The starting point for this month’s Six Degrees is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a gothic horror published at the turn of the century. This novella features a governess, malevolent ghosts, two children, a creepy countryside estate, and an impending sense of doom as the story unfurls.
Another classic turn-of-the-century novel is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, published in 1890. Infatuated with Dorian’s beauty, his good friend Basil Hallward paints his portrait – and in doing so, creates a piece of art that will change the course of Dorian’s life forever.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is another novel where a piece of art propels the plot and shapes the destiny of the characters. It tells the absorbing and sprawling story of young Theodore Decker, and how a bomb explosion at the Met and the stealing of a famous painting changes everything.
The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, and two years later, in 2016, the grand prize went to Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer. Nguyen gives authentic voice to the Vietnamese experience of the war and those who had to forge new lives in the United States.
Another compelling account of the Vietnamese-American experience comes in Ocean Vuong’s lyrical On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, where the narrator, Little Dog, struggles to find his place as the son of a war refugee living in the tenements of Hartford, Connecticut. It’s told with intense musicality and deep melancholy, and shares many biographical elements with that of its author.
Vuong is first and foremost a poet, with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous being his first novel. Another famous poet-turned-novelist, who also writes a loosely-fictionalised account of her life, is Sylvia Plath. Her one and only novel, The Bell Jar, is an exquisite, devastating account of descent into madness.
So there we have it: the six degrees of separation from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, by way of Oscar Wilde, Donna Tartt, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Ocean Vuong.
Six Degrees of Separation is so much fun – I think the key isn’t to put too much thought into it, just go with what comes to mind!