Let’s face it: 2016 is a down year for mankind, particularly in the realm of politics. Election years always manage to stroke dormant fears and divide the populace, but this cycle, as everyone who doesn’t live in an impenetrable bubble knows, is more cataclysmic (an understatement, I know) than usual. If you turn on the news, scroll through your favorite content aggregator, or refresh social media, chances are you’ll happen upon something about Trump or Clinton. Or if you are really unlucky, and there’s a good chance that you are, you won’t be able to talk to certain friends or family members without hearing about the two candidates who represent the worst that each party has offered up in the modern America. In other words, we’re fucked.
The good news is that there are temporary reprieves for these troubles. There’s this relatively cool artifact called the “book,” that is capable of transporting you into another world for a prolonged period of time. Sometimes these book things can even make you laugh. Remember laughter?
A master of creating worlds that are close enough to mirroring our own to be deemed realistic while not familiar enough to entirely resemble the world we live in, Saunders is perhaps the greatest living English language short story writer. He infuses off-kilter horror and outlandish comedy into narratives to manifest vivid, alternative settings that our worse, in nature, than our own reality. But wait. Why would you want to read about bad worlds as a distraction to our increasingly dismal situation? I’m glad you asked. In the event that everything turns to shit and we all end up as test subjects at Spiderhead (the experimental prison depicted in “Escape from Spiderhead), at least we’ll know how to conduct ourselves, and maybe we’ll even find some chuckles along the way. Saunders’s bizarre brand of humor is both dark and refreshing, and has become a staple in the modern short story. His list of imitators and descendants is long: Kevin Wilson, Kelly Link, Lincoln Michel, etc. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so I’ve been told. Anyway, read a story from this, his best collection, each night as a palette cleanser to your inevitably distraught stroll through twitter trends while sitting on the toilet.
Sloane Crosley’s debut novel is a familiar tale: Friends reunite at a significant event (a wedding) to discover how and when their lives went wrong. The novel soon moves into a wild goose chase that takes them from New York to L.A. and across France in search of a wildly valuable necklace lost during the Nazi occupation of France. What separates The Clasp from other novels of the same vein is Crosley’s immense wit. The author of the essay collection I was Told There’d Be Cake has a knack for telling serious stories with lighthearted charm. The trio of Kezia, Nathaniel and Victor is infectiously likable despite their many, many flaws. Clasped (yikes) shut with an exuberant amount of self-deprecation that impressively skirts woe-is-me melodrama, Crosley’s brisk romp is one of the funniest literary debuts in years. If this bunch of middling millennials can’t put a smile on your face, even on the eve of our own possible destruction, then, well, maybe you should lighten up a bit.
You’ve heard of Christopher Moore, right? The satirist that puts out an impossible number of quality books? You have? Good. Well, I suppose I don’t need to introduce you to Jesus Christ’s childhood friend, Biff, then, huh? Everyone knows about Jesus rising from the dead, but what many don’t know is that Biff rose up, too. In case you missed it, and it’s not in your copy of the Bible, so, this can be forgiven, Biff was resurrected in the 20th Century to fill in some of those pesky Bible plot holes. According to Biff, Joshua is the Hebrew form of Jesus before he was Hellenized. Lucky for us, Biff helps guide Joshua across the desert so that he can learn how to become the Messiah. If you’re not sold yet, here’s a good example of the sorts of exchanges in Moore’s best novel:
“Okay. Earth to the meek. Here we go. Blessed are the peacemakers, the mourners, and that’s it…We need one more. How about the dumbfucks?”
“No, Josh, not the dumbfucks. You’ve done enough for the dumbfucks.”
“Blessed are the dumbfucks for they, uh—I don’t know—they shall never be disappointed.”
We can all relate to the dumbfucks, can we not?
Only a master could pull off a satiric novel on race in the midst of growing division and societal issues regarding oppression and race relations. Great satire pushes boundaries, and more importantly, illuminates some of the more glaring faults of society in the process. The book starts with a nod to Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking classic, Invisible Man, and rockets forward in directions that seem unimaginable. After the narrator’s father, a prominent sociologist who subjects his son to racial psychological studies, is killed by police, he sets out to right the wrongs. His hometown of Dickens, California has been literally eradicated from maps, and in order to get it back on the radar of the nation, the narrator, an African American male, reinstates segregation in schools and slavery in the town. This obviously leads to outrage and a series of Supreme Court cases which shed light on the injustices of America. Beatty never lets up, and the commitment to his satire is both breathtaking and absurd, and especially potent in the current climate.
