Further reading - Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Further reading
Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present



The masterwork of Gaston Miron (1928—96) — writer, poet, publisher, and luminary of Quebec literature — L’homme rapaillé (“The Man Made Whole”) is a major selection of the author’s poems. Lyric love poetry sits side by side with explorations of the political and social predicament of the French-speaking Québecois population in Canada — Miron called for separatism, and his poems are a celebration of Quebec’s language, history, and people. He also saw poetry as an endless process of self-discovery, hence his refusal to authorize a definitive collection.



Mixing autobiographical elements and surreal invention, this influential work, subtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, describes journalist Raoul Duke’s long weekend with his Samoan attorney Dr Gonzo to report on a motorcycle race, along with a visit to a narcotics officers’ convention. US writer Thompson (1937—2005) — for whom Raoul Duke was an author surrogate, a character based on and speaking for the author — used this narrative framework to critique the failure of 1960s’ counterculture, such as the reliance on drugs. The trip turns into a psychedelic odyssey of excess, comic yet brutal, with drugs consumed in such quantities that at one point people appear as giant reptiles. Thompson blends fact and fiction using the journalistic mode he pioneered, which came to be known as “Gonzo journalism” after the book’s fictional attorney.


(1973), J G BALLARD

Depicting the dark side of our fascination with speed, Crash is a controversial novel about car-crash sexual fetishism and “symphorophilia” (being aroused by disasters or accidents); its shock value is typical of science-fiction writer Ballard. The protagonist is Dr Robert Vaughan, a TV scientist and “nightmare angel of the highways”, whose fantasy is to die in a collision with movie star Elizabeth Taylor. Unflinching in showing a fusion of sex and death, the text paints a dystopian picture of the close co-existence between humans and machines in a high-tech future world. People use technology and technology, in a sense, uses people, to the point that machines become an intermediary in human relations.

J G Ballard

An exponent of the New Wave of science fiction, J G Ballard specialized in depicting futuristic dystopias, although one of his most popular novels, Empire of the Sun, is more conventional. Ballard was born in 1930 in Shanghai, China. As a teenager he spent two years of the war interned by the Japanese. He studied medicine (at King’s College, Cambridge), with the aim of training as a psychiatrist, but in 1951, during the second year of his studies, he won a short-story competition. He moved to London to study literature later the same year. His first fiction was influenced by psychoanalysis and surrealist art. Working as a copywriter and encyclopedia salesman before joining the Royal Air Force, he became a full-time writer from 1962. Ballard died in 2009, aged 78, in London.

Key works

1971 Vermilion Sands

1973 Crash

1991 The Kindness of Women



Morante (1912—85) and her husband Alberto Moravia, both half-Jewish Italians, hid from persecution during World War II in the mountains south of Rome. Her experiences were reflected 30 years later in her most famous novel, History, which traces the impact of politics and conflict on local farming communities in the countryside around Rome. The central character is Ida Mancuso, a widowed schoolteacher whose prime concern is the survival of her son, the offspring of a rape. A major theme is the extra challenges war brings to the poor, already familiar with hardship even in peacetime.


(1975—1981), PETER WEISS

A three-volume historical novel dealing with the fight against the Nazis by left-wing students in Berlin, as well as charting anti-fascist movements elsewhere in Europe, The Aesthetics of Resistance proposes that the model for political resistance is to be found in the stand taken by the artist. The title of this highly acclaimed work refers to its meditations on painting, sculpture, and literature. Its author Weiss (1916—82), German-born but with Swedish nationality, was also a dramatist, painter, and film-maker.


(1976), ALEX HALEY

Beginning in the 18th century with the semi-fictional story of a teenage African boy who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South, Roots traces the lives of the next six generations, culminating with US writer Haley (1921—92), who undertook a decade of extensive research into his own ancestry. A major theme is the triumph of the human spirit over oppression. The book, and the television series based upon it, led to a surge of interest in African-American history and genealogy.

"Through this flesh, which is us, we are you, and you are us!"


Alex Haley



Focusing on the inhabitants of a Paris apartment building, Life A User’s Manual, by Frenchman Perec (1936—82) is a fictional web whose main thread is a resident’s project to paint 500 watercolours of the places he visits, have them turned into jigsaws that he must solve on his return to Paris, before returning each image to the place it depicts. His art teacher — a fellow resident — plans to paint the lives of all the tenants. Perec was a member of the Oulipo group, who together practised writing under a set of constraining principles, and was fascinated by literary playfulness.



