I loves to read them there novels I does. And so I thought it would be a good idea—maybe, probably not—to share a handful of such books which hold a particular significance for me. Said significance may not be addressed or explained either because I can’t explain it or because I forgot what the point of the article was.
Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow
Gravity’s Rainbow is a huge book of and about many many things. I won’t speak of plot, because in so many ways this is not a story book, it’s a world you get lost in, one that becomes clearer, yet greater—hinting ever at more on the horizon—and more terrifying with each visit. Among its meditations on genocide, imperialism, masochism, sadism, bureaucracy, conspiracy, rocket science, Pavlovian conditioning, fatalism, the survival instinct and the death drive, you find silly limericks about men having sex with rocket components, musical comedy routines performed by laboratory mice, stories about sentient lightbulbs, deliberately awful puns, literal toilet humour, farce, caper, and a healthy overdose of weird(er) sex. It’s a grand comedy on the human condition, which means it’s also bleak as hell. It’s a book I always want to pick up again, but even on a third go ’round it’s an intimidating tome, and I ain’t yet worked up the nerve.
Honoré de Balzac – Lost Illusions
Provincial poet and pretty boy Lucien Chardon dreams of going to Paris, where he believes he will find fame and fortune owing to his great genius. He initially plans to use his talent and good looks to charm an older woman of the aristocracy, but when his scheme turns sour he instead abuses the generosity of his best friend David, the owner and operator of a humble printing press, so that he can go to the capital, where he will take rooms and hobnob with the Parisian elite. In Paris he becomes part of a literary circle whose impoverished members aspire to success, or at least the creation of great art, by noble and honest means, but he is soon taken under the wing of a journalist who introduces him to the world of scandal-making newspapers, feeding his ego and his desire for fame at any price. A great social document contrasting French country life and life in the capital, a ripping satire full of brilliantly horrible characters, and a tragedy warning all the would-be artistic geniuses out there to have humility even if it means living in obscurity.
William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury
This is the book that made me interested in reading more than just genre fiction. Covering a period of around twenty years, four different narrators tell of the decline of the wealthy Compson family. The three Compson brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason are written in unique first person styles, while the illiterate* black servant Dilsey Gibson is written in a straightforward third person style. Faulkner contrasts the greed, pettiness and cruelty of the Compsons with the dignified endurance of Dilsey, who may be the only good person of sound mind in the entire story, and the novel hits on many of the questions of race and class in the American south that his others do. While it is perhaps most outwardly remarkable for its technique, The Sound and the Fury is written with a sincerity and heartfelt empathy that make even its most difficult passages thoroughly humane and touching.
*Conjecture based on her position in the family and literacy rates among black Americans in the south at the time, although Benjy would also be illiterate, so Faulkner may have had other reasons for writing Dilsey’s story in the third person—possibly to give the reader a break!
Juan Rulfo – Pedro Páramo
In honour of his mother’s dying wish, Juan Preciado sets out to find his father, Pedro Páramo. His search leads him to the deserted town of Comala, where the only people he encounters turn out to be dead. As he journeys into the world of ghosts, Preciado learns the story of his father, and how he brought the town to ruin through his selfishness and cruelty. It’s a simple story, beautifully told through a fragmented narrative which presents partly as memory, partly as investigation. It evokes a magical atmosphere, the connection between storytelling and the dead, and how we can touch the past through words, runs through every page. I re-read it, usually in a single sitting, probably once or twice a year; it’s a short book, easy to read, but breathtakingly beautiful every time.
Thomas Pynchon – Mason & Dixon
Wicks Cherrycoke, clergyman and nuisance, strikes a deal with his relatives, who are temporarily housing him over Christmas, that so long as he can keep the little twin brothers Pitt and Pliny (so named that either one may be the elder) entertained he will be permitted to stay—pinning to himself the comic badge of voluntary Scheherazade. To that end he draws upon the figures of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, Englishmen, an astronomer and a surveyor respectively, whom he met and sometimes travelled with as they plotted the Mason-Dixon Line marking the northern and eastern borders of the province of Maryland. Pynchon tells Cherrycoke’s version of events—most of which appears to have been made up, and at some point becomes blurred with plot points and characters from an in-universe serial called “The Ghastly Fop”—in the ornate style of 18th century English, and has great fun with its grammatical and orthographical quirks. For all its stylistic brilliance, exceptionally well researched period settings, and inventive storytelling, the book contains at its core the friendship, through trying times, of two men, their loves and losses, and their experiences of the New World in all its madness. It’s probably Pynchon’s most emotional and sweet novel, and the titular characters, real people of whom little biographical information actually exists, might be his most fully realised, but it is a Pynchon novel, an 800 page Pynchon novel, featuring people who live inside giant vegetables, hollow earth theory, talking clocks, a were-beaver, a sentient mechanical duck, a gigantic “Octuple Gloucester” cheese, a-