The Daily

Ask The Paris Review

Transitory Lifestyles; Comic Novels

February 17, 2012 | by

Because of my school’s academic structure, I pack up my possessions and move every two to three months, ricocheting between school, home, and New York. In fact, I’m leaving the city this weekend. This kind of transience can be refreshing, but it is also disorienting, and it can make life feel fragmented or compartmentalized. If you could recommend reading material that addresses the issue of the transitory lifestyle, it might make the journey a little easier.

Whether you’re looking for seekers (The Razor’s Edge), free spirits (On the Road), ramblers (the Little House books) or the Picaresque (Tristram Shandy) there’s no shortage of literary traveling companions. Keep in mind that unstable, constantly-relocating parents also make for memorable childhoods, so the memoir section is rife with tales of itinerant life!

What is the funniest book ever written?

I don’t feel this is a question one person can answer definitively for all sorts of obvious reasons, although I will say NOT The Ginger Man, since all sorts of people, mostly men, are wont to go into ecstasies about its alleged hilarity. But then, lots of the reputedly uproarious classics have left me cold, so what do I know?

You don’t need me to list the “great comic novels” for you—Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Lucky Jim … the list goes on. I feel like the “right” answer to this question is something like Ulysses, but I’d be lying if I said it had me in stitches. (Although Mark Twain genuinely has.) Several in the canon get resounding plaudits from my colleagues here: Catch-22 and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are considered comedy classics for a reason.

Says Lorin, “The Tetherballs of Bougainvillea made me laugh longest. London Fields made me laugh hardest (Marmaduke: projectile tears of laughter). Home Land made me laugh loudest. Mark Twain’s sketches and the Jeeves books make me laugh most reliably.”

Deirdre adds that Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask should not be ignored.

As for me, I’ve mentioned it before, but After Claude was the last book to actually make me laugh out loud. I love Scoop, and early parts of The Pursuit of Love. (Although I find Waugh and Mitford’s correspondence funnier than either.) E.F. Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” series has moments of absolute hilarity. Pictures from an Institution should be in there, surely.

Disclaimer: I find certain scenes in Excellent Women genuinely funny, but Lorin said that he didn’t laugh once, so.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.



  1. Alex | February 17, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    I seriously drove my girlfriend crazy while reading The Ask. I laughed so much she made me leave the room and close the door.

  2. teresa | February 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole

  3. Amy | February 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    I wish that you would link to something other than Amazon when you list titles of books. Maybe a good book review? Amazon makes enough money without your free advertising, and I never read an Amazon synopsis and feel like I’m any closer to decided whether or not I’d want to read the book.

  4. Grace | February 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    In Search of Lost Time is painful and hilarious.

  5. Cory MacLauchlin | February 17, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    I second A Confederacy of Dunces. Funniest book I’ve ever read.

  6. Neil Griffin | February 17, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    I think Sot-weed Factor is the funniest thing I’ve read.

  7. William | February 17, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Straight Man by Richard Russo, hilarious

  8. Jim Throne | February 17, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I second that: Straight Man.

  9. Joe Carlson | February 18, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Philip Roth’s work often makes me laugh out loud, SABBATH’S THEATER especially, with a laughter stemming from a common American literary birthright that includes Twain, Lardner, Thurber, Toole, and a few others.

  10. Samuel Lester | February 20, 2012 at 7:12 am

    Gargantua & Pantagruel? Totally hilarious and serious (not infrequently at the same time). Surely the disquisition on what makes the best t.p. rivals the best in today’s scatological humor? Quixote & Gulliver? The Postmodern in me would offer The Congressional Record, but it could be tragedy too.

  11. aging lit major | February 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Diary of a Nobody, by the Grossmith Brothers, 1890s. Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome, same era, runner up.

  12. Conor Thiessen | February 22, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    On the first question, definitely The Names by Don Delillo.

  13. false mane | February 23, 2012 at 11:51 am

    JR by William Gaddis is the funniest book I ever read.

  14. false mane | February 23, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Also seconding the above mention of Don Quixote.

  15. GZ | February 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I agree on Twain, Roth, Quixote, Confederacy of Dunces and would add much of Vonnegut. I seem to recall that O’Connor’s Wise Blood is very funny as well. Neil mentioned Barth and I definitely agree – noting that much of his humor works on a different level than say, Dunces (depending on how you read it, I suppose).

    Amy: Good point about the links. At least ninety percent of Amazon reviews are ignorant and irrelevant crap, still, a minority are well conceived and worth scanning. Even bad reviews can be useful for a laugh and if you decode them a bit, can be sociologically interesting.

1 Pingbacks

  1. […] Transitory Lifestyles; Comic Novels […]

Leave a Comment