Author of “magical realist” tales, Angela Carter based all ten stories in her influential work The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories on folktales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and Puss in Boots. The psychological themes underlying the original narratives are intensified and modernized, although without any loss of their inherent Gothic folklore atmosphere. Rape, incest, murder, torture, and cannibalism all feature, showing the dark side of humanity. Stereotypes of feminity, including the innocence of girlhood and the notion of a happy marriage, are each subversively reinterpreted. Metamorphosis plays a significant part in these stories, both in the form of magic (such as men turned into wolves), and also in physical and moral transformations — for instance, with reference to menstruation and deception.

Angela Carter

Known for fiction that fused feminism and magical realism, Angela Carter was born in 1940, in Eastbourne, England, and studied English at Bristol University. In 1969 she left her husband and spent two years in Tokyo, where she claims to have learned her feminist principles. She was writer in residence in the 1970s and ’80s at various UK universities, and also taught in the USA and Australia. Her Nights at the Circus was a joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1984. Carter was also a journalist and worked in radio and cinema. She died in 1992 in London, aged 51.

Key works

1967 The Magic Toyshop

1979 The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

1984 Nights at the Circus



The underlying metaphor of A Dry White Season is the equation of climatic and moral drought. This acclaimed novel is set in Afrikaner South Africa just before the political changes took place that overturned apartheid and brought renewal to the country. Through its protagonist, a white, male, mild-mannered schoolteacher, author André Brink (1935—2015) — himself a white South African — explores racial intolerance and the price for taking a principled stand against an unjust system.


(1979), MARIAMA BÂ

Written in French by Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ (1929—81), So Long a Letter captures the feelings of a recently widowed Muslim schoolteacher. After spending the last four years of her marriage emotionally abandoned, she now has to share grieving for her late husband with his second, younger wife. The form of the novel is a letter written by the widow to her friend, an émigré to the USA. Personal and social oppression are seen as two sides of the experience of many women in Senegalese society.



The House of The Spirits was the first — and most successful — novel of Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende (1942—), the granddaughter of former socialist president of Chile Salvador Allende, who was deposed in a coup that features in the novel. The book began life as a letter to her 100-year-old grandfather and turned into a complex, epic saga tracing three generations of family life, against a background of social and political turbulence in an unnamed country (recognizably Chile). The book has elements of magical realism: one of the two sisters, Clara, possesses powers of telekinesis and clairvoyance, which she consciously develops — spirits visit her house in abundance. Allende depicts love, betrayal, vengeance, and ambition in a country torn apart, but offering possible salvation in the prospects of the female blood-line.

"… I wait for better times to come, while I carry this child in my womb, the daughter of so many rapes or perhaps of Miguel, but above all, my own daughter …"

The House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende



Set around the Prague Spring of 1968, a brief period of political reform in Soviet Czechoslovakia, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is Kundera’s most famous work. The title refers to a philosophical dilemma: Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return, or heaviness, as opposed to the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides’ notion of life as light. It tells of a surgeon who pursues his belief in “lightness” through a promiscuous love life, which also serves as a distraction from his country’s fragile and unstable politics. He falls in love with a waitress and marries her, but cannot give up his mistresses. Kundera asks whether life can have weight, or meaning, since return to the past is impossible.

Milan Kundera

Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1929, Kundera studied music as a child and much of his work bears a musical signature. He studied literature and then film in Prague, becoming a lecturer after graduating. Initially a member of the Czech Communist Party, he was barred following the Soviet takeover of 1968, losing his teaching positions. Kundera emigrated to France in 1975 and has lived there ever since, taking citizenship in 1981. He labels himself as a novelist, although his works skilfully blend the philosophical, ironic, political, comedic, and erotic.

Key works

1967 The Joke

1979 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being



One of the earliest and most influential works of “cyberpunk” — a science-fiction subgenre usually featuring an antihero in a dystopian high-tech future — Neuromancer by American-Canadian author Gibson (1948—) tells of a damaged, suicidal computer hacker. Having been injected with a Russian toxin that prevents him from accessing cyberspace, he is commissioned by an enigmatic employer to do a special job; being cured will be his pay-off. The book combines a futuristic vision with elements of hard-boiled noir.



Set in French Indochina in the 1930s, The Lover draws upon the real-life experiences of its French author, Marguerite Duras (1914—96). It details the intense affair between a 15-year-old girl from a poor family and a wealthy Chinese man of 27, yet beyond this it is also concerned with female empowerment, the relationship between mother and daughter, emerging adolescence, and the taboos that surround foreignness and colonialism. Alternating between first- and third-person narration and present and past tense, the novel uses a spare, poetic prose style.



