“I’m curious, do you ever read fiction?” an editor asked me this week. And I do! I tend to write about nonfiction in this space, in part because I’m often writing about work that contributes to or shapes my reporting. But fiction can do that too.
The way that a person’s pursuit of status can have radical effects on society is a theme that runs through my reporting on everything from Putin’s Russia to social media in rural Sri Lanka, but it is of course one of the great themes of literature as well. And I don’t think anyone has ever portrayed that phenomenon better than Jane Austen.
Here I admit to having very basic tastes: My favorite book of hers is “Pride and Prejudice.” Although its text is imprinted onto my weary synapses because of my habit of picking it up whenever I can’t sleep, I always manage to find something new whenever I reread it. Most recently I was struck by the way that a few short lines about Mr. Bingley’s fortune being made in the north of England, so recently that his father hadn’t had time to buy an estate before he died, contain an entire arc of socioeconomic history. At the time when Austen was writing, the industrial revolution was generating fortunes outside of the landed aristocracy, fracturing the class system that was then the backbone of society. Suddenly the new-money Bingleys of the world had something that the landed-gentry Bennets needed. And because the rules of the new era were still in flux, a small misstep could leave either party mired in poverty or disgrace.
The wealthy family at the center of Austen’s “Mansfield Park” appears respectable, but their fortune derives from a slave plantation in the Caribbean. Between the beats of the marriage plot, Austen skewers not only the hypocrisy of such people lecturing others about propriety, but also a society that holds enslavers in higher esteem than poor people doing ordinary jobs.
The scrim of Austen’s romantic plotlines only partly obscures the grim violence of the gender hierarchy of the time. In “Sense and Sensibility,” Colonel Brandon’s first love is forced into an unhappy marriage to another man, who treats her cruelly and then abandons her to poverty and death when she becomes pregnant with another man’s child. Her illegitimate daughter is later “seduced” — Austen’s term for what might now be called statutory rape — at age 16 by an older man who likewise impregnates and abandons her. (The men in those scenarios are fine.)
Turning away from Austen, on the recommendation of one of my editors at The Times, this week I picked up “Venomous Lumpsucker,” by Ned Beauman. It’s set in a near future in which corporations can purchase “extinction credits” for the right to extinguish a particular species from the earth. The book does a particularly good job of introducing its high-concept premise through the story of dirtbag characters, giving it the kind of high concept/low plot mix that is a particular favorite of mine. The main characters’ base motivations (lust and greed within the first few pages alone) make it all feel chillingly familiar.
Books that gave you an ‘aha!’ moment
Iris (Yi Youn) Kim, a reader in Los Angeles, recommends “Nuclear Family” by Joseph Han:
A genre-bending release that explores themes of long-lasting effects of American imperialism, the painful division of the Korean Peninsula and separation of families, the fragility of the American dream and the complexity of Korean American identity in a haunting and hilarious sequence of magical realist events. Han’s story as a queer writer who was born in Korea and raised in Hawaii effortlessly translates to sumptuous details — the taste of sizzling pork belly during Jacob’s return to the motherland, and the fusion of Korean and Hawaiian cuisines served in the Cho family delis. They’re achingly familiar for a Korean American writer like myself who often contends with the stories passed down from my grandparents — about war, survival and ancestral debt.
Isabella Lazzarini, a reader in Edinburgh, recommends “Matrix” by Lauren Groff:
I am a medieval historian (I work on late medieval political history) and I didn’t know what to expect from a novel about a fictitious abbess in 12th century England. I was looking for some well-constructed storytelling. Actually this book is so much more: imagination and reality are bound together in a gripping, severe, addictive and at times wild story of individual and collective empowerment, written in prose that is at the same time dry and unsettling. Over 257 pages, no man’s personal name is given, a very few men are mentioned: It’s a women’s story, but a universal one, very credibly medieval, and yet timeless. A true discovery.
What are you reading?
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