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.
I saw Salman Rushdie speak at Columbia University about nine years ago. He was a good performer. Put it this way, he had enough charisma to defend the Iraq War, which had started a little over a week before, to a Columbia audience without getting booed. Everyone had an important question for Rushdie. He only had time to take a few and the last was met by a collective groan: “Do you have any advice for young writers?” As people filed out of the theater a few minutes later, you could hear a chorus of undergraduates calling the poor questioner a tool. Rushdie’s answer had been equally dismissive: “If you need my advice, don’t do it.”
I thought about that night, as a study in contrasts, after I saw Junot Díaz speak at Seattle Town Hall last month. Díaz was an expert performer. He paced the stage with perfect posture, gave shout outs to his fellow Dominicans and then his fellow New Jerseyites. He treated the audience’s questions as precious gifts of silver. Almost every comment was “beautiful.” A middle-aged teacher relayed her students’ questions about Drown, which they had recently studied. A young comic book geek of color talked about how good it felt to be represented in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz was there to celebrate the act of reading. When someone asked him what advice he had for young writers, he recommended that they spend less time writing for the approval of other writers and more time writing for readers. He much preferred hanging out with readers than writers himself.
It’s hard to draw a line between this gentle social democrat who seemed so comfortable with his body on stage, as prepared to run for Congress as to appear on Oprah, with Yunior, the acerbic narrator who has lain at the center of Díaz’s fiction for 15 years. Díaz chronicled Yunior’s childhood in his first short story collection Drown and reintroduced him as an angry, smart, and oversexed young man in Oscar Wao. Díaz’s third book, This is How You Lose Her, is made up of nine stories, telling the story of Yunior’s failures in love.
Díaz and I spoke by phone three weeks after his appearance in Seattle, and a few days after he was awarded a MacArthur. A few days after we spoke, This is How You Lose Her was nominated for a National Book Award. He was in New York. What follows is a pared down version of our conversation.
The Millions: I saw you on stage at Seattle Town Hall a few weeks ago. And you were peppering your talk with very academic words – “subjectivity,” “heteronormativity,” “hegemony” – none of which appears in your fiction. When you write your fiction, do you find yourself writing with two voices in your head? One is [that of] the former Rutgers student activist. The other is Yunior’s, which does not have this vocabulary.
Junot Díaz: To move the metaphor towards optics, I’m not certain if it’s that bifocal. I think it’s a lot more complex than that, especially with a character like Yunior who has proven himself in a number of texts to be far smarter than he wishes or allows others to be aware of.
[O]f course – if we’re going to use the tech terms my students [at MIT] use – there’s language that may not appear on the interface but is a deep part of the operating system…A character like Yunior is really aware of these words. He changes his words to best effect. He has no interest in anyone really knowing who he is and in anyone understanding the depths of his complexity. And this of course goes hand in hand with all his failures across the board with women.
TM: You’ve spent about 15 years of your published life and longer, just considering when you started writing him, living with Yunior. What has it been like living with someone like this for so long?
JD: I find someone like him very difficult because as a construct inside me he rarely talks about the things that emotionally matter to him most. He’s so damn elliptical… You think he’s a piece on a chessboard and he’ll do anything I tell him to. But that’s not really the way it works. Each character is a game. And once the rules are in place you got to follow the rules of the game. Even in breaking the rules there are rules…
One [of the] differences [between us] is that I would have made the obvious hardships and dramas vis-à-vis his family [more front and center]. But as a character he doesn’t like to make that stuff front and center. He will state [a problem] or he will dramatize it in the most subdued way. And people are paying attention to other things and rarely notice. I feel like if it were up to me and I just wrote a realistic essay about this character’s life it would be far more frightening [to lay] out the details of it than the fictional representation in the way that Yunior tells stories. He’ll mention stuff that’s happened to him but it’s always on the back burner. Part of me longs for a character who is, how do we say it, a stereotypical memoir-esque character who wishes everyone to know the hardships that they suffered and wants to parade all the traumas around. But he’s not that guy…
He’s been a fascinating person to create and to do work with. In many ways, I owe him both my career and much of my art. But my god, what a difficult cat. He never likes to say things straight.
TM: Out of the nine stories in This is How You Lose Her, you make one attempt in “Otravida, Otravez” to write from the point of view of a woman. Why is that in here?
JD: [T]his of course makes no sense to anyone, but for me it’s one of the larger projects in the book. And this is my thesis in This is How You Lose Her: Yunior’s inability to imagine or sympathize or think about women in interesting ways. It’s revealed at the end of This is How You Lose Her that the book that you have read is the book that Yunior has written. And so we know that he has written “Otravida, Otravez.” And it’s an attempt for Yunior to say, “This is the best I can do with female subjectivity. Does it show that I’ve changed in anyway after everything I have done or doesn’t it?” So in my mind it’s all connected.
