Five of the best novels to keep you laughing while you sharpen your critical faculties from John Rees
Many of you will want to use the enforced reading time we are likely to be enjoying now to buckle down and tackle all three volumes of Karl Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value or to finally give Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Science of Logic the attention that you have long wanted to lavish on it. And these are indeed excellent ways of spending your time.
But some of you may be in need of a laugh. And even those dedicated souls reading Marx and Hegel may want to break off for some lighter entertainment.
So here are some novels that, while still resolutely political, may also have you laughing uncontrollably in a way that those self-isolating with you will find thoroughly irritating and inappropriate.
- Saints and Scholars by Terry Eagleton (Futura, 1987). In theory or fiction Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton is one of the wittiest writers around. This intellectual laugh-in has socialist revolutionary James Connolly, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and James Joyce’s fictional creation Leopold Bloom, among others, all self-isolating in a remote cottage on Ireland’s West Coast. It’s 1916 so there’s plenty for them to talk about...and argue about. And in the course of those arguments there is much humour, but also much relevant observation. As when Connolly tells Wittgenstein: ‘An oppressed people knows that every moment is a state of emergency. It’s only ruling classes who can afford to view such situations as untypical. What we have now is disorder into which revolution seeks to introduce some stability. Revolution isn’t a runaway train; it’s the application of the hand brake.’
- England, England by Julian Barnes (Vintage, 1998). In an indeterminate future millionaire Sir Jack Pitman decides that tourists are too lazy to haul themselves around all the actual attractions in England. To cater to their needs he turns the Isle of Wight into a theme park with all the shrink wrapped versions of the country’s tourist traps in one place. This includes a scaled down Buckingham Palace in which the actual King, on contact to Sir Jack, is in residence. But then it all goes hideously wrong. The King is suspected of sexual harassment, smuggling is wrecking the island economy, and the re-enactors in the Robin Hood Experience take it into their minds to unionise.
- What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe (Viking, 1994). More state-of-the-country satire here, but with a more radical take than Julian Barnes. Spanning 50 years of British post-war politics this is an unsparing caustic take on the political and media establishment.
- Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (Vintage, 1992). American society gets the full Vonnegut treatment. A mad swirl of science fiction, parable, and farce. It’s a long time since I read this classic but I do remember repeatedly laughing out loud at its anarchic imagination and scatalogical energy. If you thought there was no writing that could really gain elevation on the swirling insanity of US capitalism then I have to say Vonnegut took the high ground long before Trump came along.
- On Broadway by Damon Runyon (Picador, 1975). Three novels in one omnibus edition, so you can really immerse yourself in the incredible invented world, and language, of Damon Runyon’s New York. The plot lines are funny, but it’s the constant imagination behind the language, a kind of highly exaggerated gangster argot, that has you smiling all the way through. These are New York New Yorkers that never existed but live somewhere in our imagination. Here’s a 1930s Bank (jug) going bust in a Jewish area of New York: ‘There is already quite a crowd around the jug again, as it is always difficult to make people who live on the lower East Side and wear whiskers and shawls understand about such matters as busted jugs. They are apt to hang around a busted jug for days at a time with their bank books in their hands, and sometimes it takes a week to convince such people that their potatoes are gone for good, and make them disperse to their homes and start saving more.’ Cynical and knowing, but humane, every Scorsese mob movie found its language here first.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.