Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Stephen Burt’s Favorite Comic Novel

By Stephen Burt

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,  “Oldies but Goodies” like Henry Fielding's “Tom Jones” and Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice,” plus Charles Portis. Today's posting is one of our “Long Tail” entries.

Randall Jarrell, “Pictures from an Institution.” (Runner-up, “Tom Jones” by Henry Fielding):

Not just a “campus novel,” Jarrell's portrait of the fictional Benton College is an endlessly quotable trove of barbs, bon mots, and sadder-but-wiser epigrams, many of them directed at Types– the snooty avant-garde artist, the publishing maven. the gladhanding boy-wonder college president: “About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the President of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs and lo! the two were one.”

It's snarky (as snarky as the negative reviews that helped make Jarrell famous as a young man). But the book as a whole is anything but a long snark: its most sympathetic characters (the Rosenbaums, loosely modeled on Hannah Arendt and her husband) have learned how to live, generously, the life of the mind, and its least sympathetic figure, the novelist Gertrude Johnson– a sort of evil twin to Jarrell's narrator– traces with her unforgiving pen the path of superiority, of looking down on everybody and everything, that this satirical novel paradoxically wants to help us learn how to avoid.

Jarrell's only novel for adults (best known as a poet and critic, he also wrote children's books), “Pictures” found praise as well as controversy when it appeared in 1954; some people thought Benton was Sarah Lawrence, or Kenyon, and some (with more reason) thought Gertrude was Mary McCarthy. They're related, but not the same: the college and its faculty and visitors are not just an excuse for funny remarks (though they are, they are!), nor a you've-been-there sigh about academia (though they are that too) but an attempt to find, amid folly and pretense, a place for new experience, for innocence, for genuine art.

Stephen Burt is the author of two critical books on poetry as well as two poetry collections, including Parallel Play. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Believer, the Nation, and the New York Times Book Review. He is an Associate Professor of English at Harvard University. Visit his website at <a href=""></a>.