Twenty-one Novels For Fucked-up, Smart People
A Few Disclaimers:
1. This does not purport to be a list of the twenty-one greatest books of all time. This is purely subjective.
2. I’ve written this because I’m proactively lazy. People always ask me for book recommendations, and I usually end up recommending one of these titles and having to explain the shit out of it, over and over again. In the future, I hope to refer people to this list.
3. What follows are twenty-one books that I’ve come to love and that I think fucked-up, smart people will also love. Personal definitions are as follows: Fucked-up Person: one who confuses pain and pleasure; one who sucks at life while being blindingly awesome at life; one who can be made happy by sadness; one who would, given the chance, fall in love with Sylvia Plath or Chet Baker, even if he/she knew what the outcome would be; one who likes to rub one’s proverbial nose in one’s own proverbial shit. Smart Person: one who is willing to invest time and effort toward furthering something that is meaningful to oneself.
4. For the most part I’ve avoided the mainstream classics, because, well, they’re mainstream classics. On the other hand, I didn’t want to create an elitist list of purely unheard-of titles. I see most of these novels in used bookstores for less than five dollars.
5. I’ve ordered these titles in a purely random fashion; there is no build-up except that I end with Infinite Jest.
6. I’ve written all of these synopses/recommendations from a past memory of reading the work. I feel as if Wikipedia-ing or in any other means of cross-checking myself would take away from the spirit of this list, which is that each of these works have left a strong impression upon, if not partially changed me in some way. That being said, Critical Reader, forgive me if I’ve made a mistake somewhere below.
The Diagnosis by Alan Lightman | 2000 | Pantheon
Part Oliver Sacks and part Kafka, this novel opens up with the main character on his morning commute, when he forgets who he is and where he is going. From there on out, the story soars. Awesome prose with phrases that stick in your mouth like peanut butter. Information, technology, psychosomasis, and the ever-changing family dynamic all whirl together until you’re asking yourself who’s the crazy one. And how the world is so right and so wrong at the same time. Throw in a episodic reinterpretation of the last days of Socrates, and it’s literature representing the digital age at its most coherently imaginative. There’s a sombre tone throughout, but viewed in the right light, there’s a lot of beauty in the sadness, and I think that’s what makes Lightman’s characters so magnetic. I felt terrible while I read this, and I loved it. If you’re not into that kind of masochism, you’re missing out.
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara | 1934 | Harcourt Brace & Company
First of all, this is set in the Coal Region of Eastern Pennsylvania, a pseudonym-ed Pottsville, PA, the town where the author was born and raised. I grew up in the Coal Region/Poconos, so I immediately dug the setting and O’Hara’s intimate reconstruction of the strange people from that place (which he nailed; these people are essentially my grandparents). Anyway, it’s a dazzling, fallen-from-grace story, with characters described in chilling subtlety.
I fell in a sick kind of love with Caroline English. I wanted to bootleg 12 year-old Scotch from Allentown to Scranton in the thirties. I wanted to have deviant sex in a time before people had learned to talk about deviant sex. I wanted to work at a Cadillac dealership, wear a nice suit, start drinking at 8am, and have everybody know about it, but nobody have the courage to say a word to me. The story utilized an amazing modern style. It’s similar to the classic Fitzgerald archetype, but without so much goddamned direct symbolism (except, perhaps, in the epigraph). The story progresses straightforwardly and uninhibited, but also with depth to the extent that I still think about these scenes and characters, several years after having read it. Plus, the Maugham hat-tilt in the epigraph is just insanely awesome. I often find myself picking up the book and absently leafing through it. (I’m not offering, here, some silly, hyper-romantic image of myself for the sake of emphasis — I actually do this.)
The Floating Opera by John Barth | 1956 | Appleton, Century Crofts Inc.
