Read your way to comfort during these savage times.
We’re only halfway through July and already the summer of 2016 will go down in history as a season of violence, suffering, uncertainty, and despair. Books, articles, movies, and TV shows will be dedicated to capturing the turmoil not only here in the U.S., but throughout the world. Humanity seems to be whipping itself into a paroxysm of violence unseen since the last world war. Divisions are deep, death and violence everywhere.
What does an individual do in the face of such events? Thoughts and prayers, petition-signing, protesting all begin to feel like acts in futility, small actions designed to make the petitioner feel better but effect no real change. Voting is critical — not just for president, but all the way down the ballot to dogcatcher — but this election season has been one of divisiveness and hate unleashed by the blatantly racist demagoguery of Donald Trump.
So what is a scared, heartsick citizen to do?
Bury your head in the sand? No. Bury it in a book.
Studies say that laughter is the best medicine and that reading literary fiction increases empathy, improves brain function, and relieves stress. The prescription then is clear: Read a novel that makes you laugh until you weep, your sides stitch in pain, and your drink comes out your nose. While it may not save the world, it may save your sanity.
The best comic novels gently and lovingly expose the ridiculously precarious foundations on which ingrained beliefs, unquestioned truths, and inherited traditions are set, revealing the hypocrisies and deceptions that undergird every society. Typically, the narrator is an outsider touched by innocence whose picaresque journey brings him into contact with a cast of characters representing the various archetypes found in that particular culture. Besting the lot of them with his naïve convictions and unerring honesty, he waltzes off to a happy ending.
If you’re not sure where to start, try these four of my favorite gut-splittingly funny novels:
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain succeeds, through humor, where many other well-meaning novels addressing the evils of slavery fail. Fleeing the “sivilized” life, Huck floats down the Mississippi River in the company of escaped slave Jim, encountering a rogue’s gallery of hucksters, reprobates, swindlers, and sanctimonious do-gooders in a society warped by the moral mendacity of racial superiority. There’s a reason that a prestigious prize in American humor is named after Mark Twain. Rarely has the ugly truth hurt so good.
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole has you laughing from the very first scene as the hapless Detective Mancuso, on a mission to rid the streets of New Orleans of suspicious characters, foolishly targets the oafish, eccentrically dressed Ignatius J. Reilly. Coddled by his mama, perpetually outraged by and yet addicted to crass popular culture — and a prodigious consumer of junk food — Ignatius is an American everyman, albeit one with a master’s degree in medieval studies. When his mother finally demands he get a job, Ignatius blunders, bellows, and burps his way through the Crescent City, antagonizing a colorful array of denizens and leaving chaos in his wake. Brilliantly marrying the high with the low, this Pulitzer-prize winning novel is a sly portrait of an America distracted by all the things that do not matter and a misplaced sense of exceptionalism.
- The Monkey King by Timothy Mo has been called a comedy of manners, but it’s so much more than that: It’s a comedy of humanity. Wallace Nelasco, a Macanese proud of his Portuguese heritage — which is manifested in a square jaw that demands frequent shaving and a dimple in his chin — lives in the multi-ethnic sizzling wok of Hong Kong under British colonial rule. After an arranged marriage into a wealthy but stingy Chinese family, he maneuvers to win the heart (and inheritance) of his hard-nosed, manipulative father-in-law. Nobody is spared in the author’s lampooning of patriarchal values, racist attitudes among the colonized, the artificiality of racial and class divisions, and the unbreakable bonds of tradition.
- Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem mines the bendiness of the English language and the twisted logic of word association by embedding the reader deep in the mind of Lionel Essrog, an orphan with Tourette syndrome who works in a seedy Brooklyn detective agency. When his boss and father figure is murdered, he and the other misfit orphans from the agency search for the killer. Rife with wordplay, this book pays tender homage to the individual’s eternal struggle to impose order on the chaos of language and, therefore, life.