A dystopian vision of the near future, The Handmaid’s Tale by Canadian writer Atwood depicts a US in which the establishment of a Christian theocracy has led to the loss of women’s freedoms. Caste and class become organizing principles of society, allowing Atwood to comment on present-day inequalities. The narrator is Offred, a “handmaid” — a concubine for reproductive purposes in an era of rampant sexually transmitted diseases. Her master develops feelings for her and gives her privileges, as well as access to some of the regime’s secrets. She later becomes implicated in a growing resistance movement. The power of this highly controversial work of fiction comes from its devastating critique of patriarchy by exaggeration of its features.



A tender exploration of love’s difficulties and ambiguities, Love in the Time of Cholera by Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Márquez deftly navigates the twists and turns of human feeling. Two versions of love are presented, each enshrined in a male character: one passionate, and the other pragmatic. The passionate one, Florentino Ariza, proposes to his youthful sweetheart 50 years after first declaring his love and being rejected in favour of Dr Juvenal Urbino, the pragmatist. A central question in the book is, which kind of love is likelier to bring happiness? Cholera features literally in the narrative, but also serves as an imaginative analogy for infatuation. Other themes in the work include acceptance of ageing and the continuation of romantic love among the elderly, even as the body grows more infirm.

"… she would not bury herself alive inside these four walls to sew her shroud, as native widows were expected to do."

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel García Márquez



In his bestselling novel White Noise, author and playwright Don DeLillo tells of how the chair of Hitler Studies at a US university is forced to confront his own mortality after a chemical spill creates an “Airborne Toxic Event”. The book is a darkly amusing examination of consumerism, intellectual pretensions within academia, and the dominance of the media. It also examines cohesion, trust, and love within the family unit — which is described as the “cradle of the world’s misinformation”.

Don DeLillo

Born in New York City in 1936, Don DeLillo garnered a cult following with his early works, entering the mainstream with White Noise. Growing up in an Italian Catholic family in the Bronx, he discovered a thirst for reading during a summer job as a parking attendant. He worked as an advertising copywriter after graduating in Communications Arts in 1958 but, disillusioned with the job, he quit in 1964 in order to write fiction. DeLillo’s novels have been described as postmodern in tone and focus on the USA’s material excess and empty culture as recurring themes.

Key works

1985 White Noise

1988 Libra

1991 Mao II

1997 Underworld

2011 The Angel Esmeralda


(1985—1986; 1987), PAUL AUSTER

Auster plays with identity, illusion, and the absurd in his three hugely successful interlocking novels: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. This is film-noirish crime fiction, with elements of postmodern experimentalism. The links between an author and his or her subject are teasingly explored: in the first book the protagonist is a writer of detective stories who is caught in complications after being mistaken for a private eye; in the last, an author who is suffering from writer’s block obsessively tries to track down a successful novelist who has disappeared. In immersing themselves in writing fiction, letters, poems, or reports, the characters become alienated from reality. A major theme running through the trilogy is the operation of chance and coincidence in our lives.

Paul Auster

Novelist, essayist, translator, and poet, Auster primarily writes about ideas of the self, identity, and meaning — and sometimes the author himself features in his books. Born in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, Auster moved to Paris in 1970 to translate contemporary French literature. Returning to the USA four years later, he continued his translation work, wrote poetry, and began writing a series of existentialist mystery novels, which were collected as The New York Trilogy. Auster has also written screenplays, two of which became films that he directed himself.

Key works

1982 The Invention of Solitude

1985—87 The New York Trilogy

1990 The Music of Chance

2005 The Brooklyn Follies



In this deeply controversial book, two Indian survivors of a terrorist attack on a jet bound for London become symbols of the angelic and the wicked, and experience miraculous transformations. The novel’s title, The Satanic Verses, refers to passages in the holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran, that allow intercessory prayers to pagan deities. British-Indian author Salman Rushdie was subjected to a fatwa (death order) by the Supreme Leader of Iran for allegedly blaspheming against Muhammad — one of the characters is partly modelled on the Prophet.


(1989), WANG SHUO

Wang Shuo (1958—) is a Chinese writer working in the “hooligan” style, typified by using Beijing dialect to show mocking indifference to establishment values. His much celebrated Playing for Thrills is a satirical novel of urban alienation, centred on a murder. It is narrated by the chief suspect, Fang Yan, a man who enjoys card-playing, drinking, and womanizing. Along with its “tough-guy” protagonist, the book is populated by criminal and low-life characters, and is reminiscent of hard-boiled detective fiction.



