The Famished Road
by Ben Okri
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The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the course
of 2012,  I will explore an important
work of fiction that incorporates
elements of magic, fantasy or the
surreal.  My choices will cross
conventional boundary lines of genre,
style and historical period—indeed,
one of my intentions in this project is
to show how the conventional labels
applied to these works have become
constraining, deadening and

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only in
recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These labels
are not without their value, but too
often they have blinded us to the rich
and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very few
retain into adulthood this sense of the
kind of enchantment possible only
through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in our
imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and
Pantagruel by François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia

Week 24:  Little, Big by John

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


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Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
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The Misread City
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All rights reserved.
By Ted Gioia

The main characters of Ben Okri's novel The
Famished Road
move back and forth between
the human and spirit worlds with the ease of
urban commuters changing subway trains.
This novel, a winner of the 1991 Booker Prize,
is a classic of magical realism with a
distinctively African twist. Yet,
departing from the more fanciful
examples of this genre that we have
encountered from South America
and elsewhere, Okri offers his
readers a ghost story in modern
garb, with details that are more
likely to unsettle than delight.

Few novels cover such a wide
range—from the grittily realistic
to the utterly fantastic—in such
a compressed setting. The entire book
transpires in an unnamed Third World city
apparently based on the landscapes of the
author’s native Nigeria. Yet this a Nigeria of
the mind, as much as it is a place on the map,
and it sets outs its boundary lines in folk tales,
legends, rumors and incantations, rather than
in geographical terms.

"These was not one amongst us who looked
forward to being born," the narrator Azaro
tells us at the outset of
The Famished Road.
"We disliked the rigors of existence, the
unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices
of the world." Azaro is an
abiku or "spirit
child," whose ties to the real world are weak.
"There are many reasons why babies cry when
they are
born," Azaro explains, "and one of
them is the sudden separation from the world
of pure dreams."

Azaro's parents can tell that their child has a
precarious hold on life, and that he may
return at any moment to the realm of the
spirits. At one point, the youngster lingers
between life and death for two weeks, and
when he awakes he finds himself lying in a
coffin—his parents had given him up for dead.
Yet the death of a child may only serve as the
beginning of a new tragedy in this charged
setting—sometimes the abiku is born again
and again to the same parents, each time
abandoning them before reaching adulthood.

Azaro’s father works carrying heavy loads in
the marketplace, and though he returns bent
and exhausted from his labors, he still holds
on to his dreams of a better life. Azaro’s
mother works peddling goods, and ekes out
only the tiniest income from her labors. This
family lives a hand-to-mouth existence in the
most dire poverty, and the cost of caring for
their child’s (and their own) ailments, as well
as the ceremonial celebrations of recoveries,
threaten to exhaust their meager resources.
Creditors harass them. The landlord raises
their rent. Political operatives and thugs bully
them. But these are minor annoyances
compared to the spirits, demons and
monstrous creatures that constantly appear
throughout Okri’s novel. Azaro’s spirit friends
are calling him back to the otherworld, and
their emissaries get more and more ghoulish
as the narrative progresses.

Yet, much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who
famously celebrated the wonders of ice in the
opening passage of
his classic novel), Okri
knows that even commonplace items can
seem magical in the right setting. His
characters look on in wonder when electricity,
automobiles or other modern wonders arrive
in their village. "They couldn't understand
how you could have a light brighter than
lamps sealed in glass. They couldn’t
understand how you couldn’t light your
cigarette on the glowing bulbs." Much of the
charm of this novel stems from Okri’s ability
to make the magical seem everyday and the
everyday seem magical.

Azaro’s father dreams of escaping the vicious
cycles of village life, and his various schemes
throw his family into turmoil and exultation
by turns. He decides to become a boxer, and
takes on the
nickname of Black Tyger. He
plans to become a politician and attracts a
motley crew or beggars into his entourage. In
this mix, Okri adds other larger-than-life
characters: the village blind man who can see
when he wants to and plays horrific music on
his accordion; the photographer who delights
the villagers with his ability to memorialize
local events on film, and incurs the wrath of
authorities for the same reason; and Madame
Koto, the Rubenesque proprietor of a local bar
and brothel whose knack for business and
friends in high places make her the most
powerful person in the neighborhood.

Okri's story is dark and often tragic, but he
adds touches of humor and color at key
moments. For example, here is an incantation
delivered by a herbalist who promises that
Madame Koto’s new car will bring “prosperity
[and] plenty of money,” then continues:

Anyone who thinks evil of you, may this car
run them over in their sleep. This car will
hunt out your enemies, pursue their bad
spirits, grind them into the road. Your car
will drive over fire and be safe. It will drive
into the ocean and be safe. It has friends in
the spirit world. Its friend there, a car just
like this one, will hunt down your enemies.
They will not be safe from you. A bomb will
fall on this car and it will be safe. I have
opened the road for this car. It will travel all
roads. It will arrive safely at all destinations.

Perhaps the Detroit car makers would be in
better shape if they included this blessing as a
standard feature on all models. Who needs
OnStar or Geico, when you have spirits from
the otherworld looking out for your vehicle?

The Famished Road takes on the luster of
myth at its opening, then shifts between
fantasy and realism through most of its
chapters. But at the conclusion, Okri adopts a
visionary tone. Azaro’s father recovers from a
long trance-like sleep with mystical
proclamations of the world to come. He
announces: “Wars are not fought on
battlegrounds but in a space smaller than the
head of a needle. We need a new language to
talk to one another. Inside a cat there are
many histories, many books. When you look
into the eyes of dogs strange fishes swim in
your mind. All roads lead to death, but some
roads lead to things which can never be

As this mind-boggling litany suggests,
Famished Road
is not your typical book.
Although almost the entire action of the story
transpires in a small, impoverished village,
Ben Okri has overlaid a whole world (and
otherworld) on to this modest setting. Amidst
a literary culture in which fantasy and
realism, myth-making and myth-destroying,
are often seen as incompatible approaches,
this blurring of the boundaries is both
pleasing and edifying.