When choosing my classes for my final year of university, I chose all the subjects that contained the words “American”, “Contemporary”, and “Modern”. What can I say? I love anything American! And I love the Modern Age and the age we find ourselves in: Contemporary Times.
For my Contemporary Fiction class, we studied four novels which are all very depressing yet so beautifully written. And they really make you think. The 21st Century has raised us to be “snowflakes” in which we think we can achieve anything we set our minds to. But the 20th Century had a strikingly different perspective. Can we really achieve anything we set our minds to? Or are we scared to be mundane simply because life would be too boring?
These are must-read novels.
1. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is one of the most influential Black American writers – ever. Beloved is not just any regular novel telling the tale of a Black woman escaping slavery. Morrison explains what it means to run and keep running. Morrison explains what it means to finally be free and not know what to do with that freedom because how can you fully be free if you don’t know what it means? Morrison explains what trauma is and how it is so hard to move forward when the past still lurks like the ghost of a baby. This is a ghost story told in a way you’ve never heard a ghost story being told before.
2. Stoner by John Williams
Stoner is the exact opposite of The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is known to be the American Novel since it represents the ideal identity of America: money, success and luxury. Aka the American Dream. Stoner represents how that American Dream is an illusion fabricated by capitalism. Gatsby, ironically, shows how this want for the American Dream only results in tragedy whereas Stoner is simple, direct and real yet so captivating.
William Stoner is not talented, not special and not interesting. At. All. He marries the wrong woman. He is not the best at his job. His one moment of epiphany is disrupted. And the only time he tries to fight the world results in his position getting worse. His death is meaningless to the world. The world keeps turning and the only remaining thing from Stoner’s life is a book no one will ever read.
As much as I would hate to have this life, could not ever possibly imagine myself living in such a state, this novel makes you realize that this could be the life we choose. We would not be miserable. We would just let life take its course. We would neither fight nor try. That is what mundanity is and there’s something beautiful about that.
I read this book in two days because I could not put it down. The New Yorker calls it; “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”.
3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
And if you think Stoner is depressing, The Road is worse. The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel taking place in an environmentally harsh world where civilization doesn’t exist. What’s worse than anarchy and amorality is the loss of culture. The Road is a reaction against of the American dream; it doesn’t exist simply because life is not ideal. Packing your bags and moving somewhere else is a big part of American culture which McCarthy is trying to understand. It’s easy to hit the road but isn’t that also trying to run away from something instead of facing it? Again, this is very reflective of American culture. The reality is that you can keep moving around and following the road but you’re not going to get anywhere. The sea is not blue and there’s nothing out there on the horizon. Therefore, what is the point of our existence? These are the questions and thoughts McCarthy is trying to provoke in us.
4. Runaway by Alice Munro
Ok, so when I first started reading this novel, I felt like Munro was overrated. This is why you have to give the book a chance. Munro’s Runaway is a collection of short stories all centralized around different women who have an epiphanic moment in their lives yet they do not turn their lives around simply because they were either too scared or did not realize they were going through this epiphanic moment. Therefore, they live miserable lives which they settle for. This is a reflection of the entire 20th century. Again, life is not ideal. Munro’s style is one that cannot be explained. It definitely makes you think: what is the point?
Grab these novels and don’t put them down until you get to the end.