Though Nuar Alsadir set out to write a book about laughter, Animal Joy is a far deeper study of how we express and understand our most powerful emotions, told through meticulous psychoanalytic research and Alsadir’s own experiences.
Animal Joy opens at a clown school where Alsadir enrolled to explore laughter. The only nonactor of the group, Alsadir sought to understand a specific laugh: the spontaneous outburst. “Spontaneous outbursts of laughter express meaning outside of reason and . . . unveil a whole dimension of being and bodily aliveness that short-circuits logic,” she writes. Alsadir explores a wide variety of social outbursts, including the laughter Christine Blasey Ford recalled hearing from Brett Kavanaugh when he allegedly sexually assaulted her, the tradition of professional mourners and the fake laughter purposefully generated in a laughter yoga class. This research provokes an intimate examination of impulsive and unconscious communication in all of its “savage complexity.”
As a poet and psychoanalyst—readers might recognize her as one of the counselors from the Showtime documentary series “Couples Therapy”—Alsadir is uniquely positioned as an excavator of human emotion and the things that evoke those emotions. She draws a constellation of interactions, with points made out of Anna Karenina’s doomed love affair, Blade Runner‘s obedient replicants and Dick Cavett’s 1985 interview with Eddie Murphy. These references are not tangential or tacked on but essential components of her thinking. “Other people’s speech, like it or not, lives inside us, buoys us, metastasizes,” she writes. “We are quantum entangled with our universe and everything in it.”
Rather than feeling dated or overly niche, these deeply specific references only heighten the intimacy Alsadir offers. There is plenty of serious academic analysis to admire in Animal Joy, with her detailed discussions of Sigmund Freud and Roland Barthes, but what is more spectacular is how she entangles theory with the tender anecdotes about her two daughters that ground the book. Though the terrain Alsadir covers is vast and often feels tenuously connected, the resonant beauty of her prose helps guide the reader through a deliberately cluttered and complicated narrative.
Animal Joy is a challenging and deeply rewarding meditation on laughter and communication that will stand up to multiple readings; as Alsadir herself reminds us, “Understanding often occurs retroactively.”