Nathan Hill’s debut novel The Nix is a Fall 2016 Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Selection. Last week in these pages, Liesl Schillinger called it a “wise, rueful, and scathingly funny début.” When we asked Hill to share with us some reading he considers funny, he took the request seriously.
“Several years ago, the stand-up comic Louis C.K. was giving an interview where he was asked to defend the way he portrays family life in his comedy. Why, the interviewer wondered, did he make parenting seem like such a bummer? Isn’t that just depressing?
“‘Everything that’s difficult you should be able to laugh about,’ was his response. ‘And the reason it’s difficult to have a family is because it’s important.'”
I think this can be just as true in literature as it is in comedy. My favorite funny books are those that find their humor not in simple joke-telling, but in the service of something bigger, something difficult and important. Here are a few that I love.
Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth
“When I was in the fourth grade, I remember all the kids passing Judy Blume books back and forth to each other—usually under their desks, secretly, in hushed tones. There was a feeling that the books contained knowledge we desperately wanted but were not allowed to have. Many years later, when I was in grad school, this was the book that students passed around, also in hushed tones: Letters to Wendy’s.
“The book is made up of hundreds of comment cards left at a Wendy’s fast food restaurant written by an obsessed customer who is, as far as we can tell, brilliant, deranged, psychotic, lonely, sad, and obscene (the book is decidedly NSFW). Here’s one of the letters, to give you a little flavor: ‘Today I had a Biggie. Usually I just have a small, and refill. Why pay more? But today I needed a Biggie inside me. Some days, I guess, are like that. Only a Biggie will do. You wake up and you know: today I will get a Biggie and I will put it inside me and I will feel better. One time I saw a guy with three Biggies at once. One wonders not about him but about what it is that holds us back.'”
Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
“This is the book I recommend to people as a test of their sense of humor: if they like it, I know we’ll be friends. It’s a novel about a young woman who reads Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and mistakes it for a self-help book. She then resolves to live her life according to the book’s four core values: Boldness! Resolution! Independence! Horn-blowing!
“And for the rest of the book, she does what you might expect of someone using a boys’ adventure novel as a kind of holy text: she wreaks havoc on the lives of everyone around her. It’s a deeply funny book that explores the boundaries between self-actualization and narcissism, between independence and obligation.”
Things That Are by Amy Leach
“I suppose you could call this book a collection of nature essays, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Leach’s subjects range from tiny bacteria to whole galaxies, from peas to planets, from goats to God. She illuminates existence like no other author you’ve read, which alone would be worth the price of the book. But then, when you’re not expecting it, out of nowhere, she hits you with some zinger, some sudden insight that knocks your head around and makes you see things anew. Sometimes it’s just a simile that catches you off guard with its humor and inventiveness. Here’s her description, for example, of a jellyfish: ‘The man-of-war…appears to be one individual, like Leo Tolstoy; but it is actually many individuals living together as a colony, like Leo Tolstoy.'”
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
“This novel is made up entirely of letters of recommendation written by a weary professor of creative writing, beaten down by academia and surrounded by fools. His students have a ‘shared enthusiasm for all things monstrous and demonic, nearly every story turned in for discussion involving vampires, werewolves, victims tumbling into sepulchers, and other excuses for bloodletting.’ His faculty colleagues are ‘busy tending to personal grudges like scraps of carrion on which they gnaw in the gloom of their offices.’ It’s a book that will make you want to drop out of school, and I mean that in a good way.”
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
“It’s almost unfair that a book so brilliant about things like globalization and colonialism and cultural hybridity is also really, really funny. Zadie Smith has a virtuosic eye for human foible, and her epic novel is stuffed with small moments—a gesture, a mannerism, a bit of dialogue—that are expertly observed and wincingly funny. Like the way certain hapless and codependent men invest more time at the local pub than they do ‘in the careless moment of procreation.’ Or how a know-it-all child corrects everyone around her with sentences beginning with the word ‘Akchully?’ Or how a manic middle-class family of overachievers uses their own surname as an adjective (It’s the Chalfen way. We need to be a bit more Chalfenist about this). Or a kindly teacher inflicting Shakespeare’s sonnets upon fifteen-year-olds and looking “close to orgasm” when one of them finally says something smart. There’s something to smile about on nearly every page, which is why the book is such a joy to read.
One More Thing by B.J. Novak
“I don’t know if anyone writes funnier dialogue than B.J. Novak. He’s especially good at capturing a particular kind of accent one might call Painfully Self-Aware Nervous American Stammering. Here’s an example, where a woman on a first date is asked, sort of rudely, whether she knows if the shirt she’s wearing was made in a sweatshop: ‘Yeah, okay, no. That’s not—nice try. Just because…No. And yes, I know, this phone, right here, that I use every day—but no. No! You can’t…It doesn’t help anything to equate…Look.’ Reading that just makes me squirm.”