As I simultaneously stress about an upcoming move across the country and enjoy two months of jobless freedom after graduation, I have taken it upon myself to get certain things in order. A part of that, at least in my own trademark roundabout logic, has included compiling the literature I have read, am currently reading, and hope to read in the future onto a GoodReads account so that I can find easy recommendations and keep track of an ever-growing library. Here is my current list of my ten favorite novels. Each of them has a special place for me as a reader and for me as a writer, and all deserve a read (or a re-read) to those who enjoy literature.
10. Ten White Geese, Gerard Bakker
“Perhaps she did now, in this foreign country, because it was November here too or because she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back.”
Surely the least likely work on this list, Gerard Bakker’s Ten White Geese is difficult to justify as one of my top ten novels. And yet, there is not doubt that this work has been immensely influential for me as a writer and a reader. Like Plath’s famous novel, and with a great debt to Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson, Bakker’s novel is far more concerned about emotion than with plot. Its contemplation of translation and communication, both across language barriers and within one’s own person, is complex and luminous. Fittingly, I cannot fully explain why, but this novel left me haunted.
9. Nevada, Joshua Stephen Porter
“Take her to recovery!” Belial calls down the hall. “And get her some liquor! Lots of liquor!”
As a fan of Joshua S. Porter’s eclectic artistic output, I must also credit him as my gateway into influences as diverse as the chaotic punk of Refused, the chilling satire of Bret Easton Ellis, and the freeing theology of Greg Boyd. With a musical output that ranges from electronically-tinged industrial satire to punk rock anthem to piano-based worship, he has also proven himself as an up-and-coming author. His writing has continued to improve, but his second novel has a particularly special place for me in its defiance of genre and conventional storytelling as it brings a political satire to be reckoned with. Hollywood vapidity, resurrected dinosaurs, and hilarity interweave to bring you Nevada.
8. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
“Even sound seemed to fail in this air, like the air was worn out with carrying sounds so long.”
I have a love-hate relationship with Faulkner, much to the chagrin of some of my fellow literary friends. The Sound and the Fury, though, is Faulkner at his best, stringing together a portrait of the downfall of the Old South through the eyes of a disastrously dysfunctional family in the midst of falling apart. With a cast of narrators that include a mentally-handicapped man incapable of understanding the passage of time and a troubled young student alternatively fixated upon history, the saga of the Compson family is a difficult but rewarding read.
7. Invitation to a Beheading, Vladimir Nabakov
“I am here through an error—not in this prison, specifically—but in this whole terrible, striped world.”
As with Faulkner, my relationship with Nabakov is complicated, due to his extensive and diverse bibliography. Invitation to a Beheading sees the Russian emigre in his prime, with his command over the gothic black comedy of Kafka and Gogol establishing a literary excursion into The Twilight Zone. By allowing his surrealist setting to do the work, the satirical nature of Invitation lacks the overbearing commentary that hinders some of his more zealous works of social criticism. If all you’ve read from Nabkov is Lolita, you need to pick up his odd chronicle of Cincinnatus C.’s last days.
6. Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis
“Haven’t we outgrown all this tired irony? Weren’t we supposed to give up acting twenty-two forever?”
Known best for the torture-porn hit American Psycho and its infamous adaptation, Bret Easton Ellis is a pioneer in the revelations of the depravity of American consumerism. While much of his work inspires intense debate of censorship and the aestheticization of violence, Lunar Park transcends Ellis’s own trademark morbidity for a work that combines his penchant for satire with the thrill of Stephen King and the surprising inflection of genuine emotion. The parodic hint of memoir introduces what could otherwise have been just another one of Ellis’s controversial works, but the ultimate product is a compelling novel that – although certainly offering plenty of bold taboo – manages to become something more substantial.
5. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
“Hey, you created me! I didn’t create some loser alter-ego to make myself feel better. Take some responsibility!”
After growing up a bit and opening up my artistic horizons, the emblematic Palahniuk novel just should not mean that much to me. And yet it still does. The novel is marked by Palahniuk’s wry wit and was propelled by the visceral 1999 film, but people still seem unable to understand the ironic stance of the work, misinterpreting its message for an actual endorsement of nihilism and violent anarchy. Surely even with the sarcasm intact, Fight Club still reads as somewhat juvenile, but that is part of the beauty and charm that makes it an enduring influence on my writing. Fight Club is a wild ride and is a wonderful glimpse into literature made fun.
4. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
My introduction to the stream-of-consciousness world of confessional pseudo-fiction began with this dark work of heartbreak. Plath’s singular output as novelist is not told but experienced, and she taught me the fine line between disturbing and dangerously beautiful through the lens of a haunted young woman and her struggle to stay alive inside. A look into the tragic life of the poet just before her untimely end, The Bell Jar was one of my first tastes of the power of honest writing and the narrative of poetic insanity.
3. The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
“Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”
No doubt having missed some of the subtly and the weightiness as a third-grader, I can nonetheless still remember the opening pages of “The Long Expected Party” and becoming captivated by the long tribulation our furry-footed heroes endure as they set out on their journey against evil. Fantasy and wonder combine with emotional depth and an entire cosmology more complicated and beautiful than many people’s own faiths. While there is much of Middle-Earth I have yet to explore in Tolkien’s extensive bibliography outside of the classic tetralogy, I owe my love of reading and storytelling to the quest of the Nine.
2. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
“Something was badly amiss with the spiritual life of the planet. Too many demons inside people claiming to believe in God.”
The infamous work that landed Rushdie in hiding for years and inspired tension between the West and the Middle-East long before 9/11 or even the Gulf War, The Satanic Verses is less than a critique of religion than it is an experiment in the necessary and often complimentary relationship between faith and doubt. Imagine a Bollywood soundtrack come to life beginning with two men falling from an airplane singing showtunes and building a mythology. At times hilarious, at times heart-breaking, the story of two Indian actors transforming into an archangel and a devil on the streets of London is without parallel if you are looking for an epic that transcends the conventions of genre, style, theme, and mood.
1. Ulysses, James Joyce
“That is God. A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.”
I will admit that my inclusion of Joyce’s monument of modernist experimentation is partially a matter of bragging rights, perhaps only to be surpassed once I finish Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Anyone familiar with the brick of a novel will understand the difficulty of reading this record of a single day in Dublin, 1904. Considering the reference and annotation guides to the work are often almost as thick as the 700-page novel itself, Ulysses is without equal in terms of scope and intent. But the most impressive feat is that even with the dozens of styles and the thousands of allusions and puns with which the author teases the reader, Joyce’s narrative somehow remains enjoyable. Furthermore, its immortalization of Joyce shows just how powerful literature can be.