18 April, 2006

New Books With Old Faces

The 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to March by Geraldine Brooks.

I absolutely loved Brooks' previous novel, Year of Wonders, which tells a fictionalised account of a real English village that isolated itself when hit with Plague. Brooks did a wonderful job of painting a vivid story with real characters and striking detail. I enjoyed that book so much that I've decided to gamble and give the new one a try.

March is one of a very particular type of book. I call them "rashomons". Like the classic Japanese film, these books attempt to tell a well-known story from another character's point of view. Generally they make me nervous, because they often are a pompous sort of fanfic that does little to advance either the new ideas or the original source material. Not to mention the fact that as a writer who is constantly searching for ideas and developing characters they seem to me to be somewhat of a cheat. Why create your own people when Margaret Mitchell or Charlotte Bronte has already laid the groundwork for you?

I'm willing to give Brooks a try in part because March purports to open new vistas for Little Women readers. The family's beloved father, absent for most of the crucial action in the March Girls' lives, is the subject of this new novel. Brooks details his Civil War experience--the reason for his absence--and delves into the foundational events of his early life. Just as Lousia May Alcott based Little Women on her family, Brooks has drawn much of her main character from Alcott's father Bronson. A friend of Thoreau and Emerson, Bronson Alcott was an eccentric intellectual who lead a strange life. I'm dying to see how unique his fictional counterpart will be.

I've read other rashomon books. Some I've loved, others I've most decidedly NOT loved. If you're interested, here's a brief list:

1. The Wind Done Gone
A retelling of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind. The narrator is Scarlett O'Hara's black half-sister. I think it's a dreadful book, but some people seem to like it. There is a lot of sex.

2. Wide Sargasso Sea.
A surprisingly good book, if you go into it with the knowledge that it will be entirely different than Bronte's Jane Eyre. WSS is more a prequel than a retelling, recounting the story of Rochester's mad wife Bertha and the events leading up to that awful marriage. If nothing else it made me glad that I didn't marry a man who kept me locked in the attic. The basement is much nicer.

3. Mr. Darcy Books.

I can't list them all. There are too many. Why on earth women authors have an undying fixation with that ass is beyond me. I liked Pride and Prejudice just fine but never found Darcy all that heart-stopping. Yet there are reams of books about his life before Elizabeth, after Elizabeth, solving mysteries with Elizabeth. Fitzwilliam Darcy has become a cottage industry. Ironically, I don't think he would be amused by that. He is, after all, very prideful and quite prejudiced.

4. Mycroft Holmes Books.

Of course, you knew that I would bring these up. There are a series of books featuring Mycroft (I keep wanting to type it my way...) as the central character. Not as good as Doyle's Sherlock, but still fun in their own right.

5. The Mists Of Avalon

Probably the best of this type of book, Marion Zimmer Bradley retells the Arthurian legends from the ladies' point of view. Bradley weaves several strong elements into her central story. Instead of depending on the old legends to set the mood and define her characters she makes everything her own.


At 9:41 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger D. Cloyce Smith said...

"Rashomon" is a great term for this type of novel, but I don't find the percentage of derivative books that are good vs. bad any different than the proportion of overall good vs. bad books (although I haven't conducted a survey). I mention some other extremely good "rashomons" in a post that refers to this very topic:

John Gardner's Grendel
Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
Marc Estrin's Insect Dreams
T. H. White's The Once and Future King

It seems odd, however, to refer to any of these books as "fanfic."

At 9:45 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger Kat Coble said...

AHA! I can't believe I forgot Grendel & The Seven-Percent-Solution. I loved one, hated the other. (I'm picky about my Holmes books.)

Truly the only one in the list so far that seemed "fanficky" to me was Wind Done Gone

At 10:07 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger D. Cloyce Smith said...

I agree about "The Wind Gone Down," although I'm not too sure the author was truly a fan of Margaret Mitchell's book.

Gregory Maguire's "Wicked" is probably closer to the border between fanfic and literary fiction. I haven't read the book, but I did see the (excellent) musical, which I found to be subversive parody as much as fiction by a lover of Baum's book (and the movie). Of course, Maguire's now made a cottage industry of such books (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.)

And then there's Anne Rice...

At 10:42 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger Kat Coble said...

I've read a couple of Maguire's books, and am still waiting for the musical to make it out here to the hinterlands of Nashville.

I'm inclined to give him a pass on the "fanfic" thing because he really (in the books) goes beyond the fairy tale essence of his source material and jumps off into this really great realm of new things. (Sort of what I assume Brooks has done with March)


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