This is only a test—a test of characters. There’s only one question with multiple answers to chose from. I hope you’ll have to think about your answer before you read mine. The question: Can you name a novel that has only one character? Choose one answer from among the following:
1. Life of Pi by Yan Martel
2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
3. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe
4. The Wall by Marlen Haushofer
5. Downtown by Ed McBain
The answers are yet another another excuse to write about books I love and the one book I promise not to read.
1-Wrong. While Pi spends the greater part of Life of Pi in a boat with a tiger and a zebra, the novel starts with the story of Pi’s name and his early life, the family zoo, and the decision to take the zoo animals on the boat. Were they headed for London? New York? I’ve forgotten. What I remember is the gripping thrill of survival under circumstances that seem plausible as they are being related; the implausibility of the mysterious island with its prairie-dog like creatures; and, the weight of being asked to choose which version of Pi’s story is true.
2- Ridiculously wrong. Although Anna Karenina is named after Anna, there are times when she is lost in competition with Stephan and Dolly, Konstantin and Kitty. In fact, the novel is so rich with stories and characters that Wikipedia offers a color-coded family tree. A few of the 26 most important characters are: Anna, her lover Alexi Vronsky, her son, her husband Alexi Karenin, her brother Stepan and his wife Dolly; her sister Kitty, Kitty’s suitor Konstantin, his older brother, and his half-brother; Anna’s friend, who is also Vronsky’s cousin, Betsy. And on, and on. For me, coming from a huge family (6 siblings, 50 first cousins, 32 aunts and uncles), I have no trouble with the confusion of names, duplicated names, nicknames (Aunt Siss is legally Rosemary, Aunt Billie’s name is Elizabeth), nor with the adventure of having to introduce myself to more than half the people at family reunions by naming my parents and giving my birth order (“daughter number two”).
3- Wrong and not just because of Friday. Popular lore focuses on Crusoe’s “Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque,” but his written story begins with adventures on several sailing ships. Then, his time on the “desert island” includes encounters with cannibals and captives, wherein he rescues his man Friday (and others). Crusoe and Friday help an English captain regain his ship from mutineers, receive in exchange passage to England, and after more adventures live to fight off famished wolves while crossing the Pyrenees.
This is the book I promise not to read. I just can’t get beyond the full title which is The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Early readers thought this was non-fiction!
4- Right. With a tiny exception. Haushofer’s compelling story The Wall starts with three characters, but almost immediately two of them set off on foot to have dinner in the valley and never return. A mysterious transparent wall has closed off the unnamed woman in a large territory separate from the rest of the world. The only person she can see through binoculars seems frozen in place. The woman is now entirely alone with a dog, some cats, and a pregnant cow. Her account of this life alone is the novel. There is no rescue, by pyrates or super heroes. Read it yourself to discover the story’s secrets.
5- Unsurprisingly wrong. Michael Barnes is the protagonist of Downtown, a downtown peopled with fake names and fakes identities that are slowly shed to reveal true characters. Connie Kee who looks like a Chinese moll in a gambling casino is in reality the chauffeur of China Doll Limo owned by Charlie Wong who at first seems to be a street thug. Fake and real detectives, pimps, a prostitute who is really a police officer, a film maker who may or may not be dead, his wife who cajoles Michael Barnes into playing Santa. So everyone is wearing a mask, even Michael Barnes. I can’t say there’s one character playing all the roles, but all the characters might be Ed McBain in disguise.
6- Another Right. If you can name another novel with only one character and prove it, I’ll write about that book next month.