Alan Kovski © 2013  |  All Rights Reserved

In case you overlooked them (fiction)

No one needs to sing the praises of classic novels and short stories that have great popularity. Every now and then a fresh take might be nice, or a reinterpretation, or a correction of the misjudgments of earlier assessments. But I will leave that work to others. Here I will praise works that are moderately prominent and once may have been famous, but they have been underestimated. 

Franz Kafka is best known for one short story (“The Metamorphosis”) and two novels (The Trial and The Castle). But he wrote many short works, and one of them, “The Burrow,” is my favorite by him. It has all of the trademark intensities and subterranean psychological currents of Kafka at his best. The viewpoint character is a burrowing animal of some sort, like a badger. It is ever expanding and improving its burrow, especially in regard to defenses. It is obsessed. The story is an expression of our need for a physical home, a home that is our castle, our refuge. It touched, in a very uncomfortable way, the part of me that wants to be entrenched at home. There is an instinctive logic to this emotion, but we take this too far. We lose freedom by confining ourselves. The science fiction writer Clifford Simak expressed this human flaw in a different way in his short story “Huddling Place.”

Some science fiction short stories have become popular beyond the genre. “Flowers for Algernon” may be the best example. One that never escaped the science fiction ghetto but should have is “He Who Shapes,” by Roger Zelazny. SF readers need no introduction to it. For other readers, let me tell you that this is a remarkable work of art by any reasonable standard, SF or mainstream. It was expanded into a novel as The Dream Master, but I prefer the shorter version. “He Who Shapes” operates on three levels. It is speculative fiction about a psychotherapist who uses advanced medical equipment to link his mind to the mind of a patient so that he can consciously shape the patient’s dreams. On another level, it is a drama of people who retreat into imagined pasts, who reject modern life perhaps because it is too unfulfilling. He was a step ahead in this idea, because he wrote the story before the explosion of fantasy novels in quasi-medieval settings. On a third level, Zelazny’s story is about what the creative artist does, especially what the writer does, in creating imagined experiences for the reader. This is highly intelligent writing with extraordinary imagination.

Sartoris is William Faulkner’s third novel. Too many critics have treated Sartoris as apprentice work, which makes it sound like something you can ignore. But it goes beyond that. Faulkner's first two novels were his apprentice work. In Sartoris the author takes a big step toward maturity. He displays his ability to amaze the reader every now and then, although he also, it must be admitted, tries too hard for eloquence at times. He profoundly empathizes with his characters, and he appreciates a full range of people, educated and not, foolish, sly, strong, weak, unforgiving, unforgetting, obsessed. And he is capable of something like this: “Bayard sat with his feet on the veranda rail, in the moonlight. His cigar glowed at special intervals, and a shrill monotone of crickets rose from the immediate grass, and further away, from among the trees, a fairylike piping of young frogs like endless silver small bubbles rising.”

Aldous Huxley is best known for Brave New World. It is a landmark, but he did a better job of writing in Point Counter Point. Huxley’s writing in Point Counter Point is praised as if it were merely a social critique. That is only one aspect of it. He tackles basic psychological and moral concerns, most obviously the tension between the side of us that is spiritual and artistic and intellectual and the side that is carnal and materialistic and self-centered. No one has ever done a better job of modulating back and forth between characters’ perceptions (the outer world) and thoughts and emotions (the inner world). Huxley makes it look easy. It is incredibly difficult to do it this well. And he added to the challenge by making all of his characters—all of them, and there are many—variations on the theme of divided nature. It is astonishing. The clarity and grace of the writing are great. This is one of the best novels ever written.

The Big Sky, completed in 1947 by A.B. Guthrie Jr., is a vivid, detailed, deeply researched novel about a period of American frontier history, and it is more than that. Guthrie also had a serious underlying theme. This novel may be undervalued because people associate it with The Way West, Guthrie’s Pulitzer Prize winner. But The Way West was merely a historical novel, with no depth, and with annoying bits of romanticizing of characters, and with some other serious blemishes. In The Big Sky, Guthrie was at his best. It is extremely engrossing, and extremely evocative of nature—nature that is tough, unforgiving, but beautiful and seemingly boundless. As the story and the settings draw you in, making you empathize, making you dream of rugged wild intoxicating freedom, the unsettling details sneak in—the violence, the gradual shedding of civilization in favor of a primitive existence. The author knew better than to romanticize this. His masterpiece is a cautionary tale of the return to nature.

House Made of Dawn won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so you can be forgiven for suggesting it received sufficient recognition. But how many people have read it? If you mentioned it to a few book lovers, would they know it? In most cases, I doubt it. The novel, by N. Scott Momaday, exhibits obvious characteristics of academic writing—Momaday was an academic—but it transcends those limitations through the excellence of the work. The main character is an American Indian who finds he does not fit into either the modern white-dominated urban world or the traditional Indian life confined now to reservations. The story starts and ends in the terrain of the Jemez Pueblo in north-central New Mexico, a terrain that includes the village of Walatowa in the Canyon de San Diego. It is a tragedy, as all stories and histories of the American Indians seem to be. But it does not provide a narrative arc, because academics disdain mere storytelling, so the reader has to be a little patient and forebearing.

Far Tortuga, by Peter Matthiessen, was published in 1975. It describes the doomed turtle fishing expedition of some Caribbean sailors who set out from Grand Cayman Island. It is prose poetry. The author never tells you what characters think. He tells you what they say and do, and he describes the physical world in precise detail with descriptions that are like spare Japanese poetry. And he pulls a sneaky trick. He understands that it can be difficult to see beneath the surfaces of another person, to perceive their true character, so he sets up his characters to have certain patterns of behavior and ways of talking that can mislead us. Only gradually, over the course of the novel, do we learn their inner strengths and fatal weaknesses.

November 2012