Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Damion Searls’s Favorite Comic Novels

By Damion Searls

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. The first of the series, and the most noted comic novel of the lot, was 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.



Can I name two? Anthony (Dance to the Music of Time) Powell's little-known third novel, Agents and Patients, is hilarious: rogue Freudian screenwriter-adventurers Chipchase and Maltravers try to take dim, well-intentioned, wealthy Blore-Smith of everything he's got. Somebody get this book back into print!

But only humor of your own moment can touch you to the core. The funniest book I've read from the past ten less-than-hilarious years–both deeply moving and literally-laugh-out-loud-in-public funny–is Ed Park's Personal Days, an office dystopia fizzing with formal and verbal energy.

Damion Searls is a translator from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch and a writer in English. He has translated many of Europe's greatest writers, including Proust, Rilke, Robert Walser, Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, Peter Handke, Jon Fosse, and Nescio, edited a new abridged edition of Thoreau's Journal, and produced a lost work of Melville's. His translation from the German of Hans Keilson's "Comedy in a Minor Key" was a finalist for the 2010 NBCC Award in Fiction. He will be hosting a special Proust event, in connection with his translation of "On Reading," at the Center for Fiction in NYC on Tuesday, September 20, and is teaching "Proust I" at the Center this fall on Wednesdays starting October 5.