The idle scribblings of a sentimental surrealist.

Fifty favorite books

From the perspective of someone who, of course, hasn’t read every work of fiction, blah blah blah, but considers himself well-read. Here we go. Note that I’m more into contemporary fiction than the classics, so you know, biases, but this is my perspective. Non-hierarchical, except for the number one. I’m leaning to original works, i.e. novels and short stories, over collections, because it’s just easier that way. Generally there’s only room here for one per author, but I had to make a few exceptions.

1. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
2. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
3. James Joyce, Ulysses
4. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Brothers Karamazov
5. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones
6. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
7. William Gaddis, the Recognitions
8. Don DeLillo, Underworld
9. Roberto Bolano, 2666
10. William Shakespeare, Othello
11. Kurt Vonnegut, the Sirens of Titan
12. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
13. Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
14. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
15. Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance
16. Franz Kafka, the Trial
17. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
18. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
19. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
20. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
21. Clarice Lispector, the Hour of the Star
22. Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge
23. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West
24. Don DeLillo, White Noise
25. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
26. William Shakespeare, Hamlet
27. Flann O’Brien, the Third Policeman
28. Samuel Beckett, the Unnameable
29. William Gaddis, J R
30. Alan Moore, Watchmen
31. Joseph Heller, Catch-22
32. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
33. Philip K. Dick, Ubik
34. William H. Gass, Omensetter’s Luck
35. Albert Camus, the Stranger
36. Richard Wright, Native Son
37. Zadie Smith, White Teeth
38. Angela Carter, the Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
39. Carson McCullers, the Heart is a Lonely Hunter
40. Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
41. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
42. Junot Diaz, the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
43. Salman Rushdie, the Satanic Verses
44. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
45. Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories
46. Paul Auster, City of Glass
47. Ann Quinn, Berg
48. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
49. Adam Levin, the Instructions
50. John Barth, the Sot-Weed Factor

Have you got a favorites list? Publish it in the comments box!


A Perhaps-Belated Response to Harold Bloom

So here’s how I’m going to do this. I don’t plan to waste too much time talking about the decreasing relevance of Harold Bloom re: literary criticism, nor am I going to spend all that long picking him apart for his wrongheaded appraisal of David Foster Wallace. If you’re a literary person, you probably know these things already. My focus today will instead be on a remark he made several years ago, where he named Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo the four greatest living authors in contemporary fiction.

Now, I have a hard time faulting his choices. Granted, I’m not huge into Roth, although I quite liked American Pastoral. There also exists the possibility that the once-mighty DeLillo is past his prime: I’ll have to read Point Omega and get back to you, although I quite enjoyed Cosmopolis. Pynchon and McCarthy are pretty much unimpeachable writers, so I’ll just leave that there. Instead, I’d like to offer an alternative view of the four best living authors of contemporary American fiction. To make it a little bit more interesting, I’ve also decided not to use any of the authors Bloom mentioned. Without further ado, here are the four.

Toni Morrison

She strikes me as a no-brainer, given that her name is more or less synonymous with contemporary fiction, and I think Bloom should feel bad about himself for not including her. I haven’t read a ton of her more recent work, but the early-to-mid quartet of the Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and especially the riveting Beloved is the sort of legacy-building run most authors would probably envy. She writes with a terrific combination of humor, horror and humanity, often switching from one to the other to the third in a single chapter, and she has a lot to say not just about the African-American experience, but the American experience in general. Definitely an author you should be reading if you’ve somehow or other missed the boat.

For starters: Song of Solomon

Adam Levin

A young upstart who, if you take it from me, has the potential to really go places. He’s already been places, as anyone who’s read his massive 2010 novel the Instructions can attest to: it reveals an ambition not seen in American fiction since the late David Foster Wallace put out Infinite Jest, combining unique slang, humor, terrifying violence, a complex sort of tonal ambivalence, and believable characters in unbelievable situations. His collection Hot Pink (2012) works according to similar principles, with a few of the stories foreshadowing the Instructions. Keep an eye on him.

For starters: Hot Pink

Junot Diaz

He made a big splash with the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, notable for its extensive footnotes, its pop culture references, and its use of Dominican history. It’s postmodern to the core, which might bother some readers, but it’s far more optimistic than the cynical, paranoid works of Pynchon or DeLillo. I haven’t read as many of his short stories as I should, but the first novel was a gripping read, welding personal and political history into a unique, exhilarating, and ultimately life-affirming whole. And he was technically born in the Dominican Republic, but don’t you figure there’s room for the immigrant narrative here?

For starters: the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Lydia Davis

Combining Barthelme’s experimental approach with – you guessed it – David Foster Wallace’s eye for detail, and adding a reporter’s tone of her own, Davis writes these brief sketches of seemingly mundane life that always reveal themselves to be out of the ordinary. While she’s written a novel, her specialty is short fiction, and she fits well in line with the recent flash trends, using every word in a thorough and devastating manner. For as quiet as her short stories are, they sure do leave their marks. Some of her briefer pieces blur the line between short stories and poems.

