A world recovering from a health emergency needs humorous novels
May we laugh yet?
With the pandemic still grinding on, is laughter even allowed? Yes.
“To every thing there is a season,” Ecclesiastes says, “a time to weep, and a time to laugh.”
If ever there were a year to hang out in the house of mirth, it's this one.
Honestly, it's OK if you don't want to read Jim Shepard's Phase Six, his new novel about a pathogen that decimates humanity. There's no need to apologize if you'd rather skip Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri's arid exploration of despair.
Read the room, people. A world recovering from the worst health emergency in 100 years needs novels full of humour.
But if laughter is the best medicine, our fiction is in dangerously short supply. It's an odd and persistent problem, compounded by the fact that most of the novels marketed as funny are, in fact, not very funny. Or they traffic in wit so dry their lips would crack if they smiled.
Book blurbs — the most unreliable literary form since cigarette advertisements — are particularly misleading when it comes to comic fiction. For examples, look no further than a new debut novel titled Dead Souls, by Sam Riviere. One of the many enthusiastic blurbs describes it as “gut-wrenchingly funny.” In fact, Dead Souls is an extraordinarily cerebral satire — almost 300 pages written as a single paragraph — about the culture of British poetry. Even someone recovering from stomach surgery could safely read it without any risk of “gut-wrenching.”
It's not that we lack funny writers. Tina Fey, Jenny Lawson, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Issa Rae and so many others publish hilarious memoirs and essay collections. But none of them has ventured into the foreboding realm of the comic novel.
The usual explanation is that humour is too subjective to encourage the production of comic novels, but we have no trouble producing funny movies and TV shows that draw millions of fans. By comparison, a comic novel could succeed with about as many readers as it takes to fill a clown car, and yet the shelf of funny ficti on is not much longer than a knock-knock joke.
Where is our Lucille Ball in print? Who is the Richard Pryor of fiction? Every other genre — thriller, romance, science fiction, western — supports a pantheon of masters and attracts new writers every year. But comic fiction remains a cabin on a treacherous mountain trail that somebody breaks into every few years and then abandons.
In 2006, in the introduction to Hokum, an anthology of African-american humour, Paul Beatty called out our pervasive lack of great comedy. “Everything is satirical. Not Mad magazine satirical but Orwellian dystonic,” he wrote. “Apart from the five minutes of weekly brilliance on Chappelle's Show, the Onion newspaper, Sarah Silverman and George Lopez, there isn't much to laugh at these days.” Fifteen years later, we're living the Orwellian satire with less humour than ever.
Perhaps, as with most jokes, the challenge is timing. For the most part, comic novels are the fresh raspberries of literature: You've got to eat them in season. Christopher Buckley's Make Russia Great Again, for instance, published in July 2020, offers a hilarious sendup of Donald Trump's disastrous U.S. presidency. But now with the U.S. haltingly returning to normal and the Very Stable Genius holed up in his Florida palace, who wants to think about that bigly old mess?
Meanwhile, readers need laughter, stat. If you're looking for humour in the form of a novel, take my list — please!
■ Big Trouble, by Dave Barry. The funnyman's first novel involves nuclear bombs, Russian gangsters, giant pythons — just ordinary life in Miami.
■ Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour. This irresistible comic novel pokes fun at corporate America and the tenacity of racism.
■ Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher. The academic satire gets a fresh overhaul in this novel composed of recommendation letters.
■ An Evening of Long Goodbyes, by Paul Murray. A penniless young aristocrat determined to maintain the contemplative life of a country gentleman must, suddenly, get a job.
■ Heartburn, by Nora Ephron. This debut novel, inspired by Ephron's failed marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, was later made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.
■ The Hills at Home, by Nancy Clark. One summer, relatives come to visit a retired teacher in her sprawling, rundown estate — and courteously refuse to leave.
■ Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. So funny, it's worth risking an eternity in hell.
■ Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. This Pulitzer Prize-winning story follows a writer around the world from one disastrous author event to another.
■ Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. The story of a young English professor is the best comic novel of all time.
■ The Sellout, by Paul Beatty. The first U.S. novel to win the U.K. Booker Prize is about a “social pyromaniac” who tries to save his California town by resegregating it.