Is there such a thing as literary science fiction? It’s not a sub-genre that you’d find in a bookshop. In 2015, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro debated the nature of genre and fiction in the New Statesman. They talk about literary fiction as just another genre. Meanwhile, Joyce Saricks posits that rather than a genre, literary fiction is a set of conventions.
I’ve not read a whole lot of whatever might be defined as literary fiction. I find non-genre fiction a little on the dull side. People — real people — interacting in the real world or some such plot. What’s the point of that? I want to read something that in no way can ever happen to me or anyone I know. I want to explore the imagination of terrific authors. I’ve heard that literary fiction is meant to be demanding. I don’t mind demanding, but I want, as a rule, a stimulating plot and relatable or, at the very least, interesting characters. I suspect My Idea of Fun by Will Self (1993) is the closest I’ve come to enjoying a piece of literary fiction, but I was far from entertained. And so I read genre fiction — mostly science fiction, but anything that falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction.
It turns out that some of what I’ve read and enjoyed and would recommend might be called literary science fiction. This is sometimes science fiction as written by authors who wouldn’t normally write within the genre, but more often than not regular science fiction that has been picked up by a non-genre audience. Literary fantasy is not so common as literary science fiction, but there is a lot of fantasy, both classical and modern that non-fantasy fans will be familiar with (many are put off by the label “fantasy,” and maybe an awful lot of terrible 1980s fantasy movies). Of course there are J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. These books are only the briefest glimpses into both the imagination of some terrific authors and the scope of fantasy fiction. It isn’t all about hobbits and lions and wizards. There’s much more to explore.
You’ve likely read most of these examples; if they’ve piqued your interest and want to explore more genre fiction, here are some suggestions for next steps.
Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart is a grim warning of the world of social media. There’s not a whole lot of plot, but Shteyngart’s story is set in a slightly dystopic near future New York. There are ideas about post-humanism, as technology is replacing emotional judgement — people don’t need to make choices; ratings, data, and algorithms do that for you. As an epistolary and satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story engages well. The science fiction elements are kept to the background as the characters’ relationships come to the fore.
Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. In Cline’s near future, like Shteyngart’s, there is economic dystopic overtones. Most folk interact via virtual worlds. In the real world, most people are judged harshly. Wade spends all his time in a virtual utopia that is a new kind of puzzle game. Solving clues and eventually winning it will allow him to confront his real-world relationships. Friendships are key to the enjoyment of this novel, as well as how technology alters our perception of them. Are we the masters or servants of technology?
Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson is a complex and knowing satire. The world is full of drugs, crime, nightclubs, and computer hacking; “Snow Crash” is a drug that allows the user access to the Metaverse. Stephenson examined virtual reality, capitalism, and, importantly, information culture and its effects on us as people — way before most other authors. Like Cline and Shtenyngart, technology — in this case the avatars — in Snow Crash is as much a part of the human experience as the physical person.
Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best and most surprising novels in the science fiction genre. It is the story of childhood friends at a special boarding school, narrated by Kathy. Slowly the world is revealed as a science fiction dystopia wherein where the privileged literally rely on these lower class of people to prolong their lives. The science fiction-ness of the story — how the genetics work for example — is not really the purpose of the story. Ishiguro writes brilliantly about what it means to be a person and how liberty and relationships intertwine.
Spares (1996) by Michael Marshall Smith tells pretty much the same story, but with a different narrative and a more brutal full-on science fiction realization. Jack Randall is the typical Smith anti-hero — all bad mouth and bad luck. He works in a Spares farm. Spares are human clones of the privileged who use them for health insurance. Lose an arm in an accident; get your replacement from your clone. Spares is dark yet witty, and again, muses on the nature of humanity, as Jack sobers up and sees the future for what it really is. He believes the Spares are people too, and that it’s time he takes a stand for the moral high ground, while confronting his past.
The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor is another tale about what it means to be a human in a created body. A woman called Phoenix is an “accelerated human” who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression: Americans and their corporations taking the lives of people of color as if they meant nothing. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps his most famous work, and maybe his best. It is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, an anti-war chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army, who was captured in 1944 and witnessed the Dresden bombings by the allies. This narrative is interweaved with Billy’s experiences of being held in an alien zoo on a planet far from Earth called Tralfamadore. These aliens can see in such a way that they experience all of spacetime concurrently. This leads to a uniquely fatalistic viewpoint when death becomes meaningless. Utterly brilliant. Definitely science fiction. So it goes.
