Dear Mr Jacobsen, please accept my sincerest apologies for ridiculing you and the comic novel. I promise that from now on I will take comedy in literature more seriously. The truth is that I have not really been able to stop thinking about your book, The Finkler Question and what exactly a comic novel is. I wasn’t entirely complimentary about the concept of comedy in literature a couple of weeks ago and must admit I feel kind of guilty about what I wrote then. I promise you, though, that it was more of a reaction to people being scared of discussing ‘depressing’ subjects like mortality, the purpose of life et cetera.
Funnily enough, thinking about this whole debate that’s been dominating the literary news (is this the first real comic novel to win the booker?), I have come to agree with Jacobsen’s assertion that ‘humour can be a route to the deepest, darkest places’ and that comedy should be taken more seriously. (His article for the Guardian is definitely worth reading.)
With this in mind, and whilst reading the brilliant, sinister and often disturbing Hunger by Knut Hamsun, I have realised that some of my favourite books use comedy to explore the deepest recess of the human soul. The first book and undoubtedly one of the best books ever has to be Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a semi-fictitious account of the end of World War II, using satire to ridicule and question the purpose of war, as well as having some of the most hilarious characters I have ever come across. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated uses language to such great comic effect that I spent most of the time laughing, almost unable to finish the book. Other authors like Murakami (The Wind-up Bird Chronicles), Paul Auster (Music of Chance) and Charles Bukowski (Post Office) are often so absurd and surreal that you can’t help but find them funny.
Besides being funny, what all these books have in common is the fact that they are very sad. Although I wouldn’t quite go so far as to call them a tragicomedy a la Shakespeare or even Samuel Beckett, all of the above books probe ‘depressing’ themes including everything from death to injustice, and immorality to brutality. Some, like the above books deal with these subjects quite subtly, others like Dostoevsky and Bret Easton Ellis tackle themes of spirituality, society and politics head on, but they are often just as funny.
So there you have it. My apology to comic novels and Howard Jacobsen. If you are interested in the debate as to whether The Finkler Question is the first comic novel to ever win the coveted booker, read Sam Jordison’s piece. Obviously there are many more authors that I didn’t even mention who can make you laugh and cry, often in the same sentence. Hemingway, Roth, Updike, Eggers, Palahniuk, John Kennedy Toole and so on and so forth. When I savagely attacked the comic novel (and Dickens – not retracting that bit, though) I said that it shouldn’t be a crime to enjoy something that can make you cry. What I also should have said is that it shouldn’t be a crime if something can make you cry because of how funny it is.
First posted on The Ran$om Note which covers everything from cutting edge music reviews to dog walking blogs, art, culture and new world musings.