Many ‘First World’ Characters Are Not Secondary in the ‘Third World’

One problematic literary trope over the centuries involves “first world” characters spending time in “third world” countries and having much bigger roles than the residents, who often serve as little more than “colorful” background.

It can be frustrating seeing white Americans or white Europeans star in those novels, get fleshed out more three-dimensionally than the people they’re amid, and too often act in patronizing or even racist ways toward the visited countries’ citizens — although novels of the past few decades, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s masterful The Poisonwood Bible, are thankfully likelier to take a critical view of, or satirize, this alleged “superiority.”

That said, some “first world in the third world” novels can of course still be damn good, and some of their European or American protagonists are decent people who at least treat the residents somewhat respectfully.

I thought about this subject the past few days while reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — an often-compelling, emotional, melancholy novel containing wonderfully rich prose. But dampening my pleasure a bit was the white-people-in-Mexico thing (with several “first world” bases covered by Lowry’s major characters: mopey alcoholic Geoffrey from England, his adventurous half-brother Hugh from England, former film actress/Geoffrey’s ex-wife Yvonne from the United States, and film director Jacques from France). Still, one can acknowledge that the 1947-published/1930s-set book was “of its time” and that Lowry (pictured above) gave some Mexican characters, such as physician Arturo Diaz Vigil, secondary roles a bit beyond the bare minimum.

There’s also the American-south-of-the-border trope in such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, featuring Texas teen John Grady Cole and his dramatic experiences in Mexico; James Michener’s Mexico, in which American journalist Norman Clay at least has some Hispanic blood; and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, starring the rather nutso U.S. dad Allie Fox who yanks his family from Massachusetts to Honduras. All excellent books, but…

American or European characters in Africa? We have nasty Georgia evangelical Nathan Price, in the aforementioned The Poisonwood Bible, dragging his wife and four daughters to what was then the Belgian Congo to try to arrogantly convert the populace to Christianity; troubled New York couple Kit and Port enduring some disquieting experiences in North Africa in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky; three Englishmen traveling to East Africa to meet the imposing 2,000-plus-year-old (white) title character in H. Rider Haggard’s mesmerizing She; and that voyage along the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that would inspire the movie Apocalypse Now (in which the setting was transferred to Vietnam). On the part-fictional (?) memoir front, there’s Out of Africa by Danish author Karen Blixen.

Asian countries such as China and Japan are obviously now among the planet’s most developed nations, and China is a superpower, but those places used to be considered “third world” by the West. So, novels such as W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (set in 1920s Hong Kong and China) and James Clavell’s Shogun (circa-1600 Japan) fit this blog post’s theme. Both of those compelling books have English protagonists.

Of course, many African and Latin American countries are also more industrialized today than at the time books such as She (1886) and Heart of Darkness (1902) were published.

Any “first world in the third world” novels you’d like to mention? And you’re of course welcome to discuss this blog post’s general theme. 🙂

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which eases up on the satire for a week to take a positive look at various things in my town — is here.

The Wordplay’s the Thing

Some novels are full of puns, quips, humorous asides, made-up words, generally weird language, etc. All of that can be overdone, but it can also be fun. And those books can have serious moments, too.

One novel with a wordplay bonanza is Ali Smith’s There But For The, which I read last week. It’s a quirky book that opens with a dinner guest locking himself in a room for what will be weeks and weeks — angering the homeowner who hosted the meal — before the novel spins into depicting various people who knew the interloper. The turns of phrase come fast and furious, but there are also poignant sections — most notably one focusing on a very sick women in her 80s. Not sure I can strongly recommend the novel — it was a trial to read at times — but the author certainly deserves props for originality.

Another novel with plenty of wordplay is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a speculative-fiction work that combines laugh-out-loud humor, eco-consciousness, genetic engineering, and the post-apocalypse in an unusual but heady mix. The book includes an online game called Extinctathon, a company with the name AnooYoo, etc.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (pen name of Brian O’Nolan) not only has a wacky plot but also some offbeat language flourishes. Two examples: “I am completely half-afraid to think” and “It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.”

Quite a “snorter” (whatever the heck that means) is Jasper Fforde’s novel The Eyre Affair, in which a “literary detective” uses a “Prose Portal” to pursue a criminal inside the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The detective’s name — Thursday Next — gives you an idea of Fforde’s enjoyable language shenanigans.

Among the many other novels with dazzling wordplay are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals (one of the books in that author’s Discworld series), to name just a few.

Last but not least, there are the Lewis Carroll classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Language fun galore, and the latter book includes the iconic poem “Jabberwocky” — which starts and ends with this nonsensical verse:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe”

Your favorite novels with lots of wordplay?

A note: Last week, in my comedic literary version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” one of my poetic couplets read:

“The children are nestled all snug in their beds
Too young for Dostoyevsky to mess with their heads”

I’m feeling a little guilty about that turn of phrase. I was trying to be funny, and the poem’s structure didn’t leave much room for nuance, so I wanted to reaffirm here that I LOVE Dostoyevsky’s brilliant, often disturbing work — even if it’s not exactly children’s fare. Heck, Crime and Punishment is one of my three or four favorite novels ever, and much of The Brothers Karamazov is also amazing — to name his two most famous titles.

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which contains FAIL and SAFE but has nothing to do with the “Fail Safe” novel and film 🙂 — is here.

