Adam Ehrlich Sachs's Inherited Disorders is one of the funniest books of the year. The 117 very short stories about fathers and sons are an assortment of absurdist scenarios from a Harvard-trained intellect with the timing of a borscht belt comedian. Sachs picks 10 very funny books.
Laughter is the only reaction to a book that can be trusted. Tears are often artificial, sighs affected, praise self-serving, criticism a mere advertisement for the reader’s discernment. Swoons I don’t trust at all; I myself have never once swooned while reading, and whenever I hear that a book made a reader swoon, I am instantly suspicious of that book, of that reader, and especially of that swoon (a swoon that probably in fact never happened! The sad truth is that many more readerly swoons are reported than really take place.) In short, most reactions to books are performances, and therefore lies—often lies we tell ourselves. Laughter is different. Laughter is primitive, physical, involuntary, and immediate; more than any other reaction, it circumvents one’s self-consciousness. Laughter is actually scientifically much closer to the sneeze than it is to the sigh, the swoon, the single tear rolling down the cheek, or the discerning book review. This sneeze-like as opposed to sigh-like or swoon-like quality of the laugh is why it has always been the bodily reaction preferred by cynics, skeptics, and nihilists. Here are ten funny books.
1. Walking by Thomas Bernhard
Bernhard’s oeuvre is the longest, funniest joke in literature. If I were being honest this list would probably consist of nine Bernhard books and maybe one by Beckett. But I’ll go with this novella for its extremely long, hysterically funny description of Karrer’s mental breakdown in a clothing store, when he tries to convince a salesman, at some length, that the pants they are selling, when held up to the light, display a number of thin spots that can only be attributed to the use of shoddy materials, materials which Karrer insists (for page after page after page) must be what he refers to as “Czechoslovakian rejects.”
2. Watt by Samuel Beckett
Just after he shed his Joycean inheritance, and just before he began deconstructing his own sentences to the point of unintelligibility, Beckett produced a few of the funniest novels of the last century. Molloy runs a close second, but Watt is my favorite for its permutational madness: almost every scene consists of a few objects (e.g., a sock, a shoe, a slipper, and a boot) that are exhaustively placed in every possible relation to one another, and to Watt himself, as he considers his relationship to his master, Mr. Knott. It is astoundingly indulgent and insanely tedious, but now and then the tedium mounts to moments of delirious bliss and silliness that justify everything else.
3. House of Holes by Nicholson Baker
A suite of interlocking pornographic vignettes with titles like “Luna Fucks a Penis Tree,” set at a fantastically cheerful, obscene, and smoothly-run sex-positive orgasm-promoting health facility located inside Nicholson Baker’s brain, a facility that employs, among others, the artist Koizumi, who fashions exquisite sculptures from a material called asswood: it’s probably no surprise that a literary world that values seriousness above all else failed to recognize this as a work of brave, anarchic, and above all joyful genius.
4. A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett
Though Compton-Burnett’s astringent fantasias told almost entirely in dialogue have influenced writers from Pinter to Edward St. Aubyn, she remains stranger and starker than her heirs. A House and its Head has the trappings of a baroque late-Victorian family melodrama—deaths, affairs, murder—but treats these conventions with a withering deadpan that mocks them even as it uses them, the obliquity and formality pressed to the point of absurdity. (A daughter’s reaction to her mother’s sudden death: “Are the ennobling effects of sorrow temporary?”) With the demented doggedness of all great artists, Compton-Burnett wrote almost exactly this same novel twenty times in a row and then died.
5. The Parable of the Blind by Gert Hofmann
In a famous painting Breugel the Elder depicted the Biblical parable of the blind leading the blind by showing six blind men tumbling into a ditch. Hofmann imagines the backstory to this painting, converting it in the process into a brilliantly deranged parable of artistic obsessiveness. A painter summons six blind men and makes them fall, screaming, into a ditch over and over again, hoping to capture their terror on his canvas as accurately as possible. The blind men have some questions about the point of all this, but the painter refuses to explain himself: “Fall! Don’t ask questions, fall!”
6. Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms by Daniil Kharms
Somehow, one of the extremely brief anecdotes from this avant-garde Soviet absurdist also features exactly six people falling to their dooms, but in Kharm’s consistently senseless universe no meaning is allowed to emerge from it. In Kharm’s case, it is six old women who fall out of a window, each one leaning out to look at her predecessor, “shattered to pieces” down there on the street below, before leaning out a little bit too far and shattering to pieces herself. Just when we start to wonder if this process will go on forever—or if it might be an allegory for something—the narrator gets bored of watching it and walks away.
7. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Pnin, Nabokov’s more straightforward novel of émigré dislocation, might be funnier joke for joke, but Pale Fire is, I think, more profoundly funny, more fundamentally funny, since the funniness is built into the form itself: our mad narrator Charles Kinbote constructs an entire world through a misreading of John Shade’s poignant poem about the suicide of his daughter. (I’ve also always liked this bit, from Kinbote interacting with his academic colleagues: “Another tormentor inquired if it was true that I had installed two ping-pong tables in my basement. I asked, was it a crime? No, he said, but why two? ‘Is that a crime?’ I countered.”)
8. Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert
In Flaubert’s great buddy comedy—an encyclopedic parody of the encyclopedic spirit—two idiots inherit a huge fortune and squander it on a series of disastrous investigations into every branch of knowledge. Like most of my favorite books, it becomes tedious at some point (the repetitions required for comedy seem to conflict with the demands of plot) but until that point it is genuinely funny, especially in Mark Polizzotti’s excellent translation.
9. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Spark’s elliptical tale of a fascistic teacher (Mussolini, she informs her young students, has “performed feats of magnitude”) and her mostly devoted brood is never funnier than when it’s killing off the stupidest student, Mary MacGregor, in one of its hilariously abrupt, brutal glimpses into the distant future: “ ‘Sandy won’t talk to me,’ said Mary, who later, in that hotel fire, ran hither and thither till she died.”
10. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
No one needs another intro to Vonnegut, so, instead, a random, nonchronological, nonexhaustive list of some other writers who make me laugh: Gogol, Salinger, Barthelme, Philip Roth, Flann O’Brien, Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Dahl, Donald Antrim, Chris Bachelder, Sholem Aleichem, Elif Batuman, Patrick deWitt, Mallory Ortberg, Dostoyevsky, Waugh, Proust, Gary Shteyngart, Moyshe Kulbak, Lars Iyer, Nietzsche, Heller, Hamsun, Rivka Galchen, Padgett Powell, Cervantes, Kafka, Jack Handey.