For starters: Varieties of Disturbance

Honorable Mention: William H. Gass

Gass has been around since the first wave of postmodernism, and while he hasn’t quite written a book that affected me to the same degree as these other authors have, he’s still a major contemporary voice, still putting out fiction at 89: his most recent work, Middle C, came out last year. Gass’ novels are categorized by scatological humor, dense prose, heavy philosophy, and the decentralization of character, which means they’re not for everyone, but if any of that appeals to you, he’s a major talent.

For starters: Omensetter’s Luck

Recommended Short Story: David Foster Wallace, “Everything Is Green”

From the collection Girl with Curious Hair.

Deeper Into the Tunnel

I’m less than fifty pages away from finishing one of the most brilliant, and most frustrating, and certainly the most downright unpleasant, novels I’ve ever read: William H. Gass’ the Tunnel. I’m capable of flying through books, even long ones, and even on occasion long difficult ones, but this one I started on April 23rd of this year, if Goodreads is a reliable source. So, you might wonder, what took me so goddamn long? 651 pages is certainly hefty, but I’ve read longer books in shorter amounts of time. Why get hung up on the Tunnel? Why did I feel so compelled to interrupt it in favor of other books? 

Because it was, like I said in the intro paragraph, such a thoroughly repulsive read. Now, don’t you get me wrong here for a minute. I don’t mean to suggest the book was repulsively written. Gass is often praised as one of America’s best living prose stylists, and the dude earns his keep with eye-poppingly original metaphors, wordplay worthy of Joyce, and passages of either astonishing lyrical beauty or sheer unadulterated savagery. The guy can write. Nor do I mean to suggest the book is devoid of literary merit. Gass uses this particular novel to explore why the Holocaust happened and examines the possibility of a future Holocaust. All it takes, he argues, is a monster to lead and a Party of Disappointed People (his term) to follow that monster. It took Gass nearly thirty years to finish this book (his first novel, 1966’s Omensetter’s Luck, is less profound but a hell of a lot more fun), and you can tell he poured a lot of effort into it. 

These are the things that makes the Tunnel great, possibly one of the best books I’ve ever read: a combination of terrific writing and insight into the dark side of what they used to call the human condition. So why do I call it repulsive? The protagonist was awful. Just… just hideous. Once again, Gass’ writing being what it is, he was a well-written and believable sort of hideous that came to life and stayed that way. William Kohler is given a history, a family, ambitions, failures, frustrations, a sense of humor, a mentor, tastes in entertainment, and all of the other things that make us human. Gass also instills him with pettiness, dismissiveness, arrogance, spitefulness, sexism, and unrepentant bigotry. He’s not devoid of his good qualities: the guy’s got a brain, that’s for sure, and he’s aware of how much of an asshole he is. The problem? He wants us all to be cowed by his intelligence, and while he’s aware he’s got a lot of work to do on his personality, he seems uninterested in changing a thing about it. If anything, he seems to feel entitled to being a horrible person. This makes him one of literature’s scarier characters.

And while I don’t hold it against Gass for writing someone I didn’t necessarily like, nor am I bitter at him for making me share 651 pages worth of headspace with this gentleman – it is, from an intellectual perspective, a rewarding experience – the sheer disgustingness of this novel’s protagonist makes it hard to bear for any more than about thirty or forty pages at a time. Therefore, while the Tunnel serves a lot of purposes, one thing it doesn’t really do is entertain. It’s one of the least entertaining of the great books, and would be a complete slog if Gass hadn’t busted out the big guns, writing-wise. I live for novels that indulge in language, metaphors that knock me off my horse, phrases turned in just the right direction, and good old wordplay. The Tunnel offers 651 pages of that.

So now we get to the question: should we hold it against a great work of art because it’s not, in conventional terms, entertaining? Is it really such a big stomping deal that the good guys win and the bad guys lose when last I looked the whole point of art was to help us understand our relationship with the wider world? I’ve always insisted that the answer to this was “yes,” but reading the Tunnel, I see a little where the other side is coming from. Not that I’m ever going to put a song down just because it’s “depressing” (you have every right to smack me if you ever hear me say that) or some other silly nonsense. However, the Tunnel‘s narrator was such a taxing character that it made a slog of a great book. In short, let’s call it a definitely amazing thing that I will never do again. 

To the Pacific

We blunder over
felled logs, jutting rocks,
lightly step on these
submerged stones.

Hear thunder over
windswept peak’s cragged face.
Storms’ bison trample
on our lands.

A fault in the earth,
a trail beat by tears,
a voice of the dead,
a coat of the years,
a son of the storm,
a crew of a ship, 
a way far too warm,
a loss of clear sight.

We wonder over
these ancient volumes,
wisdom abandoned
in our hands.

Asunder over
totems of war
towering over
man alone.

Look to the pacific. 

Morning Fog

Rain spatters my windshield
Swept away, returning
My most persistent guest

Fog enveloped freeway
Unfurling with daybreak
Is fueling my unrest

Cars are blurs of colors
Careening toward exits
Beckoned from their warm nests

Consciousness converging
Glimpses for a second
of calm, in east, in west

An Evening’s Speculation

If love is an ocean,
let me drown.
Its billowing crescents
white horses.

If time is an arrow,
fire away.
From all of the present’s

If each man a king, then
they obey
the laws that the peasant

As red cities’ armies
on the march
increases and lessens
its forces.