Character-driven books
January 12, 2009 12:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some relatively modern fiction that is mostly about how people think, or see the world, or become who they are.

Currently, my favorite authors are Jim Harrison, Robertson Davies, and (I've read less of his work) Phillip Roth.

Davies' books have a whole cast of characters, and he often explains the life story that made each person who they are. Harrison has fewer characters, but not much happens in the book -- the entire book is about how people see and think about the few things that happen.

The central point of the books is not "this is a suspenseful turn of events" or "this war was absurd" or "here is what it is like to live through this oppressive situation [or this historical period]" or "how cool would it be to be an elite programmer [or have these magical powers]." (Not that I'm against any of those as secondary themes.)

The books feel very real to me. People sometimes feel confident and sometimes feel insecure, they worry if they're doing the right thing, they have interpersonal dramas, their pride can get injured, and they want their lives to mean something in the long run.

I'm not sure if what I'm trying to explain makes any sense. But if you have any good fiction recommendations along these lines, I'd love to hear them.
posted by salvia to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
heh - before I got to the "more inside" bit, Robertson Davies was the first author that came to mind. have you read any John Irving? His plots will follow a person or a family though their lives. My favourite was A Prayer for Owen Meany.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:37 AM on January 12, 2009


Milan Kundera seems to fit the bill.

secondary (and yet extremely powerful) themes include most of your examples: "this is a suspenseful turn of events" or "this war was absurd" or "here is what it is like to live through this oppressive situation [or this historical period]" but the characters themselves are the point.

The characters in the novels I've read (The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) are incredibly interesting, real, and are experiencing the exact issues you describe.
posted by meantime at 12:49 AM on January 12, 2009


Try searching for the genre bildungsroman.
posted by scodger at 12:54 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don DeLillo? I'm thinking particularly White Noise which manages to juxtapose suburban family life with absurd Cold War living situations...I love his writing.

Much of J.M. Coetzee? Manages to illustrate human vulnerability within the context of apartheid South Africa. Here I'm thinking Disgrace, more than most of his other work.

I believe these two authors were recommended a long time ago when I told a college professor I enjoyed Roth (American Pastoral).

Also, though it's non-fiction Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking has some of the qualities you might be looking for.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 2:08 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Perhaps some Nicholson Baker? "Mezzanine" consists entirely of the thoughts that go through someone's head as they ride up an escalator, and seems to fit the "how people think" bill. Plus it's a great read.

His second book, "Room Temperature", pretty much does the same thing, this time the main character is a father who is feeding his baby daughter a bottle of milk.
posted by the bricabrac man at 4:07 AM on January 12, 2009


Any books by Orhan Pamuk.... not quite fiction, but a weird mix. And he's a Nobel prize winner :-)
posted by ryanbryan at 4:31 AM on January 12, 2009


I haven't read 'em. But from they say, Richard Powers' novels are like that in a super-brainy kind of way.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:32 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


My first thought is John Updike's Rabbit books, which follow the life of Rabbit Angstrom. You really see how he becomes who he becomes. An ordinary life, beautifully written.

(Ditto on Orhan Pamuk. My Name is Red is my favorite, though it's less what you're looking for, a 16th-century mystery. Try Snow.)
posted by booth at 6:48 AM on January 12, 2009


Following up on the John Irving suggestion, have you read "The World According to Garp"? I think it would fit the bill.
posted by nfg at 7:21 AM on January 12, 2009


Seconding Coetzee. His best novel is Disgrace, and the main character's worldview evolves from that of a pampered, white, sheltered academic to that of a deeply conflicted post-colonial agent. It's a truly stunning novel of how personal ethics and values destabilize after crises.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:44 AM on January 12, 2009


Two suggestions. First, "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen. Extremely interior, and funny/strange in many parts. I loved it. Second, "The Sportswriter" or its sequel (which can be read independently) "Independence Day" by Richard Ford. Both have things that happen in them, but that's nothing compared to what's happening in the main character's head.
posted by Work to Live at 7:49 AM on January 12, 2009


Crime and Punishment.

Cancer Ward.
posted by prefpara at 8:05 AM on January 12, 2009


People sometimes feel confident and sometimes feel insecure, they worry if they're doing the right thing, they have interpersonal dramas, their pride can get injured, and they want their lives to mean something in the long run...

