Comedy and Errors


The 2010 Man Booker awards were announced yesterday! The winner was THE FINKLER QUESTION, by Howard Jacobson (braVO!). I haven’t read Mr. Jacobson, but I assure you his books are already ordered.

One repeated note in the reports on Mr. Jacobson’s win was that his novel is “the first unashamedly comic novel to win the Man Booker prize in its 42-year history.” The statement makes an interesting point: there is an impulse to delineate between the comic and the literary. As if something’s being comedic precludes it from also having literary merit. Well, poo-poo, misguided literary snobs. Comedic just won the Booker.

Mr. Jacobson discussed this compulsive distinction much more eloquently in the Guardian last Saturday. One of the effects of this article was to make me feel terribly illiterate (consider yourself warned). But it also got me thinking. In the article, Mr. Jacobson argues that all novels are comic. That, in fact, a novel without comedy is “not doing its job.”

There, Mr. Jacobson lost me. I don’t think that the modifier “comedic” in front of “novel” is always misplaced. The novel is a wonderfully, deeply complex art form, and descriptors like “comedic” and “literary,” while reductive, are the only way we can communicate about them to people who haven’t read them.

But more than that, there are a huge number of novels that contain comedic moments but are not comedic novels. As in, they’re not characterized by the comedy. Room, another Booker short-lister and one of my favorites, is one of these. Anytime you’re stuck in a small space with a 5-year-old, there’s bound to be some humor. But I wouldn’t call a novel about a woman kidnapped and held against her will with her son comedic. And it was just as I was about to start pontificating to poor Suzie that I came across this in Mr. Jacobson’s article:

“…the comic novel is a brief licence for…abandon – deadly serious at the last because we are a frightening species when we are released into our own custody. And because the truth hurts.” (sic)

Aaaannnd we reconverge (phew). I think the virtue of the comic in a novel is somewhere in the above statement rather than being some intrinsic piece of everything that’s not a full-on Greek tragedy. “Comic relief” is different than “comedy.” It’s a much-needed break in the unbearable sadness of watching someone suffer to whom, if the novel is doing its job, you’re very, very close. But it’s hard to justify characterizing the novel by what it does in the breaks, the exceptions to the rule. Books are not always doing comedy. Not even most of the time.

One of the books Mr. Jacobson refers to as comedic is the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (a book, incidentally, that I read on recommendation from a professor whom I subsequently decided required medication in the worst way). Mr. Jacobson says that “someone” is laughing at the end of that book. I disagree. Marquis de Sade is not comedy. It’s absurd, terrifying, and it’s outrageous.

Mr. Jacobson points out that, historically, the novel is outrageous-- he calls it "hyperbolic"--as is comedy. And if “hyperbole is the soul of comedy,” then Sodom is comedic. I’d say, though, that a 120-day murderous rampage is hyperbolic without being comedic. Hyperbole may be the soul of comedy, but that’s only a piece of a whole. If there’s comedy in Sodom, it’s most certainly an (incredibly dim and obscure) exception to the rule.

Comedic elements are a tool. They are used to direct the reader because comedy, even more so when juxtaposed against tragedy, is attractive. A character can be despicable but, give him a couple jokes and, dadgummit, we sort of like him despite ourselves. And an author that knows how to use comedic signposts is leading us somewhere that will reveal something. In the midst of tragedy, throwing in a joke is a life preserver. It gives us a break so that we have the endurance to move deeper into the story, into the characters.

But books can also challenge us and speak eloquently without comedy. Without pulling punches, without the juxtaposition. For me, comedy is always a welcome element if used well (let’s not forget it’s reputed to be most difficult to execute), and I’m glad that comedy is everywhere, in life and in books. But I am surprised and touched by the other tools used by the writers I love, too.

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adam.purple said...

You've reminded me of The Human Comedy, which I ready many, many years ago in junior high. I found it to be anything but comic. But my teacher was one who held the view that if it isn't tragedy, it's comedy. It was my first exposure to that idea.

Thanks for this post, and for bringing some good memories to mind.

Jude said...

For the past 2 minutes, I've been trying to put a comedic spin on kidnapping a college girl and locking her up for 5 years, but it's quite the herculean task.

Meredith Barnes said...

Haha right? It's not that Mr. Jacobson is saying that all novels are laugh-out-loud funny... I think we probably agree more than our articles would suggest. :)It's a hard one to pin down exactly.

Joanna said...

Brilliant post, Mer.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I agree with him to a certain extent. There is certainly humor in the absurd, even in the terrifying. I think it relies mostly on what defines "comedy" for the individual reader.

That being said, I too have no idea how to find the funny in kidnapping someone and keeping them locked up.

Now I'm stumped.

Anonymous said...

My French teacher recommended that I read "120 Days of Sodom" in 9th grade. Like a good student, I promptly located online and settled in to be traumatized by the beginning. I think I got as far as the old whore descriptions before I gave up, my fourteen-year-old mind forever haunted.

THAT SAID, it is wonderful to know that I am not entirely alone!