Stephen McCauley on What Makes a Comic Novel

Stephen McCauley is the author of a bevy—a raft, even—of beloved comic novels. Recent ones include My Ex-Life, Alternatives to Sex, and ...

Stephen McCauley is the author of a bevy—a raft, even—of beloved comic novels. Recent ones include My Ex-Life, Alternatives to Sex, and Insignificant Others. Some of us have been comparing him to geniuses like Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, and P. G. Wodehouse since we read his astonishing 1987 debut, Object of My Affection, which was made into a Paul Rudd / Jennifer Aniston flick in 1998. If seven McCauley novels are not enough, you can also share my delight in his Tales from the Yoga Studio series, under the pen name Rain Mitchell. As his longtime Brandeis colleague, I know Steve is as good at talking about and teaching comic novels as he is at writing them. So I asked him to sit down with me and take stock of the genre.

A longer version of this interview originally aired on Recall This Book, a podcast partnered with Public Books. You can listen to the whole thing here or by subscribing to Recall This Book on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

John Plotz (JP): What is the comic novel? It seems different from the mainstream realist novel, which is always about moral improvement: either the moral improvement of the characters, who are supposed to have come to a better place in life, or of readers, who are implicitly meant to be improved out of their bad habits, out of their laziness, out of their desire to sit around reading novels. By the end of the novel, there’s going to have been a nudge: something that pushes characters and readers to reflect on the difference between the is and the ought to be. It opens up that space. Whereas comic novels are so delightful, because they drop that moral pretense. Like sitcoms, right?


Stephen McCauley (SM): But sitcoms, especially bad ones, tend to be extremely moral. They have two story lines that converge to make one big moral point.


JP: They can be very moral. You’re right.


SM: There has to be redemption at the end.


JP: But comic novels are better by not being moral?


SM: Obviously, we’re talking in gross generalizations here. But I think that one of the reasons comic novels can be so delightfully subversive is that they can skirt around the idea of moral improvement.

Think about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos, which was published in the 1920s. Lorelei Lee, the novel’s famous character, is a gold digger. She is completely amoral. She is only out to improve herself in the crassest financial sense and will destroy as many marriages and wreck as many homes as she needs to to get her tiara. Unlike, say, in Edith Wharton, where financial and sexual ambition are squashed.


JP: Right. Instead, Wharton’s Lily Bart is on the rise, and then she—


SM: She must be punished, right?


JP: Yup: chloral will be administered.


SM: Whereas, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the amoral Lorelei Lee triumphs. And Loos’s most famous line, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” is pretty subversive when you think about it. It is true Lorelei’s friend Dorothy provides the voice of reason and the virtues of nonmercenary love. But she’s not nearly as much fun. The sequel (But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes) is about Dorothy, and there’s a reason it’s not as well known.


JP: That’s a really good point about sitcoms needing to trot out the big moral hammers at the end. That makes me think about Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, since it is the one 19th-century realist novel that actually refuses the moral improvement path. It’s always struck me as funny how much Charlotte Brontë loves him, but I’m just not sure she gets that antimoral side.


SM: Yes. I wish Charlotte Brontë had written a comic novel. Her heroines are great wits in their own ways.


JP: What do you think about somebody like James Thurber as a comic novelist?


SM: Well, to me, he’s more of a humorist. I’m not sure really what the distinction is, if I could express it very precisely, but it seems to me he’s best remembered for his commentary, not his fiction. He never wrote his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


JP: Thurber said something that gets at what I love about comic novels. “Man has gone long enough or perhaps too long without being man enough to face the simple truth that the trouble with man is man.” Which I take to mean, you can outrun everything except yourself.

The point of the comic novel is if you look behind you, your butt is still there. No matter how fast you’re going, your butt will still be the same distance from your mouth as it was before.


SM: As we were saying, no redemption.


B-Sides: Isherwood’s “Prater Violet”

By Stephen McCauley

JP: One of Barbara Pym’s novels is called Less Than Angels, and that feels right to me. We humans are not just dirt, because then there wouldn’t be anything to say. But we’re not angels, either.


SM: The shifts in Pym’s characters are very, very subtle. We don’t see big changes in her characters from the beginning to the end. They open up just a little bit and let in maybe a sliver more light or more warmth, perhaps. But they’re not completely transformed by their experiences.

What’s just so fascinating to me, after having reread a couple of her novels recently, is the lack of what we typically think of as plot. They are anthropological studies of a period of time within a village and observations of behavior.


