Recent literary fiction has inevitably reflected the geopolitical turbulence and pandemic challenges of the past decade. Some novels have dwelt brilliantly on tech dystopias and many others explored life in increasingly fragile democracies. But there is only so much stylish brooding any reader can take. Some of the most compelling novels I’ve read this year tackle demanding themes — but do so with a refreshing sense of humour: sometimes dry and scathing, sometimes tender.
Often the lightness runs alongside heartbreak, as with the 2020 Booker winning writer Douglas Stuart’s two novels, Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo. The Canadian-American author Ruth Ozeki, also a Zen Buddhist priest, tackled the subject of grief after a parent’s death with a touch of uplifting magic in The Book of Form and Emptiness. And the Mumbai-based novelist and poet Jerry Pinto pulls off a funny and wry coming-of-age novel, The Education of Yuri, about a boy yearning to be a writer in 1980s Bombay.
Earlier this month Percival Everett was awarded the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction for The Trees, his Booker shortlisted novel that addresses America’s history of lynchings with brutally effective humour. As Peter Florence, the chair of the jury, said, “Comedy can entertain, can mock, can tease out our compassion and empathy . . . [The Trees] can lighten the most atrocious darkness and tell truths in ways that begin to make sense of the absurdity of life.” Like previous winners — including Helen Fielding and Terry Pratchett — Everett received champagne, a complete set of PG Wodehouse and will have a pig named after his winning book, a nod to Wodehouse’s fondness for including dastardly porcine kidnappings in his plots.
In a sea of literary awards, it’s striking that the Wodehouse prize is one of only a few awards for comic literature in the UK. As a child, reading my way through Saki, Jonathan Swift and PG Wodehouse, I thought (erroneously, as it turns out) of Britain as the natural home of funny writers. Wodehouse’s novels about eccentric members of the peerage had an almost feverish following among Indians of a certain generation, and I read my way through the canon when I was young. I remember loving the author’s ability to embrace a permanently sunlit silliness in perfectly turned sentences. “What Wodehouse writes is pure word music,” the late Douglas Adams said. It takes one comic genius to recognise another.
In 2002, the writer and politician Shashi Tharoor wrote a paean to Wodehouse for the Guardian, in which he noted the author’s huge popularity in India: “It was only natural that Indians would enjoy a writer who used language as Wodehouse did — playing with its rich storehouse of classical precedents, mockingly subverting the very canons colonialism had taught Indians they were supposed to venerate.” That popularity has subsided as a new generation turns to TikTok and more contemporary authors; elsewhere in the world, Wodehouse is either half-forgotten or seen as a strange relic of the past.
Writers have long been wise to the prejudices that surround humour — too often dismissed as shallow entertainment. Comedy often celebrates life’s joys, and writing about happiness is far harder than its opposite. In a 2014 discussion with Adam Kirsch in the New York Times, Leslie Jamison, one of the sharpest essayists of our time, said: “It’s more interesting to read about something being wrong than everything being right. Happiness threatens the things that every writing workshop demands: suspense, conflict, desire.”
It is still rare to discover literary fiction that turns to comedy for the sake of comedy. But humour is increasingly being deployed to lighten, or underline, serious subjects. This year’s Booker winner, Shehan Karunatilaka, brilliantly showcased the subcontinent’s capacity for black humour in the face of civil war and unremitting gloom in The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, where the ghost of a photographer sets off to investigate his own death. “We [Sri Lankans] specialise in gallows humour and make jokes in the face of our crises,” the author has said. “Laughter is clearly our coping mechanism.”
Perhaps we have finally begun to cast aside what Martin Amis refers to in his autobiographical 2020 novel Inside Story as “the intellectual glamour of gloom”; perhaps we are ready to enjoy the pleasure — and versatility — of humour again.
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