Confession: until now I didn’t believe there was such a thing as a funny novel. I may have smiled wryly at a Wilde witticism or an arch Fitzgerald epithet, but nothing in fiction had ever given me the unrestrained belly laugh of my favourite stand-ups or had the immediate mirthful quality of a well honed sitcom. I’d always put it down to class: growing up, the television was the natural source of laughs – literature, which I discovered later in life – seemed to serve comedy in a less immediate, less guttural form. That is, until now.
Funnily enough, Entertaining Strangers features an interesting class dynamic. Ant-obsessed protagonist Edwin Prince is simultaneously in the gutter and the stars – his language demotic yet ornate, his rent perpetually unpaid. He paces the house reading aloud from Nietzsche, Schopenhauer or Kropotkin, “Everything you ever needed to know about ants and politics.” Somehow Taylor has created a penniless, snobbish autodidact who’s completely adorable. Prince is the kind of character who comes along once in a lifetime, the kind who echoes in your thoughts for days after reading. The initial absurdity of his preoccupation with ants (and the ensuing repetition of the word ‘ants’, unleashing laughs which I thought I’d reserved exclusively for Stewart Lee) develops into a more profound leitmotif and ultimately a poignant symbol of his self-destructiveness. The line between tragedy and comedy is redrawn in satisfyingly unexpected ways.
I feared that the narrative might sink under the weight of such a scene-stealer (imagine Richard E. Grant in full ‘Withnail’ mode rampaging through the East Midlands) but mysterious narrator Jules is handled lightly in her quest to unravel the traumas of her own past – a great fire, a massacre, a drowning – as well as those of Prince. All relationships in ‘Entertaining Strangers’ are brutal, cruel and therefore unnervingly authentic. Perhaps this is the reason for my personal comedy breakthrough, that in the figurative fire of eccentricity, absurdity, cruelty and insanity, Taylor has forged the laughter of recognition. What could be funnier than that?