Tom Perrotta

It's easy to divide writers into neat categories based on the presence or absence of humor in their work—there are the funny ones (Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Berger, David Lodge), for whom the comic effect is often the highest priority; the serious ones (Virginia Woolf, Joyce Carol Oates, John Edgar Wideman) who rarely crack a smile; and the mongrels (Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolff) who find a way to consistently combine comedy and deep moral purpose in their work. More unusual are the switch hitters, serious writers who take an occasional break from their weighty concerns and cut loose with an unexpected romp (Jane Smiley's Moo comes to mind).

The great Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, is rightly celebrated for epic political novels like The War of the End of the World, Conversation in the Cathedral, and his latest, The Feast of the Goat, an ambitious and unflinching account of life in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo era. The odd book out in the roster of Vargas Llosa's masterworks has to be Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a manic farce about forbidden love and the dangerous power of storytelling that is a triumph of literary switch-hitting, and, quite simply, one of the funniest books I've ever read.

The novel alternates on a chapter-by-chapter basis between a fairly conventional bildungsroman (the story of Varguitas, an aspiring writer who falls in love with his beautiful aunt, as Vargas Llosa himself had done), and madcap recreations of soap operas written by the supremely talented and superhumanly prolific Pedro Camacho, the Balzac of Latin American radio ("He's not a man, he's an industry.... He writes all of the stage plays put on in Bolivia, and acts in all of them. And he also writes all the radio serials, directs them, and plays the male lead in every one of them.") As Varguitas plunges deeper into his passionate affair with Aunt Julia, Pedro Camacho's stories begin spinning out of control. Dead characters inexplicably return to life. Living ones appear in the wrong programs, or indulge in inappropriate and sometimes shocking behavior (a priest rewards his young male students by handing out pornographic pictures, and teaches the young girls "how to pad out their breasts, hips and bottoms with cotton, pillows, and even newspapers, how to do the dances that were the latest rage: the rumba, the huaracha, the porro, the mambo.") Even worse, Camacho peppers his scripts with gratuitous swipes at Argentina, a country he despises with fanatical fervor ("I've killed my own daughter," one character laments. "The only thing left to do is go live in Buenos Aires.") In the end, poor Camacho goes completely mad, and Varguitas learns the prices to be paid for loving the wrong woman and risking a career in literature.

It's hard to do justice to the sheer energy and inventiveness of this novel in a brief summary—it's as if Vargas Llosa somehow figured out a way to channel the primal storytelling powers of Pedro Camacho while he was composing Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. As a result, one of the world's preeminent political novelists managed to transform himself, for this book, and this book alone, into a fabulous and wickedly transgressive comic writer.