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.