Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

Advance review copies of Sam Lipsyte‘s forthcoming novel, The Ask, include a letter from Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein pondering the fate of the comic novel:

A generation ago, there was no shame in a book’s being funny. Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, the DeLillo of End Zone, etc., etc.—these titans of the sixties and seventies were unabashedly comic writers. Just because they made you laugh it didn’t mean they weren’t great or serious. On the contrary, they aired the dirty laundry of our minds and it made them heroes. (“The most moral writers, as William Hazlitt wrote in his Lectures on the English Comic Writers, “are those who do not pretend to inculcate any moral.”) By being funny they were able to tell the truth.

From there Stein argues the main reason comic novels have “fallen into a kind of desuetude” is the rise of uncensored stand-up comics, who are now the main purveyors of yuks and snappy social criticism for the mainstream. But no stand-up, Stein argues, can offer the “needed nuance and speed” that comic novels provide to their subjects.

I’m not enough of a cultural historian to dispute Stein’s claim about stand-ups—though I do figure that back in the dark ages it was no harder to find a Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor LP than it was a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. But it seems clear to me that the comic novel hasn’t fallen into disuse so much as it doesn’t play the culture-shaping role it once did. As with so many other artistic disciplines in the past decade or so, tastes and interests are now so fractured that nobody collectively agrees on anything, and nothing is harder to get people to agree on in the first place than on what makes you laugh. (Maybe the most successful comic novel today would be funny in the way Friends is “funny.”)

Still, my efforts to completely demolish Stein’s argument by pulling out many examples of contemporary comic novels—ones I actually found funny, anyway—have fallen short. That may largely be a function of my reading habits. (After all, Mr. Stein, my shelves are full of books published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) But I could start a list with Lipsyte’s Home Land, a nervy and willfully outrageous portrait of a high-school loser approaching middle age. Jack PendarvisAwesome is a raucous send-up of American folk tales from my pick for the best comic writer going; Matthew Sharpe‘s Jamestown takes a similar approach to the founding of America. Nicholas Kulish found plenty of dark ironies in the relationship between the military and the media in Last One In; Ken Kalfus did much the same for 9/11 in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I don’t think of Adam Langer‘s two excellent Chicago-set novels, Crossing California and The Washington Story, as strictly comic, but they do have plenty of laughs, and a consistently genial, witty tone. After that, I mainly wish that George Saunders would write a novel.

But let’s not romanticize the past too much—I didn’t live through the sixties and seventies as an adult, but I suspect laugh-out-loud literary fiction wasn’t much easier to find back then. Remember, the same Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint also wrote The Great American Novel, a clunker as a comic novel and a baseball novel both. The dearth of contemporary comic novels doesn’t mean it died at the meaty, jewel-encrusted hands of Andrew Dice Clay; it’s just proof that the comic novel has always been among the hard tricks in fiction to pull off.

22 thoughts on “Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

  1. I’d add Ed Park’s Personal Days, Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist, and, dipping into genre, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr’s three novels published by Hard Case Crime, starting with Bust.

    1. I might include Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came to the End too, though I didn’t like it nearly as much as some did.

  2. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud novels out there. You’re just not looking. Jess Walter’s THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS and Katharine Weber’s TRUE CONFECTIONS, which I’ve both read in the past two weeks, come immediately to mind.

  3. I’d put Gary Shteyngart’s “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” at the top of my list of contemporary comic novels. His follow-up, “Absurdistan,” is a riot as well.

  4. I agree with Mr Athitakis and Mr Campion both. There are lots of new funny novels out there. To the ones already named I would immediately add Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE, Roberto Bolano’s BY NIGHT IN CHILE and THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, Julie Hecht’s novels, Geoff Dyer’s novels, John Haskell’s novels, Benjamin Kunkel’s INDECISION, the list goes on and on, and will necessarily vary from reader to reader.

    It does seem to me, though, that we–we publishers and critics–have a new tendency to ghettoize comic prose. I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me we are more likely to call a book “serious,” to call a book “great,” if it’s solemn. People who love INFINITE JEST, for example, tend not to refer to it as a comic novel. But of course that’s what it (deeply, beautifully) is. I think the same is true, in a very different way, of THE ASK, which is why I wrote that letter … but of course I will be much more interested to hear what actual readers make of the book.

    1. Thanks for responding, Lorin. But I must confess some confusion. While I admire the Johnson and Bolano books you cite, these titles are among the last that spring to mind when compared against Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Parker, David Lodge, Kurt Vonnegut, or countless other innovators for sheer laughs per page. Perhaps you’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but I’m extremely curious why you would throw J&B into the hopscotch of comic literary novels?

    2. Thanks to everybody who commented here, especially Lorin Stein, who seemed to take a couple of my criticisms in good humor. It’s nice to get so many recommendations of laugh-out-loud novels. (In my brain fog while writing this post on Sunday morning, I completely forgot about one obvious recent example, Percival Everett’s “I Am Not Sidney Poitier.”) It’s nice to know we haven’t run out of funny novels, but I think Stein’s chief concern still has some weight—readers don’t seem to collectively look to a particular comic novel (or novelist) to define our feelings the way people might have with, say, Twain or Vonnegut. It may just be that we’re at the end of the era where fiction writers of any sort can have that kind of widespread cultural effect.

