I’m not a laugh out loud kind of reader, shying away from novels whose blurbs suggest that kind of jollity although I do let fly the odd snigger now and again. I’m partial to a bit of smartarse humour but what most appeals is satire. If done well, ridicule is one of the most effective ways to make a few serious poiints. The five novels below include a couple that do the job brilliantly while some are simply straightforwardly funny, all have links to reviews on the blog.
Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter falls into the straightforwardly comic category. The titular protagonist sees himself as a facilitator alert to diners’ needs, proud of his work at The Hills, an Oslo institution reminiscent of grand Viennese cafes. He’s an observer, more than a little judgemental in his assessment of his customers, and something of a neurotic, thrown into a tizzy when things aren’t just so. The appearance of a young woman he dubs the Child Lady throws a spanner into his carefully maintained works. Over the next few days, one regular becomes disconcertingly familiar, another orders his meal backwards and our usually punctilious waiter makes several mistakes, a few worryingly deliberate. There are some wonderfully slapstick episodes in this entertaining novel including the Waiter’s collapse in the face of an appalling lapse in sartorial taste while under the influence of far too many espressos.
Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier pleasingly ridicules the perennial problem of racism. It’s the story of the eponymous Not Sidney whose prescient mother invested in Ted Turner’s broadcasting company, leaving him already rich at the age of seven when she dies. The grateful Turner takes him in, setting him up with his own staff in a wing of the Turner mansion. Aged fifteen, Not Sidney decides to drive to Los Angeles, the first in a series of episodes which sees his name and race landing him in constant trouble. He’s an engaging narrator, sharp yet naïve, intelligent and cultivated in stark contrast with the ignorant bigots he encounters, convinced of their own superiority despite all evidence to the contrary. A very funny novel with serious points entertainingly made.
As a fellow academic, Everett would probably appreciate Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members made up of letters from the office of Jason T. Fitger, long-suffering Professor of Creative Writing and English, who spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation. Interspersed with these are pleas for funding for his advisee Darren Browles, close to the end of his retelling of Melville’s Bartleby in which the titular hero is employed as an accountant in a brothel, a work of genius according to Fitger. Threads of Fitger’s past run through the letters: professional repercussions from old affairs; his early flash of literary success and his incontinent use of his personal life as material for his novels. Schumacher’s book is very funny indeed. Even as a bystander on the sidelines of academic life, I winced in recognition at some of it.
Plenty of smirk material in Jen Beagin’s smart, funny debut, Pretend I’m Dead, which follows twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living and falls hard for a junkie, taking herself off to Taos, New Mexico when he disappears. Nothing much happens in Beagin’s novel: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing.
In Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back Adolf Hitler wakes up with a dreadful headache, bemused to find that it’s August 30th 2011. He’s at a loss to know what’s happened but before long he has his own TV show. The trouble is, nobody gets it: viewers think he’s particularly edgy comic, he thinks he’s launching a campaign to restart National Socialism. Satire can often go horribly wrong but Vermes carries it off beautifully, chucking lampoons in all directions and almost always hitting his mark. Horribly plausible, Hitler spends much of his time in a state of furious astonishment at the idiocy of the modern world. Hats off to translator Jamie Bulloch, not just for an excellent translation but also for his short essay on the novel’s historical and political context.
Any novels that have made you laugh you’d like to share?
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