Ten Great Authors of Black Comedy
After World War 2 there was a drastic re-evaluation of values throughout the world. The horror of the war had changed how people thought of politics, human rights and even human nature. The movement in literature called "postmodernism" began to "play within the chaos" and at times even make fun of the human desire to find meaning within a world that is as chaotic as the one in which we live. This humor that was drawn from the absurdity of human existence was called "black comedy" or as some people have described it, an attempt to derive humor from subjects that many think are inherently unfunny. This is a list of ten of the best novelists and writers to have used black comedy.
1. Martin Amis
The son of the great British comic novelist Kingsley Amis, Martin followed in his old man's footsteps but developed a writing style so weird, dark and bleak that even his father didn't have a lot of patience for it. Too bad, because the younger Amis has developed into one of the most interesting living British writers. His first masterpiece, Money, was inspired by a stint working as a writer in Hollywood. It portrays the efforts of an amoral commercial director to get a movie made with a cast of four stars all of whom want something totally different. It had all the hallmarks of what makes a great Amis novel: unlikeable characters, strong attention to everyday speech, and dialogue and humor so bleak you laugh out of fear of crying. Amis then dabbled in science fiction for two later great books, London Fields and Time's Arrow. The former tells the story of a woman who has a vision of her own death before the end of the world and the two men that she suspects of being the one to murder her. The latter novel is the life of a man told backwards, through the first person perspective of an entity who lives in his head and must interpret what he sees completely backward while not being able to act on any of it. His 1996 novel The Information is also cited as one of his best and portrays the relationship between two novelists, both based on Amis himself, and examines his thoughts on middle age and mortality.
2. John Barth
After writing two realist novels, themselves having a good degree of dark humor, Barth discovered postmodernism and created two of the weirdest literary masterpieces ever written. The Sot-Weed Factor is an epic tale of a poets journey with mocking satire. Giles Goat-Boy is about a boy who is raised as a goat on a university and viciously makes fun of '60s university life and culture. Both novels play with the idea of narrative, taking digressions and side trips at the expense of cohesion. The Sot-Weed Factor parodies classic literary epics while re-writing the history of the early United States. Giles Goat-Boy, in addition to poking savage fun at the political climate of the '60s, also uses many religious and philosophical allusions, putting them together in odd combinations, and has even been considered blasphemous by some.
3. Richard Brautigan
Richard Brautigan got some attention for his first two novels and his minimalistic prose, but it wasn't until his third book, On Watermelon Sugar, that he became a true literary darling. The short novel is about a commune called iDeath, and the events that occur there from the narrators perspective. The novel portrays a story that can be interpreted as allegorical or possibly as a post-apocalyptic story. His nest work, The Abortion, told the story of a librarian at an unusual library that only takes unpublished manuscripts. Anybody can drop off a story to become a part of the library. From these premise Brautigan mocks a number of literary tropes and The Abortion has become one of his most famous works of fiction. Though it wasn't appreciated on its original publication, Willard and his Bowling Trophies has gained a cult following due to its absurd story, unexpected humor, and parodying of the mystery genre.
4. Roald Dahl
Many people don't know that famous children's writer Roald Dahl also wrote fiction for adults. Unlike most people who have written both children and adult fiction there isn't much disconnect between the themes of Dahl's children's fiction and his adult work. His books for kids are essentially black comedies where children encounter a hostile adult world and sometimes other children who are nasty, spoiled and as hostile as the adults. His adult fiction is a darkly ironic trip through macabre the absurdity of modern existence. Dahl, like O. Henry. is known for his twist ending and many of his short stories have become so famous that they are repeated as fact, becoming essentially urban legends. He only wrote one full length novel, Uncle Oswald, starring a charactered who has appeared in a number of his stories but he has influenced a large number of humorists, crime writers and even horror writers with his talent for making the gruesome and cringe inducing scathingly funny.
5. Amanda Flllipaci
Amanda Filipachi's debut novel Nude Men is wonderfully subversive and fun while exploring the most embarrassing subject matter. The twenty-nine year old narrator agrees to pose nude for an artist who does only nude paintings of men, because of an attraction to her. Unfortunately he becomes the object of affection for the artist's thirteen-year-old daughter and the mother is all too happy to encourage this union. Describing how unbelievably funny this novel is never does it justice, but it is much funnier than you would think from the premise, and it is also impossible to predict where it might go at any moment. Her follow-ups Vapor and Love Creeps are equally brilliant, with the latter novel deriving humor from stalking, another unlikely subject for comedy.
