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Funny Pages: Great Comic Novels

Nov
30
2006

I am usually wary when someone recommends a comic novel to me. Unlike other fiction, the ultimate objective of the comic novel is not so much to tell a well told tale as to make the reader laugh – and story comes first for me. Yet despite my resistance, I know a few very engaging comic novels and I’m not shy about encouraging others to give them a chance.

Two of my all-time favorites are classics, both available in fresh translations: Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov and Bouvard et Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert. Oblomov, by general agreement Goncharov’s greatest work and his only book still widely read, was published in 1859. That’s fifteen years or so after Flaubert hit on the idea for his novel yet twenty-plus years before Bouvard et Pécuchet was published, unfinished, at the time of the author’s death. Which itself makes for rich comic irony, since the eponymous Oblomov is notable for his inertia – and his body is rarely set in motion – while the titular Frenchmen are all about earnest industry.



Bouvard et Pécuchet

Flaubert

The novelist (and eminent Flaubertiste) Julian Barnes says Bouvard et Pécuchet is “about stubbornness – the indefatigable attempt by two retired Parisian clerks to master and subdue the whole of human knowledge, a task in which they persevere despite constant failure and discouragement.” The premise is simple: these two forty-seven-year-old clerks happen to sit on the same park bench and establish an emotional connection. A friendship forms and, after Bouvard inherits a small fortune a year later, they retire and embark on an investigation of areas of experience and learning that they never could undertake as middle-class office workers. As it turns out, the need to earn a living was not the only obstacle to their greater edification and enlightenment. They are simply a couple of doofuses.

Much of the humor in the book concerns what these two men attempt and what happens to them – including the romantic adventures of Pécuchet, the 59-year-old virgin – but the reader who only laughs at Bouvard and Pécuchet misses part of Flaubert’s point. The wiser reader will think, “Bouvard et Pécuchet, c’est moi.”



Oblomov

Oblomov has greater self-awareness than the Frenchmen. As the scholar Galya Diment observes, Oblomov “is a not a caricature but, in fact, a very likable character who is smart and has a well-defined sense of irony.” Sure, he spends most of the first part of the novel on the couch dreaming of his happy childhood back on the family estate, but he has very good intentions – to look after his estate, to listen to his friend Stoltz, to avoid being swindled out of his inheritance, and to attend to Olga, with whom he falls in love. Any honest procrastinator will know how it all turns out.

Chekov said “[Goncharov] is ten heads above me in talent,” and Tolstoy held that “Oblomov is a truly great work, the likes of which one has not seen for a long, long time. … I am in rapture over Oblomov and keep rereading it.” The praise is over-generous in my view but who am I to argue with these masters?

One of the greatest British comic novel appeared closer to our own age: it is Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, first published in 1954. It happens to be one of the great novels of academic life as well. Lucky Jim is Jim Dixon, a young professor at a British college where he clearly does not belong and from which he is in constant peril of being ejected – for good reason. He is not dedicated or particularly gifted, and too often he’s not even sober. Fortunately, he’s very lucky. And he’s a great deal more likable than the people with whom he works: they may appear to be caricatures to readers unfamiliar with faculty life at a provincial university but, if you know that world, the satire may feel more familiar and realistic.

Much the same can be said of Richard Russo’s Straight Man, another brilliant comic novel set at a less-than-leading college, this time in Pennsylvania. Russo’s protagonist is William Henry Devereaux Jr., the disarmingly honest chair of the English department, who is assailed by absurdity – utterly believable absurdity – on all sides. There is much seriousness and sensitivity in this novel but Russo does not let that get in the way of the humor.



Lucky Jim

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” This observation by Jonathan Swift supplies the epigraph for A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The putative genius in this tale is Ignatius J. Reilly, who suffers from a fairly serious case of Oblomovitis until he is forced out in the world to look for a job. “The world” is New Orleans in the 1960s and, although I don’t know the time period first hand, Toole sure got the place and the characters right. There are many moments in the book that are laugh-out-loud funny, yet the awareness that Ignatius suffers from poor mental health and that Toole himself was a suicide color the story.

Finally, I want to recommend two short story collections by Tim Gautreaux, coincidentally another writer from Katrinaland. Gautreaux is an under-appreciated writer and his 2003 The Clearing – which is not a comic novel – is one of the best books published in the last ten years. But his story collections – Same Place, Same Things and Welding with Children – contain some of the funniest short stories I have ever read. And some of the most tender. Same Place includes “Died and Gone to Vegas,” first published in The Atlantic, which has got to be the funniest story ever set at a card game.

Of course I’ve left out many great comic novels. P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh usually appear alongside of any mention of Lucky Jim. Jane Smiley’s Moo is another comic novel in a university setting that is at least as good as Straight Man. Charles Portis’ novels belong in any conversation of American comic novels. And I’ve not mentioned any of the fine crime-mystery novels that include strong comic elements.

Aficionados of the comic novel are probably aware of all the books I’ve discussed so let me offer three more titles that are less well-known, at least in the United States. Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me is the funniest erotic novel I know; Charlie Hauck’s Artistic Differences is the funniest Hollywood novel. And Magnus Mills’ The Restraint of Beasts is the driest—I mean, Sahara-dry—comic novel I’ve ever read.

Know of a great comic novel that you just have to tell me about? Humor me with an email. My address is to the right.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 1:05 PM | Permalink

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