IT COULD BE SAID that golden-age Hollywood comedies tended toward plots where “good things happen to good people.” It could also be said that for a long time now in American and English comedic literature, an inverse formula has applied: “bad things happen to mediocre people.” Our most celebrated comic novels are overrun with mediocre types with nothing noble about them, an almost hostile overcorrection of the sentimentality and saintly characterizations that old Hollywood used to produce like some sort of moral hagiography for its ticket audience. The result is a literature that teems with characters who aren’t characters so much as caricatures of the fallen. Want to make your novel funny? All you need do is populate your pages with the any number of self-serving, bungling, prurient, physically repulsive, ethically addled, deeply delusional beings, ideally with some sort of onset speech impediment or unchecked case of halitosis — the more specific the affliction the better — all in the name of capturing the plight of the human being in 21st Century decline. A comedic genealogy of such aggressive disdain can be drawn from Portnoy’s Complaint through Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, from A Confederacy of Dunces all the way to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, to the point that our definition of a “realistic” character in popular fiction rests precisely upon what’s not to love about them.
Certainly, this kind of characterization does have its place — and its subsequent laughs — but, at its worst, this obsessive need to create a casualty class of losers leaves little for the writer to work with once the manic descriptions run their gag time. Often, the character is brought so low to earth, reduced to such small, repugnant size, and mocked so viciously that the reader can’t help delighting in these mammalian vessels of bad habits, quirks, short comings, irritating tics, and embarrassingly infantile dreams without ever really believing in them. The above mentioned books are brilliant comedic novels (so is the one discussed below, I would argue) but their influence has yielded an epidemic of animosity, all under the aegis of tracing a more candid depiction of the human form. Honesty is the justification, and belittlement is the vehicle that will get us there. The problem is that something happened on the way to the punch line. Hollywood caught up a decade or two ago — at least in its indie-blockbuster summer slapsticks, train-wreck reality shows, and cable television series (cancer is now hilarious according to The Big C, and so is being forced to work in the sex-traffic industry, as witnessed in Hung). And even more disconcertingly, commercials recently learned to fill their thirty-second spots with “relatable” idiots stuck in familiar absurd situations (today the difference between the characters in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, Steve Carell’s The Office, and the next Doritos commercial is nearly impossible to parse). It is telling to note how quickly producer Scott Rudin has purchased the rights to some of our most celebrated novels — The Corrections, The Believers, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding — with plans to turn them ASAP into HBO projects. Everyone, even the non-reading public, is in on the same joke.
Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is in every way a com...read more