The theme of this week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and The Bookish is character driven novels. I got to thinking about great characters that I love, but many of them don’t drive the plot. So, I’ve tried to focus on books whose characters are as important as their plots and in some cases, are their own narratives.
1. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The ultimate anti-hero Ignatius J Reilly is such a love/ hate figure that your appreciation of this book will entirely depend on which side you’re on. An ancient soul in modern New Orleans, Ignatius is a hypochondriac, melancholic, overweight, clumsy philosopher with no social skills whatsoever. Do we pity him or admire him? Is he lovable or maddening? Or both?
I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert, a monstrous, self-deluded paedophile and one of the wiliest characters in literature. Not only does he connive to form a relationship with his underage fantasy Lolita, but he connives with us, the reader to make us care, despite our disgust.
When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past.
3. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I almost included Anna Karenina or Lily Bart in this list, but plumped instead for Madame Bovary, the plot of which is entirely driven by the moods and whims of the titular character. Unhappy with her life married to a provincial doctor, romantic, sentimental Emma Bovary embarks on a series of affairs that will be her undoing. Some will see a passionate, possibly depressed woman hemmed in by the mores of society, others a self-indulgent dreamer with a sense of entitlement. Either way, Emma is a tragic figure.
Besides, nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight.
4. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
I’m getting a little concerned by the frequency with which this book is popping up in my TTT. Sure, there is a lot of plot in American Psycho, but told from the viewpoint of possible sociopathic serial killer, there is a distinct possibilty that we are experiencing a character’s mental breakdown and that it is all in his fevered imagination. Just a possibility mind you……
I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.
5. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn may well examine the question of emmigration in the 1950’s but it is slight on plot. Elis leaves her home for America, starts to settle in to her new life and then is forced back to Ireland for a funeral. What drives this understated, heartbreaking novel is the authentic detail of Elis’ life, the affections and doubts that shape her decisions. She is quite an ordinary character, but it is in the ordinary that we recognise ourselves.
As I settled down to sleep in that new bed in the dark city, I saw that it was too late now, too late for everything. I would not be given a second chance. In the hours when I woke, I have to tell you that this struck me almost with relief.
6. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Addie Bundren’s dying wish is to be buried ‘a hard day’s drive’ away in her family plot. Faulkner’s tour de force charts the family journey to fulfil her wishes by telling it from 15 different points of view, including the dead woman herself. Rich with vernacular and told in his stream of consciousness style, it’s not an easy read, but it is unforgettable.
Life was created in the valleys. It blew up into the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down.
7. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend
You don’t get much more character driven than a diary and Adrian Mole is my favourie fictional diarist. This socially awkward, misunderstood and self-proclaimed ‘intellectual’ teenager muses on class, family life, Margaret Thatcher and his unrequited love for Pandora Braithwaite, with a wit and wisdom beyond his years. Funny and touching, the entire Adrian Mole series is a gem.
I have realised I have never seen a dead body or a real female nipple. This is what comes of living in a cul-de-sac
8. Kill Your Friends by John Niven
Meet Stephen Stelfox, a British A&R music executive with a murderous bent. Stelfox is a man of unparalleled hideousness, chronically sexist and racist, he is fuelled by all the drink and drugs he can consume. He’s like a high octane cross between Simon Cowell and Patrick Bateman spouting hilarious lines that will make you cringe as much as make you laugh. His descent into murder and mayhem may not entirely come off, but as a scathing satire on the hypocrytical money-centric world of the music industry, this is spot on and lots of guilty fun. Watch out for the film adaptation coming out next year!
One thing you’ll learn when you’re in the business of selling utter shite to the Great British Public is that there’s really no bottom to where they’ll go. Shit food, shit TV, shit bands, shit films, shit houses. There is absolutely no fucking bottom with this stuff. The shittier you can make it – a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy of what was a shit idea in the first place – the more they’ll eat it up with a big fucking spoon, from dawn till dusk, from now until the end of time. It’s too good.
9. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Burial Rites was the inaugural book in the 746 and is a historical novel set in 1830 that narrates the final year in the life of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Despite knowing the ending, Hannah Kent creates an ambiguous, perplexing and complex character that we come to know, to care for and finally, to hope for.
They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.
10. Emily’s Shoes by Dermot Bolger
I read and reread this beautiful novel quite obsessively in my late teens. Following the death of his parents, Michael McMahon spends a turbulent adolescence living with his glamorous Aunt Emily. He grows into a reclusive young librarian trying to understand his life, his sense of loss and his fixation with women’s shoes which is both his relief and his torment. It is a moving story of one man’s attempt to make sense of a childhood abruptly ended and come to terms with the real and imaginary corpses that haunt him now.
The same dream has haunted me for some years, the dream that I have killed someone
What do you think? Would you include these in your list or have I missed someone really obvious?