Are comedic novels supposed to be funny in the same way that stand-up comics are funny?

I like funny things. Well, not videos of cats. Actually, I avoid humorous Youtube videos of any sort. But I am generally capable of appreciating all other forms of funny media: musicals, jokes (even puns), stand-up comedies, sit-coms, etc.

But I’ve always been a little mystified by comedic novels. I mean, I’ve read and enjoyed fair number of ostensibly comedic novels….but I haven’t found them funny.

I find it easy to recognize some kind of similarity between the feeling I get from a good joke (even if I don’t laugh at it) and a comedic song. But that feeling seems, to me, to be so different from the feeling that I get from comedic novels that I hesitate to call them the same feeling.

Out of all the prose works I’ve read, there aren’t more than a handful that I’ve found to be really funny: Simon Rich’s Ant Farm; Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens; and (at least when I read it like ten years ago) Dave Barry’s Big Trouble.

Almost all the other comedic novels I’ve read have seemed to me to possess nothing more or less than the typical qualities of a novel: complicated characters, interesting situations, well-observed social dynamics, etc. It’s true that in ostensibly-comedic novels, these things are exaggerated in certain ways, but most novels make heavy use of exaggeration and satirical elements as well.

For instance, 1984 is not considered a comedic novel, but in its cartoonish depiction of a world of doublethink, Big Brother, two-minute hates, and the like, the novel seems to be satirizing real world institutions in exactly the same way as, say, Catch-22.

As another example, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye (and, to some extent, Franny And Zooey) is about an intelligent but deluded fool who feels very estranged from the world in which he lives and goes wandering around a large city and criticizing everything around him; that’s also the same premise and technique of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy Of Dunces. But the former is rarely described as a comic novel, while the latter is frequently described as one.

And that would be fine, if the latter novel was funny and the former was not. However, I don’t perceive that distinction. To me, 1984 and Catcher in the Rye are good in pretty much the same way that Catch-22 and Confederacy of Dunces are good.

I don’t recognize comedic novels as being funny, but there is something that I enjoy about them. I like their niceness and miniaturization. Most of life isn’t heart-rending and life-altering. Most of it is tea parties and little arguments. I think that ‘comedic’ novels tend to capture that pretty well and, in some ways, they feel more true than more ostensibly realistic novels.

The closest thing to a comedic novel is probably the romantic comedy film. Rom-coms are generally not that funny. Instead, they’re cute. They’re romances without passion. They’re dramas without bite. When I say it that way, it kind of sounds like I am slamming them, but I actually like the absence of passion and drama. I think that it’s an interesting way of portraying life. And since we don’t know quite what to call things that are ‘cute’ or ‘nice’ in this way, we call them ‘comedies.’

Recently, I have read five extremely good comedic novels and I am going to summarize my reactions to them below.


Vile Bodies
by Evelyn Waugh – One of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a very fast-paced novel about petty English gentry in the inter-war period. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel that was about precisely this milieu and time period. Or rather, perhaps I have (most of the Bloomsbury Group’s novels must be about these folks) but I haven’t recognized it because no one else has so skillfully drawn out matters of money and social relationships. This book is also told in a really interesting way. It’s composed primarily of very short–less than 500 word–scenes and has very abrupt transitions between scenes.

Decline And Fall by Evelyn Waugh – This is Waugh’s first novel (and my introduction to his work). I’m always surprised at the gall of some authors. Waugh wrote a novel that’s basically about an Oxford student who gets kicked out of college and goes on to do a bunch of things that are sort of like what Waugh did (like teach at a private school) but, of course, a lot sillier. I don’t think fiction ought to imitate real life in this way, because real life generally makes very little sense. This comes through pretty well in the novel. The only reason the main character does the next thing is because the author wants to talk about the next thing. Still, the novel turned out well (but I bet most novels that are like this one are pretty horrible). Also, Waugh’s

novels also tend to have horrific subplots that you should look for. People die between scenes for no good reason.

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene – Because of his daughter’s extravagant pecuniary demands, a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana agrees to become an informant for a British spy agency. But because he’s lazy, he just sends back doctored reports. This is only barely comic. Informants actually do this kind of thing all the time. But there’s something in the twisting desperation of the informant to manufacture a good life for himself and his daughter that is really interesting.

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene – This book is about a boring fifty year old man (a retired bank manager) who meets his septuagenarian aunt for the first time and starts going on crazy world-spanning adventures with her. The most interesting thing about this novel is its sense of restraint. If I (or any other imitator) was to write a character like the aunt, we’d make her backstory outrageous and diverse. We’d put in everything into her backstory. We’d have her taming lions in Senegal and blasting off to outer space and saving the President from assassins in Tulsa. She’d basically be Pippi Longstocking. But although Graham Greene doesn’t reveal her entire past, he basically allows the reader to reconstruct a very coherent timeline from the aunt’s stories. Although she’s still a ridiculous character, her comprehensibility makes her seem much more realistic; she’s not just some crazy awesome Chuck Norris type who no real person could ever live up to.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh – I also read Scoop. But I am blanking on what to say about it right now, so instead I’ll just transition directly into:

 

ASIDE: Is Dickens supposed to be comedic or what? I mean, do people find him funny? Do people find him dramatic? Dickens is so weird. It’s hard to know what to think about him. He’s pretty much his own entirely inimitable blend of the absurd and the dramatic. Nothing about Dickens is real and nothing about him is funny, but when you see his mannequins walk around, some kind of real emotion oozes up out of you. I guess that he’s sort of like a musical. If you stop to think about what musicals are (stories about people who just burst out into song in the most ordinary situations) then they start to seem really ridiculous. Maybe most forms and genres of media are pretty ridiculous if you’re not willing to embrace their conventions.