A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick. Like Vonnegut, Dick often mixes his personal reality with fiction and throws in an unreliable narrator. In A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor is a drug user (as was Dick) in the near future. However, he’s also an undercover agent investigating drug users. Throughout the story, we’re never sure who the real Bob is, and what his motives are. It’s a proper science fiction world where Bob wears a “scramble suit” to hide his identity. Dick’s characters get into your head and make you ponder the nature of who you might be long after the book is over.
Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow takes a look at the world of surveillance. Unlike Dick’s novel, this is not an internal examination but an external, as four teenagers are under attack from a near future Department of Homeland Security. Paranoia is present and correct as 17-year-old Marcus and his friends go on the run after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Doctorow’s usual themes include fighting the system and allowing information to be free.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. After a religiously motivated terrorist attack and the suspension of the U.S. Constitution, the newly formed Republic of Gilead takes away some women’s rights — even the liberty to read. There is very little science in The Handmaid’s Tale — indeed, Atwood herself calls it speculative rather than science fiction. The point, however, is not aliens or spaceships, but how people deal with the present, by transporting us to a potential, and in this case frightening, totalitarian future.
Bête (2014) by Adam Roberts is also a biting satire about rights. Animals, in Roberts’ bleak future, have been augmented with artificial intelligence. But where does the beast end and the technology take over? The protagonist in this story is Graham, who is gradually stripped of his own rights and humanity. He is one of the most engaging protagonists in recent years: an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, the author forces us to consider the nature of the soul and self-awareness.
Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of three American male archetypes. More of a treatise than a novel, it is science fiction only in the sense of alternative history and human reproduction via parthenogenesis. Gilman suggests that gender is socially constructed and ultimately that rights are not something that can be given or taken from any arbitrary group.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin is regarded as the novel that made her name in science fiction. Humans did not originate on Earth, but on a planet called Hain. The Hainish seeded many worlds millions of years ago. In The Left Hand of Darkness, set many centuries in the future, Genly Ai from Earth is sent to Gethen — another seeded world — in order to invite the natives to join an interplanetary coalition. As we live in a world of bigotry, racism and intolerance, Le Guin brilliantly holds up a mirror.
Ammonite (1992) by Nicola Griffith also addresses gender in the far future. On a planet that has seen all men killed by an endemic disease, anthropologist Marghe journeys around the planet looking for answers to the mysterious illness, while living with various matricidal cultures and challenging her own preconceptions and her identity. Griffith’s attention to detail and the episodic nature of Marghe’s life result in a fascinating and engaging story — which is what the women of this planet value above all else. Accepting different cultural ideologies is an important factor in science fiction and both Le Guin and Griffith have produced highlights here.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit named Rosemary joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet. Chambers writes one of most fun books in the genre, featuring aliens in love, fluid genders, issues of class, the solidarity of family, and being the outsider.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. In this folk-tale fantasy, Clarke writes a morality tale set in 19th-century England concerning magic and its use during the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhat gothic, and featuring dark fairies and other supernatural creatures, this is written in the style of Charles Dickens and others. Magic is power. Who controls it? Who uses it? Should it even be used?
Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho is set in a similar universe to Clarke’s novel: Regency England with added fantasy. Women don’t have the same rights as men, and foreign policy is built on bigotry. The son of an African slave has been raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal. As in Clarke’s story, magic is fading and there are strained relationships with the fairies. This is where the novels diverge. Prunella Gentleman is a gifted magician and fights her oppressive masters. Cho writes with charm and the characters have ambiguity and depth. This is more than just fairies and magic, it is a study of human monsters, women’s rights, and bigotry.
Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson. Take the idea of power, politics and traditional magic and move it to the Middle East. We’re in a Middle-Eastern tyrannical state sometime in the near future. Alif is Arabian-Indian, and he’s a hacker and security expert. While having a science fiction core, this sadly under-read book has fantasy at its heart. When Alif’s love leaves him, he discovers the secret book of the jinn; he also discovers a new and unseen world of magic and information. As with those above, this is a story of power. Who has it, and who controls it. The elite think they do, but the old ways, the old magic is stronger.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. Everyone’s favorite surrealist fantasy begins with a bored little girl looking for an adventure. And what an adventure! Dispensing with logic and creating some of the most memorable and culturally significant characters in literary history, Carroll’s iconic story is a fundamental moment not just in fantasy fiction but in all fiction.
