Even as story lines unfold and characters do their thing, some novels also address a specific topic. Can that make those books sort of preachy, didactic, and…boring? It can, but usually not in the hands of a great author. Can that make those books — gasp! — educational? Well, yeah, but there’s nothing wrong with a gaining a little knowledge while being entertained. Plus we’re impressed with the authors’ research skills!
One master of the topical novel was Emile Zola. His 19th-century books addressed subjects such as alcoholism (The Drinking Den), mining (Germinal), trains (The Beast in Man), retail (The Ladies’ Delight), and prostitution (Nana). Amid all that, Zola also offered memorable plots and three-dimensional characters, so readers of his work had and have the best of both worlds.
A more recent master of themed yet entertaining “twofers” is (Ms.) Lionel Shriver. I recently read The Mandibles, a near-future dystopian novel that’s very much about economics and monetary currency, yet the book also takes a compelling look at an extended family — including the precocious/world-weary teen who holds that family together. Earlier, Shriver addressed America’s problematic-for-all-but-the-rich medical system in the riveting So Much for That, and the issue of obesity in Big Brother.
There are also “three-fers” or “more-fers.” For instance, I just finished Susan Moore Jordan’s absorbing novel Man With No Yesterdays — which says a lot about the Vietnam War and Native-American culture while also offering a tale of a man left with amnesia from a helicopter crash in Vietnam.
Then of course there’s Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is practically an encyclopedia of whales and whaling (some chapters are only about that) while offering majestic prose, a now-iconic group of characters, and a breathtaking adventure of obsession.
Plus Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, about slavery but also about a specific 20th-century woman yanked back into the Antebellum South.
And there are novels with topics that are more about the mind, emotions, philosophy, and so on — in addition to their focus on specific compelling characters. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera focuses on all kinds of romantic love; Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen is about single-minded ambition (in the face of sexism); Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge zeroes in on conformity; and novels such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden are about mental illness and/or the mental-health system.
What are some of your favorite novels that contain a theme while remaining satisfying to read on a fictional level?
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 contains “fake news” about my town 🙂 — is here.