Twas the Write Before Christmas

My literary version of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”:

Twas 12 days before Christmas, and all through the nook
Few things are more stirring than reading a book
The novels are stacked by the chimney with care
To read or reread, like the stellar Jane Eyre
The children are nestled all snug in their beds
Too young for Dostoyevsky to mess with their heads
My wife at her desk and the cat in my lap
To read George Eliot beats taking a nap

Then outside the window there arose such a clatter
As if Jack Reacher had made all the bad guys scatter
To that window I raced (I did not totter)
As fast as Voldemort chased Harry Potter

The moon shone down on Outlander-ish snow
Evoking ghostly visions of Edgar A. Poe

When what to my wondering eyes’ insistence
Appeared Ruth the librarian and eight assistants
Ruth read Tolstoy’s novels so lively and quick
I knew in a moment she wasn’t St. Nick
Her book faves came faster than Zadie Smith quips
She laughed and she shouted and said with her lips:

“Now, Hobbit! Now, Huck Finn! Now, Rob Roy and Moby!
On, Zora! On, Liane! On, Jhumpa and Toni!
To the top of to-read lists! Best-seller lists, too!
Whether dead or alive, they belong in your queue!”

The wind took book pages and made them fly
Up into the air: The Sheltering Sky
On top of the house the library team rose
Their cart full of fiction: Remarque-able prose

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
“Colette’s Claudine at School is such a fun goof”
As I drew in my head, and spun all around,
Down the chimney plunged Ruth, not Ezra Pound
Sue Grafton mysteries that had come in the mail
Stephen King novels streaked with ashes and hail
Even more books that Ruth had flung on her back
Including The Scarlet Letter in “A” big Nat-pack

Those books, how they twinkled! The titles so many!
Atwood and Baldwin and Louise (last name Penny)
Marquez magic realism and valet Jeeves
And Lily Bart in Mirth — any reader grieves

Ruth knows William Faulkner put a pipe in his mouth
And To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the South
And Winnie the Pooh has a little round belly
And Don Quixote “lived” before Mary Shelley
And Thomas Hardy was hardly a jolly old elf
And Of Human Bondage was based on Maugham himself

But don’t read Agatha Christie prior to bed
To avoid waking up feeling nothing but dread

Ruth, as The Pathfinder, decides on a path
Fills stockings with novels, like The Grapes of Wrath
She then mutters Vonnegut’s phrase “So it goes”
And back up the chimney the librarian rose
She sprang again on the cart, and gave a whistle
And away that crew flew like a sci-fi missile

But I heard Ruth exclaim, before she soared out of sight
The Great Gatsby is better than Tender Is the Night”

Apologies for omitting many authors (and novels by those authors) I’ve read. I ran out of Clement Clarke Moore poem lines to change. 🙂 Among those I wish I could have included: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Louisa May Alcott, Isabel Allende, Isaac Asimov, Jane Austen, Fredrik Backman, Honore de Balzac, Ray Bradbury, Rita Mae Brown, Fanny Burney, Octavia Butler, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Ralph Ellison, Buchi Emecheta, Louise Erdrich, Henry Fielding, Jack Finney, Fannie Flagg, Jonathan Franzen, Lisa Genova, Nikolai Gogol, John Grisham, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, James Hilton, Khaled Hosseini, Victor Hugo, Aldous Huxley, John Irving, Shirley Jackson, Henry James, James Joyce, Barbara Kingsolver, Stieg Larsson, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Daphne du Maurier, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, James Michener, L.M. Montgomery, Elsa Morante, Walter Mosley, Haruki Murakami, George Orwell, Kate Quinn, Rosamunde Pilcher, Alexander Pushkin, Anne Rice, Philip Roth, Arundhati Roy, Richard Russo, Dorothy Sayers, Lionel Shriver, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Martin Cruz Smith, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rabindranath Tagore, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt, Angie Thomas, Anne Tyler, Jules Verne, Alice Walker, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Herman Wouk, Richard Wright, Emile Zola, etc., etc.!

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about such topics as my town’s delay in reopening schools amid the COVID resurgence — is here.

Novels That Seem Like the ‘Children’ of Previous Novels

This will be a post about “literary parentage.”

Have you ever read a novel and felt it was sort of the child of two other books or two other authors? Not that the novel was plagiarized by any means, but that it was seemingly influenced by — or at least reminded you of — a previous pair of works or writers. And I realize that the authors of the more recent novels may not have even read the earlier novels.

All this occurred to me last week while reading the low-key but absorbing Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (pictured above). The Nobel Prize winner — best known for his also-subtle The Remains of the Day — is a very original author whose sci-fi-ish Never Let Me Go is a very original novel, so it’s not a criticism when I say I felt I was reading an interesting amalgam of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the fiction of Henry James.

Naturally, I then thought of the “literary parentage” other novels evoke. For instance, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules — with its orphanage, its sweep, its social consciousness, its feminist aspects, etc. — feels a bit like the child of books by Charles Dickens and Margaret Atwood. How’s that for DNA? (With the D being Dickens and the A being Atwood.)

A.S. (Antonia Susan) Byatt’s fabulous novel Possession reminds a reader of the poetry/stalking elements of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the academic-gets-into-an-unexpected-romance theme of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs. (Ms. Lurie died at age 94 this past Thursday, December 3 — a day after I finished writing this post.)

Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress? With its depiction of living in a racist society and its California detective-noir vibe, it at times seems like an amalgam of novels by James Baldwin and Raymond Chandler.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, full of hilariously cutting anti-war/anti-military satire, brings to mind Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which features deeply humanized characters with grave illnesses/disabilities, evokes earlier novels such as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember.

And the child-of-a-traumatizing-mother, emerging-from-her-loner-shell Eleanor of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine feels like a cross between Ove of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and Ms. Valancy Stirling of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle.

Any “literary parentage” examples you’d like to 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — my 200th since moving the column from the newspaper where it started — is here.