Writing a funny short story or sketch is fairly straight forward, but writing a funny novel is very hard. Even the books that have pull-quotes on the front saying things like "I laughed on every page" and "hysterically funny" are usually anything but. So here is a small selection of books that are genuinely laugh out loud funny and also what they have taught me about writing in general. Because there is often more truth in a carefully constructed joke than in an entire volume of philosophy (twice as much if it includes poetry).
Ignatius J. Reilly is a grotesque, insufferable, buffoon of a man. He has no redeeming features, no admirable qualities. He is the "hero" of the story but he is not in the least bit sympathetic. Yet this hilarious Pulitzer Prize winning novel is beloved by many. It is also hated by many. But what it does show you is that not all protagonists need to be likeable. Given the choice between lovable and dull or interesting and despicable I know which I would choose. Not that having a sympathetic main character is a bad thing, it's just worth remembering that it is not the only thing.
McMurphy is certainly a likeable character. He's larger-than-life and not a respecter of authority. His antics are, in the parlance of our times, winning. But his battle is ultimately a futile one and even though the reader is desperate for him to prevail, it is not to be. One of the reasons for this is that his enemy is more powerful than him, both institutionally and in the person of the Big Nurse. Yet there is always a feeling that he could maybe come out on top. Keeping the reader uncertain of how things will play out and even giving them an ending they don't want can be powerful and rewarding. The urge to pander to the widest possible audience is something that has become almost obligatory in the last few years, in all forms of entertainment. Dumbing down is lucrative, but the Internet has created a large enough potential consumer base that even a niche product can turn a profit. That's what I tell myself anyway.
Satire is hard. Often people don't see the humour because it just tells you how things are. And explaining the joke never made anybody giggle. This book is funny. Horribly funny. While I can't guarantee it's all true I can certainly confirm that it's all believable. This book clearly demonstrates that nothing is too ridiculous to be believable. The key part of any story is not it's accuracy or its basis in fact, it's that you make it seem real. Whether that's in a suburb outside of Chicago, or on a planet where dragons fill the skies. It may take accuracy and facts to make it believable in some case, but what it always requires are characters that behave in a recognisable manner whatever their situation might be. They might not do what we would do, but we have to understand why they would do it.
This trilogy of five books taught me my most important lesson. It is full of amazing ideas and hilarious concepts, and dozens of bizarre characters, but it also does this other very unusual thing. It poses ridiculously impossible questions and then it answers them with perfectly plausible answers. It's something most writers avoid, after all if they really knew the answers to all the big questions they wouldn't waste their time writing about middle-aged men and their disappointing penises (I'm looking at you, Great American Novelists). Douglas Adams set his characters to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, and they did. They went in search of God's last message to creation, and they found it. No golden light from a magic box, no ambiguous, open-ended enigma for the reader to interpret as they wish. He stated clearly what he thought and left it to the reader to judge him on his insight. And he succeeded.
It's very easy to rely on the fact that none of us really knows anything about why we’re here or what it is we’re supposed to do. Writers too quickly settle for the easy option of the half-truth. The serial killer was abused as a child, the lovers adored each other at first sight, the aliens invaded because that's what aliens do. None of it really makes sense or explains anything it's just a way to avoid having to come up with anything truly meaningful. But it doesn't matter if you're wrong, or if it isn't the received wisdom, I say take a risk and come up with something original. I'm tired of hearing the same old explanations and I think most people are too.
Any books make you laugh till it hurts?
Any books make you laugh till it hurts?