Honore de Balzac
The 19th century was really the heyday of the outsider-narrative because people themselves were so disconnected; even somebody from two towns away might bring with him a whiff of a life so exotic that it might as well be on the far side of the world. When Eugenie’s cousin Charles arrives unexpectedly from Paris, the reader can see what a callow poser he is, but poor naïve Eugenie cannot. She falls in love with him—and when the boy’s façade is shattered by the death of his father, the reader relents a little bit too. Unfortunately, Eugenie’s father is a ruthless miser who could help his destitute nephew but will not. A classic example of the outsider-character who disrupts without even meaning to, just by demonstrating that there are other ways to live than the one our parents showed us.
Sometimes the outsider is an outsider by choice—sometimes he or she arrives in a strange place hoping to be adopted, as it were, by that strangeness, or at a minimum to shed the constraints of a previous identity. In Baldwin’s second novel—which his publisher urged him to put back in the drawer, fearing its departure from what they deemed “black” themes would ruin his career—a young American expat named David travels to France and falls in love with Giovanni, with disastrous consequences (not least for David’s fiancée) brought about in part by his own failure of nerve. We think of outsider status as something unwelcome, something thrust upon one by circumstances; but David makes himself an outsider because he knows that the existence inside of which he has been living is a false one. In the end, ironically, he becomes a true outsider, at home nowhere, not even within his own thoughts.
A comic novel about priests in rural Minnesota—wait, don’t stop reading! Truly this is one of my all-time favorite novels, in which smart, charismatic Father Urban (okay, that name is a little on the nose) is assigned by the church to a backwater parish, which he tries gamely and fruitlessly to coax into the modern world. In this case, the outsider’s efforts at disruption are fully conscious, and they are resisted with great Midwestern politeness and passivity. It is, of course, a novel about religion as well, and its struggles to maintain relevance in the world of commerce while still remaining true to itself. One of the novel’s great set pieces takes place on a golf course; Father Urban, to the surprise of some local businessmen, turns out to be a pretty good player.
“About the accident itself, I can say little,” begins the unnamed narrator of this insanely high-concept novel. The “accident” involves some piece of metal or shrapnel or something—from a plane, or from a satellite, who knows?—falling out of the sky onto his head, in such a way that his memories are erased. With a multimillion-pound settlement from the corporation responsible for his injury, and with a completely blank slate where his identity should be, he sets forth—an outsider not only in the world but within the confines of himself—and tries to rebuild various sense-memories that may or may not even be real ones. Literally, rebuild them. He has a vague memory of the smell of someone frying liver and onions, and so he pays a stranger to fry liver and onions, over and over again, until she gets it just right.
A collection of short stories unified by a profound and inventive twist. In the opening story, a disgruntled suburban husband named Wylie Jones goes out for the proverbial pack of cigarettes, i.e. he walks out on his humdrum marriage/job/life and disappears. Each successive story gets a little crazier and a little further afield—and you can recognize that husband-character from the opening story in every one, sometimes at the center and sometimes near the margins, even though he (or the author) keeps changing his name. How he gets from place to place, what he’s doing there, is never mentioned. He lives out the ultimate fantasy of the outsider-by-design: he outruns his own identity.
Proof that even the most familiar iterations of the outsider theme—a naïve, impressionable young woman from a small town travels to New York to make it in the big city—can still surprise and thrill, in the right hands. Danler’s Tess gets a waitress job, something we’re conditioned to think of as a kind of rent-paying way-station for people who dream of other, grander things; but the sensory education she gets is the grander thing, and it sophisticates her in every way. Proof, too, that one of the chief uses of the outsider-character in literature is as a kind of proxy for the reader: what Tess doesn’t know, at the outset, about the very specific behind-the-scenes subculture of high-end Manhattan restaurants, is what we don’t know either, and what she learns is what we learn.
“There are only two plots,” John Gardner is supposed to have said (though apparently he never actually said it); “A person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”
My new novel The Locals would, in that case, be an example of Plot #2: a rich New Yorker named Philip Hadi moves full-time into the small Berkshire town where he owns a summer house. He wants to assimilate, but instead, in the end, he disrupts. The whole stranger-comes-to-town theme may be an ancient one but it is capable of endless variation; here are seven excellent works of fiction that start from the same general premise but end up in fantastically unique places.
Featured image: nuvolanevicata/Shutterstock.com; Author Photo: © Jessica Marx