Writing And More - A Blog by Alan Devey
Of late, I’ve been increasingly developing more comedic work and this has led me, in turn, to think about my inspirations; those novels I return to repeatedly and which never fail to make me laugh. I should warn you before we begin though, the following list very much reflects my individual tastes and it has therefore ended up focussing almost entirely on fiction written during my lifetime by white, American men (two exceptions being one novel from the 1960s, and another by an Irishman).
Of course, there are plenty of funny books by BAME writers out there, as Paul Beatty’s satirical 2016 Booker Prize winner ‘The Sellout’ proves. When it comes to distaff talents, numerous laugh-out-loud moments can be found through the fiction of Lorrie Moore or Sue Townsend, to give just two examples. But we’re all a product of our own environments and individual cultural biases aren’t we? I make no apologies for that and this is my blog, after all. So here are ten recommendations for funny books that have made me laugh wholeheartedly through recent years.
Wake Up, Sir – Jonathan Ames
We’ll start with a recent discovery of mine from a writer behind some of the best US TV of recent years in the shape of ‘Bored to Death’ and its eccentric companion piece, the Patrick Stewart-starring, ‘Blunt Talk’. During Ames’ 2004 novel he offers an uproarious series of events, loosely inspired by P.G. Wodehouse. ‘Wake Up, Sir’ follows a Wooster-ish dipsomaniac hero through a series of slapstick travails as he makes a road trip to an artists’ colony with his manservant in tow, a personal valet who may or may not exist. The book combines many of Ames’ semi-autobiographical obsessions, focussing as it does on a young writer with intermittent depression and substance abuse issues, unable to function in the real world or connect with others (at least, while sober). If he really existed Ames’ hero Alan Blair would be sad, fucked up, essentially a bit pathetic. But in this very clever story he somehow emerges as sympathetic, compelling and hilarious. That’s good writing for you.
Homeland – Sam Lipsyte
For me, ‘Homeland’ is master comic novelist Lipsyte’s finest hour, a barrelling journey through the unsteady mind and frustrated days of disappointed 30-something tube-sock fetishist Lewis Miner, a man “who did not pan out” quite as planned. This New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2005 reads a little like ‘Grosse Point Blank’ had the film’s reunion-attending hitman been replaced by an alienated, masturbating dweeb with a series of grudges, inchoately expressed. A scabrously funny satire taking on Utopian alumni bulletins and the many perils of modern living, ‘Homeland’ should touch a nerve with anyone wondering why their social media feed shows peers achieving success while they remain stuck, stewing in anger and disappointment. If you can relate to that then this is the novel for you, and it also features more quotable lines than any other mentioned here.
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
The oldest work on this list and the one with the biggest reputation, one that’s richly deserved. But wouldn’t it have been better if Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece had been recognised within his lifetime? At least he left us with this singular masterpiece I suppose, one which, along with ‘I, Partridge’, seems to be the favoured book of professional comedians, and with good reason. Central figure Ignatius J. Reilly is perhaps the most memorable protagonist in all of comic fiction, an obese, flatulent, pseudily repressed monstrosity, but a man we warm to as an antidote to the conformity and small-mindedness of mid-20th century New Orleans. So follow Ignatius as he tries to fit his bulk into one of those ‘hardworking’ roles society demands of unconventional people, with predictably unfortunate results. From leading a disastrous factory uprising to mismanaging a hot dog cart, one he occasionally uses to capture stray cats while eating all the stock, everything Ignatius touches somehow turns to dust. But the greatest achievement of this book is in its vivid, multifarious portrait of an often-neglected American city, one that boasts a host of memorable grotesques alongside the perfect recreation of the vernacular. ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ won Toole a posthumous Pulitzer in 1981 and it is essential reading for fans of fiction and laughter everywhere.
To Rise Again At a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
I wasn’t entirely convinced by the first two books Ferris published, although his debut ‘And Then We Came To The End’ was effectively done and managed to breathe new life into the moribund ‘office novel’ genre. But it still felt more plaintive than amusing while follow up ‘The Unnamed’ turned out to be a critical misfire. Then Ferris upped his game (and landed a Booker nomination to boot) with 2014’s ‘To Rise Again At a Decent Hour’. In this more straightforward comic tale, Paul O’Rourke; New York dentist and major-league insomniac, comes to believe an identity thief is posing as him on social media. Investigations lead our hero into a conspiracy that may or may not link to his Jewish heritage. But worry not! The elements of faith and identity are lightly worn; this isn’t Philip Roth or even Howard Jacobson. No, lingering in the mind from ‘To Rise Again At a Decent Hour’ are the hilarious moments in the dental surgery, particularly the dynamic between O’Rourke and his despairing female colleagues. Many critics claim the books they review have ‘laugh-out-loud’ moments, but this one really does. The scene where it gradually dawns on O’Rourke the woman he’s been talking to isn’t actually his hygienist after all is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon
Recently made into a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer-director behind 'Magnolia' and 'Boogie Nights', Pynchon’s most enjoyable novel is, typically for the author, one that essentially defies description. Anyone looking for plot resolution or linear storytelling is going to be disappointed, and yet Pynchon’s characters fairly leap off the page, from unwitting sleuth and big-time blunt aficionado ‘Doc’ Sportello to his furious nemesis, Detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (wonderfully played in the adaptation by Josh Brolin). There are comic twists and turns aplenty through the labyrinthine adventures of our hapless gumshoe, with ‘Inherent Vice’ acting as a useful corrective to accusations levelled at this author; that he offers only ‘hysterical realism’ or his ideas are somehow too esoteric. Rather this book boasts a perfectly realised Californian setting where the almost-picaresque adventures take place, during a decade when the hangover from sixties ideals enshrouds everything in a fug. The same vibe also infused Pynchon’s earlier book (and my favourite of his) ‘Vineland’, but ‘Inherent Vice’ is the funniest of all his works, a stoner comedy that meanders through opaque conspiracies as minor figures make subtle points about America’s war on drugs, crime and punishment, authority, rebellion and the failures of the counter-culture, all filtered through a haze of the finest dope smoke.