JP: Right. Part of what I love about comic novels is that there really is an edge there, but it’s just sometimes a little bit buried. It’s not necessarily there in the characters.


SM: Yes, and I think it’s also in the attitude toward their lives. For example, Barbara Pym’s best-known novel is her second, Excellent Women. This is the narrator talking about herself: “I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.”

It’s such a sharp-eyed look at the character looking at herself. Later she compares herself to Jane Eyre in a very amusing way. So, back to Charlotte Brontë.


JP: My favorite Pym line is from An Unsuitable Attachment. She’s talking about a parish priest: “Although invariably kind and courteous he had the air of seeming not to be particularly interested in human beings—a somewhat doubtful quality in a parish priest, though it had its advantages.”

I just love the crisscrossing of that sentence: It brings you to the left bank, and then back to the right bank, and then back to the left bank again. “Somewhat doubtful … though it had its advantages.” I think this really goes along with the point you’re making about the attitude taken toward characters, even though they may be in a very banal and apparently benign setting. Even those settings have their swift water and dark places.


SM: Yes, and this quality of being able to see both sides or all sides of a person’s character, that is very much Barbara Pym.

JP: My question is whether what’s satisfying in Barbara Pym is just really funny sentences, or what the funny sentences are doing.


SM: I think it’s both. Because I think she has spot-on phrasing that was undoubtedly the result of a lot of careful thought and revision. I’m not sure comic novelists get enough credit for that. But also, the quotes we just read reveal something profound about the characters or reveal something about their attitude toward themselves as British, or single women, and so on.

It has to be both form and content to have the satisfaction of comic resonance and the human observation that give her novels their depth. And darkness at times.


JP: You’re saying that the sentences work because they’re funny in their own terms, but they also go to revealing something about the way this character sees the world as distinct from how all the people around her see it.


SM: The novel that I have read most recently that just exhausted me with its comic brilliance is The Sellout, by Paul Beatty. And yet, in the case of Pym—even more so than in the case of The Sellout—it’s all about the context of the characters and the world the author created for them on his or her own terms.

Not mainstream realism, as you put it at the beginning. That’s what makes it funny: the context of their relationships with each other, what they overlook, what they refuse to discuss, and so on. The overlooking is more plausible in comedy, because it creates laughter, than in what I guess we’re calling mainstream realism.

What about Philip Roth, for instance? Portnoy’s Complaint is basically a three-hundred-page stand-up routine. It’s a three-hundred-page Lenny Bruce routine; only funnier, I think, from having looked at some clips of Bruce online. There’s a suffocating world created out of realism but made into something like an R. Crumb comic. Grotesque and queasy-making.


JP: Yes. Does Roth count? Is that a comic novel?


SM: Oh, man, I think so. One of the great things about Portnoy’s Complaint is that it feels, and I believe this is how it was written, as if someone was sitting down and ranting, for however long it took him to get out the first draft of that novel. And yet it’s meticulously crafted. Of course, it turns dark at the end.


JP: The question is whether the rawness of Portnoy’s Complaint and the subtleness of Barbara Pym are on the same spectrum or not.

What I hear you saying is that it’s a subtler kind of vinegar that she’s dispensing. But I almost feel like it’s vinegar she’s made into lemonade. To me, the comic novel, it’s hit the sweet-and-sour balance.


SM: Right. And in fact, I know that you’re not fond of this author, but I’m equally obsessed with Anita Brookner, who wrote 24 novels, and they’re all basically about loneliness. About some form of loneliness: lives that have not advanced in the way that the characters hoped that they would advance. She has a very bleak vision that’s lit up by her wit and occasional bitter comedy.

Brookner’s is the least comforting worldview you can imagine, and yet there’s something tremendously comforting about opening up one of her books and entering that world again.


In Memoriam: Philip Roth

By John Plotz

JP: It’s true I don’t like Anita Brookner, Steve, but I do really like this guy, Steve McCauley, so let’s talk about him.

I’m going to read the first lines of Object of My Affection:

Nina and I had been living together in Brooklyn for over a year when she came home one afternoon, announced she was pregnant, tossed her briefcase to the floor, and flopped down on the green vinyl sofa.

“As if I don’t have enough problems with my weight already,” she said. …

Nina’s lower lip was thrust out, but I couldn’t tell from her expression if she was genuinely upset, so I used my standard tactic for dealing with anything unexpected: I changed the subject. I pointed out a water stain on the hem of her dress and passed her half the sandwich.

“We’re out of catsup,” I apologized.