In his Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, Sri-Lanka born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje (1943—) shows how the lives of four characters intersect in an Italian villa in 1945. A nurse, a thief, and a Sikh sapper are preoccupied by a plane-crash victim who lies injured upstairs. The narrative spirals into the past to reveal an affair in the North African desert and other dangerous secrets. Lies and half-truths mask identities, and physical and emotional damage are inflicted by both war and love.

"The desert could not be claimed or owned — it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names …"

The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje



This key novel by Martinique author Chamoiseau (1953—) takes its name from a real-life shantytown suburb — itself named after an oil company due to its industry connections. The founder of this community, whose father was a freed slave, tells her family story, beginning in the early 1820s. The narrative is punctuated by excerpts from her notebooks, diaries, and letters. At the heart of the book is the struggle between colonizer and colonized, and between official history and oral storytelling, both of which are mirrored in the interplay of languages: French and Creole.



Lebanese author Amin Maalouf (1949—), who writes in French, won the Prix Goncourt for The Rock of Tanios. The novel is set in the late 1880s, when Lebanon was caught in the conflict between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It tells the story of Tanios, the illegitimate son of a sheikh, who flees his homeland with his adoptive father to escape political enemies. Tanios is soon embroiled in the wider conflict and becomes an unlikely intermediary between the Western and Middle Eastern powers.



American-Canadian novelist and broadcaster King (1943—), who is part Cherokee, writes about Native American culture in spare, colloquial prose. Green Grass, Running Water is set in the Blackfoot territory of Alberta, Canada. The novel’s structure is complex, with four plot lines each interspersed with a different creation myth. One strand features figures from Native American and Christian traditions, as well as from literature (such as Robinson Crusoe). Both comic and satirical, the work touches on the cultural and political aspects of Native American land issues.

"What that Coyote dreams, anything can happen."

Green Grass, Running Water

Thomas King



Canadian author Alice Munro has written novels, but it is her short stories that are regarded as her supreme achievement, as can be seen in this collection from eight of her books. Mostly set in Huron County, southwestern Ontario, they typically show a mastery of structure, switching back and forth in time. They also feature a preoccupation with moral ambiguity and messiness in relationships, and also with the responsibility people assume for parents, children, and in-laws at different times of life.

Alice Munro

A writer of exquisitely crafted, compelling, and emotionally rich stories, Alice Munro has developed and advanced the art of short-story writing over the course of six decades. Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1931, she had her first writing published in 1950 while studying English and Journalism at the University of Western Ontario. Her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, appeared in 1968, featuring the lives of women in small-town Ontario (although Munro had moved from her home province ten years earlier). Writing an impressive range of short stories and novels over the decades since, she has pioneered a narrative style that is simultaneously rich in imagery yet also lyrical, sparse, and intense in its description of the complexities of ordinary lives.

Key works

1978 Who Do You Think You Are?

1996 Selected Stories

1998 The Love of a Good Woman

2004 Runaway



A torrent of zany humour and surreal incident, Infinite Jest is the masterpiece of Wallace (1962—2008), a US writer whose suicide cemented his cult status. An ambitious novel that explores addiction, recovery, and the American dream, the book is set in a dystopian near future. Multi-layered and non-chronological in style, it features a huge cast of characters, such as the residents of a Boston halfway house, students at a nearby tennis academy, and a gang of homicidal Quebec terrorists in wheelchairs. The addictions it examines include entertainment, sex, nationalism, and drugs.



An intellectual murder mystery centred around 16th-century miniaturists, My Name is Red won international acclaim for its author, Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk (1952—). The book exhibits a postmodern consciousness of its own artistry: characters know they are fictional, and the reader is frequently referenced. The narration switches viewpoint, often between unexpected narrators — there are passages narrated by a coin and the colour red. The novel’s themes include artistic devotion, love, and tensions between East and West.



Jhumpa Lahiri’s first work of fiction, Interpreter of Maladies was initially rejected by several publishers, but went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. A collection of eight short stories, the unifying theme is the experience of first- and second-generation Indian immigrants in America. Among the other subjects explored are loss, disappointed expectations, the disconnection between different generations of immigrants, and the struggle to find a place in the West for the traditional culture of India, where two of the stories are set. In many of them, food plays a major role as a focus of human interaction.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s father emigrated to the UK from India, and Jhumpa was born in London in 1967. Her family moved to the USA — the country that she considers her home — when she was two years old. After her school years she attended Boston University, where she was awarded multiple degrees, and went on to teach creative writing there. Renowned for her restrained, poignant prose, Lahiri has achieved acclaim with both her short stories and novels, writing on themes informed by her experience as a second-generation Indian American.

