I’ve head-faked on this essay for several months, hesitant that writing such a piece will only result in a comment-lashing from peeps telling me what I failed to include and highlighting the void of female and minority writers. Also, who cares what I have to think and why fill this space with this? But I can’t stop thinking about these books and their importance on me not only as a writer, but a human being functioning in the day-to-day. I think it’s interesting/important/worthy to create this list of twenty bigs. I’m putting it out there for the all love and all the shit. Simply put, the following texts have all altered how I view the world and radically shifted some mysterious inner workings. We all have this list of twenty bigs inside us, we’re all walking around as a compilation of our most beloved books – it makes us.
Compiling the list was fairly easy, narrowing it down somewhat difficult and shitty. Basically just lots of scanning my bookshelves and then also trying to remember what books, if any, I didn’t own but loved in such an obsessive way, which, were a few. As far as why including one book over another in the list and not the “also” category I just went with my gut reaction on November 14, 2013 and it will change next week and the week after that. I have no doubt forgot a few books and will be reminded later on, but I’ve attempted to be as thorough as possible.
Correction by Thomas Bernhard
Just thinking about this one makes me want to stop writing about it and go back to it right now. There’s a strange lush setting (the exact center of an Austrian forest), brutal sing/song repetition (“so Roithamer”), and a focal image that is both odd and beautiful (the cone) that Bernhard somehow uses not only to hammer us with this oddity and beauty but to tether us emotionally to all characters involved. Reading Correction is like watching a performance of the most fucked and pretty thing you can imagine.
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
Published 45 years ago and still feels fresher than nearly everything coming out today that lays claim to some fable/whimsical/hip/trippy new thing. A friend of mine said awhile back that Brautigan was born in the wrong time and the 60’s tag was the eventual death of him and I kind of agree. Would have been interesting to see what Brautigan placed in, say, 1910 would have produced. I imagine his critics would have taken him more serious? Margaret’s suicide where she hangs herself from an apple tree while the narrator watches is boooooofff.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis
I’ve flipped-flopped on Davis for years and years, not fully understanding what she was doing and feeling dumb for not liking her as much as others, but reading a big chunk of her stories not only changed the way I approach sentences and grammar in fiction but kind of chained me to the couch. Like, I couldn’t physically move from the stories because they blanket and choke you with their flatness and detached intimacy. Contains two of my favorite heartbreaks: “The Fears of Mrs. Orlando,” and “Mr. Knockly.”
So There: Poems 1976-1983 by Robert Creeley
The main reason I enrolled at SUNY Buffalo was because of Robert Creeley. Here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone because it’s embarrassing and slightly insane, but shortly after arriving in Buffalo and obsessing over So There (“For love – I would / split open your head and put / a candle in / behind the eyes” I mean, Jesus Christ) I spotted Creeley on campus and followed him, keeping a great distance, to his car. I wanted to see what kind of car he drove because it seemed impossible that those words could come out of a body that would also do something as pedestrian as drive a car. A four door Volvo. His last reading before his death sold out at a huge venue at the Albright-Knox and when was the last time a poet sold a place out?
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
This was another one I had on my radar for years but felt too intimidated by intellectually but once I got around to it I was transfixed by how lyrical and wizardly Pynchon is with his sentences. For all the shit this one gets for being difficult, GR is wild and fun and you can’t over think it, you just have to be moved by it and thrown around. It’s a beating.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I read a majority of IJ while doing political campaign work in Rochester, New York. Basically I’d spend all day walking flat gray neighborhoods, it rained so much, putting “Vote for Bob” flyers into screen doors and then in the evening I’d go back to my dorm room where the campaign had me stay (the woman running for office came from a family who owned an entire complex of student housing). I spent seven days in an empty dorm room with no furnishes but a desk and bed reading IJ. I can still smell the fresh paint in the room and see the whiteness and grayness of the walls and the blindless window and see the light green and blue of the Infinite Jest cover on the bed where I read until I fell asleep.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Might be the first book I read when I “got serious” (fuck me) about writing, and the first book where I thought “you can do this shit in a novel?” after reading lots of Hemingway and Carver and Iowa workshop type stuff. Other Calvino I find kind of overrated. Something about his style and structures in these others (I never could get into If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler) seems like a trick and arrogant, but Cities has a charm and invention level completely its own. I remember standing in Borders amongst the wooden shelves and those big leather chairs and all the red and white labeling and I’m not sure how long I stood there reading but it felt like I disappeared and I didn’t want to come back.
Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
A kind of anti or light-footed Kafka with lots of fun dream sequences placed in a world of civility and rules, I remember reading this one in the park across the street from my apartment, sitting close to the road because I didn’t make it far into the park because I had started reading and had to sit down. Jakob holds a place in me twined with In Watermelon Sugar in that the two inhabit a similar timeless dream space I don’t get from anywhere else.
