Critical Mass

Video of NBCC Reads at Center for Fiction: On the Comic Novel

By Jane Ciabattari

What's your favorite comic novel? Novelist Beth Gutcheon chose Evelyn Waugh's first novel, and explained why, noting that Catch-22 and Lucky Jim also were first novels. Parul Sehgal, this year's Balakian winner and PW editor, loves Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Tin House editor Rob Spillman's favorite? The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. Video of the conversation of the NBCC Reads event at the Center for Fiction above.

A round robin of comic favorites followed. The audience chimed in and everyone followed a side thread about comic classics read aloud with a shout-out of the best readers of their own comic work aloud, including Chimamanda Adichie,from her new work in progress, Donald Antrim, T.C. Boyle, Sam Lipsyte, and Colson Whitehead. Here's a sampling of the books discussed, including audience favorites:

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What.

Karen Russell, Swamplandia.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Aimee Bender,The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

Richard Russo, Straight Man.

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (this year's NBCC fiction winner).

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (NBCC fiction finalist this year).

Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho.

Ed Park, Personal Days.

John Fante, Ask the Dust.

Jane Smiley, Moo.

Joshua Ferris. And Then We Came to an End.

Georges Perec, The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise, a Spillman add (his review here).

Eudora Welty. Especially “Why I Live at the P.O.” Read aloud.

Mark Twain. Mark Twain. Mark Twain.

And finally, the last of the long tail:

Stanley Booth: “Elise Sanguinetti's sadly forgotten The Last of the Whitfields.  Let's celebrate those poor elderly writers who have faded into obscurity not because of any lack of talent–no, not by a long shot, and Sanguinetti's parents, the Ayers, were Alabama pioneers in the Civil Rights movement and owned The Anniston Star,

Katherine Hoyt: “Roger Boylan's Killoyle, for his wry humor and his attention to–and abundance of–detail; for his making the running-form as readable as it is hilarious; but most of all for his humanity.”

Vinton Rafe McCabe:”For me the best source of the truly funny-born-of-misery comedy is Betty MacDonald, who managed to write herself a bestseller back in the 1940s with The Egg and I.”

D M Morrison:”Thrumm, a remarkable 2001 novel by Martin Edwards — not the British mystery writer but a British banker currently working in, of all places, Yemen. The book is about contemporary Britain as seen through the eyes of talking cow. He (not she; the book is a sly take on gender roles) happens to be an emissary from another planet.”

Charles Pius Murray: “One of my all-time favorites is Bel Kaufman’s 1964 novel Up the Down Staircase–an hilarious, warm, funny, but compassionate look at the experience of public school education in the 1960s, many of whose lessons remain applicable today.”

Robert Orsi: “The funniest novel I've read is Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in A Boat. I first came across it in an old English language bookstore when I was teaching at the University of Rome in 1985. I began reading it on the bus home and was laughing so hard that I scandalized other bus riders.”

Carlo Wolff:”I keep circling back to The Nightclerk, a darkly comic novel by Stephen Schneck that I read decades ago.”

Paul Zakrzewski: “My favorite comic novel may be Bruce Robinson's The Peculiar Memoirs of Thomas Penman (1999). Robinson was the talent behind the puerile but darkly funny British comedy Withnail. Robinson's trick in Withnail is mixing acid humor with careful nostalgia that renders the struggles of two 1960s London actors both funny and moving at the same time. He pulls off the same trick in Thomas Penman.”