I had another post planned for today, but it requires research and logic and thought, and as it happens I got horribly sick this weekend—just a gastric virus, nothing fatal (though for about twelve hours there death seemed preferable)—and, as this is the second weekend I've come down with a stomach bug, I just don't have the energy to pull that off. Instead I'm just going to write about a pleasant trend I've noticed lately ... but with a caveat.
Three that come to mind most readily are Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Chang-Rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea. (That last book I just finished this afternoon, as I lay half-dead on the sofa, willing my mind to escape my body.) Not surprisingly, all three books follow the escapades of a young teenager, an ordinary kid who finds himself or herself in extraordinary circumstances. Adolescence feels so surreal and bizarre anyway, it's a natural landscape for this sort of story. All three novels infuse the confusion of pubescence with the atmosphere of an even earlier bit of youth: Lee's novel, for example, often reads like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, in the best possible sense. One character stumbles from what feels like an idyllic reprieve scene into a field of human bones, turning to find a child "with a wide skewed smile, which was not for Fan but for the rest of her family, who were now out in the clearing and heading toward them in a pointed mass ... The biggest boys carried machetes." Some will shudder, of course, but I adore this sort of thing. The Juniper Tree, anyone?
The Goldfinch is the story of a teenage boy who loses his mother to a terrorist bombing and finds himself the possessor and protector of a prized painting that soon becomes his most beloved treasure ... and a terrible burden. What I loved about this story was the way Tartt just threw herself into making the boy's life utterly colorful, with no restraint. Restraint was quite popular for a long time in literary fiction. Reality was parceled out parsimoniously, always in shades of sombre grey. I can appreciate that mode of writing, but I am loving this meaty, full-fat version of fiction, bursting with fervid imagination.
Imagination is at its fullest with Gaiman's The Ocean At the End of the Lane. Perhaps because Gaiman doesn't wear the mantle of "literary star," (unlike Tartt and Lee) he can do whatever he wants. So this slim novel plunges us right into fantasyland. It could almost be classified as YA except that the beginning and end of the book anchor it as intended for adults. (Not to mention one discomfiting scene in the middle, involving the father and the wicked witch.)
And that brings us to the caveat: all three books are strongest in the middle, where they allow themselves to fully plunge into the adventure story. But because the authors want to be taken seriously as writers of adult literary fiction, they laden a bit too much exposition into the story. In Tartt's case it's really egregious, as she takes the last ten percent of her novel to do nothing but think deep thoughts via her protagonist. (It's not even plausible that the protag would think such thoughts—it's obviously Tartt speaking.) Lee sprinkles his deep thoughts throughout On Such a Full Sea, in aphorisms I'm sure were highlighted hundreds of times by Kindle users. The philosophy these authors share is explicit, heavy-handed, and not especially original. Authors of fiction who think they're doing philosophy should really let it come through in the story. "Show, don't tell" applies as much to philosophy as anything else. Authors who want to take part in the laudable trend of adventure stories for adults might want to look to Gaiman for guidance: he seems to understand, better than most, that just because you're writing for adults doesn't mean you have to be boring.