If you're into entertainment that highlights the absurdity in issues that are actually pretty serious and makes you laugh out loud, then you're probably a big fan of satirical fiction. If you aren't sure about the genre, at least a few of these 20 satirical books will convert you. Think dark humor, lots of irony, and exaggeration veering on fantasy, all in the name of critiquing problematic political structures, societal norms, and even actual people. The goal is to hyperbolize what we accept as normal and expose its underbelly, while also helping us keep our sense of humor (albeit a dark one) along the way.
Satire is a mode, a mood, a mockery, and so much more. Explore a few satire books we deemed the best and add them to your collection.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
In The Sympathizer, a half-French, half-Vietnamese double-agent relocates to America after the fall of Saigon, and betrayal—both personal and political—unfolds. It's a love story, spy novel, and period piece about the legacy and evils of colonialism, the Vietnam War, and ensuing refugee experience in the U.S. You won't be able to put down this Pulitzer Prize winner.
Aside from being satirical, sharp, suspenseful, and poignant, it's also a great way to study the history of the Vietnam War outside of a textbook. When he's not writing fiction, Nguyen is researching and teaching English, American studies and ethnicity, and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. If you like this book, pick up his nonfiction counterpart next, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Reading Infinite Jest is a life-changing experience because each page contains at least one sentence that'll teach you a truly prophetic lesson. Finishing it, on the other hand, is arguably harder than running a marathon. It's about a dysfunctional but lovable family whose members are all in the pursuit of happiness. Classic, right? It doesn't exactly follow a linear path when it comes to storytelling, but there are four interwoven narratives that seemingly have nothing to do with each other...or do they?
As to be expected from David Foster Wallace, it's hilarious, brilliant, and very long-winded.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
For a more science-fiction approach to satire, try Super Sad True Love Story. Gary Shteyngart takes us to the bleak United States of the near future, which is toiling in financial ruin. Given the rather somber content, the hilarious tone is a welcome surprise.
It follows a Russian immigrant with "an absurdly low—and embarrassingly public—Male Hotness rating" as he falls in love with a Korean-American woman. In short, take the title at face value.
Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin
If you want something short, though not exactly very sweet, pick up Shoplifting from American Apparel. Tao Lin's novella is semi-autobiographical, following a young writer with "a cultish following," though it's also about much larger issues, like class, culture, and art in the digital era. Like the rest of his work, this book features Lin's notoriously deadpan and dark (yet strangely seductive) voice. It's also about how the selling of a book has nothing to do with what it's actually about. Hooked yet?
Homo Zapiens by Victor Pelevin
Do you like reading fiction that's straight-up weird? Victor Pelevin's novel about life in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union will definitely do the trick. The protagonist is Babylen Tatarsky, a graduate student and poet, who finds himself homeless in the early 1990s. He gets a job developing Russian versions of Western advertisements, but soon realizes that the world is nothing more than material possessions and self-indulgence. Is he right or does he find a higher calling?
It'll also make you think about marketing and consumerism with a much more discerning eye, and consider the ways in which we define our own culture by distinguishing it from another.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
This classic satire book explores the different representations and expectations around American masculinity, and it's also just a really fun book to read if you love humor, action, and feel like venting about consumerism. It's also a great window into the mindset of the mid-1990s and the frustration with the monotony of conventional life, as well as the futility of pop culture.
The book follows a depressed man who finds himself living in a decrepit house with a slightly deranged soap salesman, Tyler Durden, after his apartment burns down. Together, they start an underground fight club, which becomes an exciting escape for society's collection of Average Joes and their mundane lives. However, as you can imagine, things quickly get out of hand.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Part period piece, part comedic masterpiece, The Sellout is about a young man who reinstates slavery and segregation in schools when his town is removed from the map since it only brings the state embarrassment. At times disturbing and dark, it'll also make you laugh at least once per page with its biting observations about our culture's depravity.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
A serial-killing yuppie with a dry sense of humor is definitely not a winning combo in real life, but if you'd like to step inside the mind of one without actually getting too close, here's your chance. Patrick Bateman will make you cry, scream, and analyze consumer culture like never before as he unabashedly confesses his violent tirades and crimes against women. You'll love to hate him, we promise.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
This dystopic classic was written in the 1930s, though it still feels extremely topical today. It takes place in a future iteration of the world, where humans are genetically bred and medicated to be docile, and prop up a totalitarian regime. Though it sounds far-fetched, it's very much rooted in familiar places and narratives around the absence of free will, originality, and personhood.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Each short story in Her Body and Other Parties is a modern reinterpretation of a scary legend, iconic pop culture product, or a scarily realistic sci-fi experiment. And though that's interesting enough on its own, they're also written with such beauty that you'll find yourself hungry for more on the last page of each one. Some are eerie and some are erotic, while others teeter on the absurd and satirical, but each of them is an emotionally impactful feminist feat.
