Today is the two month anniversary of the publication of a novella I wrote as part of National Novel Writing Montg: Guilt Remains. When people find out that I’ve written a short novel, naturally, the first question is, “What’s it about?” My canned response has become: “is about the everyday lives of twelve jurors throughout the course of a murder trial.” And, while that’s true, I don’t feel it quite captures the essence or tone of the story.
Whether or not I succeed in conveying them, the two principal themes I wished to express in my novel are: 1) existential guilt and 2) the hypocrisy of judgment. But, I think I’ve already written enough trying to explain what I mean by these themes. Instead, I thought perhaps you may want to go straight to the sources.
Below is a list of books that either influenced my writing of Guilt Remains or, for the few I read after writing the novel, reminded me of the sensibilities I had tried to convey in my story.
If you think you may want to read my novel but don’t know if you’ll appreciate it, read these first.
If you have no interest whatsoever in my novel, read these anyway…because they’re awesome.
1) The Gospel According to John
Yes, I am talking about the book from the Christian Bible–the fourth narrative about the life of Jesus. People don’t often think of them this way but each book of the Bible (and especially the New New Testament) is a separate work, and the Bible as we know it today wasn’t completely assembled until 300-400 after the New Testament documents were written. So, the Gospel of John is actually a single story apart from the rest of the Bible and–irrespective of your religious affiliation–it’s definitely worth reading.
The title of my novel is taken from John 9, where Jesus heals a man born blind and makes a point about the metaphorical blindness involved in self-righteous judgment. Also found in John is the famous story of the woman caught in adultery–illustrating a similar point. Of course, there are also many teachings and examples of Jesus condemning self-righteousness found in the synoptic gospels, but I only wanted to choose one of them. And John 9 is pretty much the greatest story in the world, so there you have it.
2) Existentialism by John MacQuarrie
I am quickly developing a spiritual/intellectual crush on this existential theologian I discovered over the last year. If you want to know what exactly existentialism is, how it fits in with other worldviews, and so on, read this book.
As Macquarrie points out in the opening pages, most books on existentialism focus on existentialist philosophers rather than existentialist themes. Although this book was written in the 70s, this still seems to be the case. Every other book I’ve read on existentialism has chapters on Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Sartre, etc.; this one has chapters on the emotional life, guilt, and authenticity. If you only read one book on existentialism in your whole life, make it this one. But I can guarantee that if you do read this book, you’ll most likely want to read more.
3) The Stranger by Albert Camus
This is my favorite novel of all-time. The language is simple and direct–the brilliance is revealed through the story itself, rather than the way it’s told. Also, it’s only a little over 100 pages in length so, if you aren’t much of a reader, this book is for you.
The Stranger tells the story of Meursault, an unambitious young man who stumbles into committing a murder shortly after his mother’s death. Great emphasis is placed on the absurdity and almost accidental nature of his crime and subsequent condemnation.
4) Native Son by Richard Wright
Native Son is a lot like The Stranger in that it’s about a man who unwittingly commits a murder and is subsequently condemned for it. However, unlike the aforementioned novel, this story reveals to a large extent the inner world of the protagonist–the psychology of what drives him to commit the crime. Also, this book is a lot longer.
I suppose I should also mention that this story is very much about racism. It’s the story of a black man trying to find his way in a world dominated by white men. But I think that, all too often, this work gets relegated to “African American literature.” It isn’t. It’s human literature. And it’s an existential masterpiece. Read it.
5) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
And yet another existential masterpiece about a man who commits a murder and must suffer the punishment for his crime. This story really delves deeply into the psychology of guilt and how we cope with our moral deficiencies as human beings.
6) The Trial by Franz Kafka
This short novel tells the story of a man who is arrested out of the blue for a reason he doesn’t know. All throughout the story, he strives to discover what charges are brought against him but, all the way to the end, never finds out. It’s almost the perfect allegorical tale for the existential notion that we’re all condemned to die all the while trying to understand what’s going on behind the scenes before the sentence is carried out.
7) The Crucible by Arthur Miller
This play is the best illustration of hypocrisy in human judgment that I’ve ever encountered. The idea that the ones who are casting judgment are really the ones who are most guilty is exactly the point I try to illustrate in Guilt Remains.
8) The Fall by Albert Camus
Yeah, my boy Camus gets two books because he’s that good. In many ways, this book is the opposite of The Stranger. Its language is complex and it’s almost entirely composed of introspection and reflection. The story is a confessional. The narrator spends the whole story reflecting on an upstanding life and career he now sees as hypocritical.
9) Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Sadaawi
This narrative tells the (true?) story of an Egyptian woman who suffers throughout her young life under the brutality of countless men. Finally, she kills one of her abusers and is sentenced to death for the crime. This book has become a feminist classic but, to me, it’s more than that. It perfectly expresses the feeling of being trapped by circumstances and fighting to break free–another point I seek to make in my novel.
Okay, that’s it. 9 books and, if you’re still curious, you can make mine number 10. If not, then you’re welcome. I’ve exposed you to some great work anyway.