Things go wrong in most stories. It would be a dull plot that did not include an upset, a setback or an obstacle.
But it takes a special kind of reversal to turn one of these plots into a black comedy. Often it's a tiny slip that becomes a vortex of disaster; sometimes it's a growing avalanche of humiliation.
But it's always hewn from the stuff of everyday life, which we see transformed into a minefield using only the slightest shift in perspective. And it allows us to laugh while giving thanks it's not happening to us.
Michael Frayn's third novel, Towards the End of the Morning, is set among the staff of a neglected back section of an unnamed British newspaper in the mid-1960s. The writers inhabit a world awash with decline: the inky, sooty courtyards of Fleet Street. Their industry was beginning to shrink, and already they can sense their own obsolescence, the creeping approach of modernity. It's a theme mirrored by the protagonist's own suburban home, where he is in permanent losing battle against dilapidation. Newspaper writer John Dyson wants, very much, to align himself with the modern world. He wants to move from grimy print and into television, and trade creaking Tube trains for international jet travel. But these ambitions result in toe-curling failure, including an agonizing television appearance and a catastrophic jaunt to the Middle East. Frayn's comic set pieces rank among the funniest in British literature.
A single thoughtless act is the undoing of Tom Brodzinski in Will Self's The Butt: He flicks a cigarette end off a hotel balcony: "The butt had described its parabola and hit its target, creating a minor entry wound, a tiny blister. But oh, the exit wound! The massive, gaping and bloody exit wound, through which the butt had sped on, fragmenting into scores of smaller butts, which were now hitting his children, his wife, and causing terrible collateral damage." Brodzinski is on vacation in an invented country that seems part Australia, part occupied Iraq and part Congo when this unfortunate moment occurs. The man his butt hits is married to a tribal woman whose culture does not recognize accidents — a principle enshrined in the country's insane multicultural legal bureaucracy. So, guilty of serious assault, he must travel to a tribal homeland in the bleak interior to make amends. In this story a minor mishap is given vast, chilling and hilarious consequences; Self's ghastly setting is one of his finest creations.
It's never quite clear what mishap dooms Budai, the lead character of Ferenc Karinthy's unforgettable dystopian novel Metropole. He falls asleep on a plane and, as the result of the unknown screw-up, wakes up in the wrong city. This would be upsetting enough in normal circumstances, but the city Budai finds himself in is baffling and terrifying. Its buildings stretch beyond every horizon, and its streets are horribly thronged with surging, jostling crowds. Budai is a linguist, but he can't begin to decipher the jabbering language of the permanently irritable locals. It's even impossible to tell what continent he might be on. A moment of inattention has utterly unmoored him from the familiar world, and he begins to doubt he will ever be able to return. "Nightmare" is the only word that fully captures Karinthy's hellish metropolis, but while it's definitely a tale of horror, Metropole is also funny and touching.
One way or another, all of these characters are trapped — in jobs, in cultural and legal codes, in mysterious cities. With small missteps, they have blundered into tiny model hells. Where, then, is the appeal to the reader?
Well, it's a salutary reminder that anywhere, no matter how hospitable, can become hell if you linger too long. Take a moment to see which exit is closest to you.
Will Wiles is the author of Care of Wooden Floors.
Three Books...is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rosie Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.