How wonderful it is that, finally, a comic novel has won the Man Booker Prize.
And now I have to reconsider what that actually is. I mean a comic novel, not the Man Booker Prize; I have a fair grasp of what that award is about. We’re talking about a panel of literary people who might be termed experts in their field. They read all the books that the publishers send to them and then pool their subjective judgements, hopefully having a lot of fun shouting and throwing pen lids at each other as they crawl towards a decision about what book could be termed the best of the year, bearing in mind that no such distinction could possibly exist and everyone involved probably feels a bit embarrassed about striving to define a novel in those terms.
I don’t mean to sound bitter about such a prestigious and high-minded institution. That’s just the way it comes out because I haven’t won it. I’d have deeply lovely things to say about it if they recognised my brilliance, which is unlikely, and so I must stay among the ranks of the Man Booker Critics. How pointless literary awards are; they are merely commercial exercises in book buying and selling. If only they would get their fingers out and help me to sell some of my own novels for a change.
And with that outburst I think I’ve just demonstrated, through a tortuously circuitive route, my definition of a comic novel. A truly funny novel looks square in the eye of human foibles – such as the desire to succeed, the fear of failure, the pretence of hatred for that which has won and the mask of the unbothered acceptance of loss – and finds it laughable. Not in a belittling way, but with the recognition that laughing about these deepest of motivations makes them a little less frightening to the reader. If that’s what a novelist wants to achieve, then I think they’re going to end up writing comedy, no matter what time period or event they choose to illuminate with their words. It could be a novel about a bombardier trying to survive World War Two, a high society fellow with a clever butler, or an honorary widower who gets attacked outside a violin shop. It’ll end up funny.
However, if you’re the kind of person who can’t watch the news because man’s hideousness to man torments you to the point of tears, or the kind of person who watches the news deliberately in order to feel that way, then that emotion will sit at the heart of your novels, if you choose to be a writer. Both points of view are valid. I just know which one I’d rather read about.
So, if the definition of a comic novel rests on the ethos of the writer, this leaves publishers with a problem. A potential reader can’t glean the deepest beliefs of the creator of the work in their hand by scanning the first page. Truly comic novels are much harder to identify than one might have previously supposed, and giving something a jolly cover can be seen as a dare rather than a promise. For instance, bright colours, cartoon drawings and stick figures accompanied by a quote such as ‘the funniest book ever!!!’ invariably invite me to read it without emitting a single chuckle just to prove whoever provided that quote wrong, or to not read it at all. I hate to be told what’s funny. I like to discover it myself, and find comedy in unexpected places. Many so-called comic novels have depressed me utterly by oversimplifying issues or characters in the name of a good laugh.
Howard Jacobson certainly doesn’t do this in any of his novels. But then again, does that mean he’s the first worthy comic writer to win the Man Booker? Iris Murdoch won in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea. Moments of that wonderful novel are pure slapstick, yet she never loses her characters in their flailings. Her novels always amuse me by pointing out the absolute absurdity at the heart of being alive. Does that make it a truly comic novel? Whether a novel is comic seems to me to align exactly with the difficult question of whether a novel is good. The answer to both questions can simply be – only in my own opinion.
The Finkler Question is both a comic novel and a good one, I think. And it’s all the better for not being dressed up as one. The cover sports no primary colours, no funny little drawings. There’s no Comic Sans MS font in sight. In fact, it sports a very serious font, and I like it all the more for that. It’s not promising to be an easy read, or to make me belly laugh; such promises publishers make to us, and invariably we’re disappointed. Perhaps it’s the first winner of the Man Booker to be described as a comic novel, even though great comic novels have been awarded that honour before under the cover of respectable gravitas. Still, maybe it means the publishers of such novels are growing up a bit. They’re prepared to accept a reader can laugh and cry in the space of one novel, and be enriched by having both experiences. And that has to be something worth smiling about.
Aliya Whiteley is the author of two darkly comic novels, both published by Macmillan, both set in the sinister Devon seaside town of Allcombe. She lives in Bedfordshire with her husband and daughter, and is currently studying for an MSc in Information Management whilst working on her third novel.