Who doesn’t love a comic novel? What makes something funny is very hard to pin down, and one person’s sense of humor can be so different from another’s that what makes one person laugh might bore another to tears. But when you find a novel that makes you laugh out loud, it’s a wonderful thing. And sometimes novels that make you laugh can also make you stop and think once your laughter has died down. Some of the best comic novels are ones that have an edge to them. They are funny because they are saying something true about the world, even if, especially if, that truth is something we don’t want to face.
The last couple years have seen the publication of some masterful comic novels. Among them are three of my favorites:
Oreo, by Fran Ross. This was originally published in 1974 and was reissued last year by New Directions. It’s one of the strangest novels I have ever read, and I love it. It has charts, lists, mathematical formulas, a several-page menu, and a quiz to test your knowledge of Jesus’ qualities as a manual laborer. It reassures anybody who might be worried that “There is no weather per se in this book…Assume whatever season you like throughout.” Instead of weather, we get a history of Oreo’s family — her mother is African-American and her father is Jewish, and, yes, the main character really does go by the name Oreo. We get an account of her childhood, and the story of her quest to find her father. This quest turns out to be a retelling of the Theseus myth, but you can enjoy the book without knowing anything about that. The writing is so sharp, so biting, and so funny. It’s also an incisive look at how Americans think about family, race, and identity. The book is over 40 years old now, but it reads like it could have published yesterday.
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty. You get an idea what you’re in for with this book from the opening line: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” From there it gets even more surprising: the prologue takes place in the halls of the Supreme Court where the narrator smokes marijuana and an unnamed Supreme Court Justice who is surely Clarence Thomas makes a … well, a shocking appearance and says some unbelievable things. The premise is that the main character, an African-American, is on trial for reinstating segregation in his hometown and also for owning a slave. The plot is absurd – jaw-droppingly absurd. My jaw dropped basically the whole way through this book. I loved this book on a sentence-level as well; Beatty’s sentences consistently shocked me and made me laugh.
Loving Day, by Mat Johnson. This novel is milder in tone than the previous two; it’s not so much bitingly satirical as it is gently poking fun at the world. Loving Day is more straight-forwardly written than Oreo, but both books are about family, education, growing up, father/daughter relationships, and the experience of being mixed race. Johnson’s narrator Warren discovers he has a 17-year-old daughter and the daughter finds out she has a black father, and the plot then revolves around what school to send her to and how well the daughter fits in once she’s there. Both Warren and his daughter struggle with how they understand and define themselves: should they identify as black or specifically as multiracial? The novel’s issues are serious, but its characters and voice are charming and a little ridiculous in the best possible way. There’s a lengthy set-piece at a comics convention early in the novel that’s cringe-worthy and funny both. There are also ghosts. It’s great.
Bonus pick: A Ignoni Barrett’s Blackass: A Novel. I haven’t read this book yet, but it sounds like it belongs on this list. It’s about a Nigerian who wakes up one day to find he’s been transformed into a white man. The publisher’s description reads: “In this condition he plunges into the bustle of Lagos to make his fortune. With his red hair, green eyes, and pale skin, it seems he’s been completely changed. Well, almost. There is the matter of his family, his accent, his name. Oh, and his black ass.” Yes, I think this sounds like a perfect fit.