Woman as Financial Vampire

I’m currently reading (and considerably enjoying) Edith Wharton’s Custom Of The Country. But I am also disquieted by the novel. At its core, the story of this novel is a very familiar one. It’s about an ambitious woman who sucks dry a somewhat dreamy man with her incessant financial demands.

The cunning woman who only longs for fine society and fine objects and uses her beauty as a tool with which to entrap men into providing for her desires is an incredibly familiar figure in literature. She is so familiar, in fact, that I kept having these strange echoes while I read the book. I’d have a brief impression, and then I wouldn’t be able to rest until I remembered the other book that I was being reminded of.

I haven’t tracked down all the impressions of what I call “woman as financial vampire”, but I can name a few. There’s Emile Zola’s Nana, about a French prostitute who destroys the fortunes of her admirers. There’s Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose eponymous heroine eventually gets her husband deep into debt after issuing numerous notes and trying all kinds of financial manipulations with the village moneylender. There’s Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: the main character has a paramour who engages in embezzlement to meet her monetary demands. There’s Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who bankrupts her creditors (and ruins her admittedly horribly husband) by knowingly borrowing huge sums and then running away from her debts. There’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: who screws over her second husband in various business deals. There’s Grushenka in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamozov, who causes the central conflict of the novel by creating a large need for money in the oldest brother, Dmitri. There’s Polina in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose mysterious need for money causes the hero to take up gambling.

Perhaps the most nuanced and complex use of this female trope comes (rather surprisingly) from Charles Dickens. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora Spenlow, shares many traits with the financial vampires described above: she’s spoiled, petulant, short-sighted, and used to being supported by wealthy men. And when she married David Copperfield, one is almost sure that she is immediately going to drive him to ruin. But she doesn’t. Their marriage is not precisely happy, but she does not destroy him. In the end, it seems like he genuinely loves her and she genuinely loves him.

Most of the examples I cited above are from a particular time period, and, indeed, I think it’s difficult to find more recent examples of the woman as financial vampire. An example from the fifties is Millie, from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, whose financial demands cause her father to enter into the spying business. Another that springs to mind is Jorah Mormont in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who becomes a slaver and a mercenary in order to satisfy his wife Lynesse’s need for jewels and finery and parties.

There must be many more examples of this trope, but its frequent occurrence in my own reading is enough to satisfy me that it is definitely “a thing”.

But it does puzzle me. The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety. In many cases, her financial needs are coupled with a sexual unfaithfulness, which seems to suggest that they’re both part of some kind of fear of emasculation or loss of control.

But it’s the financial aspect that has always been more startling to me than the sexual aspect. After all, a woman can’t be spendthrift without her husband’s consent. In most of the above relationships, the man has to sign for each and every purchase. He is fully capable, at any time, of cutting the purse strings, but he is so ensnared by her charm that he is unable to.

It’s a strange sort of anxiety and I question how often women like this actually existed. She’s more like a monster than she is like a real person. She has an unholy power to glamor a man. And she has an unquenchable appetite for jewels, hotel rooms, meals, carriages, and dresses.

In some cases (as in Our Man In Havana) the financial vampire is just a plot device. She’s a way to provide the hero with a huge need for money without also making him seem greedy or repellent. But many of these novels are explicitly devoted to the psychology or origins of these women. It’s quite fantastic that so much ink has been spilled about the inner workings creature that can’t have been very common.

But it doesn’t matter that the financial vampire probably didn’t exist too often: what matters is that she ought to exist. Most of these novels conclude that mankind deserves the financial vampire. Halfway through Custom of the Country, a character rather explicitly says that America gives rise to these financial vampires because it infantilizes women and doesn’t allow them to have real pursuits: the reason they have no real concept of money is because they are not allowed to work, and the reason they ruin men is because they are taught that their virtue is measured in what they can extract from males using their beauty and charm.

Personally, though, I am not convinced by these pseudo-feminist morals. Despite the gloss that these novels put on what they’re doing, they are still trafficking in very charged, very sexist imagery, and I think that part of their emotional appeal, as literature, is due to the horror that these women arouse in men. If I created a movie where a mob of blacks rioted and raped a bunch of white women, I think I would still be playing to the racist anxieties of my audience even if I ended the movie by saying “They were driven to this by your racism!”