Some Novels Put the Dramatic in the Bureaucratic

With my 91-year-old mother going through a difficult health period the past few months, I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy. I’ve sent dozens of forms and other stuff to home-health-aide agencies, hospitals, and an insurance company. I’ve exchanged countless phone calls, emails, and texts. I’ve been put on hold and shunted to other people. Etc.

Which of course means I’ve also been thinking about depictions of bureaucracy in literature — whether it be medical bureaucracy, legal bureaucracy, military bureaucracy, corporate bureaucracy, governmental bureaucracy, or other versions of the “b” word.

It can be a fraught topic for a novel, because just the thought of bureaucracy can induce feelings in readers ranging from boredom to frustration to fury. So, when an author makes something compelling and perhaps funny out of all that, well, it’s pretty impressive. And it doesn’t hurt that characters slammed by bureaucracy almost always have our sympathy.

Of course, a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary, but there almost always seems to be too much of it! I guess it creates jobs, and gives some bureaucrats a feeling of power as they make life difficult for others. Plus lower bureaucrats are basically forced to be too bureaucratic by higher bureaucrats. (I added this paragraph after seeing and responding to J.J. McGrath’s thoughts in the comments section.)

So Much For That is among the novels that belong in this post. (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s book touches many bases, with one of them the agony of dealing with America’s medical system. A system so inhumane, convoluted, and costly/profit-driven that it can easily make sick people even sicker.

In the legal area, we have Franz Kafka’s The Trial surreally showing just how opaque, inscrutable, and unfair the “justice” system and its bureaucracy can be. There’s also Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, in which a court case grinds on for years and years.

Military bureaucracy? You’ll find that in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Those books mercilessly/hilariously satirize that bureaucracy, and readers feel grateful during the occasional moments they stop laughing.

Corporate bureaucracy? Certainly a strong element in such novels as Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In those three books, we see the horrible results when corporate bureaucracy and corporate malfeasance run amok.

There’s also governmental bureaucracy, as in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (of course), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. In Piercy’s novel, Connie Ramos unfortunately struggles with the trifecta of welfare, child-custody, and mental health systems. All of which are needed by any humane society, but give Ms. Ramos more grief than help.

Last but not least: It’s not one of the Balzac novels I’ve gotten to, but that author wrote…The Bureaucrats.

What novels have you read that contain strong bureaucratic elements?

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s not only for literature lovers but also for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles.  🙂

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which slams an ice-cream place’s sexualized logo, is here.

Don’t Think Twice About Enjoying First-Person Novels

Today I’m going to talk about first-person books. Not novels starring Adam or Eve, but those with protagonists who tell their own stories.

Among the advantages of that approach? Emotions feel more intimate when viewed through the eyes of one character rather than an omniscient narrator, and a first-person novel reminds readers of how they see life. After all, everyone witnesses the world through their own eyes.

A couple of disadvantages? A first-person protagonist can’t be everywhere in a novel like an omniscient narrator can, so the story is told from only one perspective. And a book dominated by one character’s “voice” might have a little too much sameness after a while.

One important feature of first-person fiction is that the story-telling protagonist tends to be sympathetic. Readers obviously trust, believe in, and relate more to a likable/admirable character, and there can always be villains amid the rest of a novel’s cast.

There are some not-as-sympathetic exceptions — such as Holden Caulfield, who I found annoying in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Also, Leda in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter is very unlikable (heck, she even steals a girl’s beloved doll) even as we sort of understand why Leda is the way she is and enjoy the exquisite writing in the book — which I read this past week.

Other appealing or mostly appealing protagonists who tell their own stories? The title character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is my favorite, but there’s also Scout Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a child’s view of adult life can be quite interesting), Ishmael of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Huck in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nick Carraway of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Offred of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Dana Franklin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Katniss Everdeen of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Hazel Grace Lancaster of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian, to name just a few.

The above novels’ first-person approaches accentuate the fears, sorrows, happiness, growing awareness, and other feelings the protagonists experience.

Your favorite novels told in the first person? The pros and cons of that approach compared to the omniscient narrator?

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s for literature lovers and for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles. 🙂

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which slams football, is here.