Are the days of very ambitious novels over? Some readers think so.
They lament that we no longer have sweeping, sprawling, often-lengthy classics like Moby-Dick (Herman Melville), War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy), Middlemarch (George Eliot), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham), East of Eden (John Steinbeck), Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), History (Elsa Morante), and other amazing works.
Why? Those who feel the classic-novel days are finished might blame such things as anti-intellectualism (which became accentuated under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s), shorter attention spans (symbolized by MTV’s emergence in the ’80s), and the many media distractions of the digital age (which flowered starting in the 1990s with the Internet and in the 2000s with social media).
But amid the fun, shallow, and/or escapist novels published from the 1980s on (heck, there were fun, shallow, and/or escapist novels before that, too 🙂 ), there are also a number of jaw-dropping works in our modern era that are as good or nearly as good as literature’s long-ago masterpieces. These hyper-ambitious novels ask (and often answer) the big questions about life, death, love, family, friendship, art, religion, politics, violence, injustice, oppression, and more — while simultaneously offering lots of memorable characters and entertainment.
I thought of that last week after finishing Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — an impressive, riveting, very readable, almost-Dickensian novel that might well be considered an all-time classic a century from now. Partly a coming-of-age novel, partly a thriller, partly a howl against the seeming meaninglessness of existence, partly a funny satire of upper-class frivolity, and wholly written like a dream, The Goldfinch is 771 pages of literary firepower. It’s the story of Theo Decker, and how being at the site of a terrorist attack that kills his mother profoundly affects his (ill-fated but not completely ill-fated) life — which becomes strongly connected to the renowned “The Goldfinch” painting he dazedly takes before stumbling out of the bombed museum.
In addition to Tartt’s 2013 book, there are various other late-20th-century and early-21st-century novels with transcendent, go-for-broke content. From the start of the 1980s on, I would include in that group Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, among others.
I would also include wildly popular series such as J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books — and perhaps Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its two sequels, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels.
Do you agree or disagree with the premise that there are some recent/relatively recent novels as great or almost as great as literature’s older iconic works? What are some novels, from the 1980s on, that you feel are the most ambitious and memorable?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at email@example.com to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.