Thursday, February 23, 2006

Twice-told tales

I’m always curious about novels that re-work a classic story … and do it well.

Here are just a few off-the-cuff examples of novels I loved that owe a heavy debt to a classic work:
Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, a brilliant novel that echoes Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, which tells the story of the convict in Dickens’ Great Expectations who sets in motion that story but is largely absent from its pages.

Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, an all-girl version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. *

And of course there is the (somewhat playful) homage that Joyce's Ulysses pays to Homer's Odyssey.
In future posts--and in this article--I hope to revisit these particular novels and to come up with other interesting examples of contemporary fiction based on classic stories.

One case that I don't really regard of this category is Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which many reviewers insist is patterned on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway even though McEwan has denied any such inspiration.

--Marshal Zeringue

*An interesting note. Terrific books that they are, I would be surprised to hear someone say that Smiley's or Carey's books were superior to their inspirations. I would even be surprised to learn that Smiley or Carey thought that. But novelist Anne Tyler, writing in The New Republic, has indeed made that claim for Wiggins' book: "John Dollar is a grisly story, all right. It's the kind where you're reading cheerily along and you suddenly say, Wait. They did what? And you go back and read again to make sure, and the truth finally hits you with a sickening punch to the stomach. But precisely what gives the punch its oomph is that you were, indeed, reading cheerily along, up until that unexpected moment. Lord of the Flies was more predictable, more relentless; it was, in my opinion, not half as thoughtful a piece of work."