Transcending the Mundane: On Fictional Characters in Search of Utopias
Tara Isabella Burton Recommends R.O. Kwon, David Burr Gerrard, William Morris, and More
How far would you go to be part of something greater than yourself? My third novel, Here in Avalon, follows two very different sisters as they fall under the spell of a mysterious midnight New York City cabaret troupe that may or may not be a cult, and may or may not be a gateway to another world.
In writing Here in Avalon, I was inspired not only by immersive theatre productions like Sleep No More (which, as I have written before, attract a highly cult-like fandom of their own) but by a rich tradition of novels and stories about ordinary human beings trying—whether through travel, religion, or political experiment—to transcend the seemingly mundane world they’re living in, and to seek enchantment outside their everyday lives.
William Morris, News from Nowhere
An early classic of soft science fiction, News From Nowhere (1890) is the best-known novel by William Morris, the nineteenth-century English socialist, utopian, and artist. A futuristic vision of a better world, inspired by Morris’s own political ideas, News from Nowhere follows a young socialist, William Guest, who finds himself transported to a far-off land where private property, marriage, divorce, and a whole host of other social constructs simply don’t exist, and where people live and labor in harmony with nature.
Less of a plot-driven story than a meditation on Morris’s conflicted political and aesthetic ideals, News from Nowhere nevertheless challenges us to imagine what another life might look like outside the confines of post-Industrial Revolution capitalism.
Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes
Published in 1913, just a year before the author’s death in World War I, this short, lyrical novel tells the story the titular adolescent Meaulnes who one night chances across a mysterious historical costume party on an elegant estate, where he falls in love with one of the attendees, only to find himself unable to find the chateau—or the girl—again: a loss that becomes an obsession.
What starts as a seemingly magic-tinged story about a vanishing castle turns out to be a story about the all too worldly Meulnes himself: whose passion for what he cannot have leads him to lose the very things he loves most.
Rosemary MacAulay, The Towers of Trebizond
Perhaps most famous today for its outlandish first sentence (“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.”), this 1951 travelogue-cum-novel is far more thoughtful and melancholy a work than its early comedy suggests.
Ostensibly the story of a young Englishwoman, Laurie, who travels through Turkey with her eccentric Anglo-Catholic missionary aunt, in part to get away from an adulterous love affair, The Towers of Trebizond ultimately transforms into a book about the contentious relationship between Laurie’s passion for her lover and her inchoate yearning for a faith she cannot fully understand.
Norman Rush, Mating
What if we could figure out another, better, way to love? This question haunts the unnamed American graduate student who narrates Rush’s 1991 novel about sexual and communal politics. Our narrator is in love with the older, wiser, and potentially far more foolhardy social scientist Nelson Denoon, who has, according to rumor at least, founded an experimental matriarchal society in the Kalahari Desert.
Unsure of who she is and what she thinks about life, her thesis, or anything at all, our narrator lets her passion for Denoon lead her into a quest not just for love, but for a better way to live.
R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries
Equal parts campus novel and cult story, R.O. Kwon’s 2018 The Incendiaries follows Phoebe Lin, a failed piano prodigy coping with the loss of her mother, as she falls under the influence of John Leal, a mysterious half-Korean activist whose equally shadowy organization, Jejah, may in fact be more cult-like than he lets on.
A novel about the close connection between love and violence, and how those who prey upon the world’s lost and loneliest souls use that connection to their advantage, The Incendiaries is currently in development as a limited series.
Emma Cline, The Girls
Emma Cline’s 2016 debut novel is a loose retelling of the story of the Manson Family and their 1969 murder of Sharon Tate. Set in the anarchic and freewheeling summer of 1969, The Girls follows a group of disaffected seekers under the erotic and spiritual influence of Russell Hadrick: the novel’s stand-in for Charles Manson. At once clear about the dangers of the girls’ new life and honest about the power of its thrall, The Girls is a poignant reminder that our hunger for transcendence and our capacity for transgression are never far from one another.
David Burr Gerrard, The Epiphany Machine
A cult story of a different kind, the late David Burr Gerrard’s second novel—inspired by since-shuttered New York speakeasy bookstore Brazenhead Books—reimagines its notoriously eccentric proprietor as the bombastic Adam Lyons: the possessor of an unprepossessing but inexplicably powerful machine capable of tattooing personalized “epiphanies” on users’ forearms: truths visible to everybody but themselves.
When young Venter Lowood, whose parents’ lives have been destroyed by use of the machine, seeks out Adam—and gets drawn into a web of violent deaths surrounding the device—he finds that the machine may upend his life, too.
Here in Avalon by Tara Isabella Burton is available via Simon & Schuster.