Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Favorite Comic Novel? Oldies but Goodies

By Jane Ciabattari

Critical Mass readers will know we are now in our fourth year of “NBCC Reads.” This survey allows us to draw on the bookish expertise of our membership, along with former NBCC winners and finalists. This spring's question: What's your favorite comic novel? was inspired by this past year's awards in fiction– NBCC fiction award winner Jennifer Egan's at-times hilarious A Visit from the Goon Squad (which also won this year's Pulitzer and the Los Angeles Times book award in fiction) and Irish writer Paul Murray's darkly comic Skippy Dies, an NBCC fiction finalist. We heard from more than 100 of you (thanks!). We do not tabulate votes or rank the titles under discussion. Instead, we simply give an idea of the authors or particular titles that seem to be tickling out collective fancy. Here's the first of the series, and the most noted comic novel of the lot, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, first published in 1961. (We're including worthy second choices, as well.) Other favorites so far:  Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Richard Russo's “Straight Man,” Kingsley Amis's “Lucky Jim,” two by Flann O'Brien. We'll be posting further responses and “Long Tail” entries in the weeks to come.


Marie Bacigalupo:

“Henry Fielding’s 'Tom Jones' may not be a likely choice but the goodhearted, randy protagonist enchants me.  I enjoy as well the rollicking picaresque action and the mirror held up to the foibles of 18th century English society, a society not so unlike our own.”

Chelsea Bauch:

“Laurence Sterne's absurdist and deviously playful 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman' is one of the greatest achievements of the comic form in any medium or genre. It's witty, artistically revolutionary, and manages to provide both mental stimulation and amusement.

“It's an oldie but a goodie…”

Poet Suzanne Cleary:

” 'David Copperfield,' hands down.

“David's voice is a master class in narration, and is as wise and tender as it is riotously funny: chapter, sentence, phrase, moment.

“And how about that chapter on David's first (and second, and third) alcoholic beverage?”

Charles Green:

“My favorite comic novel of all time is 'Pride and Prejudice.” There are so many wonderfully funny lines that beg to be read aloud; my two favorites are the opening sentence, 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,' and Mr. Bennet's declaration: 'An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.'

“Like a Shakespeare comedy, Austen takes her characters to the edge of disaster before pulling them back to each marry their perfect partner: Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy, Jane to Mr. Bingley, Charlotte to Mr. Collins, and Lydia to Mr. Wickham.  Every time I re-read the novel, I pick up on something I missed the last time, while continuing to laugh at the very recognizably human characters.  The book's comic elements are a large part of why readers have loved it for nearly 200 years, and why they'll continue enjoying it for even longer.”