Oddly, this sentence keeps pointing me back to David Foster Wallace's essays. I just started reading his non-fiction and despite the fact that his topics are always fascinating, his topics are generally just filters through which a vulnerable humanity passes through. His essay on vacationing on a cruise ship (in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) focuses on his own existential loneliness at sea, attempts to relate to fellow passengers, and insecurities of self-presentation and self-worth. It's not fiction, but the "realness" of his voice is arresting. It makes his passing especially painful because so many readers feel as if they knew him on a highly personal level.
posted by zoomorphic at 8:34 AM on January 12, 2009


(From 1957) Atlas Shrugged
posted by bradly at 9:09 AM on January 12, 2009


In your description, you pretty much summed up exactly what I love about Virginia Woolf. A lot of her books are focused on that kind of interiority at the expense of plot development of any kind. She is, hands down, my favorite twentieth-century author, but I've gotten into a number of arguments with people who disagree:

Me: To The Lighthouse is easily one of the most exciting novels I've ever read!
Them: But nothing happens!
Me: What? Everything happens!
Them: They all just sit around and think!
Me: Yes!

So I would recommend you read Woolf. As far as other currently-writing authors that have the same vibe, I was surprised by how much Steve Martin's Shopgirl reminded me of Woolf. You might also try some Edmund White; I read Chaos last year, and was delighted by its almost-complete focus on the characters' interiority.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:40 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Coetzee for sure. And I second Richard Powers--choose carefully from his body of work, because many of his books aren't for everyone.

James Baldwin, too. And certain D.H. Lawrence novels fit your criteria...
posted by prior at 12:58 PM on January 12, 2009


The Corrections definitely fits your criteria.
posted by naju at 1:14 PM on January 12, 2009


Frost by Thomas Bernhard. Easily the most potent novel I've read in the last year.

NYT review.
posted by Alex Voyd at 1:33 PM on January 12, 2009


Thanks for all the recommendations so far! I do love Irving, so those were really on-the-mark.

I'm a bit surprised to hear a lot of Coetzee recommendations. Since it was such a common recommendation, if anyone is still reading this thread, could you please clarify which books you'd recommend? My idea of him is summarized in this book review: "Mr. Coetzee tells the story of an imaginary Empire, set in an unspecified place and time, yet recognizable as a 'universalized' version of South Africa.... [The main character] serves two purposes, as the eye that sees the action and as a voice that comments." It sounds like a good book, but not exactly the "human psychology" interest I'm getting at here. I'm also a bit squeamish, since I've gotten the impression, maybe mistakenly, that his books are full of violence and torture. But it sounds like you're saying that some (Disgrace, for one) are more introspective? Is that the best one to start with?

Thanks for all of these recommendations. There are many books that look great here!
posted by salvia at 4:38 PM on January 12, 2009


Norman Rush's Mating. Just incredibly well written.

If you're willing to go a little earlier, Willa Cather's The Professor's House is strikingly modern for something written in 1922.
posted by DarthDuckie at 6:53 PM on January 12, 2009


I really just came back in to recommend Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Camera.

I have read some Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg and In the Heart of the Country. I'd also recommend his stuff, for the "how people think, or see the world" part of your question. Your impression of violence and torture is not entirely inaccurate, but Coetzee is very good at showing the reader what the inside of someone else's head is like.
posted by Alex Voyd at 6:58 PM on January 12, 2009


But it sounds like you're saying that some (Disgrace, for one) are more introspective? Is that the best one to start with?

All I've read by Coatzee is Waiting for The Barbarians, so I'm not well-equipped to talk about some of the other things that people recommended. But in that book, I felt like there was a certain steadfast refusal to make the minds of the characters accessible to the reader. It's not that the book wasn't good, but the people in Waiting For The Barbarians struck me as particularly opaque -- pretty much the opposite of what you're looking for (though still a phenomenal novel).

Like I said, though, I ain't read Disgrace, so for all I know, that could be a completely different deal than the one I read.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:03 PM on January 12, 2009


Coetzee's earlier stuff isn't all as weird and sinister as "Barbarians". "Age of Iron" is a very introspective novel, in the sense you mean, and so is "In The Heart of the Country" (though that one isn't so much about personal growth as deterioration). I would probably recommend "Age of Iron" before "Disgrace" for your purposes. Even recent stuff like the "Youth" or "Slow Man" might be good for what you want it for. Assuming you've been convinced to choose something by J.M.C.!

I second Woolf, especially "The Waves," for a book "about how people think, or see the world, or become who they are." I also agree that "The Corrections" would be good if you like stuff like Roth. I'd take a pass on Franzen's earlier books, though.

You might enjoy Jose Saramago's "All the Names."
posted by Beardman at 9:14 PM on January 12, 2009


Thanks for the clarifications. Coetzee came up so often that I do want to try something of his, as well as many of these other selections.

Thanks again to all who responded! And any additional recommendations are also quite welcome.
posted by salvia at 10:21 PM on January 12, 2009


Saturday by Ian McEwan. Don't know how it ends - but the first quarter describes the main characters thoughts and feelings and past over the course of three hours. I'm assuming that the title implies that the book is only one day long.

Also The Curious incident of the Dog in the nighttime by Mark Haddon, which is written in the first person from the point of view of an autistic teenager.
posted by kjs4 at 4:23 AM on January 13, 2009


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