It’s not impossible to find them, but if you read a lot of literary fiction, the novels which contain humour are outnumbered. Each of these books actually addresses a serious issue (or touches upon it, for Susan Juby’s novel doesn’t delve very deeply): global warming and habitat erosion, family farm sustainability in an age of industrialized food, and the policing of language and creativity. And, yet, humour can be a powerful agent of change.
“And besides, what’s the worst that can happen if my mother finds out? She’ll get really upset and maybe yell at me. I think a question like that should be in the game Worst Case Scenario. It could say, ‘What should you do when your mother gets super angry and is yelling at you?’ I think the answer is to imagine her as a barking elephant seal.”
Phin’s character is one of those designed to make your heart break a little even while you are laughing out loud at his story.
For it is amusing to think of a nine-year-old boy imagining his mother as a barking seal in an attempt to transform her anger into something he can cope with.
But Phin is so often in a position in which dealing with something head-on is too painful to manage that readers are soon in a spot in which they do not want him to have to deal with anybody yelling.
And, yet, Carla Gunn creates a credible and sympathetic mother (though she is not really funny) to counterpoint her young hero: the frustration and love that she clearly feels in her thwarted attempts to assist Phin with his anxiety about the world and its powerless-to-strike-back inhabitants (the webbed, the furred, the winged) is palpable.
The adults (e.g. the token helping professional, the teacher, the father) are believable but the star of the book is Phin.
Readers’ hearts are so solidly with him that the rest of the book settles behind his character and voice, so that one reads simply to find out what will become of Phin and his compassion for the downtrodden.
There is no complex construction or lyric prose: if this was a Green-channel broadcast, it would be a Phin-Marathon.
And because he is such heart-ful company, that feels just perfect.
Susan Juby’s Republic of Dirt (2015)
“I’m twenty-one-year-old farmhand, which is similar to being a cowboy, but without a horse, a hat or any cows.”
Prudence Burns isn’t having an easy time on Woefield Farm. “I am beginning to think the word farm actually means ‘land upon which things go wrong in surprising and unexpected ways’ or perhaps ‘place where it’s impossible to get good help’.”
But readers will appreciate her conundrum. Though perhaps take issue with the lament over finding good help, for Seth and Earl and Sara are very helpful in their own way.
Sure, Seth has only recently moved out of his mother’s house (though not exactly willingly) and has a lot to learn, from AA meetings and just generally (that’s Seth speaking, above). Earl is getting older, and admittedly “keeping [his] drawers hitched up these days is challenge enough”. And Sara is only eleven years old but such a fanatic about fowl that she is grateful to be cast as livestock in the school play. “Mrs Singer was the one who gave me the role of the partridge in the Christmas play because she’s very fond of me.”
But loyal and determined? You bet. Each is so emotionally invested in Woefield Farm that readers can sense the dirt under their finger nails.
But those who prefer gentle chuckles over raucous cackles,will find much to enjoy in Susan Juby’s fiction for adults.
(Best to begin, however, with Home to Woefield (2011).)
Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters (2001)
Mark Dunn’s first novel is an epistolary novel which comes unstuck.
Just like the letters on the cenotaph, which spell out the famous pangram sentence designed by Nevin Nollop: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
When the ‘z’ falls off the sign, the council (of Nollop, an independent island nation off the coast of South Carolina) dictates that the letter must be stricken from the alphabet too.
Of all the letters to tumble, this seems the least complicated. Except that any book containing the letter ‘z’ must be culled from the public library, people’s names with the letter must be changed, and even the bees are subject to the mandated punishment (for bu**ing).
And then more tiles fall. Is it a matter of the fixative deteriorating, or is Nevin Nollop speaking from beyond the grave?
The council claims the latter and
seizes (oops, takes) the opportunity to further restrict language and the lives of residents.
At first delightful and playful, letters written between family and friends (even enemies) become shorter and more desperate and usage changes to accommodate the increasingly restrictive edicts.
This makes for difficult reading (and living for Nollop residents) as time passes and tiles fall, but passionate resistance fighters are on the scene.
Works like these can provide a spot of relief from the relentlessly grim tales of literary fiction, which might more often appear on prizelists but might not provoke as many smiles from readers.
Have you read any of these, or are they on your TBR? What have you read recently that made you smile?