Satire – Social Commentary with a Chuckle!
April 2013 Book Review
Last month, I reviewed some worthwhile picture books. This month, I will be reviewing some of my favorite Satire Novels.
Satire is a delicate art. It has to have that subtle balance between humor and meaning. To lean too much in either direction can make a story suddenly crude or pompous. Satire lowers the defenses of mind with humor. It uses farce and laughter to put the mind at ease so that critiques and commentary can be given without push back. It is, in my opinion, the highest form of comedy and the self-preservation method of the social critic.
Without further ado, here are my top five Satires, all worth perusal.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
This is one of my favorite novels of all time, and currently the first book I recommend to anyone who doesn’t take themselves or their beliefs too seriously.
Good Omens is a religious satire that is focused on the apocalypse and the end of times. There are demons and angels, humans and beasts, and all the while you are laughing hysterically at how the world is about to end.
More than anything, the novel will challenge every assumption you have about what is good or evil. It ridicules literal interpretation by actually demonstrating the literal effects of certain beliefs, but for those who are open to re-adjustments of their moral compass, they will find themselves suddenly appreciating what is truly important in this life and understanding that good and evil, like most things, are simply relative.
Both authors are wonderful, there is humor and meaning on every page, and I recommend this book tremendously. Not only a must-read, but definitely a must-own.
The Color of Magic by Terry PratchettDoes the author seem familiar? He should. Terry Pratchett is one of the co-authors of the previously mentioned Good Omens.
The Color of Magic is the first novel of the 30+ novel Discworld Series. If you haven’t heard about Discworld, then you are missing out. The series holds a deep and fascinating alternate dimension to our own reality taut with magic. Your hero is a wizard and coward named Rincewind who cannot use magic and way over-the-hill Professional Hero™ named Cohen The Barbarian. Together they embark on an adventure around Discworld, a fantastical realm where the world is a Disc (!) held atop the backs of four enormous elephants standing atop the back of turtle that swims through space.
The beauty of the Discworld series is the breadth of topics that the books confront and the variety of unforgettable characters that inhabit the World. Through Discworld Pratchett discusses Women’s Rights, the Post Office, Race Riots, Old Grudges at the Heart of New Conflicts, Women in the Military, Power and Leadership, the Banking System, the Feudal System, Movies, Superstitions, Academia, and more. His cast of characters include men, wizards, vampires, werewolves, trolls, dwarves, and categories that can only be called “other.”
The true genius of this series is simply how funny and enjoyable it is to read. Each character has glaring flaws and a single redeeming strength that makes the hero or anti-hero lovable and worth cheering for. His footnotes are hilarious, his dialogue is unmatched, his characters are memorable, and his stories shed the bright, unfiltered light of truth on the hypocrisies and stupidity latent in our society.
Terry Pratchett is, in my opinion, the greatest living Satirist. His proficiency is remarkable and he continues to write quality works despite his very advanced age and health issues. His ability to explain the nuanced stupidity in society is unparalleled, and The Color of Magic started it all.
The Discworld series are also the type of books that will never be successfully adapted into television or movies, because the beauty and enchantment of the world is in the writing – the dialogue, the prose, and the footnotes all working seamlessly together. In an age where nearly everything can be turned into a visual art, The Discworld series remains a literary purity. It can only be experienced by words and the imagination.
Dip your toe into the Discworld realm with this novel. If you like it, there is a whole series waiting. With 39 novels published so far and the promise of Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna taking over the series when Terry no longer can write, you can enjoy the magic of Discworld for years.
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
When most people suggest a Vonnegut novel, they typically suggest Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle–both of which are amazing, must-read novels. However, I’m picking Mother Night for its unique situational plot and how the moral it strives to illustrate has stuck with me throughout my life.
Mother Night is the story of the head Nazi Propaganda Director post-WWII, reflecting and striving to understand his life. The story has numerous twists and turns, and I don’t want to spoil the whole outcome, but the ultimate question being asked is paraphrased as follows: Is knowingly doing evil while also doing good worse than doing evil although you believe your actions to be good?
The moral dilemmas in the novel are fascinating and thought-provoking. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from Mother Night:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting…but no good reason to ever hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive….it’s that part of an imbecile that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”
Vonnegut is the greatest American satirist of the last century (remember that I mentioned Pratchett as the greatest living satirist). To read his novels and short stories is to delve into the ethical dilemmas that each person must face when going through life and society. Mother Night is simply one of many great additions he has made to literature. All of his books should be read, simply because they are good for the soul and character.
When comparing Pratchett to Vonnegut, the best way I can explain the difference between two legendary writers is as follows: Pratchett showed me how the world truly works, and Vonnegut gave me the self-awareness to live a meaningful life in such a world.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman, arguably best known for the graphic novel Sandman, is a British satirist who has made and continues to make great contributions to adult and children’s literature. Two of his children’s novels have been turned into motion pictures in Coraline and ParaNorman. His adult novels are Neverwhere, American Gods, and Anansi Boys, as well as co-authoring Good Omens (see first review).
American Gods should become an American Classic that is mandatorily read in High Schools across the country. The prose is wonderful, the characters fascinating, and the situations provocative. It explains America through its people and most importantly through the beliefs of its people. He avoids the monotheistic bias by avoiding figures from the monotheistic faith and instead explains religion and immigrant culture through lesser known and equally valid beliefs and superstitions. America is what its people believe, and the central question throughout the novel: what is America’s true belief system today? Who/What are the American Gods?
Unlike my previous selections, this novel’s tone is more serious and dark rather than humored and tongue-in-cheek. Gaiman loves to dabble in the dark meta-physical realm, and no one does it better. His stories aren’t horror or mystery, but he is unafraid to discuss death and murder, even in his children’s books. His style is unique and unlike anyone else I have ever read. Most impressively, his stories have meaning. There’s beauty in the darkness, purpose in the shadows, and life even in the death surrounding us.
American Gods is a modern classic and must-read for anyone who loves to think and does not mind delving into the darker side of the world.
Bonus: this page-turner will become a channel-holder on HBO. If they treat American Gods as they have the A Song of Ice and Fire series–or Game of Thrones for those fans purely of Peter Dinklage–then we should have nothing to worry about.
America (The Book) by Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart is best known for his hosting of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. He is a comedian and widely considered the greatest satirist on television at the moment. The show under his steward has been a comedic beacon of social commentary that specializes on the hypocrisy and stupidity of media and politics.
But aside from all that, The Daily Show team has also written a couple books. America (The Book) is the first and remains wildly entertaining, especially in light of all that has happened since the early 2000s. The humor is presented through a variety of techniques reminiscent of grade school texboots, utilizing pictures, words, side notes, footnotes, and false quotations. In reviewing this book years later, there was also the added humor of seeing Colbert before he became famous, revisiting the humorous (and scary) time that was the Bush Jr. presidency, and experiencing the now completely outdated pop-culture references.
This is not a serious novel by any means, but for any millennial who grew up watching Jon Stewart instead of the other serious newscasters, it is a classic that should be perused leisurely at your own time.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Earth: The Book! by Jon Stewart
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Ali Hasanali is a contributing writer to Hobbes Lives and is the author of Prythvii: The Forgotten Heirs. He also dabbles in law and can solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute without switching the stickers.