22 of the Funniest Novels Since ‘Catch-22’

When it comes to fiction, humor is serious business. If tragedy appeals to the emotions, wit appeals to the mind. “You have to know where the funny is,” the writer Sheila Heti says, “and if you know where the funny is, you know everything.” Humor is a bulwark against complacency and conformity, mediocrity and predictability.

With all this in mind, we’ve put together a list of 22 of the funniest novels written in English since Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” (1961). That book presented a voice that was fresh, liberated, angry and also funny — about something American novels hadn’t been funny about before: war. Set during World War II and featuring Capt. John Yossarian, a B-25 bombardier, the novel presaged, in its black humor, its outraged intelligence, its blend of tragedy and farce, and its awareness of the corrupt values that got us into Vietnam, not just Bob Dylan but the counterculture writ large.

Heller gave writers permission to be irreverent about the most serious stuff — the stuff of life and death. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who went into exile in France after satirizing his country’s Communist regime, told Philip Roth: “I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor.”

It’s in the spirit of warding off that dire scenario that we offer this list: a resolutely idiosyncratic assemblage of novels — 22 in all, get it? — culled from the past six decades by three very different Times book critics.

Here, you will not find books stuffed with jokes. For the most part, our picks will not induce knee slapping. (“Any man who will not resist a pun will not lie up-pun me,” the great Eve Babitz wrote.) The humor these authors embrace traverses the gamut, from sardonic to screwball, mordant to madcap, droll to deranged. Writing in Heller’s shadow, but in an idiom all their own, these novelists apply his satirical tool kit — along with their own screwdrivers and shivs — to whole other categories of human experience, from race and gender to dating, aging, office cubicles and book publishing itself. The critic Albert Murray understood that wit is power, and that knowing where the funny is takes us closer to the nub of things. Best of all, it’s available to anyone. As Murray wrote, “It is always open season on the truth.”

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