The comic novel is not a genre as popular as it once was. This form, generally expressed in the format of a sane narrator slowly unraveling at the slowly-building chaos around them, or responding to a bunch of crazy characters or situations, had its big cultural moment in the middle of the 20th century, and were often very dry and semi-intellectual, set in semi-intellectual places like colleges, because it takes brains to have a sense of humor. But still, there are a lot of recent novels that pick up the gauntlet thrown down long ago by Kingsley Amis, Tom Robbins, and John Kennedy Toole.
The Stench of Honolulu, by Jack Handey
One could make an argument that Jack Handey is the greatest jokesmith of all time. He wrote for Saturday Night Live for years, most notably the recurring segment that bore his name: “Deep Thoughts.” A book of these goofy, ridiculous, and absurd pronouncements was published in the ’90s, establishing Handey’s distinct voice. (A favorite “Deep Thought”: “If you saw two guys named Hambone and Flippy, which one would you think liked dolphins the most? I’d say Flippy, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong, though. It’s Hambone.”) Handey doesn’t write for the screen much anymore, choosing instead to write comic essays (collected in What I’d Say to the Martians) and novels, such as the delightful The Stench of Honolulu. An unreliable narrator is one thing, but the first-person narrator at the center of this novel, accurately reports what’s happening, but he’s completely unaware of how incredibly stupid and destructive he is. Handey’s rhythm, which is somewhat important to comedy, is impeccable—almost every paragraph ends with a joke.
The Terrible Two, by Mac Barnett and Jory John
One place where the comic novel is alive and well is in the youth market. As comic novels point out the absurdity of life, life is even more absurd if you’re very young and haven’t seen much of it to form a frame of reference. So, more often than not, middle-grade novels include a robust through-line of the weird. Those huge-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are surprisingly dark—all the adults are buffoons and the narrator, Greg, is lazy, awful, and entitled. Publishers have been eager to find the next Wimpy Kid, and it just might be Mac Barnett and Jory John’s The Terrible Two series. The premise is familiar and engrossing: new kid moves to town, principal is a bad guy—but it goes in an amusingly anarchic direction, as the new kid and the narrator play elaborate, impossible to notice pranks against one other before deciding to team up and combine their powers to generate mischief of the highest order. After all, friendship is merely nihilism with high fives.
Contemptible Blue, by Lucas Gardner
Another kind of comic novel is the one that makes fun of other novels, and that turns literary conventions on their heads, providing at least two or three levels of comedy. It’s dizzying when done well, like in Contemptible Blue. It’s about a lame, boring guy who is very sad about being lame and boring and winds up reading Moby Dick. Well, he skims it, absorbing just enough information to re-brand himself “Captain Fortnight” and set a course for a life of adventure as a whaling boat commander. His white whale is actually blue, the one of the title, who is at least 500 years old and possibly immortal. The premise is funny, and the jokes are non-stop.
Skunks Dance, by St. John Karp
A good comic novel has to have that bit of ongoing madness at its core, but it also needs quirk and uniqueness from which it can derive humor and jokes. There’s a ton of this in Skunks Dance. One timeline involves Gold Rush-era California, and the timeless story of how one man done another man wrong by robbing a bank with his identity and then making him wear a tutu in a one-man play. The other timeline is about present-day teenagers trying to find the treasure left behind in the first timeline. If you love books with Western themes, clever teens, and crime fiction involving bizarre explosions, this should suit you just fine, pardner.
Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirik Clark
This book doesn’t contain the kind of humor that one would call “ha-ha” humor or “laugh out loud comedy.” It’s more funny in the existential meaning of the word, in that life is meaningless and absurd, and whether you try or don’t try, you’re ultimately doomed. LOL. Clark’s Sweetness #9 is about a very well-meaning guy who, decades ago, helped invent food additives and sweeteners that in the 1970s seemed like godsends but ultimately turned out to be at least mildly toxic. What transpires is a darkly comic novel about cosmic guilt.
What are your favorite comic novels?