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If postmodernist fiction can be defined by its foregrounding “of ontological issues of text and world” (McHale 10), if postmodernist fiction primarily plays with fictional illusions and simulacra, if postmodernist fiction “romps in joyous relativity” because “there is no meaning tucked under [the texts’] surface” (Olsen 30-31), then what seems immediately striking about Jonathan Coe’s humour in The Rotters’ Club (2001) is how different or separate it is from postmodernism’s textual or ontological playfulness. The Rotters’ Club is, among others, a social and historical novel bent on recording the noble and futile battles of the 1970s in England and its humour, far from being reduced to a set of literary games, is then constantly related to a ruthless assessment of the past and to the loss of a series of sustaining illusions. Because the novel combines various tonalities, generic traditions and narrative techniques, its humour fulfills various functions and appears problematically puzzling. Surprisingly, humour seems to function primarily as a narrative red-herring for the light tonality of the opening chapters leaves the reader totally unprepared for one of the characters’ violent death from an IRA bombing. Not black but bleak, Coe’s humour following this tragic incident eases the didacticism of a novel striving to recapture the particular politics, culture and mores of a bygone era. The bitterness of lost illusions, social as well as romantic, may explain the ambiguity of the novel’s humour, a politeness of despair displayed so as to laugh in order to avoid crying. The novel may well evoke the possibility “that to be a bringer of laughter was in fact the holiest, most sacred of callings” (Coe 274), such profane holiness is only one of the aspects of this melancholy narrative. It will be the purpose of this paper then to try and unravel the complexity of The Rotters’ Club’s humour, desperate yet humanist, cynical yet committed.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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