Books Remixed

by Patrick on June 12, 2009

Last week brought news that famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger would emerge to sue author J.D. California over an alleged sequel to Salinger’s teenage angst classic The Catcher in the Rye.  While it’s debatable whether such a lawsuit would be successful (California now claims his book is not technically a sequel), there’s no debate that a sequel would be illegal.  Catcher in the Rye is protected under copyright, and will likely remain so for some time. Whether this is a “good” thing or not is up for some debate, though not one I want to get into in this post.  Anybody interested in copyright issues should definitely check out the work of Lawrence Lessig.  I’m making my way through his book Free Culture right now, and it’s thought provoking, to say the least.

While I don’t think anyone was terribly excited about this particular sequel (especially with a lame title like 60 Years Later:  Coming Through the Rye…it sounds like a book about the ’49 Dodgers or something like that), there are plenty of instances of books drawing from another author’s universe, and many of them are very, very good.  To be clear, I’m not talking about books like Mark Sarvas’s novel Harry, Revised, which references The Count of Monte Cristo, but doesn’t exactly adapt it to the present day.  Sarvas uses Dumas’s book as a sort of inspiration, with his character Harry Rent explicitly referencing it at various points (including debating, hilariously, whether to get the abridged or unabridged version of the book).  Obviously, many books take a portion of the Bible and riff on it.  They’re too numerous to name here, and to be perfectly honest, with the exception of East of Eden, I’m not terribly interested in them.  Sorry.

The most famous and probably best example of the kind of book I’m talking about is Ulysses, by James Joyce, arguably the greatest work of literature in the English language.  Joyce recreates The Odyssey in 1904 Dublin.  As Leopald Bloom traverses the city, he replicates, in a way, the journey of Odysseus back to his wife Penelope.  In Joyce’s book, the Cyclops becomes a “myopic” Irish nationalist.  Clever, huh?  Nobody could argue that Joyce ripped off Homer (who probably, in actuality, ripped off someone who is lost to history…but whatever), but I wonder if Homer’s ancestors held a perpetual copyright on The Odyssey, would he have even bothered recreating an entire world in a novel that takes place in a single day?  Maybe that’s why he called it Ulysses instead of Odysseus.

Somewhat less well known though still well regarded is Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, which retells the story of Jane Eyre from the point of view of the first Mrs. Rochester (the “crazy” woman in the attic).  Rhys’s book is often read as a feminist, postcolonialist critique of the original.  It takes place in Haiti and Dominicana, and would technically be a prequel to the original.

Gregory McGwire has made a handsome career out of retelling elements of The Wizard of Oz.  His Wicked series is hugely popular, and has spawned a popular Broadway show, too (take that, James Joyce!).  Wicked takes the Wicked Witch of the West and gives her humanity, largely by contemporizing (not a real word, I think) her experience.  A somewhat more obscure work that uses a similar tactic is Jon Clinch’s Finn, which tells the story of Huckleberry Finn’s father.

My coworker Anne suggested another book that riffs on previously existing characters, Silverlock by John Myers Myers.  It follows A. Clarence Shandon, a businessman from Chicago who ends up shipwrecked on an island called “The Commonwealth of Letters.”  In the Commonwealth, he encounters many famous characters from literature, including Robin Hood, The Green Knight, Beowulf, and Don Quixote.

Similar to Silverlock is Alan Moore’s and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a graphic novel that takes place in Victorian England.  The League reappropriates characters contemporary characters from Victorian fiction, including Allan Quatermain of King Solomon’s Mines, Mina Harker of Dracula, and The Invisible Man of, well, The Invisible Man.  Both Silverlock and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are part of a rich tradition in the sci-fi/fantasy world of reapproriation, something that probably stems from the practice of writing fan fic or slash fic.  (Also of note is the book Dracula:  The Un-Dead coming in October.  It’s a sequel to the original, and the twist here is that it is written by Dacre Stoker, a direct descendant of the author of the original.)

In a similar vein, Seth Graham-Smith struck gold this year when his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies became a surprise best seller.  He isn’t the first author to build of Jane Austen’s work, though.  In his short story “Pride and Prometheus,” John Kessel imagines a world where Elizabeth Bennett meets the mysterious Dr. Frankenstein and his horrible creation.  For his efforts, Kessel won the Nebula Award.

Reworkings of classic novels are one thing, but what about remixing a contemporary novel?  Oh, that’s right, copyright.  Of course, an author could simply rewrite one of his or her own novels.  This is dangerous territory, to be sure, as readers build strong connections to characters.  Messing with their universes can be alienating (This is why nobody wants to watch Holden Caulfied check his email).  But that’s precisely what Maile Meloy did with her second novel, A Family Daughter.  She rewrote her first novel, Liars and Saints, reimagining it as, well, the imagination of one of the earlier book’s characters.  It was a bold move, and I think as its own novel, it was successful.  I have to confess that reading it was a fairly confounding experience, though.  I’d grown attached to those characters in Liars and Saints, and getting this new perspective on them was more than a bit jarring.

The only analygous situation I could find to Meloy’s reworking of her earlier book would be a singer covering her own song, which is exactly what Cat Power does.  Check out her two versions of “Metal Heart.”

What are your favorite remixed books? And do you think our current copyright structure will prohibit such remixing in the future?  I can tell you one thing, when the copyright lapses for Lucky Jim, you can expect to see Luckier Jim, by Patrick Brown hitting the shelves soon thereafter (I’m going to guess I’m the only guy who writes Kingsley Amis fan fic).