A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) by Haruki Murakami sees the (unreliable?) narrator involved with a photo that was sent to him in a confessional letter by his long-lost friend, The Rat. Another character, The Boss’s secretary, reveals that a strange sheep with a star shaped birthmark, pictured in an advertisement, is in some way the secret source of The Boss’s power. The narrator quests to find both the sheep and his friend. Doesn’t sound much like Alice for sure, but this is a modern take on the surreal journey populated by strange and somewhat impossible characters, with a destination that might not be quite like it seems. You might have read Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — both terrific novels — but you really should read Murakami’s brilliantly engaging exploration into magical oddness.
A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) by Lavie Tidhar. Was Alice’s story nothing more than a dream? Or something more solid? Shomer, Tidhar’s protagonist, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. Having previously been a pulp novelist, his dreams are highly stylized. In Shomer’s dream, Adolf Hitler is now disgraced and known only as Wolf. His existence is a miserable one. He lives as a grungy private dick working London’s back streets. Like much of Tidhar’s work, this novel is pitched as a modern noir. It is however, as with Carroll’s seminal work, an investigation into the power of imagination. Less surreal and magical than Alice, it explores the fantastical in an original and refreshing manner.
The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. A classical fantasy tale of English folklore, despite being set in “Gramarye.” White re-tells the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere. This is an allegoric re-writing of the tale, with the time-travelling Merlyn bestowing his wisdom on the young Arthur.
Redemption in Indigo (2010) by Karen Lord takes us on a journey into a Senegalese folk tale. Lord’s protagonist is Paama’s husband. Not at all bright, and somewhat gluttonous, he follows Paama to her parent’s village. There he kills the livestock and steals corn. He is tricked by spirit creatures (djombi). Paama has no choice to leave him. She meets the djombi, who gives her a gift of a Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world.
A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki. Diarist Nao is spiritually lost. Feeling neither American or Japanese (born in the former, but living in the latter), she visits her grandmother in Sendai. This is a complex, deep, and beautifully told story about finding solace in spirituality. Meanwhile, Ruth, a novelist living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach — possibly from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Ruth has a strong connection to Nao, but is it magic, or is it the power of narrative?
American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman. No one is more in tune with modern fantasy than Neil Gaiman. This is an epic take on the American road trip but with added gods. A convict called Shadow is caught up in a battle between the old gods that the immigrants brought to America, and the new ones people are worshiping. Gaiman treats his subject with utmost seriousness while telling a ripping good yarn.
The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes causes some debate. Is it science fiction or is it fantasy? Sure it is a time-travel tale, but the mechanism of travel has no basis in science. Gaiman, an Englishman, and Beukes, a South African, provide an alternative perspective on cultural America. A drifter murders the titular girls with magical potential, which somehow allow him to travel through time via a door in a house. Kirby, a potential victim from 1989, recalls encounters with a strange visitor throughout her life. Connecting the clues, she concludes that several murders throughout the century are the work of this same man. She determines to hunt and stop him. As several time periods occur in Beukes beautifully written and carefully crafted novel, it allows comment on the changes in American society.
The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara. Whereas Gaiman and Beukes use fantasy to comment on culture from a removed stance, Yanagihara looks at cultural impact head on, with the added and very difficult subject of abuse. Fantasy isn’t all about spells and magic rings. In a complex plot, Western scientists visit the mysterious island of U’ivu to research a lost tribe who claim to have eternal life. Yanagihara’s prose has an appropriate dream-like quality as it explores our perceptions through the idea that magic is a part of nature to some cultures.
The Harry Potter series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling. The story of a magician and his friends who grow up learning how to use magic in the world and to fight a series of evil enemies. As with other teen fantasies (such as TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), these books are more about growing up and understanding the world than they are about magic and monsters.
The Magicians (2009) by Lev Grossman is, from one perspective, Narnia remixed starring Harry Potter at university with swearing and sex. Which sounds great to me! From another, it is about addiction and control. Quentin (Harry) loves the fantasy books Fillory and Further (Chronicles of Narnia). Thinking he is applying to Princeton, he ends up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy (Hogwarts). He learns about magic while making new friends and falling in love, while is former best friend, Julia, who failed to get to Brakebills, learns about magic from the outside world. There are beasts and fights and double crossing and the discovery that Fillory is real. Rollicking good fun with plenty of magic and monsters, but Grossman adds an unexpected depth to the story.
Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a perfect fantasy novel for anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s. I’d imagine it is pretty enjoyable for everyone else too. This time, there is no formal education in magic. Set in Mexico, Signal to Noise charts the growing pains of Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela. The make magic from music. Literally. Magic corrupts Meche and her character changes. Moreno-Garcia nails how selfish you can be as a teenager once you get a whiff of power or dominance. In the end, everything falls apart.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Let’s face it. 2016 sucked. It will go down as one of the cruddiest years in the 50 or so that I’ve walked the earth.