The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
I thought I read somewhere that Ondaatje compared his editing process to sanding a floor, saying something along the lines of “I just keep going back over the floor sanding out the imperfections and bumps, over and over again, for as long as it takes,” but I can’t find the quote anywhere. Fuck The English Patient – this is the real thing, a book so well crafted without coming across as crafted, that it physically hurts to keep going, everything is in just the right place, the graphs ending and cutting and bleeding you into the next. Contains one of my favorite “action” sequences when a character is lit-up in a lake by a Molotov cocktail.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Took much away from this one but was largely moved because it showed me you could write a story and smash it into shifting perspectives and narrators and have it be something even more exciting and damaging. Writing a novel of my own felt like driving a car Fred Flintstone style and As I Lay Dying with all its short little chapters, some merely a graph or two and it’s most famous a single sentence, inspired me to do so. Remember reading Dying during my sophomore year of college, skipping all my classes that day to sit in bed under a thick green blanket while Buffalo snowed. The heat was on in the dorm room but I remember it was freezing, my hands above the blanket turning the pages cold.
Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs
The final thirty or so pages of this one are pages I’ve read over and over again for its sheer abundance of energy. When Burroughs gets going in his descriptions and his creepy poeticism and his quick jumps there’s just no stopping him. Full of crystals and colors and mysticism and suburban nightmares. The rest of the book is bonkers too but these last thirty or so pages are relentless.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez
This may seem like a tame and safe one for many but I read it at the right time, when I needed something in a different style from the relative flatness of realism. I clearly remember reading a majority of this one in my parent’s basement (damn, I think I was 25) and coming up the stairs to the living room or kitchen or wherever my Mom or Dad was and reading sentences to them because I didn’t believe they existed, didn’t believe they were doing what they were doing.
The Castle by Franz Kafka
Libraries are the last remaining drug dealers because I read this one while working as a lifeguard in my early twenties and feel I was too young to be handed such a pill. There’s a moment early on when the narrator is walking around the town and it keeps changing maze-like, and objects in the distance stay there, in the distance, no matter how “close” the narrator feels he is, or should be, and this theme runs throughout, specifically with the narrator trying to reach the castle. One of my first mind-fucks. I’ve bought several copies. In the future I want the doctor to insert this book as a microchip into my brain.
A Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
My first reaction when McCarthy jumped into my head was to talk about Blood Meridian or Suttree – two texts I hold close and many would consider much bigger than Child. But if I’m honest with myself it’s this earlier choppy book that tore me up and had me re-reading passage after passage for the sheer beauty and invention of McCarthy’s pastoral-fucked rhythms.
Secret Rendezvous by Kobo Abe
I was turned onto Abe rather late and also after I didn’t see what all the hype was concerning The Woman in the Dunes which felt plain boring and/or had some vital organs dropped in the translation. However, SR is a completely different animal and functions as knitted together tunnels and machines and new skies, moving the narrator through an endless puzzle trying to find his wife who has gone missing in an underground hospital. Think of a tiny black dot acting as an eyeball and you’re moving the tiny black dot around an endless Bosch painting and you kind of get the feel of Secret Rendezvous. Full of endless surprises and arresting images like a half-horse man. Perhaps what’s most moving about SR is how it stops time but the narrator is always moving forward into what is frozen.
Purple America by Rick Moody
Yeah, I’m putting Moody on this list. For some reason, it seems current and trendy to kind of hate on Moody or pretend he never existed at all, when in fact he wrote one of the deepest and vein-slicing books of all time in Purple America. Do this: jump over to Amazon and read the opening of the book and if you don’t like it, aren’t moved by at least the audacity of what Moody is doing, feel free to call me a shithead below in the comments and I’ll admit to it. Such a sad-sack story constantly running on full depression levels it’s amazing it all stays together. I read the opening pages of this one often.
Magnetic Field(s) by Ron Loewinsohn
For some reason I keep thinking “I read this in a van” which seems impossible, but maybe. Loewinsohn creates household spaces and populates them with or without bodies and you feel like you’re right there in them too, standing in a room you know has been changed/robbed/violated by someone but you’re not sure who or why. It’s largely about invasion and what’s real and what’s not, and there’s a “sound artist” which is odd and fun. I think about this one all the time and it’s strange Loewinsohn never did anything bigger after dropping it in 1983 because his potential seemed sky-high. He wrote MF in six weeks: “By the last weeks I was writing 3,000 words a day, and probably about as happy as I had ever been in my life.”
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
There’s a story in this collection called the “Loser” which, just thinking about, makes me want to huddle in a corner and cry, order a pizza with three meats and end the day sobbing. I’m not sure of another collection of weirdo stories that balances the strange and downright sad so well and it seems so many authors have tried since and they all fail in some “trying too hard” way. This was another book I read while working at Borders and I can feel the blue spine at my fingertips, the book angling and coming for me off the shelf.
The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball
So many dead guys on this list so it’s nice to know that one of my favorites is my age and producing some of my favorite work. He’s not dead yet, I don’t think. Doors does similar things that Brautigan, Kafka, Kobo Abe, and a slew of other fable-minded writers like to do, but I’ve never once been bored by Ball or thought he’s just carrying-over. Doors is one of the most wild and enjoyable reads ever and I’m grateful that the world is somewhere inside me.
The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim
I don’t think you’re suppose to cry in a book this funny, but I did, near the end, when the main character “Doug” comes to grips that he’s just another Doug. It’s funny as hell at first, but then it gets sadder and sadder as he reflects on just being another Doug. Hard to explain, like most of this book where Antrim introduces all hundred characters in the opening space of a few pages. Does anyone know if Antrim has a new book in the works? We need him.
Also: Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov, The Rifles by William Vollmann, The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector, The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns, The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburgh, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Post Office by Charles Bukowski, Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis, Log of the S.S the Mrs Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link.