The average reader is going to be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The average reader is going to be, “Okay, I need a little bit more help than this.” The average reader is like, “Well that’s a real nice ghost framework, but it’s not present enough at the textual level.” I understand that. I feel that, like a fool, I always try to hide more than I should.
TM: Do you think Yunior could sustain that voice for the length of a novel, not just a short story?
JD: I would raise serious questions about that. [laughs] I don’t know. I think of my own abilities. I think that I, perhaps, might be able to do it. It’s very different when I write the sections of Oscar Wao from Lola’s perspective and “Otravida, Otravez,” from Yunior’s perspective. It is very different when you try to write a piece where there’s no hidden, filtering subjectivity. It’s just my [own] male subjectivity and not this other male subjectivity, [Yunior’s], that I’m trying to critique and also hide behind.
I think I would be bad. Let’s say that in both cases maybe I’d be able to do it but it would probably be very bad.
TM: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” read like a dark comedy about depression as much as a tragic coda to the collection. There was a long distance between your first and second books, which you linked in one of your interviews to your battle with depression. Was this story your way of writing about depression?
JD: It’s weird, because of course we use whatever experience we have to model whatever we end up writing [about]. So there’s no question that my own depressive state helped me design Yunior’s. But I think part of what mattered to me in this was that larger project. We see a character like Oscar Wao in the novel able to be public in his family that he’s depressive, that life isn’t always easy. [And he does that] even in a culture that like many cultures looks down on many kinds of mental health issues or tries to silence them…
And then I was really interested in Yunior’s character because Yunior is this guy who tries through his body to avoid psychic issues, to use his body to sidestep the psychic weight of trauma. And you know when you’re reading the book what you begin to notice – and again this is my own obsessive egghead shit – is how Yunior begins to somatize slowly his psychic states. He’s not able to address them emotionally. But his body is reacting to the shit that he has to put up with. Whether it’s him biting his tongue and bleeding out or other things that happen to him. And it’s a slow progress. By the end of the book you get that his body can no longer be a block or a shield. His body absolutely collapses as it somatizes fully his own depression, his own misery, his own grief. Grief not only about breaking the heart of the woman he loved but grief about everything that comes before.
There was a silence about depression in the larger culture that I inhabit but even in my own work. I thought [it] would be great to break [that silence] a bit. But again you end up organizing this stuff as an artist. So you do this weird shit where you plot the mental breakdown through the whole book. And you hope that the nerds will figure it out and if not – fuck it – you hope that someday someone else will just enjoy it on another level.
But depression fucking sucks, dude. Depression sucks. And part of you thinks, “Well if I have to deal with being fucking depressed, I’ll figure out some way to make some art out of it.”
TM: You just got your MacArthur grant and I’m assuming you’re going to use that to write your big science-fiction novel.
JD: I’ve had plans before and they haven’t come to shit. So fingers’ crossed, man. That would be the dream.
TM: A number of high-brow literary writers have dipped into science fiction: Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro, and even, arguably, Philip Roth in his alternate history The Plot Against America. Do you see any mistakes these writers have made that you fear repeating?
JD: I guess my interest in the genre is actually in the genre. I don’t want to write literary fiction’s take on genre. I actually like the genre. I think that nobody who reads science fiction, no one who reads apocalyptic literature or reads alternate earth literature is confusing Philip Roth’s book for one of the classic texts in the genre. So I do think that there’s stories that are so squarely within the genre that there’s no possibility that they can be slipstreamed, that there’s no possibility for anyone to say, “Oh well this might be fantasy but it’s fantasy for the high brow set,” like someone might say about Lev Grossman’s wonderful novel, The Magicians. “It’s fantasy, but it’s not that kind of fantasy.” And I guess I’m just interested in that kind of fantasy.
I don’t think I’m worried about mistakes as much as I’m interested in writing squarely in the genre and not what is often called slipstreaming. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not colossally privileged vis-à-vis other people who write squarely within the genre. You get the notice that they never get…We are not talking about the hundreds of books written by people within the genre that cover the same ground as some of these literary people but we are talking about these literary people. And the reason we’re talking about them is they’re fucking privileged.
In a big week for new releases, we have Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, the sequel to his blockbuster debut The Magicians; Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, reviewed here today; another new Geoff Dyer book, The Missing of the Somme; DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland; and Kevin Wilson’s debut novel The Family Fang (which one blurber calls The Royal Tenenbaums meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Four of the five books above, incidentally, were featured in our big second-half preview. And out in a paperback this week are a pair of award winners: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies and David Grossman’s To the End of the Land.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.
The Pale King
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
The Hunger Games
A Moment in the Sun
Leaves of Grass
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
A Dance with Dragons
David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is still in the top spot, and the rest of our top three are unchanged as well. New to our list is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which was the subject of a moving appreciation by Michael on the 4th of July. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones mania has hit our top ten, as George R.R. Martin’s latest, A Dance with Dragons, lands in the tenth spot. Janet recently reviewed the epic series of books for us.