It started sucking right away, with the death of one of my favorite musicians, David Bowie, on Jan. 10, and the death of one of my favorite poets, C.D. Wright, two days later. Maybe it’s not fair to call Bowie’s Blackstar a literary achievement, but it’s an act of deep hubris and generosity and fearlessness that I aspire to as a novelist. So it’s on my list. So too is the first of C.D. Wright’s posthumous collections of poetry, Shallcross, which shows her at the height of her astonishing powers, a book that helps me grieve and shakes me up at the same time.
In February, Peter Straub, one of my literary heroes, put out a collection of his selected stories, Interior Darkness, which I recommend to anyone who thinks the “New Weird” is a new thing. I also discovered the cartoonist Michael DeForge, whose new graphic novel, Big Kids, is a trippy, disturbing, utterly original coming-of-age tale that is still haunting me today.
Also in February: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee died. “Uptown Funk” won a Grammy.
In March, there were primaries, and I read Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot, a dazzling and inventive novel about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. I also read Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, also about orphans and ghosts and swindlers and religious fanatics. It was good but upsetting in many many ways. That Thomas Frank is too cynical!, I thought to myself, hopefully.
In April, Prince died.
Prince? Died? 2016, could you be more sadistic?
So I read some poetry, which sometimes helps: The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May, who is one of my favorite younger poets; The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay, which has an amazing long poem about the childhood of Neil deGrasse Tyson; Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a very painful and sad book by Ocean Vuong.
Then, I immersed myself in The People in the Castle, selected “strange stories” by Joan Aiken, published by the wonderful Small Beer Press, with an introduction by Kelly Link, and Aiken’s tales were a kind of balm for troubled times. Another balm was the novel Rich & Pretty by my former student Rumaan Alam, which is so funny and beautifully written and precisely described I almost forgot how depressed I was getting.
Summer came at last, and 2016 immediately killed off Muhammad Ali, just to show us it meant business. There was a convention in my home town of Cleveland which I was trying to ignore, so I read A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford, whom Joyce Carol Oates calls “…a beautifully disorienting writer, a poet in an unclassifiable genre…,” and I decided that Jeffrey Ford is an important figure who needs to be recognized more. I read Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams, who is another one of my idols, and I love that she’s still so weird and crazy, after all these years.
Another of my former students, Sam Allingham, sent me his new book of stories, The Great American Songbook, and it is so good! He is super-talented and gives me hope for the future!
And a kind acquaintance, Jacob M. Appel, sent me his new book of stories, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and it was also really good, very Grace Paley and smart and wise (he’s a psychiatrist and a lawyer and a professor and has, I kid you not, seven master’s degrees), and then I realized that I was supposed to blurb his book and I screwed up and forgot to do it, so I was ashamed. I’m sorry, Jacob. Your book is awesome.
And then it was August. I read The Fire This Time, an anthology of essays about race, edited by the brilliant Jesmyn Ward; I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I had a panic attack, and I got some medication — not a moment too soon, because 2016 then decided to take Gene Wilder, and if it wasn’t for Clonazepam I’d still be watching YouTube clips from Young Frankenstein and Willie Wonka, singing along with “Pure Imagination” and weeping, weeping.
Afterwards, I spent a good part of the fall rereading a YA fantasy series by Garth Nix. It was a retreat of sorts, I guess.
One of my fondest memories is reading with my two sons, which we did all through their childhood. They loved fantasy series. Yes, we read all the Harry Potter books, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books. The Chronicles of Narnia.
One series that we were particularly fond of was Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. We listened to them in the car on audiobook: read by Tim Curry in a rich, plummy, intensely funny and felt performance. We were mesmerized by the adventures of Sabriel, the girl necromancer who inherits the heavy weight of her father’s obligation to protect the world from the Dead; her half-sister, Lirael, a lonely librarian who goes on a journey with her magical companion, The Disreputable Dog, finds that she is the only one who can save the world from evil. There is also Mogget, a powerful magical creature who has been imprisoned in the body of a house cat. (Tim Curry’s performance of Mogget is a particular hammy delight.)
In any case, reading these books with my kids was an intense, formative experience, and I was excited to learn that Nix had a new book in the series that was coming out in October. I prepared for it by listening to the entire oeuvre — about 50 hours of audio — and it lent me a crutch to hobble on through our hideous American Autumn. Reading these books again, along with the new one, Goldenhand, brought back a certain kind of joy, a certain kind of honest excitement, to return again to this wide, richly imagined world that Nix has created with such breadth and texture. I got to relive those times I had with my kids, which is not an insignificant thing. My boys are now 25- and 26-year-old men, but for a time, reading this book, I was able to commune with the children they once were.