Diary of an Oxygen Thief by Anonymous
Diary of an Oxygen Thief spotlights another deeply misogynistic narrator you'll love to hate. He's so hideous a character, indeed, you might even wonder if you're reading some alternative horror novel. And interestingly enough, the author remains anonymous, even 12 years after it was published.
The most infuriating part is that the protagonist is smart and wry, forcing the reader to see their own role in the dynamic of "hurt people hurt people." If that doesn't convince you, the Amazon review calls it a theoretical "novel in which Holden Caulfield was an alcoholic and Lolita was a photographer's assistant, and somehow they met in Bright Lights, Big City." What a treat.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
If you didn't already have to read this growing up, definitely give it a chance now. Kurt Vonnegut is a master novelist, and this science-fiction book is one of his best. At once full of funny, touching, and eye-opening moments, Slaughterhouse-Five is also a disturbing war story full of time travel and alien interference when a veteran re-experiences his life out of chronological order and sometimes simultaneously.
The book follows Billy Pilgrim as he uncontrollably travels through different periods of his life, from his time at Ilium School of Optometry to the army during World War II. The best part of the whole book is the last line, but before you get too excited, Vonnegut purposely chose an anti-climactic end to his masterpiece.
Boomsday by Christopher Buckley
Our 29-year-old protagonist is nothing but likable and charming. That is, until she ever-so-politely proposes the idea that Baby Boomers over the age of 75 kill themselves in the name of reallocating funds. What starts out as a totally absurd idea starts to gain more momentum in this dystopic satirical novel.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
A grammar school staple, this will always be a fun, classic read. Published in 1945, this allegorical and satiric fable about "society's blind march toward totalitarianism" and the Russian Revolution is still just as relevant today.
The classic novel is about a group of farm animals who form an army and plot to overthrow their human farmer. Their goal is to create a society where the farm's four-legged inhabitants can live as equals and be happy. Of course, the leader of the rebellion is a pig named Napoleon. Coincidence? We think not.
1984 by George Orwell
Another Orwell classic, this one takes place in the totalitarian state of Oceania, where someone is always watching you and the Thought Police can read your mind. It is Big Brother at its most terrifying and shows a fantasy of a political future that was meant to magnify and examine the present.
The Thought Police's newest project is to invent a new language devoid of all words related to political rebellion, attempting to prevent it altogether. Even thinking rebellious thoughts is a crime against society.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Written by American author Joseph Heller in 1961, Catch-22 follows Captain John Yossarian, an American bombardier during the second World War. He and his men are thrown into absurd situations while stationed on a Mediterranean island and the book chronicles their desperate attempts to stay alive. We couldn't help but wonder, "what was the war for?" while reading this midcentury gem.
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
An oldie but goodie, Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel, Gulliver's Travels is the original Goldie Locks. Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon and sea captain who wants to travel to the world's uncharted territories and become famous. He encounters three islands, all of which have vastly different and tyrannical governments. The first is inhabited by six-inch-tall people, the second by giants and the third by horse-like creatures
The novel seeks to offer a harsh commentary on the British parliament's petty parties, but it's so and ridiculous that you won't be able to put it down.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
If you haven't read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn since high school, we suggest giving it a second look now. As the title suggests, the protagonist is young Huck Finn who, with the help of his slave friend Jim, fakes his death to escape his abusive and terrifying father. Together, Jim and Huck voyage up the Mississippi River in pursuit of a better life, but they encounter a slew of terrible people who, if they had it their way, would return Jim and Huck back to their owner and keeper respectively.
A stunning critique on the institution of slavery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn chronicles a beautiful bond formed between friends during times of trouble. If this novel doesn't make you tear up, we don't know what will.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Alex, a problematic teen who speaks almost exclusively in slang, is doing his best to navigate life in a nightmarish, repressive, and totalitarian super-State. After committing a violent crime, he agrees to a heinous behavior modification course to avoid jail time. You may be cringing at times, but it's worth the read.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
If sci-fi isn't your cup of tea, you probably won't have much of a stomach for Max Brooks's post-apocalyptic world that almost came to an end courtesy of a detrimental zombie war. The novel is told by the few human survivors who are so terrified and shell-shocked that they're barely living. Though it may not seem like a story of hope in the first few pages, the survivors offer an inspiring look into Man's resilience and will to live.
Elliot RC. Satire. Encyclopædia Britannica. February 7, 2019.
The Pulitzer Prizes. The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press). 2016.