“ Finally a Novel!”

Recently in a column in the New York Times called By the Book, the author Jeff Vandermeer who wrote the recent novel Hummingbird Salamander was asked if he thought novels should serve a moral function. His reply seemed to me to characterize much that is wrong with contemporary American fiction, “I enjoy books that don’t care if I think they should serve a moral function. Personally, I believe it’s more important that books be laboratories and experiments and it’s up to the reader to be moral. I trust my readers to know that, at times, I’m going to write wickedly and in a messed-up way, about messed-up characters who may behave in an unreliable or suspect manner.”

By moral fiction the questioner didn’t mean do they promote morality per se. Rather should books stir our deepest places where our values live? Vandermeer’s answer revealed what I have often thought when I put down yet another dreadful book: the writer is using the text as experiment and I am the unwilling subject of said experiment.

So it is with great delight that I read and absorbed Maggie Shipstead’s latest book from May of 2021, a 609 page gripping, complicated, consistently well written old fashioned novel. As Lynn Strong wrote in her May review of the novel in the New York Times “At a moment when so many novels seem invested in subverting form, “Great Circle” follows in a long tradition of Big Sweeping Narratives.”

Yes it is very long. Yes it is very involved. Yes it will be a slow read. But I hope that you, as did I, will savor nearly every word. The settings from Montana to Seattle and around the world and the characters of a woman pilot and a struggling actress will rattle around in your brain, taking up space there for a long satisfying while.

11 thoughts on ““ Finally a Novel!”

  1. looked in my library service but way too many other people have it on “request” so scrolled down to subjects and decided that I would just do something “dare devil” like your heroine in your novel and read something within “ballerina” – found an e-book so there I shall go at some point…I’ve never been a ballerina and it’s too late now..


  2. I used to read non-fiction almost exclusively, but have really enjoyed novels again over the past 2-3 years – I say’again’ because I read a lot of fiction when young.


  3. Elizabeth, thank you for drawing my attention to this book but even more for drawing my attention to the post. You have pinned down exactly my own vague thoughts in this regard. I’ve read a fair few new novels recently and enjoyed them to a greater or lesser extent but increasingly I am finding that contemporary writers seek (or feel obliged) to experiment with form. Nothing wrong with that per se but it has left me feeling a little unsettled by the shift and you’ve identified the reason for that discomfort. In this context, I think you would enjoy The Silver Darlings (as reviewed in my own recent post) very much as a beautifully-written chronologically presented novel in which characters move through their lives with all the complications and failings which make us human. And I shall look forward very much to Great Circle.


    1. I had been pondering the problem with recent fiction for quite a while. For a time I thought it was just because it focused on subjects I didn’t care about or characters who were much younger than I. But that turned out not to be the problem after I reread people like Elizabeth Bowen. The characters in Great Circle and the focus on airplanes are way different from me. So the issue really was the writing!

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