There’s this sort of Bergsonian quality to humor; the humor of life is seeing us all sort of attached to repetitive machinery where we just keep doing the same damn stuff over and over.


SM: Yes, when people begin acting like mechanized dolls, there’s something inherently funny in that. That’s this Bergsonian idea of comedy, and that is certainly in Pym, in that these characters stick so much to their limits and their views of the world. When the cat lady character in An Unsuitable Attachment goes to Rome, she cares only about the city’s cats.


JP: Does that mean you’re saying that true comic novels begin funny and end sad?


SM: You know what? That’s how it works in life. If you don’t change, learn from your experiences, then yes, I think you’re headed for sadness, certainly.

What I want to do in my books is to have the characters face something, and then change as a result of it and understand that there are consequences. In the case of Object of My Affection, consequences for pushing away the discussion about the pregnancy and instead talking about the absence of ketchup in the house. Which is what they do with everything. You do that for long enough and eventually you have to pay for it. Then things get a little bit sadder and darker. To me, that’s very satisfying. It’s satisfying to write. In my first novels, the characters were terrifically passive about their lives. In the end they pay a price for their passivity.


JP: That seems to go against Northrop Frye’s definition of comedy: that comedy is basically the genre where, through a totally unforeseen set of circumstances, we arrive at a happy ending. In other words, if Romeo and Juliet are in the tomb and he takes the poison, boy, that’s tragedy. But if he figured out just in time not to take the poison, or the poison was sugar water, then it would be comedy. For Frye, it’s all about the upbeat outcome.

But you just gave a totally persuasive description of what you do, which is almost like the opposite. Your books are really witty all throughout, and really funny all throughout, but actually end sadder than they began, because they end with us being able to see the limits of these people.


SM: Well, by that strict definition, then yes, they’re not comic novels. My books always have a bittersweet ending, not an upbeat one. Because I don’t believe life turns out that way usually, especially for people like my characters, who on some level are always outsiders. Instead, there’s a blend of happiness and sadness.

JP: I was thinking of a really weird analogy as I was finishing Object of My Affection, which is Jude the Obscure, which ends a lot darker than any of your books do. But this Thomas Hardy novel is really about what it means to want to be friends with someone, but not actually be married to them. To have a relationship that is neither one thing nor the other.


SM: That’s the subject of my most recent novel, My Ex-Life. It’s about a relationship that is neither one thing nor the other. It’s a previously married couple who reconnect 30 years later. He’s now openly gay, and they know it’s not going to be a sexual relationship. A romantic friendship at best, unlike in Object of My Affection, where at least half the couple would like it to be something more traditional. It has to do with the relative ages of the characters. It’s not that the characters in My Ex-Life have given up, but that they’re willing to settle for good enough.


JP: So you’re actually arguing the opposite of Frye: that the comic novel works because it allows you to see people in their neither one thing nor the other–ness. In other words, there’s the generic solution out there, but in real life people don’t find that solution; they find some other solution.


SM: Yes, and maybe that makes some of these novels that we’ve been talking about less satisfying for certain kinds of readers. The students in a course on the comic novel I taught complained that the books weren’t funny enough, that some were depressing. They were looking for Hollywood rom-com. There are plenty of novels that fit that bill. Just, for me, they are less interesting.

I recently read a comic novel that ends very happily and, for me, unconvincingly. I threw it across the room because I felt cheated by an unearned ending. The happiness of the ending wasn’t earned. I would much rather have seen an unhappy ending, although it was outside of the convention that this novel was clearly working in.

One thing is certain: if, as a novelist, you start out trying to conform to someone’s academic definition of genre, no matter how brilliant and insightful that might be, you’re doomed to create something lifeless.


JP: I’m convinced from this conversation that what makes the comic novel so satisfying isn’t just that it might or might not happen to fit into those formats; it’s that it actually allows you to see life, the way that life doesn’t actually fit into those forms.

We’re handed those forms. Everyone knows the princess-movie version of what you’re supposed to be like when you’re growing up. Then you grow up and you fall in love with somebody, or you fall out of love with somebody, and you realize, “Oh, wait a second, it doesn’t look like that. It looks like … It’s like the first cousin of that.”

A comic novel seems to be committed to saying, “Well, actually, yes, if you look at people in their quirkiness, and the fact that they have their own bodies and their own habits and their own things that they’re kind of ashamed of but they keep doing them anyway, that’s what we all are.”


SM: Yes, and that’s the beauty of it. icon

Featured image: Stephen McCauley. Photograph by Sharona Jacobs