I was also able to remember the way that certain kinds of books could help in a dark time — I remembered the kid I once was, living in a difficult and abusive and violent family situation — and how books may have saved me.
I worry that this last bit seems stupid and childish and cowardly?
But so what? I lifted out of the dream of those books a sliver of faith in bravery and honesty and courage, and a hope that evil won’t win in the end. I could use the reminder.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
“The massive black hole in our understanding of the creatures with whom we share the planet, as vast and compelling a mystery as the universe, is intolerable, not just because we can’t talk to the animals, but because it reminds us of how we can’t really know any other consciousness, not even those of our species…It reminds us that each of us is inescapably alone inside our heads.” — Jenny Diski, What I Don’t Know About Animals (Yale University Press, 2010)
My dog and I understand each other well. We’ve been together 11 years, longer than a lot of couples I know. But although I am not under any illusions that when I speak to her she’s going to answer, there was a time in my life when you could easily have convinced me otherwise.
As an American child living in Israel during my formative years, I hated the guttural sounds of Hebrew and refused to learn it. It was the late-’60s; no one insisted that language immersion was good for children. Instead, my parents enrolled me in the best English-speaking preschool in Tel Aviv — an Anglican school — and supplied me with a steady stream of books and comics from England, which I consumed one after the other.
Much in the same way that Konrad Lorenz imprinted himself on his gaggles of baby geese, my first reading experiences stamped on me, for most of my childhood, a fervent love of animals and the accompanying wish to communicate with them; and, in my earliest years, I suspect I thought I could. In those days, British children’s literature overflowed with wonderful talking beasts: Beatrix Potter, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Paddington Bear, Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books, Tove Jansson’s The Moomins series, and The Chronicles of Narnia, to name a few. Thrown into parochial school with no prior religious instruction, I sorted out my own theistic system in a way that made perfect sense: God, in my four-year-old mind, was a benevolent, gray-muzzled German shepherd.
We returned to the States as I started first grade, and I went on to discover American animal books. But something was missing. Books like Albert Payson Terhune’s dog books, Call of the Wild, and Black Beauty told of good mute beasts, loyal and ready to serve their human companions, but I wanted communion. I wanted my animals to talk back.
Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, the tradition of articulate fictional animals is rooted in a deep national nostalgia for the Greenwood, the archetypal forest of British lore. The kings of old hunted enchanted stags in the Greenwood; Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest was a version, and the Arden Forest where As You Like It takes place. And the Greenwood is home to the mythical Green Man — a mysterious and leafy being who stood for fertility, nature, and magic.
For all the American mythos of celebrating nature and the song of the Plains, animals have always been more a source of food or cheap labor than conversation here. The English got their animals right, as far as I was concerned, and I kept that ideal close to my heart.
As the son of a British father and American mother, Bill Broun, author of Night of the Animals, did not encounter a particularly high level of Anglo-American cultural conflict growing up in Ohio. His mother liked popular American novels and knew her classics, he recalls, and his father read the Akron Beacon Journal and listened to the BBC World Service on his shortwave. “I’m very much [an American] child of the late-’70s and early-’80s,” he explains. “My literature was Weird War Tales and Sgt. Rock comics and a set of World Book encyclopedias.”
But a family trip back to England, he says, changed his life. “I met all my English relatives,” Broun recalls. “I saw my granddaddy’s pauper’s grave, at a little country church in Worcestershire. It disturbed the fuck out of me. It was a mound. No headstone…I saw my first Aston Villa soccer match, saw London, saw Scotland, and came back to Ohio obsessed with my ties to England.”
Broun attended University College London and Miami University in Ohio, eventually earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston. In 2002, the year he began writing Night of the Animals, Broun was a resident fellow at Yale University; he has worked as an editor, reviewer, and journalist, and is currently associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University, Penn.
But while the novel — a tale of one man’s odyssey to free the animals in the London Zoo — was written on these shores, “The plain fact is,” Broun says, “I barely thought of Americans.” Night of the Animals, which was published by the U.S. imprint Ecco in July, is set very firmly in a future England and informed by British folk tales, religion, politics, identity, and even vernacular — as well as a dark dystopian vision, black humor, and some beautiful, pyrotechnic writing. “I consider it a British novel through and through,” he says. “Although ambitious in a way that’s not quite like a lot of British lit today.”
