Novels Set in Just One Place

You know what’s easy? Writing a big, sprawling, generation-spanning, globe-hopping novel. Sweeping? Sweeping is child’s play, Leo Tolstoy. Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Ken Follett. You want to really impress me? Write a novel that’s confined to a particular and limited space: a house, a room, a car… a shoebox.

In MFA-ese, we call these container, or capsule, stories. They are sometimes also, or alternatively, restricted by time: an hour, a day, a meal, an elevator ride. The form is a favorite of short story writers. When I asked my writerly friends for examples, they gave me a list long enough to filibuster a Texas state bill: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Cask of Amontillado,” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin, or John Updike’s “A&P” are just a few examples. But for a full-length book, sustaining that kind of claustrophobia is a bit trickier—and requires a little more ingenuity. Here are six novels in very unusual containers:

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
If your characters are going to be trapped by armed terrorists, then the mansion of a South American vice president seems a better container than, say, a bus speeding down the Los Angeles freeway.

Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O’Nan
This slim novel by an author once called “the bard of the working class” takes place in a Red Lobster at a run-down New England mall over a single day and night, the restaurant’s last. The sequel (if it were up to us): First Day at the Olive Garden.

The Verificationist, by Donald Antrim
A 24-hour pancake house is the capsule (an evidently surreal one, as characters start to ascend and float at the ceiling) for Antrim’s narrator and his neurotic psychotherapist pals as they drink coffee and intellectually self-soothe.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
It’s not so much the container for this bestselling novel (a lifeboat) as its occupants (a boy, an adult Bengal tiger, and briefly, a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena) that drive the story, but without the raft, you’d have just another (spoiler alert) Boy Sublimates Horrific Experience into Alternate Narrative Where He Is a Tiger story.

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker
In terms of action, Baker’s first novel is a lunch-break trip up an escalator, but in terms of story, it’s so much more, with the aid of fabulously digressive footnotes worthy of a Seinfeld episode.

Trophy, by Michael Griffith
Winning the prize for Most Unusual Setting for a Novel I’ve Ever Heard of: Griffith’s Trophy, the protagonist of which is trapped underneath a toppled, taxidermied Grizzly bear, waiting to die.
 

 

 

 

  • Cristina Rose

    Ah, I read A&P in my college Short Story workshop, and I remember being so fascinated with how complete a story can be written in such a confined space. I want to try this, myself!

    • rochelle762

      my Aunty Sophia just got a real cool Chrysler 300 SRT8 by working part time from a home computer… a fantastic read w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  • Kelsie

    Ahh, how well I recall those short stories mentioned in the second paragraph- all of which were forced upon me by my loathsome English Composition II professor my junior year of high school. As much as I hated my teacher, he and I had nearly identical taste in short stories.

  • Dave Lathrop

    Pi doesn’t count. The first 100 pages doesn’t take place in the ocean, and the boy is also on an island for part of the story, and the last 40 pages, he is talking to researchers in Mexico. Think you need a better example…

    • rochelle762

      My Uncle Bentley recently got a very cool BMW X5 Diesel only from working off a macbook air. dig this w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  • Shyleigh

    Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

  • Elizabeth Crosman

    The first one I thought of was Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It’s been a long time, but I’m pretty sure it was a one house, if not room, setting.

  • Safiah O’Neill

    Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco was the first that came to my mind, though it’s been too long for me to remember if it counts.

    • Katherena Boulden

      yes it does

  • Tom Fusco

    Lord of the Flies.
    Robinson Crusoe

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