The docu-novel

The author of "Bellefleur" selects five great "nonfiction novels."

By Joyce Carol Oates
September 20, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer

A massive, 1,000-page documentary novel of numerous voices bearing witness to the troubled life and eventual death (by firing squad, in Utah) of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore; remarkably for Mailer, a novel in uninflected American vernacular, from which the author himself seems absent.

The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy

Another massive but intellectually and stylistically rigorous novel of real-life individuals: Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most controversial philosopher of the 20th century; Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein's elder and, for a time, his mentor; and G.E. Moore, the celebrated Cambridge don. A bold and original work of fiction that imaginatively evokes a vanished world, populated by such men and women as Sigmund Freud, D.H. Lawrence, Lady Ottoline Morrell and Karl Krauss. "The World as I Found It" must be one of the most ambitious first novels ever published.


Dreamer by Charles Johnson

Succinct, slender, poetic rather than documentary in its language, this bold novel explores the private and public lives of Martin Luther King Jr. Like Johnsons fiction generally, "Dreamer" has a parable-like quality despite its historic subject.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

Another massive, monumental work, an imaginative evocation of the life of our most controversial abolitionist, John Brown. Visionary martyr? Madman? Figure of destiny? The novel is recounted by Browns last surviving son, Owen Brown, from a fictitious perspective, in compelling, convincing 19th century-style prose.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

One of the riskiest, most discussed and most successful of recent literary novels, this is a wonderfully imaginative, original blend of biography (the last days of Virginia Woolf, who commits suicide in 1941, in the poetically written prologue) and fiction (the interlocked lives of two contemporary American women linked by their connection with the Woolf novel "Mrs. Dalloway" and by their love for a young man dying of AIDS).

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of many novels, including, most recently, "Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon."

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