Anatomy of Black Humor

Anatomy of Black Humor

If some critics are right, Black Humor may be the only new or important development in American fiction since World War II. The important writers are John Barth, William Burroughs, and Thomas Pynchon—but also James Purdy, Joseph Heller, J. P. Donleavy, Bruce Friedman, John Hawkes, and Terry Southern (according to really ambitious critics, there is even a Grand Tradition which includes everybody good from Andy Warhol and Voltaire back to Aristophanes) .

The label fits some of these writers poorly, but generally they do share a new mood and manner. Their view of life is audaciously “black”—subversive, enraged, even apocalyptic. The stage groans with the wreckage of bewildered innocents and sinister megalomaniacs, cannibals, and intellectual rapists. But the Black Humor manner short-circuits any strong response to this. The novels stay coolly “humorous,” murderously farcical, coldly zany, cosmically slapsticky. Black Humor likes nutty plots, mischievous messages, and an acrobatic style. Barth invents a wondrous echo-chamber that no longer needs a human voice; Purdy portrays the most intense events with a calculated deadness that stalemates his subject; and Burroughs gets more detached as his prose gets more chaotic.

What results from this hot-and-cold douche is an enigma. Instead of much blackness or humor, there is a nightmarish neutrality and grotesque deadpan, an elaborate novelistic impasse to feeling and judgment. But the strangest result is this: the effect of all this savage gesture and cold comedy is disappointingly mild, even harmlessly “literary.