This month, my library book club is reading What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad. When I picked up my copy, the librarian told me she had asked four different people what happened at the end and received four different answers. After reading the novel, I can see why. We sometimes send around questions ahead of time, so this month I did and led off with one about genre. I think it's helpful in evaluating other books, too, or even thinking about our own writing.
1. Books can be placed along a spectrum from straightforward accounts of the real world to pure imitations of it. Some markers along that spectrum:
- Exposition: Non-fiction that describes or explains things.
- Argument: Non-fiction that tries to persuade readers of the truth of a belief or the need to take an action.
- Allegory/Parable/Fable: Fictional stories in which the characters' actions (and sometimes their names) can be directly translated into a lesson for the real world.
- Thematic realism: Novels that are organized by an underlying expository or didactic theme but in which complex characters act realistically and the demands of plot, setting, and characterization are as important as the theme.
- Mimetic realism: Novels that tell a dramatic story that is meant to mirror the real world without teaching a lesson.
Where would you place What Strange Paradise? Does it have elements of more than one category? Does how you categorize the novel affect how you interpret it?
In case you're wondering, I'd put What Strange Paradise in the parable range, which allows the surface of a story to contain implausibilities while the message remains on target. And the ending? Its circularity drives home the message that the appalling loss of life from immigrant trafficking under exploitative and dangerous conditions will keep leading to tragedy again and again and again.