold.
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