I’ve written about literature for more than six years (including three-plus years at my own blog here), so it can sometimes be difficult to come up with new themes to discuss.
Case in point: I read The Fault in Our Stars late last month and, after shedding many tears, tried hard to think of how to fit John Green’s page-turningly impressive book into a theme I hadn’t specifically written about before. Death in literature? Been there. Young-adult (YA) novels? Done that. Etc. Also, I almost never focus on just one fictional work — this is not a book-review blog.
Then it occurred to me: Write about novels that don’t shy away from showing how painful and gruesome illness and death can be. Books — especially those written decades or centuries ago — often sanitize or sentimentalize those sorts of things, which can spare readers some emotional upheaval but make some of us feel we’re not getting enough realism.
The Fault in Our Stars, while extraordinarily inspiring and funny in many ways, does not go that latter route. What its two ill protagonists face (I won’t give specific details to avoid spoilers) is often depicted graphically and disgustingly. And a secondary character suffering from eye cancer? There’s a heartbreaking scene that will leave you totally shaken.
In So Much For That, Lionel Shriver also gets down and dirty with the details of three of her characters’ major physical ailments. But, as with John Green, Shriver offers enough upbeat moments to keep us reading. After all, most literature lovers don’t want to be depressed on every page. It also helps that Shriver, Green, and certain other authors offer tons of high-quality writing.
Things can also get pretty graphic when some novels depict (sexual or non-sexual) assaults, as is the case with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy, Stephen King’s Misery, Richard Matheson’s Hunted Past Reason, Frank Bill’s Donnybrook, and James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls, among many other books. (Of course, sexual assault is really about violence rather than sex.) There’s a high blood quotient in many of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, too.
And some novels show the grievous physical and psychic toll of war more graphically than others. Among the books that don’t pull many punches in that area are Geraldine Brooks’ March, Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.
In the usually more sanitized pre-1900 era of literature, one of the most stomach-turning depictions of death comes near the end of Emile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana.
What are some of the memorable novels you’ve read that mostly tell it like it is when it comes to things like illness and death?
My next blog post will appear Monday, October 16, rather than Sunday, October 15. I have something to do that Sunday…what is it…what is it…oh…my older daughter Maggie is getting married! (Monday, October 16, note: I’m now shooting for a new blog posting on Tuesday, October 17.)
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 includes advice to dress like a developer for Halloween, is here.