Camus said, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” I have a fascination with suicide. I think many of us do, whether we like to talk about it or not. We get pissed at people that kill themselves; we feel cheated, and we bath in loss and self-pity. But some persons who commit suicide are entirely happy as they pull the trigger, or kick away the stool — or at least indifferent. People I’ve tried to talk about this with often get upset, and say something like, “Suicide is selfish/cowardly. Think of their families, etc.” But no self-termination is the same: you have the sick and old, the sick of it all and young, and then there’s a huge pocket of people in the middle, a few of whom elect death over life because they just feel like it. They don’t feel like being alive although they’re not terribly sad or anything. They just choose death over life. It’s a strange phenomenon that usually leaves us feeling uncomfortable and crawly-skinned. If you don’t mind exploring things that make you uncomfortable, pick up this book.
John Barth is a superb writer. Some of his longer works are certainly not ‘easy reading,’ but if you read his novella, The Floating Opera, and decide you like it, that’s a good sign you may enjoy the payoffs of some of his tougher stuff. In this story, the main character decides to end his life on a specific day, and events keep conspiring against him. There’s also this crazy manuscript in his apartment, which is quite fascinating to learn about. If you’re into the idea of listening to a perfectly calm guy talk about getting ready to kill himself, you’ll like this. If you’re not, I don’t know why you’re even reading this list.
There’s an edition for sale which pairs The Floating Opera with The End Of The Road, another innovative novella that is, perhaps, even more psychologically incisive. They’re great tandem reads.
A Heart So White by Javier Marías | 1992; 2000 (US) | New Directions (US)
For some reason, this author has never become popular in the US. In Europe, he’s Fiction Jesus. His novels are written like nothing else you’ve ever seen. The craftsmanship is unbelievable. Sometimes a sentence goes on for two or three pages, like a long-ass, Persian rug being unfurled, and by the time you arrive at the period, you’ve been so many places and traversed so many ideas, without knowing that you were even being led that far away from the original thought. And then he brings you back. He teaches you how to read the book as you’re reading it. He coaxes you to intently listen. Reading A Heart So White is very much like being talked to, calmly and evenly, by an older man who points at you as he speaks, sometimes stabbing forcefully with his finger, but always smiling. You can’t turn away. The ideas and ways of looking at the world in general that are undertones throughout this novel seem fresh and invigorating.
The title is taken from Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth’s line to Macbeth after he kills Duncan: “My hands are of your color; but I shame / To wear a heart so white.” Yeah, read that line out loud a couple of times. That’s what this book is about.
The story begins with a suicide, and the rest of it sort of serves as an explanation. Set in Madrid, Havana, and New York, the protagonist/narrator works as a translator and interpreter and is newly married. His father, an art buyer, is thrice a widow. There’s a lot of commentary on America, which is fascinating, because it’s given so casually that you can see that some of his views were, twenty years ago, the European norm. Unfortunately, I feel I can’t say much more, without preloading your head with my opinions. This is a novel best read in a quiet place.
Winesburg, Ohio is very likely the closest I have come to embracing heavily poetic prose. The language in these interwoven short stories is like nothing I’d ever read. Short, nine-months-pregnant sentences. Like Hemingway but more Hemingway. And before Hemingway. It’s almost unbelievable how one can such finely tune and truncate a single sentence, but have it loaded with as much emotional energy. He does offer more lengthy word-strings within the book, most notably in the first story Hands, which I (and, I’m sure, others) would put up there as one of the best American short stories ever written.
Softly sad: my favorite flavor of saddy-sad ice cream. If you know me, you know this. If I had to describe this novel with a color, it’d be the color of the wood that’s underneath the red, peeling paint of a dog house that’s fallen into disuse. How’s that for fucking sad? Unwitting characters, bent and gnarled by the weight of nothingness, walk about while appraising the sky, peeking in lit windows, wringing their hands. Slightly dystopian, but not in a fantastical sense. The town is less a place than a mindset, and I’ve definitely lived in Winesburg at various times during my life.
