The Depiction of Disability and Disease in Fiction

Way back in 2012, I wrote a column for The Huffington Post about disability and disease in literature. I thought I’d revisit that topic today with some relevant novels I’ve read during the seven years since then.

In that blog post for the later-went-downhill HP, I mentioned characters with bodily challenges in novels such as Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, A Christmas Carol, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roots, Misery, Treasure Island, Johnny Got His Gun, and the Harry Potter series. I also had this to say about the topic:

“Protagonists with physical issues can be admirable, inspirational, pitiable, embittered, etc. — or a mix of all those things. It’s fascinating for readers to see how a disability affects a character’s psyche and actions, for better or worse. Readers also might wonder what they’d do if they were disabled themselves.”

And of course readers who are disabled themselves may very well identify with protagonists in a similar situation.

I added in the 2012 post that such characters might be “underrepresented in literature for various reasons — including the discomfort some authors and readers might have with (them), and the fear of other authors that they might not depict physically challenged protagonists in an adequate way.”

Yet plenty of novels include very or somewhat disabled characters, who are often sympathetic — but not always.

The most recent novel of this type I read was Still Alice, just last week. Also known for the movie version that won Julianne Moore (pictured above) an Oscar, Lisa Genova’s haunting book chronicles Dr. Alice Howland’s descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s — with the story poignantly told from Alice’s point of view. The brilliant Harvard professor is only 49 when diagnosed, and her bout with dementia of course shows that no one — successful or not, affluent or not — is immune from disability. The novel also skillfully depicts the mix of courage and self-pity many people feel when their brains or bodies betray them, and shows that family members are not always totally supportive; for instance, Alice’s very upset husband acts rather boorish at times.

The novel I read before Still Alice was Lois Lowry’s compelling young-adult book Gathering BlueThe Giver sequel that stars a girl (Kira) whose deformed leg makes her an outcast in her harsh community. Kira’s skill at embroidery saves her from a certain death she would’ve faced if she had no stand-out skills, but she ends up living a sort of gilded-cage existence.

Also in the YA realm is John Green’s powerful The Fault in Our Stars, which tells the story of a teen girl (Hazel) with thyroid cancer who meets a teen boy (Augustus) with bone cancer that caused him to lose a leg. Their very challenging lives are made better by their romantic relationship — obviously, almost everyone wants love no matter what their condition. But as is often the case with disabilities in literature or real life, we don’t get a “happy ever after.”

Then there are J.K. Rowling’s four terrific Cormoran Strike novels (The Cuckoo’s Calling, etc.) written under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Cormoran is a super-smart private investigator who lost part of a leg while in the British military in Afghanistan, and the resulting pain and walking difficulty often exhausts him. But the charismatic Strike is stoic in the face of all that, and his disability both increases his sympathy for the underdog and the sympathy readers feel for him. Cormoran’s assistant (at first) and business partner (later) — the appealing and admirable investigator Robin Ellacott — has some scars of her own, mainly of a psychological nature.

Dana in Kindred is psychologically stressed though able-bodied in most of Octavia E. Butler’s memorable novel. But then comes the book’s shocking conclusion — with Dana’s new physical disability depicted as both real and symbolic after she had been pulled back and forth several times from 20th-century California to slavery times in America’s pre-Civil War south.

In Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, the late-middle-aged “Sully” drags himself around with a bum knee while still doing very physical blue-collar work and avoiding medical treatment. Yes, some characters with a disability partly have themselves to blame by not taking better care of themselves.

Then there are novels featuring multiple characters with physical issues. (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s terrific So Much for That has four — including protagonist Shep Knacker’s wife, father, best friend, and best friend’s daughter. There’s lots of humor among the depressing subject matter (which can soften the downbeat-ness of a novel with disability and disease); plenty of understandable rage against America’s money-draining, soul-sapping, for-profit medical system; and an amazing ending I didn’t see coming.

Another novel starring multiple sick or injured characters is Edith Wharton’s riveting Ethan Frome, with its tragic triangle of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and Zeena’s cousin Mattie. Two of those three characters are involved in a horrific (but intentional) accident that leaves them disabled to varying degrees, while the other is sickly (yet perhaps only psychosomatically so).

Going back to another early-20th-century classic, we have medical student Philip in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage born with a clubfoot that contributes to lowering his self-esteem enough to seek a disastrous relationship with the cold/unaffectionate Mildred.

