Every time a new book by Haruki Murakami comes out, like this week’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I am reminded how much I love him. The language, the characters, the totally bizarre stuff he sneaks in when you’re not looking — I love it. His books are always beautiful and often weird. But amazingly they are all also very different — weird in their own unique way. He is one of the most respected writers in the literary fiction field, and it is surely only a matter of time before he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I also find he is a popular choice for the discerning fantasy fan. His books are highly erudite, and they deal with universal human desires for connection, the question of whether you can ever really know another person, and the search for a sense of self. But they are also very high concept in their trappings and sometimes downright bizarre. It made me think about other literary fiction standbys that could be happily read by fantasy fans. Some of these have wilder flights of fancy than anything with a “fantasy” sticker on the cover, but for one reason or another they never get the sticker. Others are books that tell a mundane story, but with an offbeat sensibility; a heightened sense of destiny at work; a hint of something not “normal”. I think these kinds of books would appeal to fantasy fans because they share that sense of visiting another quirkier world, even if just a half-step away. Here are some authors that I think live on the literary fiction shelves but deserve a place in a fantasy reader’s heart. Since turnabout is fair play, later in the week I will share some fantasy authors that I think should be read by literary fiction fans.
You can find “normal” Murakami books with nary a fantastical element, but even those books are just a touch unusual. At first I thought some of the exotic fun of reading even the mundane Murakami novels was because he was from a culture not my own. But although his novels are recognizably influenced and shaped by his Japanese nationality, that’s not really why I feel like I’ve traveled to another land when I read his books. Some writers just think differently, and I always find it a delight to visit Murakami’s brain for a while, play in his version of the universe, and travel through his lookingglass. The fantasy fan should start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or 1Q84.My favorite slightly more SF-leaning is the beautifully bizarre Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
The delightful (and charming — I met him once and was almost in a swoon) Michael Chabon has been playing in many genres for most of his career. I love his characters, who are usually searching for their identities in all the usual places and a few unusual ones. Comic book fans should run, not walk, to the library or bookstore to pick up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay about two Jewish cousins in Depression-era Brooklyn and their efforts to break into the comics business. And if you loved Fritz Leiber’s Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser stories, Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road is sure to please. His most explicitly fantasy novel (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is really an alt-history SF/mystery blend) is the novel Summerland. It’s about a little league baseball player recruiter by the fairies, and while marketed as YA, I think adult readers could happily enjoy the heady nostalgia that drips from every page. Bottom line is that Chabon really loves fantasy and science fiction and it shows, even in his non-genre work.
The fabulous Alice Hoffman has built a career on writing fantasy novels that masquerade as literary fiction. How does she get away with it? Perhaps it is because she writes like a dream. Her characters are real and believable creations that just happen to have fantastical things happen all around them. I also love the strength of her female characters. Her books are often gorgeously romantic, with those strong heroines balancing their personal identity and power (sometimes a literal power) with their needs for connection. I would hand a fantasy fan almost any of her novels with no fear, but my favorites are Practical Magicabout two sisters who must face the destiny of coming from a family of witches; The Probable Future and the women of the Sparrow family, especially young Stella who struggles with her ability to see the future, and The Ice Queen about an isolated woman whose life changes when she is struck by lightning.
Sarah Addison Allen
Sarah Addison Allen is like Alice Hoffman’s bubblier, slightly more boy-crazy cousin from the South. Whereas Hoffman’s heroines are cooler and more emotionally reserved New Englanders, in an Allen novel (most set in North Carolina) we also get great heroines, but it takes them a while to realize their strength. Allen’s novels are usually considered women’s fiction because of that arc of a woman gaining confidence (and often a man), but her books also have a consistent magical element too them as well. In her first, Garden Spells, a woman’s family guards an apple tree with magical properties. In The Sugar Queen her candy-obsessed heroine Josey gets an unusal fairy godmother and the shy Chloe magically discovers books exactly when she needs them. Her last couple of books, The Peach Keeper and Lost Lake have toned down the magic a little, but still has a quirky, whimsical feel and Allen continues to grow in her talents creating lovely, empathetic characters.
Although I am a committed book pusher, I still remember one of the first books that I read as librarian where I simply could not stop telling people to read it — people at the library, people at home, possibly people in the streets. It was the thoroughly captivating A Trip to the Stars. I found myself wishing I knew more people just so I could tell them to read Nicholas Christopher. Something about the way Christopher (who is also a poet) tells the story of two lives that swirl around each other, separate but connected, under the pull of fate and destiny and coincidence and history. The writing was so gorgeous that I just wallow in that book. I’ve read most of his other novels, including the excellent Veronica with its time travel and disappearing magicians and the recent historical novel about a jazz musician Tiger Rag and they are all worth your time, but oh my god, A Trip to the Stars.
Donohue’s great first novel has a straight-up fantasy setup — a boy is stolen by the fairies and replaced by a changeling. In The Stolen Child we follow the story of the original Henry (now called Aniday) who lives in the woods with his new hobgoblin family and replacement Henry who was left in his place. And while I skipped Angels of Destruction (I don’t usually enjoy stories about angels), I plan to hop back aboard the Donohue bus for the forthcoming literary horror tale The Boy Who Drew Monsters.
His first novel Big Fish (which even has the subtitle “a novel of mythic proportion”), Wallace tells a touching tale of a son attending the death-bed of his large-than-life storyteller father, interspersed with some of the dying man’s tall tales. The intersection of grief and lost opportunity and wonder works marvelously. The unusual structure of Ray in Reverse might seem like a gimmick — a man arrives in heaven and tells his life story backwards, but lovely prose elevates the conceit. Wallace’s most recent novel The Kings and Queens of Roam returns to dark tall tales, as cruel older sister Helen tells her beautiful and trusting blind younger sister Rachel endless lies to keep her under Helen’s control.
Beautiful language and a basic refusal by the author to explicitly make the case that the fantastical elements in his novels are really happening or not mean that most libraries put Joyce in the fiction stacks rather than fantasy. But from Some Kind of Fairy Tale
where a young girl who disappeared for 12 years claims to have been off with the fairies, to the spooky experience of a couple trapped in an avalanche in The Silent Land, Joyce keeps the reader off-center, not knowing who to believe. Even his more solidly fantasy novels like the Dark Sister with its magical books of the occult often straddle the litfic/fantasy line in the US despite having won the British Fantasy Award. His latest, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is said to be another nostalgia-laden and supernatural-tinged winner.
I actually think there are many, many short story writers published in literary collections and shelved with literary fiction that should be staples of fantasy fans. There is nothing like the perfectly polished gem of whimsy, magic or absurdity that you can find in those collections. George Saunders, Karen Russell, Karen Joy Fowler, and Aimee Bender are just a few of the literary lights who have penned amazing fantasy stories. One of my favorite short story writers who fills his collections with magic is Millhauser. The collections The Barnum Museum (which features the story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” that was the basis for the excellent film The Illusionist) and Dangerous Laughter never fail to delight no matter where they are shelved. And Millhauser won the Pulitzer for Martin Dressler which is on its surface a historical fiction novel, but which has more than a touch of the magical.
I could probably list a hundred literary ovels that have magical properties, but here are just a few more favorites:
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
The Shadow of the Windby Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Little, Bigby John Crowley
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cakeby Aimee Bender
The Monsters of Templetonby Lauren Groff