High school and college students across America are haunted by certain novel titles like Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, and 1984. It’s high time to reconsider our “essentials,” and recognize the wide expanse of literature that goes unnoticed in our American literary canon. Here are three archetypal genre selections and my suggestions for novels that could stand side by side with the classics.
1. The Dystopian Future Social Commentary: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Predating the publication of Orwell’s 1984 by 25 eventful years, Zamyatin’s 1924 science fiction masterpiece examines a society dominated by schedules and time, where names have been replaced by identification numbers, and our protagonist is the head architect of a space mission meant to spread this ideology to the stars. That is, until he meets a mysterious woman who is involved in the resistance beyond the confines of the mechanized city, nature dwellers who claim to know true freedom. While these tropes are familiar to us now, they were groundbreaking in their time, and the context of the novel only adds to its depth—Zamyatin wrote the work in the years immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution, and his novel warns of the possible downfall of an egalitarian society through the removal of citizens’ humanity.
2. The Treatise on Teenage Sexuality and Desire: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
While novels like Catcher in the Rye and Lolita are complex examinations of adolescent existentialism and the dark temptations of sexuality, respectively, both are so often dangerously misconstrued as romantic. Eugenides’ novel tackles these issues with subtlety and humanity, and without a hint of pretension. The story of Calliope, or Cal, as they come to prefer during the novel, is a twist on the classic coming of age story, in that the protagonist is intersex (that is, possessing both male and female genitalia). As Cal discovers their identity, Eugenides elegantly weaves together elements of family history, potent social commentary about exploitation, and sections that read as a love letter to Detroit. All in all, the novel is warm, humanistic, and unabashedly romantic.
3. The Dysfunctional Family Drama: The House of Yes by Wendy MacLeod
Most of us are familiar with the plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller—domestic affairs that emphasize melodrama and the tragedy of the common man, usually illustrated by a bitter young man feeling trapped within his family of colorful characters. Today, however, Brick’s closeted homosexuality and Willy Loman’s extramarital affairs seem almost tame. MacLeod’s play focuses on the most dysfunctional of family dynamics: incest. When young Marty Pascal returns home for Thanksgiving with his new fiancée, his unstable twin sister Jackie is understandably appalled because the two have been sexually involved for years. Jackie is obsessed with the Kennedy assassination and reenacts that fateful day in Dallas as a sort of foreplay. The play is insane and taboo-busting, while remaining clever and entertaining. Perhaps the Pascals are the dysfunctional family for our modern, more liberal sensibilities.
Lyndsey Broyles is majoring in English with a concentration on Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico. She hopes to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.