Diana Gabaldon has said that her 1991 novel Outlander contains “history, warfare, medicine, sex, violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair, relationships, the building and destruction of families and societies, time travel, moral ambiguity, swords, horses, herbs, gambling (with cards, dice, and lives), voyages of daring, journeys of both body and soul…”
Few authors pack all that into one book, but Gabaldon did, as I found out after reading the terrific Outlander this past week. It of course makes it more likely for a novel to be comprehensive when it’s long (the Outlander edition I read runs 627 small-print pages), but shorter novels can also pack in a lot — even as some “doorstop” books are not especially multifaceted. After a bit of discussion of Outlander, I’ll mention a few other novels that include an unusually large number of elements and themes.
The best-selling Outlander — which has spawned seven sequels, various related written works, and a current TV series — opens with protagonist Claire (pictured above) in 1946 before the independent-minded former World War II nurse is thrust back to 1743 Scotland. All the things mentioned in this blog post’s first paragraph dramatically ensue. Plus there’s humor.
Outlander is exceptionally well-written, but more popular fiction than literary fiction. Yet popular fiction can still touch many bases. Another example from the mass-audience realm is James Clavell’s Shogun — which mixes romance, warfare, history, culture clashes, different kinds of leadership, and much more in its nearly 1,000 pages mostly set in year-1600 Japan. And there’s J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — though that of course takes seven books to spool out its cornucopia of magic, wizards, humans, friendship, adventure, courage, sacrifice, good vs. evil, comedy, etc.
Then there’s literary fiction or literary/popular fiction hybrids that include a wide variety of events, themes, emotions, and so on. Among them are Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (covering everything from…war to peace); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (family, relationships, patriarchy, crime, philosophy, etc.); George Eliot’s Middlemarch (town life, work life, complicated marriages, scholarship, the medical field, etc.); A.S. Byatt’s Possession (the 19th and 20th centuries, academia, research, romance, poetry, etc.); Elsa Morante’s History (World War II, fascism, parenting, precocious children, etc.); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (racism, nationalism, Marxism, individualism, city life, etc.); Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (family, relationships, many generations, politics, magic realism, etc.); and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (marriage, politics, the Iraq War, environmentalism, etc.).
Novels you’ve read that tackle a whole lot of things?
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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — a quirky year-in-review — is here.