02/28/2013 01:06 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

'Fish Out of Water' and Into the Pages of Books

Carnivorous and vegetarian readers alike are fond of "fish out of water" fiction. That's because there's often lots of drama and/or laughs when authors transport protagonists to a much different place.

Those characters may initially flounder and have humorously embarrassing moments -- which is not good for them but interesting to read about. Then they might eventually get their bearings, experience new things, meet new people and gain more confidence -- which is good for them and also interesting to read about. Even if characters don't adapt to new locales, there's drama in that, too.

And readers -- many of whom have been "fish out of water" themselves during vacations or after moving to new towns (or countries) -- can compare their own real-life experiences with the fictional ones depicted by authors.

The idea for this post occurred to me when reading David Lodge's seriocomic Paradise News about a middle-aged British man who flies to Hawaii to visit a dying aunt he hasn't seen in decades. What happens to former priest Bernard Walsh on that tropical isle is a real eye-opener, as he moves from disorientation to some life-changing stuff. (Thanks to commenter "smeeeee" for recommending Lodge's excellent novel under one of my late-2012 posts!)

Speaking of tropical locales, another "fish out of water" novel is Herman Melville's Typee, in which two shipmates stranded on a South Pacific island experience a pre-industrial society. The partly autobiographical book was Melville's first, and the most popular in his lifetime.

Moving to a different part of the world in Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel, we see Englishman Philip Ashley make a bewildering visit to Italy to seek information about what happened to his deceased guardian, Ambrose -- who had married the mysterious Rachel of the novel's title.

Then there's J.M.G. Le Clezio's Desert, in which the young Lalla leaves her native desert region in Morocco for Marseille and then Paris. She of course experiences culture shock in those French cities before an unexpected career opens up for her.

Another novel with a protagonist moving from a rural to urban area is Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle. Molly Bolt, after being forced to leave a Florida college because she is gay, arrives nearly penniless in New York City. Going to "the big city" is among the recurring themes in "fish out of water" fiction.

Kind of the opposite thing happens in Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior. Here, Caribbean-born, Harvard-educated scientist Ovid Byron visits a rural, mostly white region of Tennessee to spend a number of weeks studying a horde of butterflies that ended up there because of climate change.

In Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, the city-preferring Ferula joins her brother Esteban (a wealthy, brutish right-winger with a bit of heart) and his wife (the ethereal Clara) in the family's country home -- where Ferula never enjoys rural life. (I just finished Allende's enthralling novel; thanks to commenter "Olderandwiser55" for convincing me to read it -- years after I should have!)

Then there's Wilkie Collins's A Rogue's Life, in which British rascal Frank Softly is banished to Australia -- where his future takes an unpredictable turn.

Harry Potter is a "fish out of water" twice over in the first book of J.K. Rowling's famous series. Harry doesn't fit in with the muggle world -- mostly because he's treated so badly by the Dursleys but also because he senses he's "different." Then, after Harry learns he's a wizard, he experiences culture shock again when trying to adapt to the magical world.

One of many examples of other magical worlds -- that of time-travel fiction, also places its characters in "fish out of water" situations -- is Karl Alexander's Time After Time. Here, the vile Jack the Ripper steals H.G. Wells's time machine and escapes into the future -- with the pursuing Wells also thrust into a confusing 1970s realm.

Speaking of Wells, science fiction also offers ample opportunity for characters to become "strangers in a strange land," to slightly misquote the title of Robert Heinlein's novel. In Wells's The First Men in the Moon, Bedford and Cavor arrive on and in the moon via Cavor's ingenuity, and the landscape and lunar natives are of course hugely different from those on Earth.

Speaking of non-humans, animals can also be "fish out of water," (even if they're not fish!). In Jack London's canon, for instance, we have a domesticated dog forced into the "uncivilized" Yukon in The Call of the Wild and a wild wolf-dog hybrid initially flummoxed by "civilization" in White Fang.

What are some of your favorite "fish out of water" books?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. Contact Dave at