It reflects Broun’s identification with his family’s working class background too; his father, a machinist, left school at 14 to support his family. “I wanted to tell a huge, authentic English story,” Broun adds, “and accurately portray a vanished and vanishing world and a class of people today who often don’t make it into the British literary scene.”
The night in question takes place in 2052. England is no longer part of the European Union (which, keep in mind, wasn’t even a gleam in Parliament’s eye in 2002 when Broun began writing the book). The country, ruled by the oligarch Henry IX — Harry9, familiarly — has reverted to a pre-Victorian divide between the new aristocrats and the massive underclass known as Indigents after a series of social reforms in the 2020s. The remains of the working class have given up their right to vote in return for dormitory housing, basic meals, jobs on government soybean farms.
Broun’s protagonist, Cuthbert Handley, is one of Britain’s many have-nots. At 90 — 2052’s new 70 or so, thanks to synthetic body part replacement — he is homeless, ill, overweight, addicted to the legal drug Flôt, and deeply disturbed by the disappearance of his older brother Drystan when they were children. He is also gripped by the belief that the animals in the zoo are talking to him, begging him to set them free.
He has a point. Earth’s animal population is dwindling, and as the last repository of “whole” animals, rather than genomic clones, the London Zoo has become the target for the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, which is readying itself to die as a massive comet nears the Earth’s orbit. The cultists are killing off the world’s animals so that the accompanying aliens will make no mistake as to whose souls to occupy. The zoo is simultaneously “an ark, and a death row prison.” Cuthbert intends to liberate its inmates — and, perhaps, find his long-lost brother.
It’s immediately clear that Cuthbert, blundering through the Zoo’s underbrush late at night with a pair of bolt-cutters and a maintenance dose of Flôt, is not in his right mind. Yet at the same time, he may or may not have inherited what his old-country gran called the Wonderments — special old-time powers, passed down through every other generation, which include the ability to understand animals.
The animal language has been dying out for some time, she tells young Cuthbert and Drystan during a family visit to the countryside:
“My grandfather used to say that when the animals go quate [quiet], it means Jack in the Green’s right ‘round the corner…The Green Man. The Lush One. Robin Goodfellow. Puck. The Christ of Otters.”
“Otters? I don’t like otters. I like tigers. Can’t we have tigers?” asked Drystan.
But when the boys venture deep into the woods that afternoon and tumble into a deep brook, it’s an otter six-year-old Cuthbert sees — or thinks he sees — as Drystan disappears beneath the water and Cuthbert himself nearly drowns: “a fluid face, a being of brown and white and green wearing a momentary smile, then anger, a pale hand — or a paw? — reaching toward him, desperately.”
And it’s otters that haunt Cuthbert through the rest of his life, as he becomes less and less functional in the grip of his loss and grief and further in the thrall of his animal visions and his conviction that Drystan is not dead — that someday they will be reunited, and, of all the world’s creatures, it’s otters that hold the key.
Trying to work up the nerve to kill himself became compulsive; he would also try, when he remembered, to ‘beg forgiveness’ from a Christ of Otters. He forced himself to picture this robed messiah of all murdered animals, a gimlet-eyed and long-whiskered Jesus with a long pearly claw on each soft finger.
From his beginnings as a bright and promising young lad, Cuthbert evolves, eventually, into a crazy old man who talks to animals. “Words did not pass through snout, proboscis, or mandible. But nonetheless, the animals asserted themselves toward him. They sent messages, some limpid, some inscrutable, but all appreciable.”
Broun doesn’t see himself as an “animal person” in the traditional sense. “My feelings about animals fluctuate always,” he says, “and my relationship with them has always been kind of convoluted. There’s part of me, a brutal, on-the-farm side, I suppose, that can’t stand when people fetishize animals over people.”
What resonates for him where animals are concerned, Broun explains, is their place in the universe: “I do adore their beauty and spirits. To me, animals are part of God’s creation, and they’re magical — but so are trees and clouds and shooting stars.”
Yet Broun’s language reveals a deep respect for, and attention to, the fishes of the sea and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Cuthbert communes with penguins, lions, psychotic chimpanzees, all wonderfully rendered in Broun’s bestiary: a buck’s “great rack spread like a huge bone map of anger.” The zoo’s jackals are “all tangible dog-pieces darting about a sparse pen like small rages on legs.” A mournful gorilla ends up “knucklewalking down the middle of Baker Street, throwing forward his furry black arms, as big and strong as mastiffs.”