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. | 1952 | Charles Scribner’s Sons
Chances are, you know about Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, and if you’re lucky, you’ve laid eyes and mind on Cat’s Cradle. The reason I bring this particular Vonnegut title up is because it’s his first novel, and possibly his least stylized. He utilized his trademark let’s-talk-about-how-things-are-now-by-talking-about-how-they-are-in-my-crazy-future-Earth-fantasy, but he hadn’t yet come to rely on his equally-trademark, slapstick, goofball, uber-tongue-in-cheek schtick. There’s a weight to this novel that I’d say is only matched in God Bless You Mr Rosewater and the uncharacteristically serious Mother Night. It’s interesting, well-written, and quietly melancholic, as opposed to outspokenly so. This is not my favorite, or even, I think, the best objectively-chosen title of the Vonnegut canon, but merely the most honest, and the most purely written, and the most devoid of quirky affectation. It’s also lacking much of the smugness, which I appreciate.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides | 2002 | Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The burning of Smyrna. A scene where two homeless guys piss on a hermaphrodite. Silkworms are a constant metaphor. Sexual identity masterpiece.
Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera | 1984 | Harper & Row (US)
You know how people like to say, “Well, now I’ll never be able to un-know that.”? That’s how I feel about some of the ideas pertaining to sex in this book. Set during the Communist occupation of the Czech Republic, there are scenes in this novel that are so compelling that I still think about them almost daily, and to be honest I think about this book while I’m having sex more often than I’d like to admit, which I’m told is a really bad, really weird thing. Of course, once you know certain things, it’s hard to un-know them.
Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist | 1950 | Albert Bonniers förlag
For those of you who read and enjoyed John Gardner’s Grendel, this is a sure bet. I’ve never met anybody who has read this, and I can’t figure out why. It’s the retelling of the crucifixion of Christ myth, but from the perspective of Barabbas, the man who was given the death pardon instead of Jesus. I served six years in Catholic school and studied the Bible a lot, so this inverted view of the classic story fascinated me. And don’t worry, Grandma — it’s neither pro- nor anti-Christian. But, an asshole thief-murderer is the protagonist and you root for him. It questions morality. It questions belief. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t read this, Grandma.
It’s a cool, quick read. It’s historical fiction that will capture the heart of any thinker. The language is laconic and harsh and serves the work perfectly within its scope and intention. It takes us to a time that was much more brutal, less fair.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner | 2011 | Coffee House Press
This book blew me away. It showed up in the mail one day, return addressed from an independent bookstore owner and friend of mine, with a note inside that read something very close to: I think this is up your alley. Hope all is well.
Turns out it was up my alley. It’s about an American poet on a fellowship in Spain. In terms of art, the poet feels fraudulent, and is pretty much a liar and an asshole. Anybody who creates ‘art’ and doesn’t question the sincerity/validity of their own art is, in my opinion, the true fraud, and this freshman novel says that in so many long, winding, beautifully-crafted sentences. The story is about art in many of its manifestations, and about the identity of the ‘artist,’ and the profundity of the internal/external weight that that entails. There’s a whole lot more I’d like to tell you about this book, but I can’t without ruining it, and if you’re between twenty and thirty-five years-old, you really ought to read it without too many preconceived notions. If you do, get ahold of me, and I’ll talk about it with you for hours. I’m still trying to figure out why I like it so much.
But, I will make two more points. First, it’s an amazing success story for aspiring fiction writers, because it was published by an indie press and ended up becoming loudly acclaimed as one of the best novels of 2011 by juggernauts like the NY Times, Huffington Post, New Yorker, etc. Also, it’s a crossover novel, in that the author had previously only written poetry, and the marriage of those two, distinct arts is masterfully ministered — the ear of the poet wed to the eye of the novelist.
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. | 1964 | Grove Press
I cried when I read this. Not only do I generally never cry because I’m (obviously) a super-tough guy (sociopath), but I never-ever cry from reading a book or watching a movie. I recommend this tome for the Especially Fucked-up Person. It’s really, really sad, and there is something about it that resounds as really, terribly true. It’s a natural work. Selby also penned Requiem For A Dream, which is a great book, and at this point a cult-classic movie, but Last Exit is so much more jarring. It’s an example of sensationalism used to show us the truth, instead of merely shocking us. Read this and then read anything by Chuck Palahniuk, and you’ll take all your copies of Choke, and Fight Club, and Invisible Monsters and you’ll burn them in a gasoline-doused pile in the middle of your backyard, whilst you curse the day you were ever guiled by such a cheap, shitty use of sensationalism, because Hubert Selby, Jr. showed you the motherfuckin’ light.
