Since most of the books I've reviewed here and elsewhere over the last couple years have been works in translation, I thought I would write about a handful of American books which I return to over and over . . .
John's Wife by Robert Coover (1996)
The book that made me become a writer. Virtually forgotten immediately upon publication, this is the Coover book to read—his masterpiece. It utilizes a very simple structure: each paragraph ends with a “switch” that leads into the next paragraph; each paragraph is longer than the preceding one, with the longest in the dead center of the book, only to decrease proportionally afterwards; the final sentence almost the mirror reverse of the opening sentence . . . But especially it's the piled-on sentence after hyperactive sentence that just gets me excited here, and it's this strict structure which makes relentless demands of the narrative, all of which guarantee plenty of Coover’s nonstop bursts of comedy and violence and sex. Virtually dialogue-free, tons of characters, all of them lunatics. Coover told me once that if anyone is reading him a hundred years from now, this will be the book they’re reading. I can’t disagree. If you can handle (and delight in!) 428 pages of absolute literary mayhem (The New York Times couldn't), this is a good place to start.
JR by William Gaddis (1975)
This is my all-time favorite novel. More timely than ever, given the current economic situation: Gaddis predicted all of this shit, and more . . . and wrote the funniest novel ever—every sentence, for the most part, is based on a character misunderstanding the meaning of the preceding line of dialogue, or ignoring it entirely—it’s also the only book I’ve ever read where I laughed out loud at least once per page. Quite a feat, since there are 726 pages. I talk breathlessly about this book to people. You’re probably familiar with it, at least by reputation: it’s almost all dialogue (separated by these little clots of axe-sharp transitional prose that comes off as anything but expository), and tells the story of eleven-year-old JR Vansant as he puts together a paper empire from penny stocks and a lunchroom payphone . . . One of the most important and innovative novels ever written, as far as I’m concerned–it explores that very American place which exists between staying within the technical limits of the law yet behaving in a completely immoral fashion. Sound familiar?
M31: A Family Romance by Stephen Wright (1988)
Wright is fairly underread, and any of his other three novels would be great places to start if you’ve not read him, but M31 is my sentimental favorite: a chronicle of a lunatic family living in an abandoned church in the midwest—Dot and Dash, the parents, go about preaching their bizarre apocalypse sermons while the children are left alone at home. In terms of prose style, only a handful of living American writers can hang with Wright.
I already gushed about The Easy Chain in the Quarterly Conversation and in that review also gushed about The Lost Scrapbook, which is the book I’ve purchased for a gift more than any other (a dozen copies at least, plus I got my friend Leon's book club to read it), and which, next to Gaddis’ JR, I recommend all the time if someone shows me they can handle something ambitious and well out of the mainstream. Both of Dara’s novels are astonishing—challenging, funny, groundbreaking, stylish, brave . . . as well as brash in that it’s clear that Dara does not give a fuck about the reader . . . yet it’s that attitude that helped him to craft two novels of great originality. They are big contemporary novels where ambition and execution are both huge and come together perfectly.
The House of Breath by William Goyen (1950)
Stylistically bold as fuck, I think when people say “lush prose” they’re probably talking about Goyen’s writing. There’s an incantatory power in every line, and such an, I don’t know, epicness to the whole affair. It’s really good.
Emptied of All Ships by Stacy Szymaszek (2005)
A collection of poetry which makes me feel simultaneously exhilarated and sick and high and exhausted—I can barely write about fiction I like in an articulate and coherent way (see above), so I’m not even going to take a shot at this one . . . Szymaszek is certainly one of a handful of poets whose work gets me excited and riled up—she has a gift (of which I am savagely jealous) for jamming two words together in a way which just hits me in the gut: “piratical skuas,” “meteor de-orbits,” “alphabets flicker,” “fisherman pseudonym,” “coda of whales” . . . well that last one is three words but you get my point I hope—There are people who (like most things) know a lot more about poetry than I, but if the measure of quality writing isn't necessarily the theoretical stuff behind it (though I suspect there's plenty of that here) but rather its language's ability to create an actual, physical reaction, then . . .