Along with its celebration of our fellow inhabitants of the earth, Night of the Animals unashamedly holds up faith as a necessary condition for survival — a character’s belief in being able to converse with animals, and an author’s faith in a weird and wonderful vision. Broun twice rewrote the book almost completely during its 14-year gestation: “I felt like I was being tested or punished or doing penance or something…I felt like God was on my back, with one foot on my neck, making me work.”
Cuthbert admits that driving his mission is a fierce desire for redemption. He has not always placed the well-being of animals above his own, he admits to Muezza, the wonderfully Machiavellian little sand cat who befriends (and converses at great length with) him, but was cruel and callous to beasts, small children, and old men in his youth.
It has destroyed my soul, and damned me to alcoholism, then to Flôtism. I thought that by letting the jackals out and whatnot, and then you too, it might help.
Recovery often calls on belief in a power greater than oneself. Cuthbert’s higher power, of course, is a zoo full of animals. In particular, the Jesus of the Otters has become inextricably bound up in his disordered mind with Drystan’s disappearance and, he is convinced, eventual resurrection.
Given Cuthbert’s own imprinting, his odd theology makes sense (certainly to a reader whose personal deity was once a German shepherd). And if ever there was a man in need of a higher power, Cuthbert is it. His drug of choice, the legal and intensely addictive Flôt, is another royally sanctioned form of crowd control in 2052:
When Flôt was good, it was hands down the best legal hallucinogenic and sedative on earth. It offered more than intoxication, more than a release. It took you rippling across whole new planets of purple-white euphoria.
One of Flôt’s most devious properties is that anyone who successfully manages to kick the drug will experience a second withdrawal some 10 years later that is nearly impossible to withstand. Notes Broun, who has 25 years of recovery under his own belt, “I wanted partly to portray the recovery process itself as something that remains precarious and miraculous over the long haul…Whenever I hear about a great recovery story, my instant thought is, great, but come see me in 10 years.”
Night of the Animals is a tale of recovery and redemption, though not the kind we’re used to. In the end, Cuthbert’s mission creates more havoc than liberty. Few of the animals are better off than before. But he does, in fact, free the otters:
[T]he entire romp of the London Zoo’s small species of otter appeared and leaped down through the gap, pouring out in one quivering, shiny river-bottom-colored whoosh. It was as though they were, together, the last and most precious thing in England to be emptied from it, a half-water and half-earth being made of golden-brown jewels and smelling of stolen foreign flowers.
A young police officer named Astrid Sullivan — a recovering Flôt addict who is working a Flôter’s Anonymous program and actively battling her demons — answers the call to investigate a disturbance at the zoo and falls in with Cuthbert despite her misgivings. The two become an unexpected team. And for a moment, as the long night ends, the spirit of the Greenwood makes an appearance, transforming Astrid, briefly:
It resembled Astrid, but it was larger, untamed, like a wild, long-limbed yew tree spotted with tiny red berries. Astrid’s long black hair seemed to have turned a golden green, and floated in the air…sparking little fires from which baby kestrels and whipping adders and speeding tiny stoats burst forth.
(“I did wonder occasionally if Americans would get the Green Man stuff,” notes Broun, “but I wasn’t writing for Americans, and when I started to see how widespread Green Man was — what with the figure of Al-Khidr in Islam, for instance — I started to see that it was truly, in a Jungian sense, archetypal.”)
Is Cuthbert’s night of the animals an archetypal fable? A hallucination? A miracle? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and this may be Broun’s point. What is important is that Cuthbert has made connections — with his beloved animals, and with Astrid, as a true friend — something Cuthbert has lacked all this time.
For it doesn’t matter so much where you place your faith, but that you place it at all: in God, in the person standing next to you, or the dog at your feet. What I loved best about the British books I read as a child was how close to the surface of everyday life the mysticism lurked. In the absence of any other belief system, that was more than enough. In the absence of anything Cuthbert might have to hope for in his world, he can talk to the animals. And — because Broun has given us a thoroughly British novel — they can talk to him.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss characters from literature they’d like to see join the already hilariously crowded Republican 2016 presidential primary. Why stop at 17? Come on! We’re just getting warmed up, y’all!
Discussed in this episode: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Gregory Peck, Christian Grey, Grey by E.L. James, Edmund Pevensie, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Rep. Greg Stillson (I-N.H.), The Dead Zone by Stephen King, air pollution, Donald Trump (R-N.Y.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the Frank Bascombe books by Richard Ford, Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, pugs.
Not discussed in this episode: 15 of the 17 Republican candidates actually running for president, including Jeb Bush (R-Fla.), Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.), Rep. John Whiteman (R-Ohio), Sen. Robert “Bobby” Dollar (R-Wash.), and that one governor who yells at people all the time (R-Ohio).