Last but not least, it almost goes without saying that people — whether fictional or real — are not their disability. The disability is part of who they are, but not all of who they are.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

My 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 The latest weekly piece — about an appalling Republican dinner invitation — is here.

Day’s In: Novels With Very Short Time Spans

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about novels with long time spans. Today’s column will cover novels with short time spans — in most cases, no more than a day. Yet a lot of drama can be crammed into that brief period, often with the help of some back story interspersed among the day’s depiction.

Two of the more famous examples of novels limited to a 24-hour time period are James Joyce’s Ulysses and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Unfortunately, I’ve read neither (though I did see the latter’s movie version), so there’s not much I can say about them.

I have read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and that compelling novel packs a lot in one day. Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party, muses about her past and her life’s choices, and then holds the party — whose attendees include some people from that referenced past. Meanwhile, the novel also focuses on the doings of shell-shocked World War I veteran Septimus Smith. Obviously, Mrs. Dalloway covers a number of years within a day’s framework. (Virginia Woolf is pictured atop this blog post.)

It’s not a coincidence that the title of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day reflects how that novel is another less-than-24-hour-time-span book. But, again, we learn a lot about the life of the title character — in this case, Wilhelm Adler, a failed 40-something actor separated from his wife and estranged from his children and father.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a very famous novel, but readers don’t always remember that the book unspools during a very short period — from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Enough time for miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge to be transformed with the help of some ghostly visits.

Then we have Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, which is set in Tokyo over the course of a single night. It stars 19-year-old student Mari Asai (who we first see reading in a restaurant) and other characters she meets.

And Lee Child’s 61 Hours takes place over (surprise, surprise) a bit more than two-and-a-half days — with lots of intrigue and mayhem during Jack Reacher’s brief stay in snowy and bitterly cold South Dakota.

Short stories of course often focus on a relatively brief period. One particularly memorable one is Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” in which Louise Mallard feels liberated when her husband dies, happily envisions life without him, and then…

What are your favorite fictional works with short time spans?

My 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 The latest weekly piece — partly about my town’s high school students joining the global walkout to draw attention to climate change — is here.

No (Or Maybe Some) ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in Literature

During Trump’s hellish American presidency, thoughts can turn to the devil in literature. Satan or Lucifer or Beelzebub or whatever you want to call him, that immortal guy is an evil yet rather charismatic fellow good for plenty of drama — and perhaps some comedic hijinks, too.

All that is certainly part of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita — a raucous, sobering, hilarious novel I read last week that stars “the devil in disguise” (to quote an Elvis Presley song) and his memorable assistants. As in many books featuring the Prince of Darkness, this brimstone bro is depicted as both real and symbolic — partly functioning as a device to satirize the Stalin-ruled Soviet Union. (Pictured atop this blog post are the book’s title characters — with The Master not the devil but rather a 20th-century Russian who writes a novel, within Bulgakov’s novel, set in the time of Jesus.)

Set in the Russia of the 19th century, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov includes a long, significant, incredibly entertaining cameo from Satan.

American literature also has its share of Beelzebub-ian appearances. For instance, Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant uses the familiar trope of someone selling their soul to the devil to get something they crave; in Wallop’s novel (which inspired the hit musical Damn Yankees) that something is becoming a baseball star.

Then there’s William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — with the latter novel featuring a chilling guy (Judge Holden) who may very well be the devil visiting America’s bloody 19th-century West.

Short stories I’ve read that fit this blog post’s sulfurous theme include Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” In the second tale, Lucifer is more a philosophical presence than a “real” presence.

In the poetry realm, there’s of course Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Among the devilish works I haven’t read are Dante’s Inferno, Goethe’s play Faust, and Anne Rice’s novel Memnoch the Devil. Not sure Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada quite fits here…

Your favorite fictional offerings with a Satanic element?

My 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 The latest weekly piece — partly about a state politician who (surprise, surprise) isn’t keeping some of his campaign promises — is here.

‘Novels’ and ‘Numbers’ Both Start With the Letter ‘N’

With “Pi Day” coming March 14, I thought I’d mention novels I like that have numbers in their titles. I’m probably forgetting some of the ones I’ve read, and am deliberately leaving out ones I haven’t read. But here goes — from low numbers to high:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ken Kesey’s psychiatric ward-set novel says a lot about freedom, individualism, and…psychiatric wards. Perhaps better known for the film version.

One of Ours. Willa Cather’s absorbing World War I-themed novel won a Pulitzer.

One Summer. David Balducci’s poignant look at an unexpected death and life after that.

