The ten novels on this list all substantiate the belief that books are the most elastic, introspective, human and entertaining form of media that exist. Not movies, not music, not art, not the theatre. A famous author once said that novels are the best way for two human beings to connect with each other. I believe this, and I believe that people who do not find pleasure in words have never had the opportunity to read one of the great novels. The first introductions students often have to literature are stale century-old books that do not translate well to this new modern era. Frankly they are boring, and a lot of kids drift into the living room and turn on the television and stay glued for the rest of their lives. So, here I will present the ten greatest novels of the last twenty years, without apologies.
Music for Torching
by A.M. Homes (1999)
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First Sentence: ”It is after midnight on one of those Friday nights when the guests have all gone home and the host and hostess are left in their drunkenness to try and put things right again.”
As the only woman on the list, A. M. Homes deserves recognition for her amazing writing skills, her unique voice and her gloomy view of the world. Homes shines when writing about screwed-up, out-of-love or on the brink of out-of-love couples. Torching is no exception. The married couple, Paul and Elaine, first appeared in a short story in The Safety of Objects, and then took on a life of their own. Married in suburbia, with two young boys, we follow them in their search for happiness, or some form of contentment, which they never seem to find. Smoking crack in the dining room, having affairs, trying to burn down their own house…nothing seems to change their boredom and disappointment. They’re stuck. They’ve become strangers to each other, to themselves, to their children.
Homes makes this common enough theme of suburban ennui feel real with her shining prose, a secondary cast of interesting plots and characters, and lack of a fairy-tale ending.
Buy Music for Torching at Amazon.com!
by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)
First Sentence: “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”
Of course, Palahniuk had to be on this list. And while he may have written better novels than Fight Club (see Survivor), this is the one that brought him to the show and inspired a new, fed-up generation to push back. I won’t insult you by giving a summary of the plot, but I will say that nobody in the world writes better, sentence to sentence, than Palahniuk. His quick, intelligent prose keeps the attention of the worst ADHD-sufferers, and the themes in Fight Club of revolt, of going back to zero, of anti-consumerism are universal, accessible and desperately needed in the world we live in today.
House of Leaves
by Mark Danielewski (2000)
First Sentence: ”While enthusiasts and detractors will continue to empty entire dictionaries attempting to describe or deride it, “authenticity” still remains the word most likely to stir a debate.”
Words to describe this novel: Dazzling, original, mind-bending, genius, heart-breaking, addicting, wonderful, jaw-dropping. The list goes on and on and on. No other novel has created its own world quite like Leaves. Danielewski made us question our own sanity. He led us through the 3-and-a-half-minute hallway and then left us there, shivering and alone, waiting for the monster, who we’ve only ever felt, but that we know (for certain for certain) is the most terrifying thing in the world.
The main plot follows a family who moves into a new house that they quickly find out is haunted. Sounds simple and cliché right? Imagine if you will a book that you have to take over to your mirror to read passages written backwards. Imagine twenty-two page rants about the origins of the word echo. Imagine endless footnotes dripping with blood and perfectly normal characters slowing getting drawn deeper and deeper into neurosis and insanity until they can’t find their way out, until you can’t tell the characters in the book from the people reading it. Imagine.
The house is alive. It breathes. Don’t go any further. Forget you ever read this. Go on with your life, and move down the list. Do NOT read this book. You’ve been warned.
We Don’t Live Here Anymore
by Andre Dubus (2004)
Dubus is considered by many the greatest short story writer of the 20th century, and there is fairness in this claim. This book consists of three novellas, woven together and taken from earlier Dubus publications. It is also a wonderful movie starring the enigmatic Laura Dern and Naomi Watts. It’s about two middle-aged couples who can’t seem to keep their pants on. Affairs are had, feelings crushed, epiphanies thwarted, friendships tested.
But what makes this one of the great books is the “realness” it elicits from the reader. It puts the reader in every character’s mind, and it puts us right there in the bedroom, in the woods, or on the back porch. Not only does “We Don’t Live Here” entertain us, it gives us a rubric of how to live our own lives. Shows us that nobody ever has anything figured out, not really. That what we do and feel morphs and shifts. Shows us what to do when everything we’ve held on to for so long goes away, how to bear it. It’s about desperation, and love, and marriage. It’s about paralyzing loneliness, kids, and housewives, and betrayal. Ultimately it’s about what it’s like to live in a world where we get to make all the decisions, and have to bear the repercussions of what those decisions mean. It does what a great book is supposed to do: it makes us feel.
by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
First Sentence: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”
Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest novelists still alive today (a phantasm of Faulker), and his newest book, The Road, clearly exemplifies this claim. It’s full of McCarthy’s terse dialogue, minute detail (but not TOO much, like Blood Meridian) stream-of-consciousness, masculinity, and an excruciatingly intense violent plot (win!). Not to mention that, in addition to all of these things, it’s also overwhelmingly sad, which is not an easy thing for a novel to be. It’s the perfect combination of everything, with exact measurements dolled out like a recipe for brownies.
