The Laughter: A Novel
“The Laughter is a brilliant, totally absorbing character study.”
“It began as lust,” English professor Oliver Harding’s admits at the beginning of his account of his relationship with Ruhaba Khan, a Pakistani law professor who works with Black women who have been incarcerated in Sonora Jha’s brilliant novel, The Laughter.
Harding is an expert on the works of English essayist G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), a Catholic conservative famous for his elegant prose. Chesterton’s writing, expressions of a very different age, hardly seem relevant in contemporary academia where old white male voices are being challenged by women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. Yet in this Seattle university Harding is still chair of the English Department and is disdainful of those who seek to dismantle white privilege. Harding’s wife divorced him after their sex became violent. Their 20-year old daughter is not interested in a relationship with her father.
Ruhaba Khan is on the other side of the heated arguments and protests brewing on this campus. Yet Harding’s sexual obsession with this enigmatic ethnic other leads him to pursue a friendship with her. This leads him to become employer and sometime companion to her 15-year-old nephew, Adil, who is visiting from Toulouse, France. Adil’s parents don’t approve of Ruhaba’s politics or her sexual freedom, but they want to get Adil away from bad influences at their mosque. Harding isn’t the best of influences on Adil, a sweet, gentle boy, who admits that America frightens him.
Author Sonora Jha presents her story and characters through Harding’s eyes. In the process, she paints a detailed portrait of a representative of academic white privilege who cannot imagine losing his authority. Protests may take place, but order will be restored. Harding cannot conceive of a world in which he will not end up in bed with Ruhaba Khan, even though she expresses no sexual interest in him. Because he is a master of language, Harding believes that he is a master at professional and sexual manipulation.
However, Ruhaba Khan has an erotic life apart from Harding’s fantasies and desires. In fact, she proudly claims for herself the kind of sexual power and activity white professors like Harding are no longer allowed to have. We see in the final confrontation between these two intelligent, deeply self-centered individuals that they have a lot in common. When he attacks her “savage self-interest,” a case of the pot calling the kettle black, she proudly embraces the description. What Harding cannot deal with is laughter—laughter directed at him that is at the same time laughter that expresses the same scorn for other people that Harding feels.
Jha has crafted her novel as a kind of mystery. It isn’t until the end that we the readers realize why the police and the FBI are interviewing Harding. Is he really controlling the narrative as deftly as he thinks he is doing? The authorities seem to want a narrative of terrorism foiled. The real story is simpler and more tragic.
The Laughter is a brilliant, totally absorbing character study. This female Pakistani author has brilliantly created a complacent white man sure of his privilege. Oliver is not a caricature. He comes to life on the page. So do the rebellious Ruhaba Khan and her sweet lovelorn nephew. The Laughter is also a cogent satire on the current state of academia in confusion about its responsibility to society. Is it the ivory tower its old order want to maintain or a mirror of current social crises?
Universities have become hotly contested spaces in our divided nation. The Laughter splendidly dramatizes what is at stake. Couldn’t put it down.