The twenty-first century is off to one hell of a start: wars and rumors of war, famines and plagues, terrorism and genocide, hurricanes and earthquakes. For “citizens” of the empire, these horrific events are usually little more than annoying background music, as ignorable as Muzak. However, for the “barbarians” huddled outside the empire’s “Green Zone,” the sounds of death are a ubiquitous funeral dirge.

The people who administer an empire need certain very precise capacities. They need to be adept technocrats. They need the kind of training that will allow them to take up an abstract and unfelt relation to the world and its peoples—a cool relation, as it were. Otherwise, they won’t be able to squeeze forth the world’s wealth without suffering debilitating pains of conscience. And the denizen of the empire needs to be able to consume the kinds of pleasures that augment his feeling of rightful ownership. These pleasures must be self-inflating and not challenging; they need to confirm the current empowered state of the self and not challenge it. The easy pleasures of this nascent American empire, akin to the pleasures to be had in first-century Rome, reaffirm the right to mastery—and, correspondingly, the existence of a world teeming with potential vassals and exploitable wealth.

Why Read? Mark Edmundson                          

While most Americans are loath to admit it, we are denizens of a global empire. It is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile our standard of living with the disconcerting reality that an empire for the few requires the subjugation of the many. Consequently, we continue to “consume the kinds of pleasures” our empire offers as a way of warding off the “debilitating pains of conscience.”

Regrettably, too many novels published today are sources of such easy pleasures; we read them for escape. By contrast, these three prize-winning novels confront rather than comfort, each provoking our moral sensibilities with disturbing images of human motivation and behavior. Before reading these reviews, take a look at Milan Kundera on the“spirit of the novel.”

Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel. . . . The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: “Things are not as simple as you think.” That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.

The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera

The Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney

A winner of the 2006 British Costa Award, this tale has elements of both a murder mystery and an historical novel. Written by a Scot who has never set foot in Canada, the novel takes place in 1867 in the wilderness region of Hudson’s Bay. The novel opens in the tiny settlement of Dover River, a community of Scottish settlers who are dependent on fur trapping.

The plot is set in motion with the murder and scalping of an old trapper and the disappearance of his 17-year-old friend and lover, Francis Ross. Another suspect is a mixed blood trapper named William Parker. The authorities arrest him but he soon escapes.

Francis’s mother, sets off with Parker to track her son who, they soon discover, is tracking someone himself. Parker and Mrs. Ross gradually develop a gnarled bond, breed of physical necessity and emotional need. Mrs. Ross narrates most of the novel, providing a rich interior monologue of her conflicts.

A number of subplots, sometimes confusingly overlapping, involve conflicts between trading companies, between members of a puritanical Norwegian settlement, and between settlers and the native people caught up in this embryonic European empire.

Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson

In 2007, this Norwegian novel won both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and Britain’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This is the story of Trond Sander, a 67-year old grieving widower who retires to a desolate cabin in eastern Norway.

His only neighbor turns out to be the brother of Jon, his childhood friend. This evokes memories of his fifteenth summer, particularly of a single afternoon when he and Jon set out an adventure of stealing horses. It was also the last season he spent with a cherished father. The novel alternates between his current solitary musings and his reminiscences of his father’s mysterious wartime activities during that memorable summer.

The novel’s landscape evokes the timeless grandeur and power of pine forests. Petterson also masterfully moves back and forth between the consciousnesses of an adventuresome young boy and a contemplative old man. It is, most of all, a tale of loss and recollection, of reflection and renewal.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this is not a novel for those who fear bad dreams. I generally only read fiction for 30-60 minutes before falling asleep at night. While I slowly progressed through this novel, I began having nightmares every couple of nights.

The apocalypse has occurred, whether it is natural or man-made we never discover: “Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” It is a burnt-over landscape, devoid of animals, planets, and the sun. A nameless man and his son are trudging along the remnants of a freeway, heading for the coast. We learn that the boy’s mother could finally take no more—she committed suicide.

Snows falls gray and even daylight is little more than a shadowy haze. It is freezing cold and they are starving; every day is a desperate search for food and shelter. Even in these dark times, the father has constructed a narrative. He and his son are the “good guys” Among the few remaining survivors are the “bad guys”—roving bands of cannibals.

Even at the end of the world, McCarthy offers us a secular meditation on love, 1 Corinthians 13 after the death of God. In an unsentimental and stark language, McCarthy’s father and son reveal what it means to be human in a universe practically devoid of humanity.

So now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13