This, like many other books on this list, is a novel written in short stories. The structure is genius, and I recommend reading it in order. (Spoiler: the most heart-wrenching stuff is in the middle.)
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman | 1994 | Secker and Warburg
Scottish writer, James Kelman, is a literal incandescence. After being introduced to How Late, I went ahead and read everything of his that was still in print. The aesthetic mindset of Beckett with the sadness of Steinbeck. How Late It Was, How Late is still the best I’ve come across. The protagonist in this novel just does not give a shit. The language is conveyed in rich, vernacular Scottish that meanders in and out of tenses and first- and third-person perspectives, but it is incredibly easy to follow, because it is so well-done. Think Bukowski as edited by a more clever Irvine Welsh. It’s one of those novels that hit me on the inside, somewhere vulnerable, and I realize that saying any more would be a disservice. If you like straightforward, bullshit-less fiction, you’ll like this.
The World According to Garp by John Irving | 1978 | E.P. Dutton
By far, John Irving is the most pop-fiction of writers on this list, as far as standard literary classification goes. That being said, he’s an amazingly powerful prose stylist who can tell one hell of a story. He’s another one who I’m sure most of you already know about, but I just want to make sure.
It’s a serpentine tale, focusing as much on the protagonist as the protagonist’s mother, who is a lifelong asexual. It’s funny and sad, and like the rest of Irving’s work, contains the recurring themes of infidelity, sexual anomaly, disfigurement, weirdly dextrous bears, high school wrestling, etc. It is also metafictive, in that the protagonist is a writer (a clichéd tactic, at this point, I know), but he has so much to say and in some ways, not Irving, but Garp the character inspired me to write one of my first short stories.
Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone | 1936 | First Published In German
Italian political novel in pre-WWII Italy. Love interest. There’s this super-old, wrinkly lady who’s really Gothic and scary. The police are scary. The protagonist is awesome. It’s everything you love about the great Russian writers, but with Italian subtitles. Also, Camus wrote an amazing essay about this novel when he was young and still into that kind of thing, which I found, strangely, one day as I was flipping through his Youthful Writings, which sits less than three feet away from me as I presently type. It’s one of those books that left me feeling all stuck-in-my-head-for-a-few-days, and I can’t really explain why.
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger | 1953 | Little, Brown and Company
So, I just need to cover my bases here. I know this isn’t a novel, and I know that if you’ve already made it this far, you probably not only know about this one, but have also probably read it — I don’t care. Dear reader who has not read Nine Stories, just do it. The stories contained therein such as, For Esme With Love And Squalor, Perfect Day For a Bananafish, and Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut are some of the best stories ever told, and ultimately changed how many, many people viewed fiction in general. Plus, you’ll get all of your annoying nerd-friends’ inside jokes about broken chronometers and watching out for the trees. Oh yeah, and it’s a re-reader all the way; the more times you read it, the more endearingly depressing it gets.
Note: if you’re the type of person who reads my stories and constantly says, “I liked it, except for the way you ended it. What fucking happens next?” you may not like this.
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow | 1959 | Viking
This book is weird, magical. Kind of like a Borges-sort-of thing going on. (Which sounds funny to say now, considering I’d read this before I’d read any Borges.) One moment the protagonist is here, the next he’s in the middle of bona fide fucking Inner Africa (that’s what they used to call the part of Africa where white people were still afraid to go), being a complete 1950s American male douche. You hate him, if you’re a decent person, you really do, but then the redemptive part of him becomes apparent to both us and himself, and I’m pretty sure that right around when I read this is when I became OK with being an American, inherent flaws and all. As I remember it, Henderson encounters a completely different world, brings his New York, impossible-to-be-conquered attitude with him, and is met with a strange hostility/admiration by the locals and particularly the prince (or king, maybe). There’s a lion or two involved. His Americanism is both his downfall and his saving grace; it’s almost fable-like. He experiences intense self-hatred and self-aggrandizement simultaneously. Great book for a stuck-on-the-fence-if-I-wanna-hop-on-a-plane-and-never-return type of American.