  5. I’m glad someone else mentioned the works of Julie Hecht—I was going to chime in with her (though are her books novels?). It seems to me that comedy doesn’t get its due in the arts as a whole. This is certainly true for film. And I don’t think anyone has mentioned the plight of the funny woman. I notice that nearly all of the authors cited are male. If the male comic novelist has a tough time these days, it’s even worse for the ladies.

  6. Here’s another comic novel that never gets its proper due: Ted Heller’s FUNNYMEN, which is a riff on Martin and Lewis that does its own wonderful and unique thing (his earlier novel SLAB RAT, a satire of the magazine industry, was pretty funny as well.)

    But it is just as telling that the novels I think of when I think “funny” are British – and so even though this blog is devoted to American fiction, I’m recommending Matt Beaumont’s “e”, still one of the funniest novels I have ever read.

  7. Thanks for the note, Edward. Fewer laughs per page than Wodehouse, I agree. But everything makes me laugh less than Wodehouse! Except Mark Twain … and Lipsyte.

  8. Brock Clark’s novel An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England was pretty hilarious. I personally find Lydia Millet hilarious, albeit in a veryvery dark ,mordant way. Kate Christensen is funny in the same way that Dawn Powell was funny. Zadie Smith is funny in that antic, hysterical realist fashion, and so is Jonathan Lethem. Though, less recently published, David Gates is grim-as-hell funny, and Mary Robison is funny though in a way that kind of makes you want to lie on the floor and weep. I agree that Infinite Jest is a comic novel, a quintessential social satire, with the ferocious moral seriousness of Swift and Waugh.

  9. I doubt the crowd here would agree with me (although I agree with them on many of the titles mentioned here, particularly Corrections and And Then We came to the End, and I and look forward to reading “The Ask” in 2010), but Garrison Keillor’s Love Me his hilarious (particularly his portrayal of William Shawn), and Chris Elliott wrote two very funny genre send-ups: The Shroud of the Thwacker and Into Hot Air. You might also check out Paper Towns by John Green (YA, yes, but I like it too) and Tom Perrotta’s Little Children and Joe College.

  10. Mmm. Mark, you speculate:

    “It may just be that we’re at the end of the era where fiction writers of any sort can have that kind of widespread cultural effect.”

    The shift caused and enabled by the internet does read like chaos– for the old structures of commercial publishing (agents sifting the chaff to sell books to the ten big houses, where 4 of 5 of those books lose money against the one that does decently), for the old venues and institutions of critical response (the papers, magazines, Kirkus, and even universities), for the average, traditionally educated person. But I think you underestimate the way the new eventually rises up to replicate the function of the old. There will be new forms, but fiction isn’t going away, and it isn’t receding to the margins. It’s just a bit lost in the noise of this liminal space we occupy.

  11. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Ed Champion, but Jess Walter’s latest is damn funny.

    The saddest thing for me in all of this is that I read “The Ask” last month and think it might be the most disappointing follow-up to a true work of excellence I have ever read. Home Land stands as one of my favorite books of the 00s. The heart and vibrancy of that book is lost in The Ask. I may have laughed a few times, but I’m not going to start gauging works of literature on a laugh/minute scale.

  12. Hey Mark,

    I think you make great points about the comic novel, although I recall an old Charlie Rose interview with David Foster Wallace in which Wallace seemed to take issue with how seriously certain unnamed contemporary lit seemed to take itself, while simultaneously acknowledging the limitations of satire — and how satire as with so many things had been co-opted and in effect made far less effective by mainstream commercial-driven culture. Funny for that to be coming from Wallace who seemed to make comedy (and especially satire and irony) work so effortlessly in novels like “The Broom of the System” and “Infinite Jest.” Basically, writers do find a way to be funny. And the best of them take it as seriously as whatever other elements they include in their stories.

    BUT, I have to disagree with your — sorry — glib assessment of “The Great American Novel.” The problem with that was it was way too ahead of its time. It’s a scathing, hilarious critique of baseball and American social mores by extension that seems even more relevant today, as it places in conflict characters who seem to understand the import of abandoning conventional wisdom in a sport that has lived and died by it, and taken a more nuanced statistical look at how the game can most effectively be played — with all parties sounding more or less like lunatics by the novel’s end. Plus the Gil Gamesh saga is really fantastic. I think anybody who has a smallish interest in baseball and likes things that are funny will agree. But “TGAN” deserves another look.

    1. Thanks, Matt. You’re the second person who’s kicked me around a little for not enjoying TGAN, and its boosters are enthusiastic enough to make me wonder if I may have read it wrong the first time around. But I think I just never meshed with Roth’s kind of humor during that period. (Excepting Portnoy’s Complaint, of course.) I’m willing to revisit it, but I’m more likely to get to a Roth book I haven’t read, like “Letting Go,” before that happens.

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