The literary world can like an infinite sea of ideas: walk into a bookstore and the thousands of titles on display—which are only the tip of the bookberg bobbing under the surface—is overwhelming in the best way. You might imagine the chances of two novels written by different people, at different times, and for different reasons being somehow linked would be pretty low. And it is—but not so low that we couldn’t make note of five pairs of books have nothing to do with each other—and yet have everything to do with each other. (Beware of spoilers!)
Difficult Women, by Roxanne Gay & Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami
Roxanne Gay was born in Nebraska and writes fiction and non-fiction rife with feminist and racial themes. Haruki Murakami is Japanese, and writes complex, beautiful novels no one can claim to completely understand. Yet they both have written short story collections that are begging to be read together. Gay’s newest is exactly what it says on the tin: stories about challenging, strong-willed women (including one about a wife who knows her abusive husband has switched places with his gentler twin, and chooses to say nothing). Murakami’s new collection features seven stories about men explicitly without women (though there is at least one vanishing cat), and it’s easy to imagine the connections between the two. For extra fun, switch off between them, from Gay’s brash and occasionally desperate women to Murakami’s quieter, sadder men.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck & The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby was published in 1925; The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. In the intervening twelve years, America went from a giddy postwar playground to a grim economic disaster on the brink of another World War. The books perfectly bookend the time between. Even more interestingly, they explore two sides of society that remain sadly relevant to this day: the super-rich, throwing lavish parties, and the desperately poor, who find that even a willingness to work like dogs isn’t enough to guarantee survival. Sharing themes but exploring them from opposite sides: if you read them back-to-back, it’s hard to believe they were written so close together in time—until you look past the surface of their settings and see the similarities. In the end, these may be among the most American novels ever written.
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Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley & Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The complementary nature of these two novels is all to do with the nightmarish inversion they represent for each other. Victor Frankenstein raids charnel houses and slaughterhouses for the parts he needs to create his creature, and in Ishiguro’s story human clones are raised from childhood in order to provide spare parts for their originals, a horrifying reversal. Interestingly, the precise nature of Frankenstein’s process is unclear—there is no evidence he literally stole arms and legs and hearts and lungs from graveyards; in fact, his process is more alchemical, even supernatural. Still, it’s easy to imagine him taking organs from corpses to build the better man, while in Ishiguro’s story organs are taken from perfectly healthy, living beings so their older genetic twins might live a bit longer, be a bit healthier. After reading these two books, ask yourself who the monster really is.
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding & The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Both of these novels involve children being pitted against each other, but they are dark mirror reflections of each other in many ways. Golding’s children turn to violence and ritualistic murder because of their natures; left unsupervised by society, they become animals. Collins’ teenagers are forced to fight by society—and, in fact, ultimately resist and drive a revolution against it, asserting their better natures over the lure of violence. Reading them both, it’s easy to imagine dropping the kids from District 11 onto the Lord of the Flies island, and within weeks having set up a functioning democracy and gotten to work building a fleet of ships so they can go conquer the world.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn & The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
Sociopaths are everywhere, whether you realize it or not. Flynn and Highsmith realize it, and they realize something else: that sociopaths are the most interesting people in any room. Highsmith’s classic sociopath Tom Ripley manipulates everyone around him in a grand game that only he can see. Flynn’s Amy Dunne manipulates everyone around her all the time in order to preserve the fiction of her perfection. But the people Ripley kills are done away with in a cold-blooded, calculating manner, whereas Amazing Amy’s murders stem from a simmering rage. Imagining a world where Amy, on the run and waiting for Nick to be executed, meets Tom Ripley, and the two square off. It’s the sort of fan fiction that might break the Internet.