Elegiac to the Future: The End of Eras in Novels

This blog post will be about novels with strong elements of EOAE. Examples Of Author Excellence? Well, yes, but I’m actually referring to End Of An Era.

Yes, a number of novels have a poignant feeling that something major has ended or is coming to a close. Or it might be a “good riddance” feeling, if the era was rotten and better days could be ahead. Or it can be a combination of negative and positive.

My most recently read example of all this was Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon — which includes an aging Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Buffalo Bill Cody in a cast experiencing the end of the Wild West. Sort of sad, because the frontier era was a major/crucial part of U.S. history, but it was also a time of huge negatives such as the decimation of the Native-American population.

Of course, Alex Haley’s Roots and other novels that include the demise of slavery after the American Civil War make a reader pleased that an atrocious era has ended. Yet there are still plenty of horrors to think about as U.S. racism continued to rear its ugly head in countless ways post-1865, as we see in books such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Then there are many novels that expertly capture the feeling of life immediately after the carnage of World War II. The relief and the optimism, but also the pessimism that sets in when some of the optimism is found wanting. One novel that does the pessimism part of that really well is Walter Mosley’s crime mystery Devil in a Blue Dress, set in late-1940s Los Angeles.

Speaking of WWII, Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion includes a major story line about women who served as pilots during that war. The part-nostalgic, part-indignant-at-sexism novel is set many decades later — when many of the characters are now old or deceased.

Set in an earlier time, Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons depicts, among other things, the end of the horse-and-buggy era and the start of the automobile age.

Going back even further in time, one of the compelling things about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is the way a rural, homogenous English village begins to experience the industrial age and the arrival of people with more of an international background.

The end of an era can also involve a specific person, as is the case with the James Hilton novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips that chronicles the life of a beloved teacher at career’s end.

What are some of your favorite fictional works that fit the theme of this post?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a literature theme! — is here.

Graphic Novels Can Be Novels That Are Graphic Rather Than Graphic Novels!

I’ve written about literature for more than six years (including three-plus years at my own blog here), so it can sometimes be difficult to come up with new themes to discuss.

Case in point: I read The Fault in Our Stars late last month and, after shedding many tears, tried hard to think of how to fit John Green’s page-turningly impressive book into a theme I hadn’t specifically written about before. Death in literature? Been there. Young-adult (YA) novels? Done that. Etc. Also, I almost never focus on just one fictional work — this is not a book-review blog.

Then it occurred to me: Write about novels that don’t shy away from showing how painful and gruesome illness and death can be. Books — especially those written decades or centuries ago — often sanitize or sentimentalize those sorts of things, which can spare readers some emotional upheaval but make some of us feel we’re not getting enough realism.

The Fault in Our Stars, while extraordinarily inspiring and funny in many ways, does not go that latter route. What its two ill protagonists face (I won’t give specific details to avoid spoilers) is often depicted graphically and disgustingly. And a secondary character suffering from eye cancer? There’s a heartbreaking scene that will leave you totally shaken.

In So Much For That, Lionel Shriver also gets down and dirty with the details of three of her characters’ major physical ailments. But, as with John Green, Shriver offers enough upbeat moments to keep us reading. After all, most literature lovers don’t want to be depressed on every page. It also helps that Shriver, Green, and certain other authors offer tons of high-quality writing.

Things can also get pretty graphic when some novels depict (sexual or non-sexual) assaults, as is the case with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy, Stephen King’s Misery, Richard Matheson’s Hunted Past Reason, Frank Bill’s Donnybrook, and James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls, among many other books. (Of course, sexual assault is really about violence rather than sex.) There’s a high blood quotient in many of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, too.

And some novels show the grievous physical and psychic toll of war more graphically than others. Among the books that don’t pull many punches in that area are Geraldine Brooks’ March, Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.

In the usually more sanitized pre-1900 era of literature, one of the most stomach-turning depictions of death comes near the end of Emile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana.

What are some of the memorable novels you’ve read that mostly tell it like it is when it comes to things like illness and death?

My next blog post will appear Monday, October 16, rather than Sunday, October 15. I have something to do that Sunday…what is it…what is it…oh…my older daughter Maggie is getting married! (Monday, October 16, note: I’m now shooting for a new blog posting on Tuesday, October 17.)

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which includes advice to dress like a developer for Halloween, is here.

Characters Who Are Not What They Seem

Impersonations. Dual identities. Switched identities. Hidden Identities. Etc. Literature has many of them, and discussion of all that will be unmasked…now.

Characters not being what they seem can help make books interesting, compelling, and dramatic. Those elements of mystery (for lack of a better word) can be puzzles to solve for other characters and for us, the readers.

This topic came to mind when I recently read Isak Dinesen’s 79-page short story “The Deluge at Norderney.” Various things happen in that striking tale of four people stranded in a house as floodwaters rise, but the biggest shocker is when we learn one of the characters isn’t who he claimed to be.

A number of famous novels also contain identity twists. For instance, we as readers know that the titular character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is Edmond Dantes, but the people the Count is wreaking revenge on (for his false imprisonment) do not know until the last minute that this charismatic rich guy is the man they framed.

Mark Twain wrote two memorable “swap” novels: The Prince and the Pauper (a rich kid and a poor kid change places) and Pudd’nhead Wilson (a white baby born to the master of the house and a white-looking but partly black baby born into slavery are switched in infancy and grow into each other’s station in life — making for a strong commentary on race, class, upbringing, and genetics).

Also from the 19th century, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the idea of dual personalities, good and evil. And Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre includes the memorable scene of Rochester disguising himself as a gypsy to try to learn what Jane’s feelings might be for him. Later, Jane adopts the name Jane Elliott when she flees and doesn’t want to be traced — similar to when Helen Huntingdon becomes Helen Graham when escaping an abusive marriage in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Moving to the 20th century, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle has Valancy Stirling’s love interest hide his identity as both a rich heir and famous author of books written under a different name.

Then, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, there’s the servant to Lord Voldemort known as Peter Pettigrew, Wormtail, and (in rat disguise) Scabbers. An identity trifecta!

Of course, there are various comic-book superheroes (Wonder Woman, Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, etc.) with both human identities and costumed identities. Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay includes a cartoon character’s creation/exploitation that kind of mirrors the story of Superman’s creation/exploitation.

What are some of your favorite fictional works (those I mentioned or didn’t mention) containing characters who fit the topic of this blog post?

And here are two songs: Renaissance’s “Jekyll and Hyde” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise.”

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

 

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about everything from Trumpcare to kneeling during the national anthem, is here.