A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens’ classic tale of the French revolution has what might be literature’s most memorable opening and closing passages.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. Jorge Amado’s novel looks at an irresponsible (but charismatic) first hubby and a responsible (but kind of boring) second hubby. But the star is the kind, talented, memorable Dona Flor herself.

The Two Towers. The middle installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not as interesting as the first and third books, but still pretty darn good.

Two in the Field. Darryl Brock’s okay sequel to his amazing baseball/time-travel novel If I Never Get Back includes a cameo by the infamous General Custer.

The Three Musketeers. Alexandre Dumas’ fun, thrilling, swashbuckling novel. His second-best book after The Count of Monte Cristo — which features a person who’s a count rather than a numbers-related counting. 🙂

Three Junes. Julia Glass’ absorbing tale contains a trio of sections set a number of years apart.

Three Stations. One of Martin Cruz Smith’s seven excellent sequels to Gorky Park.

The Sign of the Four. Among Arthur Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic look at the horrors of World War II.

The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s melancholy novel of old New England.

From a Buick 8. One of Stephen King’s lower-key novels, and quite haunting.

Twenty Years After. The first of Dumas’ sequels to The Three Musketeers.

Catch-22. Joseph Heller’s hilarious, bitingly satiric antiwar novel.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Robin Sloan’s quirky novel is set in San Francisco and New York City, and has a mystery element.

61 Hours. Might be my favorite of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Set in a snowy and bitterly cold South Dakota.

Around the World in Eighty Days. A Jules Verne adventure novel whose title is self-explanatory.

One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel García Márquez’s tour de force is a multi-generational family saga that’s also about Latin America’s social and political history.

Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury’s sobering book about book-burning.

Nineteen Eighty-Four. George Orwell’s dystopian classic about an ultra-controlled society.

2001: A Space Odyssey. Arthur C. Clarke’s mind-blowing sci-fi novel.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Another Jules Verne favorite with a self-explanatory title.

And then there are the 25 (so far) Janet Evanovich novels starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum that have numbers in their titles: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

Life of Pi doesn’t qualify for this blog post because Pi is of course not a number but rather the nickname of Piscine Molitor Patel — the star of Yann Martel’s novel.

Your favorite books with numbers in their titles, including ones I mentioned or didn’t mention?

My 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 The latest weekly piece — about a massive mega-mansion coming to my town — is here.

Not an Error to Depict Many an Era

A novel that spans a long period of time can be quite impressive and interesting. The author research required, the segueing from century to century, the awe that’s inspired in seeing the sweep of history, the mixed feelings about “civilization” encroaching on nature, etc.

One excellent example of this is a book I’m currently reading. Norah Lofts’ A Wayside Tavern begins in 384 AD with the story of a Roman soldier and a slave woman in Britain, and then chronologically proceeds nearly 1,600 years into the 20th century — all in 376 pages!

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour takes many more pages (nearly 1,000) to tell the tale of four centuries of witches. That compelling novel’s timeline is not strictly linear — much of the book is set in the 1900s — but there’s plenty of back story spanning those aforementioned centuries.

Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue evocatively proceeds in reverse-chronological order — focusing on the ownership of a painting (possibly a Vermeer) from the 20th century back to the 1600s.

I’m not sure exactly what the time span is in Gabriel García Márquez’s iconic One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it seems like more than a century as it chronicles seven generations of the Buendía family.

Seven generations are also featured in Alex Haley’s semi-autobiographical novel Roots, which depressingly and dramatically goes from the slave trade of the 1700s into the 1900s.

Time-travel and science-fiction novels of course often span many a year, century, or millennium. For instance, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (image atop this blog post) moves from California in 1976 to a Maryland plantation in 1815, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand goes from the 1900s to the 14th century, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court switches from the 1800s to the time of “Camelot.” H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine begins in the 19th century and brings its traveler first to 802,701 AD and then a mind-boggling 30 million years into the future to witness Earth dying. An author can’t span much more time than that!

Series and sequels obviously allow authors to potentially cover large swaths of time, but I’m focusing on individual books here.

Before ending this post, I did want to mention that there are some drawbacks to long time spans in fiction. For instance, readers aren’t able to enjoy a character for that many chapters before the author moves on to other characters. Meanwhile, we mourn the deaths of the previous characters — unless they’re villains, of course. 🙂

What are some of your favorite novels that cover many, many years?

My 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 The latest weekly piece — which focuses on too much standardized testing and other topics — is here.