And graduating to our Hall of Fame are a pair of breakout hits from summer 2010, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.
Near Misses: Cardinal Numbers, The Magicians, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Swamplandia!, and How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. See Also: Last month’s list
When Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians first came out in summer 2009, I read a plot summary and scoffed. A young man gets tapped for having magical abilities and ends up at an elite boarding school where they teach him wizardry (though that specific term does not show up in the book). Sound familiar? Not only did I have zero interest in reading it, I actually felt surprised that Grossman—the Time book critic—could have gotten away with publishing such a Rowling rip-off.
I was wrong. But I wouldn’t say The Magicians is completely different from the Harry Potter series. There are many similarities, right down to specific plot devices and elements of the school, but Grossman gets by because he makes no secret of the influence. The characters in The Magicians fully acknowledge the existence of the Potter books, which, if anything, makes the realm of the novel feel all the more realistic. Its young people live in the same modern world (the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is from Brooklyn) that we do. What happens to them, though certainly a farfetched fantasy, seems more plausible than any of the books that have preceded Grossman’s and from which he takes a great deal.
Just like at Hogwarts, Brakebills (a magical college in this case, as opposed to a boarding school) has a grand dining hall, a series of loony professors, and a protection spell around its perimeter to keep out those pesky non-magical peeps. It even has its own version of Quidditch, a far more boring game called Welters, a kind of life-sized chess. Just like the Potter gang (Harry, Ron and Hermione), Grossman’s has the token smart girl (Alice, with whom Quentin starts an important and moving relationship) and an orphan (Eliot, who has been disowned by his parents and spends holiday breaks at school or with friends, like Harry does).
The parallels continue. When an evil being invades a class, freezes time, and kills a girl, it’s hard not to think of a Harry Potter scene in which a girl almost dies after handling a bewitched necklace. In the magical land of Fillory—which occupies the second half of the novel—a scene with a stag drinking at the edge of a lake bears close resemblance to the stag that represents Harry’s Patronus animal.
Yet all of this almost doesn’t matter, because what makes Grossman’s novel terrific and definitively fresh is its tone and style. His dialogue is edgy and captures the banter of angsty teens better than Britishisms like “Dunno, Ron” ever could. His scenes are bold (in a treehouse of sorts, peering up from under a trap door, Quentin spies his friend Eliot on his knees in front of another boy). And the most crucial set pieces are original and utterly engaging (two come to mind—a stretch in which the students become geese and fly to Antarctica, and another, while there, in which they become foxes and give in to base animal instincts).
Then, of course, the difference that seems most touted in reviews of the novel: Quentin Coldwater is no Harry Potter. And that’s meant in the best way possible. He’s bitter, introverted, and lazy. He’s skeptical, untrusting, and unhappy. That sense of withdrawal has annoyed some reviewers (Michael Agger, in a mixed review in the Times, complains that the characters “mope about”), but to me, it’s far easier to buy a reticent hero just as confused by this world as we are than a bright-eyed superstar “boy who lived” that is truly the center of his universe. What’s alluring about Quentin is that within the magical world, he ain’t shit, and he learns that pretty quickly, and has to deal.
The final fourth of the novel lost me a bit, with overdone action scenes and a clichéd quest to regain a crown and overcome a villain. This part of the book takes place in Fillory, which is a magical world (yes, an actual magical world, not just Quentin’s world of magic at Brakebills) that the gang has all read about in a series of books that they thought were fiction, but turned out to be real.
This section of the novel hearkens back to Narnia (it is young children that first access Fillory, and their ram guide is a lot like Aslan) and Oz (Quentin and the gang must find that royal ram, and they pick up various friends along the way, and I kept thinking, “They’re off to see the Wizard”) far more than Hogwarts. But the romance between Quentin and Alice, and the biting humor in the dialogue (specifically that of Eliot and Josh) saves the book from eleventh-hour collapse.
The novel is also surprisingly emotional. When Quentin and Alice finally get physical, it’s as foxes, and they’re not completely sure what they’re doing. The scene is inventive and sexy: “He locked his teeth in the thick fur of her neck… Something crazy and urgent was going on, and there was no way to stop it, or probably there was but why would you?” And when Quentin completes a ravaging physical challenge that many of his friends did not even attempt, his professor wraps him up in a bear hug and says, “Good man. Good man. You made it. You are going home.” I was almost in tears.
The Magicians has been called “Harry Potter for adults,” and in many reviews that label has been eschewed as an oversimplification. It is, but it’s not that erroneous of a summary. The Magicians and the setting of Brakebills is a mature, brutally honest version of Rowling’s Hogwarts. For me at least, the Harry Potter books are receding into the past and my childhood, and Grossman’s version is the fantasy that the 2000s—in all of their political, economic, and interpersonal disillusionment—deserve. I’ll eagerly await the sequel.