My summer of story: appreciating the elusive comic novel
There’s a type of story that’s really hard to write, and that as a reader I often look for when I don’t feel well or I’m struggling — and that’s the comic novel. I love Carl Hiassen’s riotous eco-morality tales set in Florida, for both YA and adult readers; I’ve enjoyed a couple of Christopher Moore’s contemporary novels, especially Fluke; and, as I’m about to drive from Vermont to New York City to see my agent, I’m overjoyed to have downloaded Dave Barry’s new novel Insane City. But the comic novelist I still love most is the late, legendary Englishman P.G. Wodehouse.
Wodehouse wrote over 90 comic novels, featuring immortal dim-bulb aristocrats like Clarence Threepwood, the wooly-headed, pig-obsessed Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, and marriage-phobic young dandy Bertie Wooster, whose man Jeeves employs his superior brain power ("he positively lives on fish," Bertie declares, fairly often) to extract Wooster from the tangles he gets into. Wodehouse’s novels are generally predictable and always a boon to the complicated spirit, because a complicated spirit was never what, apparently, the author had.
What he did have was a love for the stubborn best that comes through in people, and a wondrous command of the English language. Witness a sentence like this, from Jeeves and the Tie that Binds, written when Wodehouse was 90: “Her departure — at, I should imagine, some 60 mph — left behind it the sort of quivering stillness you get during hurricane time in America, when the howling gale, having shaken you to the back teeth, passes on to tickle up residents in spots further west.”
Writing like this helps me feel better. It’s not just the language, either. It’s the story.
In Wodehouse’s tales, love eventually wins, the most larcenous scheming is thwarted, and all the twists and turns come clear and right in the end. The humor within these novels isn’t jokes, it’s a resilient, unsinkable humanity. I love the writing but it’s that humanity that keeps me coming back. It’s what a very different writer put in the mouth of his very different character, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye:
“What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while ... What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”
It doesn’t. In my work for young-adult readers, I try to be funny when I can — I can’t seem to help it, and I don’t want to; but as a reader I’ve found very, very few YA novels that you would call good comic stories. Years ago when my son was young, we both enjoyed Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes and Someday Angeline, lesser-known stuff by Louis Sachar, who went on to write Holes.
I wish there were more of a young-adult audience for humor — the kind that animates a novel, not the low-joke kind that’s all over YouTube. But, again, this type of story is very hard to write. In no way can a good comic novel be all gentle fun; there has to be tension, just as in the darkest tale — and I suspect that points to why truly funny stories are more challenging to put together and pull off than the dark, foreboding, dystopian stuff that dominates the YA shelf these days.
It’s one thing to develop tension by describing a world where everything is egregiously messed-up. It’s another to do the same in a story that centers on how, as humans, we actually find our way through — which is often by appreciating the absurdity, the silliness, the comedies of our own and everyone’s behavior.
Comedy is huge these days, on cable, on stage, online — but not so much in the stories we read. I can only say I wish there were more.
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