Saturday, February 04, 2006

Suggestions for Interesting Characters

Another trip to the vaults to disguise the fact that I have no time to blog on Saturdays; this time a little number I originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 7/10/01, in response to Tina Hall (before we all got to really know her) and her request for books with "interesting characters":

Everyone else is going to give you SF titles (and why not? they're actually on topic here, and the books I'm going to list aren't), so I figured I'd go a little...different. You did mention The Wasp Factory, so that's my excuse.

First, try The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler. It's the first adult novel of the writer now better known as Lemony Snicket, and it's narrated, in first-person, by a teenage girl who is under the care of the government for doing a really horrible act that you start to learn about very early in the book. She seems normal most of the time, and she's an engaging narrator (you want to like her), but she keeps dropping references to things that don't quite fit...and then there's the ending. There are huge, world-devouring spoilers there, so I'll leave it at that.

Ian McEwan's a British writer much of whose work has a Wasp Factory feeling (only colder and much less flamboyant). The Cement Garden would be my recommendation; four youngish children are left alone one summer, and try to hide A Secret Which Is Gradually Revealed. (I should warn you: McEwan can be one of those "Oh, god, I just finished this book and I need to go slit my wrists now" writers.)

Donald Westlake's The Ax is a novel (probably in the mystery section, since that's what he's best known for) about a middle-aged man who loses his very specific, highly paid job and realizes, after a few failed interviews, that there are about half a dozen slightly more qualified men for any job he could potentially get. So he decides he needs to even the odds a bit. I think it's very funny, but the humor is black as pitch.

Twisted in an entirely different way is the title character/narrator of William Kotzwinkle's The Fan Man. He drifts through a counterculture version of New York in the early '70s, and is almost completely disassociated from reality. The prose will be hard to take for some: here's how the novel opens: "I am all alone in my pad, man, my piled-to-the-ceiling-with junk pad. Piled with sheet music, with piles of garbage bags bursting with rubbish and encrusted frying pans piled on the floor, embedded with unnamable flecks of putrefied wretchedness in grease. My pad, man, my own little Lower East Side Horse Badorties pad." He says "man" a lot. No -- however much you're thinking -- more than that.

And there's always Jim Thompson's classic The Killer Inside Me about a small-town sheriff's deputy (another first person narrator -- I think books about loonies work best if you're inside their heads for the whole book) whose attitude towards crime is very different from what it should be.

Jonathan Coe's The Winshaw Legacy (What a Carve Up! in the UK) is the fictional history of a really appallingly evil 20th century British family. I think it's all a metaphor for Thatcherism, but it's fun despite that. Lots of people meet horrible ends.

Martin Amis is another good choice if you're looking for well-written books about appalling people and things. His masterpiece is London Fields, but, for your purposes, I'll recommend Money, about an obnoxious filmmaker rampaging across America in pursuit of a rotten vision.

To end, I'll tie to another thread and actually go back on topic. This guy Severian, the narrator of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (currently available as two trade paperback volumes) starts out as a torturer, though he does get a bit nicer by the end of the novel.

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