The author of the appropriately named novel Super Sad True Love Story has a depressingly funny story of his own to tell in his memoir, Little Failure. Gary Shteyngart isn’t afraid to poke fun at himself as he tells his story of immigrating from the Soviet Union to the United States. Much of the memoir is based off of his deeply held belief that he would fail at everything he tried, a consequence of his tumultuous upbringing and life experience. His humor is truly one of kind. Nowhere in the text does Shteyngart express that he is, in fact, a great writer (which he certainly is). The comedy on display is a product of his humble nature. He juxtaposes two vastly different regions and cultures, the place his family fled and the place he set out to gain new life, in startlingly frank brush strokes. The memoir also happens to have the best scripted (only?) trailer for a memoir ever. Watch this and try to not fall in love with Gary.
“Most of my favorite people are dangerously fucked-up but you’d never guess because we’ve learned to bare it so honestly that it becomes the new normal.” Jenny Lawson’s memoir can be summed up with that outrageously poignant statement. After all, who isn’t fucked-up to a certain degree? Lawson is more detached than most, though. Afflicted by depression, crippling anxiety, avoidant personality disorder, and an array of other psychological quirks that make her day-to-day life as a wife and mother trying, she triumphantly chronicles her pursuit of “furious happiness” in this pitch-perfect memoir. Comedy is a well-known prescription for sadness, and sometimes the best comedy comes from our willingness to laugh at ourselves—a difficult task for some. Throughout these pages, Lawson selflessly forces us to laugh at her expense so that we can learn how to laugh at ourselves. Not only is this a great book on mental illness, but it’s a superb companion for life itself. Laughs and wondrous insights guaranteed in every passage.
Why would David Wong spoil the ending to his horror novel in the title? Remember Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? Wong’s debut novel is the amplified adult version of that seminal children’s series. It’s a spoof on the horror genre with noir and metafictional elements thrown in for good measure. David Wong, of Cracked.com fame (?), is now Dave Wong and his best friend is John, the guy who dies at the end. With a fair amount of slapstick and irreverent humor (Dave gets bitten by a packet of soy sauce in his pocket), Wong spins timeless genres on their heads, borrowing elements from both film and literature. If only our lives were as interestingly comedic as the adventures of Dave and John. Well maybe just Dave since John dies and all. Spoiler: the twist at the end is marvelous. Can these two guys save the world from “Undisclosed” forces? I don’t know, but it sure is a hell of a ride.
Theodore Street wants to kill himself, but while en route to accomplishing his goal, a car hits him and he is decapitated. Pretty short novel, huh? Well, at his funeral Theodore sits up in his coffin and reattaches his head. (Um, why didn’t the coroner do this? Do they really put severed heads and limbs in caskets?) Naturally, Theodore is a scary feller now that he has come back from the dead (neither Biff nor Jesus ever mentioned the resurrection of Theodore Street). And rest assured, even fathers who have gone to Hell and back (maybe quite literally here) still possess the ability to embarrass their daughters. In religious circles, Theodore is seen as a devil, and in the scientific community he is marveled at with curiosity. With deadpan prose Everett tells the story of a man putting his life back together (head first, obviously). Despite the ridiculous premise, Everett’s novel is really just a reimagining of weathering the storm of a mid-life crisis, and a quite raucous take on the yarn at that.
David Foster Wallace is best known for his colossal 1996 doorstopper, Infinite Jest, aka the novel most bookish people are guilty of lying about reading. Infinite Jest was both depressing and hysterical. Wallace’s untimely suicide in 2008 further illuminated the former. One area of his writing that doesn’t get enough credit, outside of literary circles, is his nonfiction work. All of it is great, but A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again shines the brightest. He covers very normal things in this seven essay collection, including a state fair and his journey on a luxury cruise liner (the title essay). Wallace was funny because he didn’t think of himself as a funny guy. His acute observations were a product of his intellect and complicated relationship with life. He saw things in ways that no one else could, and this talent is on display the most in his whimsical essays.
Maria Semple’s heartwarming mother-daughter tale introduces readers to two memorable contemporary characters: Bernadette Fox, a virulent agoraphobe, and Bee, her fifteen year old daughter who desperately wants to travel to Antarctica, of all places. If it wasn’t already obvious, Bernadette goes missing, and Bee is left to trace her mother’s whereabouts through written correspondence. For anyone who suffers with agoraphobia or an aversion to groups of people in general (raise your hand), Bernadette is a remarkably identifiable character. Meanwhile Bee, in pursuit of her mother, demonstrates how genius is implanted to blossom in unexpected scenarios. Composed in a multitude of styles and formats, Semple’s novel never skips a beat. The humor is persistently charming across this endlessly inventive look at the bond between mother and daughter, a bond that in hopefully hasn’t been imperiled in real life by this election.
Steven Petite is the Associate Editor of Fiction Southeast. He has written for Playboy, The Millions, Crixeo, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @SPetiteWriter.