The human condition, as it is often referred to, is probably one of the most puzzling and complex states of being in the entire universe, or at least we like to selfishly assume. With how little we actually know about the universe (we don’t even have a perfect understanding of our very own minds and bodies), I think it’s unsurprising we spend our lives always grasping for more knowledge and understanding.
On this quest for understanding, literature is without a doubt one of the greatest allies we could ask for, a means through which people can share their profound thoughts, experiences and ideas in hopes of finding the answer to the human enigma.
It might sound very broad (because it is), but the genre of literary fiction is one of the best, and in my opinion, most important sources to understanding ourselves and the modern world we live in. Typically-speaking, books in this genre carry some kind of social commentary and focus on a particular facet of the human condition.
Additionally, literary fiction novels are seen as being beyond genres to a certain extent, with the fiction within them having more merit on a grander scale which shouldn’t be diminished.
In this here category you’ll find the literary fiction novels which I personally think have some very interesting and valuable insights to share about our world, all while not fitting into any other book genre.
Mary Beth Keane writes the sort of fiction which digs a little deeper than your typical thrillers and mysteries, often exploring some of the greyer areas in our lives. In The Half Moon, she tells us the story of Malcolm and Jess Gephardt, a couple faced with a rather uncertain future, one where their dreams and life aspirations might be extinguished for good.
Emile Zola is a name most people are familiar with, even those who haven’t read his works. Objectively one of the greatest authors in our short history, his novels always had the ability to move people, and have been consistently doing so for over a hundred and fifty years. In Germinal, one of his more famous works, he tells the story of Etienne Lantier, a clever and unemployed machinist who eventually stirs a mining community to a strike unlike any other, threatening to open the first cracks in a rotten and unjust world order.
Bonnie Garmus may have taken quite a while to publish her debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, but it was certainly worth the wait, with even a TV show adaptation being in the making. The novel tells the story of Elizabeth Zott, a scientist who struggled during the 1950s amidst an all-male team at Hastings Research Institute, and in the 1960s became the unlikely star for a cooking show, and perhaps the catalyst to something much greater.
Haruki Murakami is no stranger to exploring the slices of reality which exist somewhere between truth and imagination, to the point where I suspect he came out from one of them. In his recent novel, Killing Commendatore, he tells the story of an unnamed portrait painter who, upon finding a magnificent painting in an attic, embarks on a strange journey of self-discovery, one which blurs the thin line between fiction and reality and shows him a world hidden in plain sight.
Celeste Ng is an author who uses her voice not only to entertain, but to also lead a personal fight against the discrimination and injustice still suffered by Americans of Asian descent. In her latest novel, Our Missing Hearts, she tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy going out on a quest to find his missing mother, a Chinese-American poet, amidst a country gripped by national fervour and excessive patriotism.
Thomas Pynchon might not be a very prolific author, but his books have often had a powerful impact when they were published, with the most prominent of the lot arguably being his 1973 classic bestseller, Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s an unusual kaleidoscope of a novel, taking place against the backdrop of the Second World War, exploring through a large number of characters the madness and all-consuming paranoia it gave birth to.
Gabriel Krauze is one of the few people who truly managed to escape life among the gangs of London, and in his first published novel, titled Who They Was, he takes us to the heart of a culture long-hidden in the shadows. It tells the story of Gabriel, a university student learning about English literature by day, and a member of London’s gang-ridden underworld by night, known to most as Snoopz.
Patricia Engel has become a celebrated and respected voice in immigrant literature, consistently relating her moving and educative experiences through her novels. Most recently, she published Infinite Country, chronicling the long, winding and turbulent fates of five members making up a family of Colombian immigrants.
Brit Bennett is a relatively new author on the scene, but both her novels have already turned into bestsellers, and perhaps more importantly, her second novel titled The Vanishing Half, has opened many peoples’ eyes to her insightful worldview. Taking place across many years and all over the United States, the story follows the fates of two sisters who escape their hometown but end up living in polar opposite worlds years down the line.
Daniel Mason enjoys taking his readers on grand trips through time and around the world, doing so once again in his novel The Winter Soldier. Taking us to Vienna in 1914, the story follows a young medical student, Lucius, who dreams of becoming a battlefield surgeon. Instead, he finds himself sent to a remote mountain outpost ravaged by typhus, with only a single nurse remaining. Facing an hour darker and more desperate than he could have ever expected, Lucius is forced to make decisions bound to change the lives of all those touched by his presence.
Alan Moore may have established his reputation largely through timeless comic books such as Watchmen, but he has also proven himself to be a novelist with no equal, namely through his 2016 work titled Jerusalem. In it, we are taken on an exploration of the madness, brilliancy, decay and degeneracy which has seeped over the years into the town of Northampton in the United Kingdom, taking a close look at the lives of its denizens, forgotten to the rest of the world.
Sally Rooney has taken little time in becoming a distinguished figure in the realm of books with her debut novel Conversations with Friends in 2017, and only a year later she came back with another brilliant story titled Normal People. To put it simply, it follows two young students as they walk parallel paths over the years and learn the hard way about the complexities of friendship, love, family, and life as a whole in general.
Daniel Mason surprised many when back in 2003 he published his first ever novel while still being a medical student, The Piano Tuner. Transporting us back to 1886 when the British Empire still existed, the book tells the story of Edgar Drake, the titular tuner, as he receives a strange commission from the War Office: to service an eccentric army surgeon’s piano in Burma. So begin Edgar Drake’s travels to a turbulent and secretive country on the verge of making history.
Chloe Benjamin has erupted onto the literary scene with her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, and has decided to delve further into the realms of unique and thought-provoking literature in her second book, The Immortalists. In it, we are introduced to four children who are all given a prophecy by a travelling mystic who could allegedly reveal to people the day they would die. As the years go on we witness them growing up and living out the strange and curious fates they were all assigned.
Franz Kafka was one of the more complex and thought-provoking authors of the twentieth century, and though he may have died young, his classics like The Trial will live on forever, telling the timeless story of an ordinary man, Joseph K., who one day wakes up only to find himself accused of a crime he has no recollection of committing. What’s worse, not a person in the world seems to be able to tell him what crime he’s actually being accused of. Standing before the grinding gears of the bureaucratic machine Joseph K. must resolve the impossible matter or be grinded down into nothingness, like so many before him.
Albert Camus was always known for his complex stories that were profound studies of human nature, and The Stranger fits that description perfectly, telling the story of a young disinterested in life whose fate quickly spirals out of control for seemingly inexplicable reasons. Meursault isn’t the kind of person anyone is used to, having his own outlook on life and a curious way of justifying his actions and inactions. However, when his unusual philosophy leads him into dire straits, he cannot help but question all he has ever held true and whether or not a human life, even one such as his, can have a real meaning to it.
Writers often make their best works when life pushes them to by exigent circumstances, and Michael Chabon was powerfully moved by the many touching stories his grandfather revealed to him on his deathbed, so much that it inspired him to novelize his life story. Which parts of the story are reality and fiction? Perhaps we’ll never know, but that one vagueness opens the doors for us to witness a life as extraordinary and absurd as it is ultimately believable, one that can teach us a whole lot more than most factual biographies could ever hope to.