6. Joseph Heller
Heller wrote Catch-22, which both spawned an idiom and may be the greatest American Novel of the 20th century. The plot follows a WW2 fighter pilot who is attempting to get out of flying more missions by feigning insanity. What stands in his way is Catch-22, a clause that states that if a pilot is crazy he can be grounded but if he requests to be grounded he must not be crazy because only a crazy person would want to fly more missions. Heller's novel may be the definitive document of the absurdity of war. While he often got criticism for never again writing anything as significant two other novels come closest. Good as Gold, is a satire of a middle aged academic faced with an offer to become Secretary of State at the expense of his current life and pursuits and God Knows is a tragicomic version of the life of King David, in which Heller explores mortality and his Jewish religious beliefs.
7. John Irving
John Irving is a bit of a puzzling author when you try to define his style. His writing is basically Dickensian but he concerns himself with many themes that Dickens never would have considered. He is also influenced by magic realists but does not contain these elements. He is not a postmodernist in the strictest sense but does use meta fiction and black comedy. What Irving writes is tragicomedy and his work is equal parts hilarious and moving. His first great work, The World According to Garp, is a comedy about death and the fear of it. His two great later novels, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer For Owen Meany, tackle the political issue of abortion and the existence of God and the nature of faith. His most recent masterpiece, A Widow for One Year, contains a number of Irving themes and is one of his most postmodern works, talking the subject of writing and where the line between fiction and autobiography can be drawn. Though several of Irving's novels have been made into films, much of what makes his writing so compelling escapes adaptation. Few writers are as frank about sexuality and mortality and even fewer are as funny when dealing with these subjects.
8. Philip Roth
The work of Philip Roth has been prolific and diverse but some of his best work has been excellent examples of black comedy. His most famous novel, Portney's Complaint, has become the quintessential Roth novel and the one book of his that everybody should read. The story is a monologue of a young Jewish bachelor rambling about sex, guilt and frustration to his therapists. Few novels have captured the sexual neurosis of the modern American male anywhere near as well. His absurdest novel The Breast tells the story of a man transformed into a giant female breast. Inspired by Kafka and Gogol in equal measures it is both hilarious and horrifying. Stephen King picked it as one of the best horror novels of the 20th Century.
9. Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps America's most famous writer of black comedy. His viewpoint is shaped by being a POW in World War 2, and witnessing the bombing of Dresden, Germany. His work blends science fiction with social satire for a potent effect. Mother Night is an early work about an American who was a Nazi propagandist and uses the device of the unreliable narrator to make you question the ideas about guilt or innocence, truth or fiction. Cat's Cradle shows the capacity that science and human selfishness has for potentially destroying the human race. Slaughterhouse Five attempts to tell Vonnegut's story and experience in Dresden but throws in time travel and aliens. His fourth masterpiece, Breakfast of Champions meditates on suicide and belief in a higher power. Just these four great works show a unique and startling voice in American fiction and Vonnegut wrote many others out there to be discovered.
10. Robert Anton Wilson
While an editor at Playboy Magazine with friend Robert Shea in the 60s, Robert Anton Wilson read many letters from conspiracy theorists written to the magazine. Both he and Shea became fascinated by these conspiracies and began to imagine a story in which all these conspiracy theories, no matter how contradictory or crazy, were all true. The result was Illuminatus, originally published as a trilogy but now usually published as a single volume. Like it or not, Wilson and Shea became figures of the conspiracy community. Shea rejected this field and began to write historical novels. Wilson continued to write blackly funny science fiction about conspiracies, and began to write humorous philosophical works like Prometheus Rising, which encouraged readers to try to think about claims from a completely agnostic position and not to let their personal bias get in the way. Similar to Thomas Pynchon in style and themes, Wilson is often called "the poor man's Pynchon," but I actually prefer him to the more popular author and think he is the much funnier of the two.
More by this Author
An overview of the important themes about science and religion that are explored in the novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.
An analysis of Harrison Bergeron and Welcome to the Monkey House, two of the most famous short stories by Kurt Vonnegut.