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black humour, essays, Writing, writing advice

The Art of Black Humour

Vineetha Mokkil, September 23, 2023

Can a novel about a stand-up comedian not be funny? Can a novel that devotes pages and pages to a comedian’s onstage act make you cry? This is not a riddle about novelists or comedians. It’s a question you’ll be asking if you pick up a copy of Israeli writer David Grossman’s Man Booker-winning novel, A Horse Walks Into a Bar. The comedy here is dead serious. Grossman uses it with panache to explore a range of themes including the relationship between art and pain, the dynamics of dysfunctional families, and the tragedy of failed states in the modern world.

Humour – black or otherwise – is a powerful tool in a writer’s kit. Use it wisely in your fiction and you are guaranteed to get the reader’s undivided attention. It can make the reader laugh, it can make the reader weep. Love it or hate it, readers will feel compelled to keep turning the pages till they get to the end.

Mohammad Hanif’s crackling first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a perfect example. Hanif mines the potential of black humour and makes the best possible use of it here. Laced with generous and lethal doses of black humour, the plot gallops ahead to expose corrupt, dictatorial politicians and a hopelessly flawed system. This fictional story revolving around the death/assassination of former Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq packs a punch thanks to Hanif’s mastery of the dark art of humour. The dialogue is seeped in acerbic black comedic brine; the situations that crop up as the narrative unravels are so darkly comic that readers are left with no choice but to laugh till they cry.

The venerable Philip Roth decided to take a stab at black humour in his novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth relies on the power of black humour in this book to explore the modern American male’s sexual neurosis. The hero’s monologue about sex, guilt, and other discontents in Portnoy’s Complaint is black humour at its best.

British writer Martin Amis came up with a winner of a black comedy with his novel, Money. The story of a morally bankrupt Hollywood director who tries to make a film with a cast that disagrees on everything – with him, and with each other – is a hilarious read. As one reviewer eloquently put it, “Money has all the hallmarks of what makes a great Amis novel: unlikeable characters, strong attention to everyday speech, and dialogue and humour so bleak you laugh out of fear of crying.”

Amanda Fillipaci’s novels employ black humour – with skill and style – to surprise and shock and raise uncomfortable questions. Her first novel, Nude Men, and her later ones, Vapor and Love Creeps are spiced with black humour. Fillipaci chooses to write about subversive themes and her fictional take on them are funny and incisive. Her trademark black humour is more than equipped to amuse and draw readers into the heart of her stories.

All of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction can be safely labelled black comedies. Dahl also wrote fiction for adults, which shares the same darkly comic streak. Nasty children, mean adults, an impossibly difficult world – Dahl threw them all into the mix and went on to whip up an addictive cocktail for millions of readers.

Many a critic has called Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 the best American novel of the 20th century. The story of a WWII pilot who tries to get out of bombing missions by pleading insanity is a brilliant study in black humour. Catch-22 is a clause that stipulates that a mad pilot can be grounded, but if he sees the danger in bombing missions and requests to be grounded then he cannot be crazy after all. Heller uses black humour as a vehicle to showcase the horror of war and its insanity in this modern classic.

American writer Kurt Vonnegut is synonymous with black humour. A WWII veteran, Vonnegut used social satire to paint a picture of a post-war world for readers. His razor- sharp prose questions accepted beliefs about war, absolute truth, guilt and innocence, and the existence of a divine power.

Black humour is a many splendored thing. Writers have put it to good use over time and the tradition is alive and kicking in a world that is starting to make less and less sense to many of us. It seems a fitting time to declare that there is nothing out there as potent as black comedy to capture the absurdity of life in our time.

Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction 2020 and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and "The Best Asian Short Stories 2018" (Kitaab, Singapore).

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