I don’t know when this entry will run, but I am writing it on a Friday, and I’m supposed to have a baby on Tuesday. I’ve been home since Wednesday, prowling around the house — if a very pregnant person can be said to prowl — feeling lumpy and alert and expectant. It’s safe to say I’m weirding out a little. For weeks I have been in the grip of so-called nesting hormones, which are real, and which remind me of being in college and taking other people’s adderall to finish a term paper, except the term paper is cleaning baseboards, or finally buying a decent set of towels after reading a lot of information about what makes a towel nice, or creating tasteful yet affordable shared adult/baby bedroom decor out of an old calendar and 12 discount frames from Amazon. I’ve been reading a lot of Amazon reviews, so many that it doesn’t feel like I’ve read much of anything else.
But that’s not true — I read a book of essays by Nora Ephron. And I read this article in Harper’s, about squadrons of elderly people living in campers and humping merchandise through an Amazon warehouse. Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck; I feel bad about my ankles, and my strenuous participation in late capitalism. I feel bad about the number of huge cardboard boxes filled with tiny things I’ve gotten from Amazon. I don’t want to buy any more things from Amazon, but I don’t know how I will get my cat litter, or new hooks for my shower curtain, or a tiny dehumidifier that fits in a closet, or a ceramic space heater with automatic shutoff and remote control so the baby doesn’t freeze in our cold little house. I don’t know where I will read 400 earnest assessments of which Pack and Play is the best Pack and Play. Did I mention I’m weirding out a little?
Speaking of late capitalism, last week I read four children’s books by Beverly Cleary, because I have been thinking about what it means to have a family and to be middle class and the Ramona books feel like a portrait of a kind of family and life that is maybe on its way out in America. I read select passages from The Chronicles of Narnia to get in a more cheerful frame of mind, but not The Last Battle, because that’s the one where everyone dies. I read the first few pages of Renata Adler’s Speedboat because people are always talking about it on Twitter, but I didn’t understand what was happening and I took a break and then accidentally returned it to the library. I read some stories by Julie Hayden, and want to read more, but there aren’t very many to read. I read Rabbit, Run, which I had always assumed that I’d read and it turned out I hadn’t, and which I probably shouldn’t have read while nine months pregnant since it depressed and angered the hell out of me.
I read Invisible Man. I read Austerlitz. I read The Patrick Melrose Novels and was not as charmed as I had hoped to be. I read new things, The Good Lord Bird and Life After Life and The People in the Trees and Dept. of Speculation. I read Americanah over a blissful Easter Sunday, which I spent in bed eating popcorn in an empty house. I read Station Eleven over the course of a blissful regular Saturday, with my cats and my blanket. I read Thrown, which filled me with envy of people who are professional writers. I read Submergence. I re-read Dance to the Music of Time and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Howards End and everything by Donald Antrim. I read small parts of a vast number of books about pregnancy and babies and felt overwhelmed with details regarding the cervix. I read all of Labor Day, because Edan is in it, and I found most of the entries frankly alarming, but less so than the comments on BabyCenter. I read a lot of studies about what the numbers on a nuchal translucency mean, and many opaque articles about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
As with every year, there were a lot of things I wanted to read and didn’t. I didn’t read anything by Norman Rush and I didn’t read anything by Ivan Turgenev or Katherine Mansfield or Karen Russell or Ben Lerner.
There were a lot of things I wanted to write and didn’t. I didn’t write an essay about my great-grandmother Vera. I didn’t write my Anita Brookner reader, or an essay about late capitalism, or a novel. Parenthood, as far as I know, is not a condition characterized by increased productivity, so I don’t know what will happen to these plans in the new year. I will say I have found pregnancy, for the most part, unexpectedly generative and wonderful. I mean, obviously, it’s generative, but I mean generative of things other than blastocysts and embryos, or of strong feelings regarding towels. I mean of thoughts about life and books and writing. The first real things I ever wrote I wrote after I met my husband and fell in love; maybe loving a new person will open other horizons. Maybe it won’t. It’s impossible to say. For now I’m just weirding, watchful.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
“You should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children,” Ruth Graham wrote in Slate last week, stirring the proverbial pot of new adult fans of Young Adult bestsellers like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park. A host of YA-defenders rose up to shout her down. “You should never be embarrassed by any book you enjoy,” Hillary Kelly responds in The New Republic, unrealistically (we’re embarrassed by quite a lot). For the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg cites examples of worthwhile, complex YA fiction we can certainly support: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pushcart War, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Westing Game.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.