Andrew Sean Greer did something rare this week: His latest novel, “Less,” won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
That’s extraordinary, of course, but what makes this year’s winner so unusual is that his novel is funny. Very funny. Laugh-till-you-can’t-breathe funny.
That just doesn’t happen in the hallowed chambers of literary honor. Pulitzers are endowed on funereal novels like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or cerebral books like Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” The august gatekeepers might tolerate the humor in Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” but Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is closer to their solemn hearts.
Strangely enough, Greer began this comic masterpiece as a very serious novel about being gay and aging. “But after a year, I just couldn’t do it,” he says from Italy, where he’s currently working. “It sounds strange, but what I was writing about was so sad to me that I thought the only way to write about this is to make it a funny story. And I found that by making fun of myself, I could actually get closer to real emotion — closer to what I wanted in my more serious books.”
That’s evident on the page. Greer’s “Less” is not a dark story merely spiked with comic elements; it’s an unabashed comic novel, a descendant of the great “Lucky Jim” (1954), by Kingsley Amis.
In the opening pages of “Less,” a 49-year-old writer learns that his former boyfriend is about to get married. To avoid attending the wedding as a heartbroken guest, he embarks on a humiliating trip around the world, teaching classes and delivering readings at any place that will have him.
As a novel, it’s delightful. As a Pulitzer winner, it’s a unicorn.
Even Greer was surprised by the honor. “Oh, come on,” he says. “Everyone was surprised! Even the Italians told me, ‘We can’t imagine a comedic novel winning a prize like that.’ ”
I see you reaching back to the early 1980s for John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” and Alison Lurie’s “Foreign Affairs,” but their prizes only suggest the duration of this attitude: American critical opinion has been discounting comic novels for decades. (Toole committed suicide thinking his book would never be published.) We celebrate our stand-up comics, we adore our TV sitcoms, and we export our comic movies, but for some reason our funny novels must subsist on a diet of thin praise.
“A comic novel” has become a suspect designation, as though creating laughter were some sub-craft, like decoupage. We used to know better. Shakespeare’s comedies are as classic as his tragedies. The light that humor shines on the human condition may be a different frequency, but it’s just as illuminating as its calamitous twin.
Despite their courageous choice, even this year’s Pulitzer judges sound determined to muffle the laughs. Their citation describes “Less” as “a generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love.”
That sounds about as appealing as a pair of orthopedic shoes.
This is a problem, America.
Our critical resistance to comic novels attracts fewer writers to the form and leads to less interest from publishers. And that grim bias trudges out across the culture and gets disastrously reinforced in schools. We may all start off by reading the zany antics of Dr. Seuss, but by high school, the message is clear: “Abandon all mirth, ye who enter here.” Ennui and despair are the province of the Great American Novel.
But if ever an era needed a good chuckle and a sweet laugh, it’s ours. We have plenty of sharp satirists to fan the flames of our searing political arguments. We know how to mock. We’re experts at sarcasm. What we need more of is laughter — the kind of self-deprecating, warmhearted, give-me-a-hug laughter that “Less” provides.
“When I wrote this book,” Greer says, “I had no idea if anyone would like it. But I thought: ‘I have written exactly the book I wanted to. It doesn’t matter what happens with publication.’ I felt bulletproof.”
It’s a lovely irony that the first version of the Pulitzer announcement from the Associated Press mistakenly reported that Greer’s winning book is called “Fearless.”
Indeed, there is something brave about holding up a comic novel about a forlorn man stumbling through one ridiculous encounter after another and saying, “This is the best book of the year.” Bravo to the Pulitzer judges.
We need more novels like “Less.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
Andrew Sean Greer will be in conversation with Ron Charles on June 5 at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.