From Beckett to the Bible, and Flann O’Brien to Flaubert, the author selects the books that best express the absurdity of the human condition
“I seem to have emerged from the womb believing that the human condition is essentially absurd and this belief has been reinforced both by literary and philosophical expressions of the idea and many developments in the contemporary world.
“Eventually the pressure from these two sources compelled me to make my own absurd contribution, The Age of Absurdity. The following classics, listed in reverse chronological order, were all important influences.”
1. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen
This survey of contemporary absurdity reveals that the UK government, seeking ways to improve inner-city council estates, hired a feng shui consultant called Renuka Wickmaratne who said: “Red and orange flowers would reduce crime and introducing a water feature would reduce poverty. I was brought up with this ancient knowledge.” Also revealed, along with much else – that, as a presidential aide put it, “virtually every major move and decision” made by Ronald Reagan, including the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, was first cleared by a San Francisco astrologer called Joan Quigley; and that 48% of Americans believe in UFOs, 27% in alien visits to earth, while 2% (3.7 million people) actually claim to have been the victims of alien abduction.
2. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
This hilarious and terrifying account of a Caribbean Luxury Cruise is scrupulous documentary realism but also a contemporary fable. The perfect symbol of the age is a cruise liner – a gigantic mobile pleasure palace conveying outsize infants in pastel leisurewear round a series of shopping venues. Wallace reports, in amazement: “I have heard upscale adult US citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkelling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeetshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.”
3. The Magic Christian by Terry Southern
This is the story of the ultimate prankster Guy Grand, a fabulously wealthy financial genius who amuses himself by buying into different enterprises and subverting them, for instance taking over Vanity Cosmetics and launching a shampoo called Downy, supposedly based on a formula that had been “Cleopatra’s secret”, but actually designed to destroy hair. But Grand’s greatest coup is when he lures celebrities and socialites onto a cruise ship, the SS Magic Christian, and, proceeds, with demonic ingenuity, to drive them mad throughout the cruise.
4. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Kafka gave the quest saga a modern twist by having unexceptional seekers who are always frustrated – the quest story without a hero or a conclusion. Beckett took this a stage further. Godot is a quest saga without even a quest. The two tramps, thoroughly modern men, can’t be bothered to embark on a quest and just wait around for meaning to come to them.
5. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
This is the finest theoretical work on absurdity. Camus compares the human condition to the fate of Sisyphus, eternally condemned to push a rock up a hill, a fable that will resonate with all those obliged to work for a living. But Camus argues, convincingly, that Sisyphus can be happy with his rock. The book is short, exquisitely well-written, and full of sentences that should be on coffee mugs, T-shirts and fridge magnets everywhere.
6. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
This is another vision of life as absurd repetition – but eerie, nightmarish, totally black. In the key scene Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen take the narrator on a visit to eternity (up an Irish country lane and deep underground) and tell him he can order whatever he wants. After some thought the narrator requests, and is given, 50 cubes of gold, a bottle of whiskey, precious stones to the value of £200,000, some bananas, a fountain pen and writing materials, a serge suit of blue with silk lining and a weapon capable of exterminating all adversaries. But as he is about to enter the lift on the way out he is informed that he must exit with the same weight as he came in. Obliged to abandon his treasures, he weeps silent bitter tears – excruciatingly funny and also strangely moving.
7. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The stroke of genius here is that, when Gregor Samsa wakes up as a gigantic insect, he himself experiences only “slight annoyance”. It is other people who are disgusted, especially his family. Only the old cleaning woman is unaffected, chatting familiarly to Gregor as he scuttles happily across the ceiling.
8. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
Twain is generally remembered as a sunny, genial humorist but his late works are invigoratingly savage and dark. In his best late story, the town of Hadleyburg, renowned for incorruptible rectitude, offends a passing stranger so deeply that the man spends a year devising a perfect plan for exposing the hypocrisy of all the town’s leading citizens. This plan, involving of course a sack of gold, reaches its diabolical climax in a sublimely funny town hall meeting scene that combines the manic zest of Twain’s early writing with the vindictive ferocity of his later vision.
9. Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert
Bouvard and Pécuchet are humble copy clerks until Bouvard unexpectedly inherits money and the two friends decide to give up work and devote themselves to acquiring knowledge. They attempt to master in turn farming, chemistry, medicine, astronomy, geology, gymnastics, spiritualism, philosophy, religion and phrenology, in each case following the best contemporary expertise, but always ending in disaster and disillusionment. In their education phase they take in the children of a convict and subject them to the latest pedagogic techniques. Resolutely resisting improvement, the children wreck the garden, smash dishes in the kitchen, steal food and money, attack their philanthropic teachers and finally boil a pet cat alive in a cooking pot.
This short work expresses, in the most beautiful language, everything important about the absurdity of the human condition. No more literature or philosophy was needed but, as the author, perceptive in this too, acknowledges, “of making many books there is no end”.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/20/michael-foley-top-10-absurd-classics