Illustration by Weedon Grossmith from Diary of a Nobody, 1892
Nabokov urged us to read with our spines, to savor the tingle that the best writing brings. I tell the students in my comic-novel seminar to read with their funny bones. (Unfortunately, my suggestion that they mark the first point at which they chuckled audibly led to a paralyzing, nearly class-wide self-consciousness.) You won’t find Lucky Jim or A Confederacy of Dunces on this syllabus, for the simple fact that, despite their virtues, they’ve never made me laugh out loud the way the following titles always do, even after multiple readings, when nothing should surprise me.
More than a century old, Diary still succeeds because its fictional creator, Charles Pooter, is permanently modern in his precise status anxiety, the trivia he chooses to immortalize, and the misconception that he tells good jokes: “November 1: My entry yesterday about ‘retired tired,’ which I did not notice at the time, is rather funny. If I were not so worried just now, I might have had a little joke about it.”
That this utterly congenial 1954 novel is not generally picked as one of the essential Jeeves and Wooster titles makes me like it even more. Nightclubs, mystery novelists, impromptu cat burglary, and much more fill this tightly plotted yet breezy book. (In the United States, it was published as Bertie Wooster Sees It Through—worth checking out for Wodehouse’s three-page dedication poking fun at the art of the dedication.)
My students don’t quite believe me when I tell them that the run-on sentences of Weisberg’s high school–age protagonist extend the modernist fictional project. Additional proof: Weisberg has given his narrator Bloomsday for a birthday.
Nonstop action, fun-house logic, and dreamworld transitions—all by a seven-year-old author.
As if it’s not enough that Portis nails the voice of the easily distracted, perpetually pedantic Ray Midge, he gives us another perfectly conceived comic creation in the same book: Dr. Reo Symes, a man with a shady past and outsize, undying, ludicrous schemes. The interaction of their sensibilities bears the postmark: Comedy Heaven.
Unlike Filipacchi’s first two (also enchanting) novels, the prose here is deliberately as flat as an instruction manual. The simple, “logical” language allows her to create a world that bears a passing resemblance to contemporary New York, while generating ever more intricate and unreal comic scenarios. By the time we realize how far we’ve traveled, there’s no turning back.
Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer and the author of Personal Days (Random House, 2008), a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. He teaches at Columbia University.