Read the room, people! A nation recovering from the worst health emergency in 100 years needs novels full of humor.
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, I need 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 humor 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 fiction 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 humor, Paul Beatty called out our pervasive lack of great comedy. “Everything is satirical. Not Mad magazine satirical but Orwellian dystopic,” 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 humor 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. Last year, for instance, Christopher Buckley’s “Make Russia Great Again” offered a hilarious sendup of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency. But now with the country returning to normal and the Very Stable Genius holed up in his Florida palace, who wants to think about that bigly old mess?
Earlier this month, Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu (Calif.) and Teresa Leger Fernandez (N.M.) introduced legislation to revive the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project. Their bill hopes to fund jobs for 900 people to create a repository of stories about life in this era. All well and good, but maybe we could spare some of that money for a Federal Comic Novel Project in hopes of adding to America’s reserve of funny books.
Meanwhile, we can’t wait around for the feds to raise our spirits. The nation needs laughter, stat. If you’re looking for humor 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.
● “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 schoolteacher in her sprawling, run-down 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.
● “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 American novel to win the U.K. Booker Prize is about a “social pyromaniac” who tries to save his California town by resegregating it.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.