It’s a smooth read, too, and the old trade paperback cover is queer and baroque; I’m a sucker for great cover art.
White Noise by Don DeLillo | 1985 | Viking
Alright, now we tackle DeLillo. White Noise is probably his most widely-read novel, and arguably his most accessible. I’m not including it because of those reasons, but rather in spite of them. I’ve read four (or five?) of his other works which were each much more complicated and difficult to read. I don’t know how I feel about them, or DeLillo as an author, but that’s another matter altogether. The point is that White Noise is an amazing novel that captures the insecurities and peculiarities of growing up in an age that centered around the idiot box (or as most of us call it: the television), psychotropic medication, and relentless, insidious methods of advertisement. It’s split into three parts or novellas which could each, quite honestly, stand on their own. The characters are full of affect, but intentionally so, almost caricatures of themselves, and the story doesn’t really offer any genuine hope for humanity’s drastic changing, which you’re practically begging for by the end; but a great empathy is developed for the main character, an aging, pseudo-dying college professor who’s just trying to keep it all together. The story unfolds dynamically and is laden with rich irony, and is a must-read for anyone. If you haven’t yet read a lot of archetypal post-modernism, pick this up. Oh yeah, and it’s kinda sad, I forgot that’s my theme.
Which leads us to,
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon | 1966 | J.B. Lippincott & Co.
The Crying of Lot 49 shows the complexity of how we think and how we tell stories. It’s full of death and it’s set (like most of his other work) in California, a place that reminds me of death for two reasons, the further explanation of which I’ll spare you. A woman’s ex-boyfriend (or ex-husband) dies, and although she’s (re?)married now, she’s still been named the co-executor of his will. A meandering storyline ensues, which is pretty much the idea behind every Pynchon novel, but it touches on some major human paradoxes, like the idea of freedom of spirit vs. love. The writing is kind of haunted, in that the wording can seem to say many things yet nothing at all. Also, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, you’ll love this one. That shit’s all over, and you’ll be hitting the encyclopedia (read: Internet) every couple of pages. It’s only around 150 pages, so it’s the most economic way (time-wise) to find out if you’re into his style, instead of committing to V or Gravity’s Rainbow. And, I guess, when it’s all said and done, you’ll know what Pynchon’s about — serious writing.
The Fall by Albert Camus | 1971; 1972 (English; this was written in the 40s, methinks) | Knopf (English)
I just love this book. Why do you hold the door open for the person behind you? Because it makes you feel good, you asshole, not because you’re a good person. Truly good people do things that go unnoticed, and, even then, they do so because they know it will make them feel better. It’s biology. Endorphins are more practical than ideological morality. Sorry.
This book on the JDT Dryness Scale: 4,905. (That’s really dry.)
Also, if you read A Happy Death by Camus, you’ll be doing yourself a favor.
True story: I was walking through a used bookstore in Allentown one day (my all-time favorite and whose literature rack I’d already ravaged), and this title just randomly stuck out. I bought it, sat down in a diner, and read it cover-to-cover. It was that good. As I got up, standing upon shaky legs (this is not dramatic texture, I had drank about a dozen cups of coffee, eaten nothing, and sat in a booth for six hours), I made for the exit and saw a couple of kids my age reading at another booth. I stopped in front of them, probably appearing mad or otherwise outside of my proverbial gourd, and dropped the book on the table. I proceeded to give them a rambling account of how I serendipitously came upon the book, and how the story somehow left me feeling crazy, like, not right, and that I felt I needed to pass it along just as I had found it — in a strange manner. They looked at me funny.
