I’ve blogged about surprises in literature before, but I’m going to take a somewhat different angle this time.
It’s a good thing when authors — whether their usual writing approach is formulaic or not — offer the unexpected. That helps keep things fresh for the authors…and the readers.
I thought about this last week while enjoying the latest Jack Reacher thriller — No Plan B by Lee Child and Andrew Child. In many ways the 2022 novel is like the previous 26 Reacher books: justice-minded drifter/ex-military cop Jack doesn’t hesitate to get involved in dangerous situations and wreak havoc on the bad guys (while frequenting unpretentious eateries between the action moments 🙂 ). But among the differences in No Plan B is that there’s no significant romantic interlude for Reacher, who’s had many such interludes over the years. When Jack joins forces with Hannah Hampton (who knew two of the book’s murder victims) to travel from Colorado to a very suspicious Mississippi prison, no sleeping together ensues. It’s friendly, but all business.
Just before No Plan B, I read John Grisham’s 2017 novel The Rooster Bar. It contains many Grisham touches: a legal theme, characters in big trouble, lots of suspense, a strong social conscience, etc. Humor is rarely a big part of the Grisham mix, but in this case there were more funny moments than usual — with things getting close to slapstick at times. Even the title is a pun of sorts.
Of course, authors can also surprise readers by writing in an entirely different genre, as when Grisham came out with the 2012 baseball novel Calico Joe after more than two decades of mostly legal thrillers.
Also in 2012, J.K. Rowling radically switched gears from the magic-filled, fantastical, periodically humorous Harry Potter series she had completed in 2007 to write The Casual Vacancy — a bleak, serious, real-world look at a small town and its politics. Turned out to be pretty compelling. Then Rowling pivoted yet again to create (under the Robert Galbraith alias) the wonderful series of crime novels starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Six of those books so far.
John Steinbeck also kept readers on their toes with a canon that mixed partly comedic efforts (such as Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and CR sequel Sweet Thursday) with earnest classic works (such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent). Steinbeck could be VERY funny when he wanted to be.
Margaret Atwood also changed things up. Mostly known for speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.) and contemporary fiction (Cat’s Eye, etc.), she turned to the past for one book with the historical-fiction novel Alias Grace. Atwood excelled at all three approaches.
Or how about Mark Twain actually focusing on a female character — in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc — after years of fiction concentrating on Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and various other males? Plus he broke his mold by using virtually no humor in the Joan of Arc historical novel.
Getting back to surprises within specific novels, there’s the hilarious devil scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mostly weighty masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.
Then there’s the way some titles of novels throw readers for a bit of a loop when they read the books. For instance, I’m currently midway through the superb The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (who previously wrote 2016’s also-superb A Gentleman in Moscow) and I thought from the title it might be largely a car trip “road novel.” But while there’s some cross-country driving in The Lincoln Highway, a train trip, a stay in New York City, and other elements are also quite important to the plot. More on the 1954-set, 2021-published book in next week’s post.
Examples of the unexpected you’ve experienced in literature?
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 Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about local celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and more — is here.