Tragicomedy is my favourite genre to read and write. It is no small task juggling the opposing emotions of tragedy and humour in a literary work. Tragicomedy involves a careful setup of pacing, timing, tone, and character.
I chose the following books because these writers manage the funny-sad juxtaposition in surprising ways. These are works depicting fraught relationships, illness, addiction, divorce, death, murder, periods, ghosts, and more, and just when you’re least expecting it, the writer throws in a killer joke, hilarious dialogue, or humorous observation.
Bad Endings, by Carleigh Baker
The bleak humour in Carleigh Baker’s award-winning debut story collection Bad Endings occurs within the situations that the characters find themselves in and how they react to their predicaments. At her new job on a honey farm, a young woman must contend with a bee in her bee suit without her boss noticing. A heartbroken writer creates an ecosystem in a tub of dirty bath water. Two divorcees fight through a Black Friday shoe sale. A canoeist becomes disillusioned on a guided Arctic excursion and muses: ”If you’re in the Arctic, and can’t Instagram it, does anybody care?”
Although this beautifully constructed collection offers many humorous moments, there’s pain in these stories—grief, loss, rejection, violence, and environmental collapse, which Baker never sugarcoats or shies away from.
I Never Talk About It, by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagon
I Never Talk About It seeks to open up a discussion about the creative process of translation by having 37 different writers translate 37 short theatrical monologues from Véronique Côté and Steve Gago’s 2012 collection, Chaque automne j'ai envie de mourir, and each translator reflects on their creative approach.
While the concept of this book is fascinating and pulls back the curtain on the process of translation, the book itself is a moving work beyond the exercise, demonstrating the power of artistic collaboration.
In these short monologues, we are presented with a range of voices sharing their most private and precious secrets—an anxiety-riddled parent, star-crossed lovers, a grieving grandchild, a tortured writer, an unapologetic snot eater. That’s right, snot! I Never Talk About It is strange, harrowing, deeply funny, and often filled with interesting contradictions like this: “Now I love death and I hate death; the same thing in the same breath. I think of it every day. And it fills me with life.” (from “Ants” translated by Farrah Gillani)
Families Are Formed Through Copulation, by Jacob Wren
The first time I learned of Jacob Wren’s work was hearing him read from Families Are Formed Through Copulation at Toronto’s Scream Literary Festival in High Park in 2008. The audience was sitting on the grassy hill, happily spread out on blankets with picnic baskets.
New to the city, I didn’t come prepared, so I stood off to the side feeling uncomfortable, but my nerves fell away when Jacob Wren took the stage and I heard: “People, stop having children. You are not doing yourselves or the world any good. Take the energies you would have spent on children and use them instead to fight American imperialism.”
The audience roared at Wren’s polemic. And although it was terribly funny with his deadpan almost apologetic delivery, I shivered at these painful truths: “The world we have created will destroy them…” and “The Planet is not infinite.”
Families Are Formed Through Copulation is an intense but hilarious critique of complacency, capitalism, and modern life. Written in 2007, it is also, at times, chillingly prophetic.
God Isn’t Here Today, by Francine Cunningham
Francine Cunningham moves seamlessly between genres and voices in this exciting debut collection of stories, God Isn’t Here Today.
The tragicomic elements come not only from what the characters say but also from how they say it like the narrator in “Every Drop from the Faucet is Gold” who rages at water wasters: “In my dreams, as I crawl through the barren world we have created, I think back on all the water wasted in my life and I curse every single fucking one of us."
Serious themes of death, violence, and the afterlife are juxtaposed with absurd, deeply biting humour and utterly original characters—a tormented ice cream truck driver, a ghost landing his dream job, the last woman on earth, a mortician with a morbid secret.
Cunningham also leaves her poetic mark on these stories with stunning flash pieces and experimentations with form and the page.
Flowers of Mold, by Ha Seong-nan (English Translation by Janet Hong)
Ha Seong-nan’s story collection, Flowers of Mold, intersects many genres of fiction—fable, horror, speculative, fabulism. I include it in the tragicomedy category because these expertly crafted tales are also at times as amusing as they are grim. In “The Retreat” a landlord accidentally murders his tenant during a squabble and goes to comedic lengths (even pretending the tenant is drunk) to sneak the dead man out of the building. Other stories in the collection are devastating like “Nightmare” where a young woman is assaulted by a worker on her parent's farm, and they insist it was all a dream. In “The Woman Next Door,” a new friendship takes a nefarious turn as one woman tries to steal another’s life and convinces her that she’s losing her mind.
Startling details of body horror, obsessions, and unexpected plot twists contribute to the humour. This book is visceral with many references to blood, vomit, urine, and foul smells.
Ha moves seamlessly from the bizarre to the bleak with themes so relevant to the current moment I have to keep reminding myself that this book was originally published in 1999. The English translation by Janet Hong came out with Open Letter, Literary Translations from the University of Rochester in 2019 to rave reviews.
The Whole Animal, by Corinna Chong
In her debut story collection, The Whole Animal, Corinna Chong inserts humour in the most unexpected places. A hilarious Gwyneth Paltrow reference is dropped into a story about a woman returning home for her father’s funeral. In “Fixer,” before recounting an excruciating story about an artist residency crush, a photographer describes herself like this: “I was too worried about being liked to be likeable, and to be around me was to be less cool by association.” Throughout the collection, we meet many lively and unforgettable characters including insect torturers, bodybuilders, and odious dinner party guests.
In addition to brilliantly juggling the funny-sad line, Chong has a gift for writing rich, sensory details like this scene from the title story where the protagonist Ruby and her partner are surrounded by a herd of bison in Badlands National Park: “It was like driving a hearse in a funeral procession, the bison peering into their car to look upon the deceased one last time. Each time the lightning flashed, Ruby caught another glimpse of a dark moon face, beady eyes set deep in fur. Water dripped from their faces like tears.” Wow.
Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for Our Times, edited by Rosanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon, and Tanis MacDonald
Well, you can’t get any more tragicomic than writing about menstruation! Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for Our Times, edited by Rosanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon, and Tanis MacDonald, brings together more than 100 women and nonbinary writers in this impressive multi-genre anthology. Whether it’s Jacqueline Valencia’s empowering story about perimenopause and divorce, Catherine Graham’s hilarious period euphemism poem, Lucas Crawford’s memo to the “Fellows at the Gym,” or Janet Rogers telling it like it is in “Revenge of the Uterus”—these funny, painful, and moving works resist oppressive patriarchal systems, colonialism, societal taboos, and shame.
With dreamlike stories and dark humour, Anecdotes is a hybrid collection in four parts examining the pressing realities of sexual violence, abuse, and environmental collapse.
Absurdist flash fictions in “The Boy is Dead” depict characters such as a park that hates hippies, squirrels, and unhappy parents; a woman lamenting a stolen laptop the day the world ends; and birds slamming into glass buildings.
“We’re Not Here to Talk About Aliens” gathers autofictions that follow a young protagonist from childhood to early 20s, through the murky undercurrent of potential violence amidst sexual awakening, from first periods to flashers, sticker books to maxi pad art, acid trips to blackouts, and creepy professors to close calls.
“This Isn’t a Conversation” shares one-liners from overheard conversations, found texts, diary entries, and random thoughts: many are responses to the absurdity and pain of the current political and environmental climate.
In “My Dream House,” the past and the future are personified as various incarnations in relationships to one another (lovers, a parent and child, siblings, friends), all engaged in ongoing conflict.
These varied, immersive works bristle with truth in the face of unprecedented change. They are playful forms for serious times.
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