Key works

1999 Interpreter of Maladies

2003 The Namesake

2008 Unaccustomed Earth

2013 The Lowland


(2001), W G SEBALD

Often writing in an intentionally elaborate form of his native tongue, German author Sebald (1944—2001) lived in England for the latter part of his life. Austerlitz is typical of his work in its melancholy reflections on loss, memory, and dissolution, through memoir, history, and observation. The book’s title is the name of the central character, who was sent to England and placed with foster parents. Later, after discovering his Czech identity and becoming an architectural historian, he explores his troubled past.

"No one can explain exactly what happens within us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are flung open."


W G Sebald



In his acclaimed novel Life of Pi, Canadian author Martel (1963—) follows the voyage of an Indian teenage boy, the son of a zookeeper, who for 227 days drifts on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean following a shipwreck, with only a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker as his companion. The boy, en route to Canada, develops wisdom through adversity. His experiences (including delirium, blindness, meerkats, and carnivorous algae) provide the occasion for urgent and thought-provoking reflections on spirituality, religions, and zoology.



Portraying themes of betrayal, guilt, sin, atonement, and friendship, The Kite Runner begins in Afghanistan in 1975. A 12-year-old boy plans to win a kite-flying competition with the help of his best friend, but an act of violence mars the day of the contest. Exiled in California after the Soviet invasion of 1979, he eventually returns to a land under Taliban rule. Khaled Hosseini (1965—) was inspired to write this part-autobiographical novel after reading that kite-flying had been banned in his homeland.



The last, unrevised, labyrinthine novel by the Chilean writer Bolaño (1953—2003), 2666 (whose title is never fully explained) focuses on a mysterious writer, Archimboldi. Partly set on the Eastern Front of World War II, the story mainly takes place in a Mexican town notorious for around 300 serial homicides of women. After detailing the murders in a relentless series of police reports, Bolaño rewards readers for their stamina with a vivid historical reconstruction that illuminates the enigma at the novel’s core.

"Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming."


Roberto Bolaño



Adichie named her masterpiece Half of a Yellow Sun — which traces the Nigerian Civil War (1967—70) through its impact on three main characters — after the symbol on the Biafran flag. Themes include conflict’s human cost, politics and identity in postcolonial Africa, and the relationship between Africa and the West. Writing with feminist overtones, Adichio also questions the ethics of Western journalism and the function of the academic establishment, as well as the effectiveness of relief aid.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Born in 1977 in southeastern Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie studied medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria in Enugu, where her father was professor of statistics and her mother was the first female registrar. She studied communications and political science in the USA, later obtaining a Master’s in African Studies from Yale. An author of novels, short stories, and poetry, she won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction for Half of a Yellow Sun. Adichie divides her time between the USA and Nigeria, where she teaches creative writing.

Key works

2003 Purple Hibiscus

2006 Half of a Yellow Sun

2013 Americanah



Set in an imaginary African dictatorship, Wizard of the Crow is a madcap satire of totalitarian politics. Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1938—), a prisoner of conscience in his native Kenya, emigrated to the USA after his release. In a parody of corrupt governments, the plot involves a despotic ruler who wishes to climb to heaven by building a modern-day Tower of Babel. Hope is found in multiple voices of dissent — such as a group that causes chaos with plastic snakes. Influenced by oral traditions, the book operates by broad strokes of caricature, with some scatological touches.



Presented as a monologue that takes place in a Lahore (Pakistan) café, The Reluctant Fundamentalist captures the experiences of a Pakistani man who comes home from the USA after a failed love affair and 9/11, turning his back on a well-paid business job. In Pakistan his disillusionment with US capitalism forms into more radical views. Pakistani author Hamid (1971—) uses the storyline of the narrator’s girlfriend’s inability to free herself from a past relationship as a metaphor of the USA’s nostalgic attachment to past glories.



Set initially in a Zimbabwean shanty named Paradise, the coming-of-age novel We Need New Names depicts lives scarred by violence, poverty, disease, and injustice. The young female narrator, sent to live with her aunt in the Midwestern USA, is faced with a new source of discontent: the exclusiveness of the American Dream. The novel is especially memorable for its depiction of the loyalty and vitality of childhood friendships in Zimbabwe, where author NoViolet Bulawayo (1981—) was born and raised.