An Evening of Long Goodbyes – Paul Murray
The only book on this list by a European and the debut of an Irishman whose work is as funny as anything currently out there, Murray’s 2003 work is the pick of his three novels because of the sheer number of hilarious moments and the unforgettably deluded central character. Charles Hythloday is a kind of Irish Withnail, an upper class layabout unaware of the problems mounting across his ancestral pile as the family mansion crumbles around his ears. ‘An Evening of Long Goodbyes’ also features an exploding folly, a fictional tragedy entitled ‘There’s Bosnians In My Attic!’ and the ill-fated greyhound of the title. In his book Murray nails the delusions of our aristocracy and the oblivious moneyed classes in general, while the author would go on to be Booker-nominated for his terrific follow up ‘Skippy Dies’ before penning the most entertaining work so far about the 2008 financial crisis in ‘The Mark and the Void’. For me though, this incendiary yet ridiculous Whitbread-nominated debut is the one I go back to.
White Noise – Don Delillo
Those familiar with polymath postmodernist Delillo thanks to his gargantuan nuclear age opus ‘Underworld’ or the terrific Robert Pattinson-starring adaptation of his 2003 work ‘Cosmopolis’ might be surprised to discover several of The Don’s earlier books are genuinely funny, even if he only offers laughter in the dark. The most blackly comedic prose in all Delillo comes from this, a mid-80s US National Book Award winner. In ‘White Noise’ Professor Jack Gladney, a pioneer in the field of Hitler Studies long before Ken Livingstone entered the scene, finds himself thrust into a series of events emblematic of a Cold War apocalypse-threatened America. They range from the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ leading to the evacuation of his hometown, a young man’s penchant for being filmed in a cage of snakes, an Elvis-obsessed colleague trying to make a name for himself in academia and an experimental drug that removes the fear of death. Amid all this comes perfectly turned punchlines, bleakly hilarious set-pieces and a skewed look at our poisonous contemporary world, perfectly wrought by a modern master. ‘White Noise’ is also the ideal ‘gateway drug’ to Delillo’s more difficult works.
Choke – Chuck Palahniuk
I’m aware Chuck’s recent output could charitably be described as ‘patchy’ and, although they have moments of black humour, his first three books (including massive hit ‘Fight Club’) could hardly be described as comic fiction. But then came this novel, 2001’s ‘Choke’, a laugh-a-page tale for an increasingly lost age. Here recovering sex addict Victor Mancini has misadventures of the carnal kind between making naïve bystanders feel good about themselves as they supposedly save him from choking in restaurants. There’s none of the overt violence or nihilism of Chuck’s other work, replaced here by a kind of youthful ennui and humorous depictions of a museum dedicated to the re-enactment of colonial times. As someone who was once employed at a theme park – something that provided the inspiration for my first attempt at a novel back in the late nineties - I recognise in ‘Choke’ everything I learned about the ridiculous, comic degradation of the whole sorry experience.
Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart
As far as I’m concerned, Russian immigrant and NYC-based author Shteyngart has a good case for claiming to be the funniest prose writer in America right now. His first two books, ‘The Russian Debutante’s Handbook’ and ‘Absurdistan’, are both essential while recent memoir ‘Little Failure’ is painfully self-knowing and uproarious in equal measure. But with this novel from 2010 Shteyngart offers us nothing less than a prescient commentary on the post-crash digital age. Our semi-autobiographical protagonist Lenny Abramov falls for Korean-American Eunice Park against a backdrop of US economic collapse, rising totalitarianism and phone apps that judge everyone in the vicinity on their perceived attractiveness. Set in a near-future that looks more horribly plausible with each day that passes, ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ manages to find laughter in our unstable, globalised, often-painful world. But let’s not get too bogged down in the heavy stuff, Shteyngart doesn’t. Mostly this is a Dystopian tour de force, an utterly hilarious book that makes you want to start reading it again the moment you’ve finished. Apparently there’s a Ben Stiller-produced TV show in the works too and, if it’s half as good as the novel, that should prove to be essential viewing.
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
Now the big one; the behemoth, the thousand-page masterwork from a late master. Firstly though, a warning: if you want the most accessible funny DFW can offer, you might be better off starting with his non-fiction, particularly ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ where the author reports back from a luxury cruise and state fair in acute detail; experiences that prove just as horrendous as he expected. But at some point the David Foster Wallace fan must tackle this, the pinnacle of his achievement, a book that’s both intellectually taxing and profoundly moving as well as being incredibly funny. Indeed, ‘Infinite Jest’ reveals Wallace to be the master of building hilarity, a surprise to those who might only have viewed him as a cerebral brainiac, obsessed with words and ideas. So savour the section that depicts a game of ‘Eschaton’ – an unusual combination of dodgeball and thermonuclear war theoretics played out by students at Wallace’s fictional Enfield Tennis Academy – and wonder at the author’s limitless achievement while dissolving into fits of laughter.