It’s about a father and a son walking south to Mexico, to find warmth in a post-apocalyptic world, whose journey is beset on all sides by cannibals, and hunger, and the freezing cold. The sun is gone behind clouds of black dust, and the only light comes from the father’s love of his son. Without each other, all will be lost. This book is heart-wrenching, desperate and mesmerizing. The intensity of their journey, of the book itself, is indescribable, so I won’t even try. Let me just say that I was literally in tears in the middle of a crowded Barnes and Nobles, trying to pretend like there was something in my eyes. You will not be able to breathe until you finish it. It’s a fast read, because you have to see have to see have to see what happens next.
Rules of Attraction
by Brett Easton Ellis (1987-close enough)
First Sentence: “And it’s a story that might bore you, but you don’t have to listen, she told me, because she always knew it was going to be like that, and it was, she thinks, her first year, or actually weekend, really a Friday, in September, and Camden, and this was three or four years ago, and she got so drunk that she ended up in bed, lost her virginity (late, she was eighteen) in Lorna Slavin’s room, because she was a Freshman and had a roommate and Lorna was, she remembers, a Senior or a Junior and usually sometimes at her boyfriend’s place off-campus, to who she thought was a Sophomore Ceramics major but who was actually either some guy from N.Y.U., a film student, and up in New Hampshire just for The Dressed To Get Screwed party, or a townie.”
This is the second novel from Ellis, of American Psycho fame. It doesn’t depart much from the style (run-on sentences, sex, drugs, 80’s MTV music videos, more drugs, more sex, some violence thrown in there) of his other works, except that here it works throughout the whole book. Here he gives us a little more to work with, like allusions (Howard Roark!), different narrators, a setting that’s not L.A, and a semi-coherent plot. His talent is endless and the sentences run on seamlessly until you’re almost disappointed when a sentence actually ends. Nobody in the world can write like Ellis, though many have tried, and failed miserably. Yes, Ellis is a deranged person (has to be), but he’s also a prolific, talented writer whose put his time in. And here he shines.
It’s about sex and drugs and horrible, self-absorbed, incomplete people, trying to get laid and quit smoking in a fictional University in New England. The things they do are despicable and immoral. There’s nothing redeeming about any of the characters in the entire book, no hope, and yet this book stings because nobody could write this well about people like this if they did not, in fact, exist in real life. When’s the last time you went to college? What do you think happens in Universities around America? What do you think most people are really like? This is a documentary of lost, attractive young people falling into the void. And nobody cares and nobody cares and nobody cares.
Buy Rules of Attraction at Amazon.com!
by Jonathan Franzen (1992)
First Sentence: “Sometimes when people asked Eileen Holland if she had any brothers or sisters, she had to think for a moment.”
Another second novel. As always Franzen’s scope is immense, and his talent is clear on every page. If Palanuick is the very best writer, sentence to sentence, then Franzen is clearly the best living novelist. This story involves one Louis Holland, and a Harvard seismologist named Dr. Reneé Seitchek, and it revolves around abortion activists, big corporations, and strange sudden earthquakes appearing near Boston, which every Harvard seismologist knows is very strange indeed. It writes about the evil of corporations, but in a stronger, more mature way than Palanuick. Franzen is a historian, and he tells us exactly why the world is bad, how it came to be that way. He goes all the way back to the colonization of America, but not in a preachy or boring way. He personifies a raccoon for five pages, which is strangely one of the most poignant parts of the whole book.
The two main characters are what make the book. The medium-attractive Renee’ Seitchek and the lonely, lost Louis Holland, who fall for each other but seemingly never at the same time, and have painful rubbing sex as the earth shakes underneath them.
Franzen is a master and a genius; he builds and constructs. He creates suspense, and makes us wait for whatever’s going to happen. He makes us work for it. As with the #1 author on this list, you can imagine him standing behind a door somewhere laughing at all of his readers. He’s smarter than us, and God can the man write. This novel succeeds where The Twenty-seventh City fell a little short, and The Corrections overthrew.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz (2007)
First Sentence: “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.”