The characters were bouncing around in my head and the whole ordeal fucked me up for a couple of days. I went on the omniscient INTERNET, and searched for information related to the novel and/or author — a two-line blurb, taken directly from the back cover, was all that existed. The novel was published, like, once or twice, ran few copies, and that was that. It’s since been reissued (late 2010, I think), so you should be able to find it now. Also, you’ll be happy to hear that I once again own a copy, due to a gift from the same person who mailed me Leaving the Atocha Station.
I will not tell you about the plot (in keeping with my queer relationship with the work), only that it’s essentially a political novel/love triangle-type story that’s set in the 1950s. An Egyptian dude typed up this gem (his first novel) and committed suicide shortly thereafter, for reasons unknown. If that doesn’t make you the least bit curious, then we wouldn’t get along.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace | 1996 | Little, Brown
I don’t know what to say. This is the best book I’ve ever read, and as recently as two or three years ago, I would have hated it. So, I’m not saying to go out and buy this right away and read it. I’m saying, know that this is incredible, and that if you do, I’ll buy you a beer, cause you’ll need it by the time you’re finished with the 1,097 pages (which feel more like 2,097). If you do decide to risk the howling fantods, read this fucker at home. Not a good book to be caught reading in public, I learned, as people will either talk to you about it, annoying the shit out of you, or they will call you an elitist asshole. In either case, chances are that none of them have actually read it. After Ulysses, this novel is the most started and then given-up-on novel that I can think of, which means nothing other than it requires so much effort on the part of the reader to understand, let alone enjoy, that we, as a people, cannot reconcile ourselves to do, because the rewards are not instantaneous. You need to be taught how to read this by actually reading it. It took me three weeks to get 150 pages in, but then something clicked. I read the last 900-plus pages (endnotes and all) within another three weeks, and suffered a sort of postpartum depression when I’d finished the last line, realized that there was no more. (I’m aware of the cliche. That’s just exactly what it was like.)
It’s set in the not-too-distant future (which is right about now, actually), and talks mainly about addiction, depression, and entertainment, even if ostensibly so. If a main character had to be picked, it should probably be Hal Incandenza, who’s a student at the Enfield Tennis Academy, a school for junior tennis prodigies. The juxtaposition of unapologetic juvenile slapstick and intensely profound sadness is fucking scary. The humor is so black at times that it kind of made me kind of want to stick my head in a microwave, too. (The academy’s founder and Hal’s father, James Incandenza does this before the novel actually takes place, a character who, in my opinion, is Wallace’s closest representation of himself.)
At least three other narratives are simultaneously unfolding, and are interwoven to varying degrees, mainly the one set at the Ennet House, a drug/alcohol rehabilitation center which is situated a few hundred yards away from ETA. His dissection of twelve-step recovery, withdrawal, and all other facets of the life of an addict is so thoroughly spot-on (I have experience in this area) that there’s no doubt that he researched this aspect of the story for years.
The novel contradicts itself at many points, and leaves as many questions unanswered. The style, POV, and language vary from page-to-page. After a few hundred pages, though, you’ve become familiar with all of them, and the variety is addictive. The same with the endnotes: they’re annoying at first (you need at least two bookmarks), then, once you fully get the idea, they’re equally as addictive.
This work changed my ideas about reading, writing, and the reasons why I do either. Parts of it crushed me, emotion-wise. It made his 2008 death appear more of a mercy-killing than a suicide, because if I had his brain, I’d hang myself, too. Forget everything you may or may not have heard about this book, including what I’ve said, and go read it for yourself. And don’t hang yourself.
Joe Trinkle is a fiction writer and essayist currently living in Philadelphia. He attended Kutztown University of Pennsylvania for Writing and co-founded the Allentown Writers Workshop. Previously published in The Bygone Bureau, Crack The Spine, New Fraktur Arts Journal, and Subtopian Magazine, his fiction is also forthcoming in several journals. He is 5’9″ and a half, but tells people he is 5’10”, and is the Fiction Editor and a regular contributor at WINK Pinup. Find him at www.joetrinkle.com