The best satirical novels to make you laugh... and think

Who am I?

I confess I was a serious little boy and used to be an excessively serious writer. Stoning the Devil, which is about desperate Gulf Arab women, was longlisted for major prizes and hailed by the feminist press. Poignant, even heart-breaking, but hardly a barrel full of laughs—though even then I couldn’t resist some black humour. But when I became a professor of Creative Writing at an American university, I found I’d fallen into a world madder than Wonderland, and realised that the best way to tackle woke insanity was through humour—as the great comedians are doing. Nearly all the best British fiction is humorous, so I started letting out my own zany side.

I wrote...

Our Parent Who Art in Heaven

By Garry Craig Powell,

Book cover of Our Parent Who Art in Heaven

What is my book about?

Welshman Huw Lloyd-Jones has his dream job, teaching Creative Writing at a charming college in the American South, and he is in love with his beautiful wife, Miranda. But his idyllic life is about to change. His despotic chair, Frida Shamburger, turns against him because he insists on speaking his mind, and Miranda reveals that he can no longer count on her love. Huw must fight to save his job and his marriage. But can a white, middle-aged man survive in the jungle of contemporary academia? And with sinister psychiatrist Matthew McBane, and women’s empowerment guru Petronella Pikestaff encouraging Miranda to proclaim her independence, can the couple’s love prevail? 

"Pure comical genius. Spot-on observations about today’s imbecile cancel culture." – Gary Buslik, humourist.

The books I picked & why

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A Handful of Dust

By Evelyn Waugh,

Book cover of A Handful of Dust

Why this book?

One of the rare successful tragicomedies. Starting as a witty sendup of the decadent British upper classes, it turns deadly serious in the middle, when John, the young son of Brenda, has an accident while fox-hunting. Because her lover is also called John, she imagines, on being told, that it is her lover who is hurtand thanks God when she discovers that it is her son. Brenda’s distraught husband Tony, the one noble character, mounts an expedition to South America, but instead of finding meaning and redemption, as the reader hopes, a nightmarish fate awaits him. With this novel, Waugh proved himself the greatest British novelist of the inter-war yearsand inspired me, showing me how to mix elements of gravity and tragedy with comedy. 

Lucky Jim

By Kingsley Amis,

Book cover of Lucky Jim

Why this book?

The greatest, funniest, British campus novel, which is saying a lot. Jim is a lecturer at a mediocre but pretentious university in the English midlands in the 1950s. He is in a sexless relationship with his manipulative, unattractive girlfriend and fellow lecturer, Margaret, and is worried that if he doesn’t publish, his probationary period won’t be extended. At the end of the year he must give a lecture which will decide his fate—and has the brilliant idea of getting drunk first, which does not prevent him from delivering a devastating verdict on his colleagues. The novel is hilarious, sharply observed, and may also have influenced me subconsciously, since mine also features a hapless but honest pedagogue struggling to keep his job, a disastrous partner, and a fortuitous romance. 

Money: A Suicide Note

By Martin Amis, Bert Krak (illustrator),

Book cover of Money: A Suicide Note

Why this book?

Money is a quintessential novel of the eighties, on a par with Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. John Self is a director of ads, but also a drunk, addicted to porn, prostitutes, and food, and a spendthrift. Invited to shoot a feature film in the States, unlike the typical Englishman, he feels at home there. The hedonism, materialism, and excesses are second nature to him. Self goes from one scrape to another, but, as his name suggests, identity is a key theme, and it turns out that he is not who he thinks he is. There is even a character called Martin Amis. Money made me laugh non-stop, but also think. What is the point of living in a world as crass as this? And in what ways might I be like John Self?   

The Satanic Verses

By Salman Rushdie,

Book cover of The Satanic Verses

Why this book?

A complex magic realist novel. Two Muslim Indians are on a highjacked plane that explodes over the English Channel. As they fall into the sea, Bollywood superstar Gibreel Farishta, turns into the Archangel Gabriel, while Saladin Chamcha, a voiceover artist, metamorphoses into the Devil. They struggle with their new identities, with rivalry, with life in Britain, and in Gibreel’s case, with mental illness. Like all Rushdie’s work, it is a post-colonial perspective on the metropolis and the identity crises of the ex-colonised. There are long dream sequences about an Arabian prophet called Mahmoudwho resembles the founder of Islam. The Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death for blasphemy for this. This all sounds deep and portentousand it isbut it’s also unfailingly funny and original. And brave. An inspiration. 

Don Quixote de la Mancha

By Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Charles Jarvis (translator),

Book cover of Don Quixote de la Mancha

Why this book?

Is it a coincidence that the first great novel of Western civilisation is a satire? I think not. It began as a parody of the chivalric romancesof their disconnect from reality, their sentimentality, and dishonesty. I needn’t summarise the plot, since everyone knows the story, though usually from films, unfortunately. As with all the great satires, what appears to be a playful romp ends up being an investigation into what it means to be humanthe purpose of our lives, and what makes them worthwhile. Initially, Cervantes wants us to laugh at the ridiculous old country gentleman who longs to revive chivalry, but he finds that Quixote makes his life meaningful by creating his quest. He becomes a heroas does my protagonist. And as we all can.  

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