Friday, May 23, 2014

Four Classics for People Who Don't Like Classics

I'll admit it: I was a strange sort of English major. I spent six years suffering through classics in want of more classes that would let me read and write about books I actually cared for, namely contemporary fiction of all genres. Whereas I merely tolerated much of the literary canon, I loved Jeffrey Eugenides's cinematic Middlesex, each and every page and footnote of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Jhumpa Lahiri's beautifully written short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies.

Not all was misery in the world of classics, however. In this article, I'd like to talk about a few of the older books I loved to study, starting with the earliest novel on my list, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Released: 1818
Genre: Science Fiction


Frankenstein may be one of the most misunderstood novels out there due to public perception being colored by later portrayals of Frankenstein's monster as an unintelligent, zombie-like being. In Shelley's novel, the monster is anything but. Frankenstein's patchwork creation is a highly intelligent creature, just as capable of thinking and feeling as any human. He teaches himself to speak and read just by listening to the family he settles near, and though he commits atrocious acts of violence in the latter half of the novel, they are driven by the very human desire for love and companionship. He doesn't want the world. He just doesn't want to be alone in it. He may not be a noble figure, but he is a tragic one.

Shelley's masterpiece is often cited as one of the earliest examples of science fiction. While it concerns itself with the means of the monster's creation, and while the moment when the monster shuffles to life seems to have become one of the novel's more iconic scenes, Shelley seems more interested in the people--human and non--that populate the novel. Victor Frankenstein and the monster both receive their due treatment, and the real meat of Frankenstein is in their conflicted, strangely parallel lives.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Released: September 18, 1937
Genre: Fiction


Their Eyes Were Watching God strikes me as a harbinger of ideal (my ideal, anyways) contemporary prose. Smooth and beautiful, able to communicate both complex and simple ideas with equal grace, Hurston's writing drew me in from the very first page.

The novel's protagonist, Janie, is the sort of woman who wants full control of her own fate and won't let it go without a fight. She knows what she wants--a relationship built on love rather than convenience--and actively works to fulfill that want.

Though she often finds herself in danger, Janie is no damsel. She's a survivor, intelligent, resourceful, and unafraid to confront her troubles head on. The prose may have hooked me, but Janie reeled me in.

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1984 by George Orwell
Published: June 8, 1949
Genre: Science Fiction


No matter how large the gap between the present day and the predicted rise of Big Brother, Orwell's ideas are never fully outdated. Even now whispers of Big Brother echo in discussions of the NSA and net neutrality. Where many science fiction stories predict future technology, 1984 predicts a future ideology, and while it may be extreme, it never seems impossible.

1984 is disturbing, ugly, and depressing. Exactly as it must be, in other words, to convey the dire state of its society. While not a horror novel in the traditional sense, it is horrifying.

This is a novel with a clear political goal. While that might be a turn-off in some author's hands, Orwell expertly weaves goal and narrative together. They drive each other without either being run off the road. I can't exactly call 1984 entertaining, but it's definitely not a slog.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Released: 1962
Genre: Fiction


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the story of Randle McMurphy, a rough and tumble convict who swings a sentence in a mental ward to avoid prison. During his stay, he butts heads the ward's unofficial ruler, Nurse Ratched, and tries his best to give the other inmates enough self-confidence to overthrow her.

McMurphy may be the focal character, but his story is told by Chief Bromden, a Native American man believed to be deaf and mute by the majority of the novel's cast. He is schizophrenic, prone to frightening visions that sometimes turn out to be prophetic. It's Bromden's narrative, colored by his visions, paranoia, and outsider perspective, that makes the novel shine. From him, we get the full picture of how McMurphy's presence is shaking up the status quo, plus an understanding of the other patients gleaned from years of quiet observation. Chief Bromden's masquerade as deaf and mute also makes him the wisest choice as narrator because it is the only way we can get a glimpse of what's going on inside his mind without dramatically changing his character.

Interesting narrative choices are one of the most surefire ways to win my heart, and Kesey's novel does just that. I've avoided the movie, starring Jack Nicholson, solely because I feel movies often lose the narrative's perspective in translation. For books with more traditional narratives, it's not a huge loss. For books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I think it would be sorely missed.

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