This book reverberates with originality, authenticity and craftsmanship. It follows generations of a Dominican-American family, the struggles they encounter in the Dominican Republic, and the curses that follow them to America. The main protagonist Oscar is a 300-pound nerdy, RPG-playing guy in America, who desperately wants to find love. We follow him in his constant struggle to find it, and bear witness to his countless rejections. No girl wants anything to do with this sweaty, obese nerd, and at some point our pity turns to admiration, as we root for him to succeed, screaming “You can do it Oscar. You can do it!”
Now go back a few decades to when his mother was the hottest thing in all of Dominica, and broke guy’s hearts by just batting an eyelash. Who eventually falls for a gangster (Why Beli, why?) involved with the Trujillo (evil dictator) regime that raped and murdered and tortured like it was going out of style. Then go back a little more to her father (Oscar’s grandfather) and see what happens to a respected surgeon who’s looked away from all the raping and torturing going on in his country until Trujillo himself sets his eyes on his beautiful daughter. Then you might just believe that there really are “fuku’s” (horrible unbreakable curses) and that this family’s got a BAD one.
Diaz blends Dominican history and folklore, humor, love, sex, death, revolutions, Castro, and dictators into one of the best freshman novels of all time. He employs current pop references, historical footnotes, a bad-ass original refreshing writing style, a mysterious narrator, Spanish, a blazing humor, age-old plot devices, and one of the most heart-breaking characters in existence to make this an instant classic.
Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson (2007)
First Sentence: “Last night at 3:00 A.M. President Kennedy had been killed.”
This mammoth odyssey about the Vietnam War transcends all other attempts to write about Vietnam, and makes them look like Hallmark greeting cards. It follows Skip Sands, working for the psychological operations department of the CIA, and his larger than life uncle “Colonel Sands”. It takes us everywhere in Southeast Asia, and even back to the United States. Johnson depicts a war where nothing is clear, where friends and enemies are indistinguishable, and where myths are created out of the land itself.
With a cast of half-a-dozen supporting characters, he portrays the war from the perspective of both sides of Vietnam, from two G.I. brothers from Arizona (who appeared in Johnson’s Angels), from a widowed Canadian nurse who can’t stop reading Calvin, from a Sergeant who seems to be perpetually tripping on acid, from a German hit-man, from a priest in the Philippines who thinks he’s Judas, from a “civilian” war-hero Colonel who’s trying to implement his own unorthodox campaign against the Vietcong.
Spanning thirty years, and over 700 pages, it’s still a disappointment when you arrive at the last page. This is Johnson’s masterpiece – a book you can imagine him writing under a succubus’s spell in a fallout shelter—hair long, unshaven, chain-smoking, frenzied to get the words out.
by David Foster Wallace (1996)
First Sentence: “I am seated in an office surrounded by heads and bodies.”
So here we are. While it was very difficult indeed to rank the other nine books on this list, deciding where to put this book on the list was as involuntary as breathing. This is by far the best, the longest, the most difficult, the most frustrating, the most entertaining, the most rewarding book on this list.
The term Infinite Jest is an allusion to Hamlet, as well as the title of a film by auteur Jim Incandenza, that circulates throughout the book causing anyone who’s unlucky enough to watch it, to want to do absolutely nothing else but watch it again and again and again, even if that means starving to death, or going to the bathroom on themselves, or not taking their insulin and going into epileptic shock. Ultimately, this book is about addiction in every form you could possibly imagine: Heroin, alcohol, cannabis, crack, cocaine, Diludiad, Percocet, sex, sports, cleaning, and on and on and on.
With a cast of hundreds, and almost 400 footnotes, coming in at a whopping 3 lbs, Jest focuses mainly on a halfway house in the Boston suburbs, and the adjacent Enfield Tennis Academy. Wallace spent hundreds of hours going to AA meetings, and this book is considered by many to be the most realistic account of drug addiction and the Alcoholics Anonymous program in either fiction or non-fiction.
Wallace created his own world in Infinite Jest. This is not just a big novel with big ideas. It’s not just a grand achievement by a writer with the greatest voice of his generation. This is not something you finish and then say, “Well that was a really great book,” and then move on with your life. This book deserves its own cannon. It cannot be categorized. This book genuinely redefines the boundaries of what a novel can do.
Wallace hung himself in late 2008. Infinite Jest is his second, and last, finished novel.