RXTT's Top Ten Favorite Novels (so far)
I do not regularly read novels. Most of my reading is in the non-fiction realm. However, in my four-plus decades of looking at text on paper I have encountered many novels that informed me as much as my non-fiction books do. Here are my top 10. - RXTT
1. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut (1969): I cannot remember what or who introduced me to this book. I have no memory of discovering it, or of someone suggesting it to me as reading material. I read it first as a teenager then re-read it again several times over the next decade or so. I had read many novels before this. Most of them were either pulpy fare like Louis L’Amour westerns, or science fiction stories that would nowadays be labeled as “Young Adult Lit.” I had tried my hand at a few classics, even attempting to read Don Quixote in the original Spanish when I was 13 (I did not get very far!), as well as the mandatory reading in school. (Charles Dickens was, and is, and forever will be, the dullest shit) Slaughterhouse-Five was the first novel I read whose tone, ideas, and general mindset closely matched the way I thought about things, even though at the time I was too young to be able to voice these things as well as Vonnegut does. It was an “anti-war book” that was FUNNY, and not in an oblivious way. It laughed directly in the face of the overwhelming sadness and horror that is experienced by those of us that have to go to war. It laughed because it was too tragic not to laugh. I had found my literary soul-mate, and would go on to read everything I could get my hands on by Kurt Vonnegut. The fact that this book has and is consistently banned from school libraries makes me think it is even more valuable than I ever imagined. If the powerful fear it because they see it as dangerous then it is exactly what I want to read! “In 1972 it was banned from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan. The circuit judge described the book as "depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian."- Morais, Betsy (12 August 2011). "The Neverending Campaign to Ban 'Slaughterhouse Five'". The Atlantic. This still happens today in the USA, 40+ years later.
2. Moby Dick – Herman Melville (1851): This is my second-favorite novel. It did not become that until I re-read the entire thing, including the awesome chapters on cetology and the whale-oil trade, when I was in my early 30’s. I had tried to read it before, but never managed to get too far into it. I instead would read and re-read the Classics Illustrated comic book version! When I finally got sucked into Moby Dick, I found an amazing story that touches on the biggest, most universal themes that a writer can attempt to explore. Death, obsession, liberty, pain, fear, despair, and man’s place in the Universe itself are all explored in a manner that slowly unfolds from what, on the surface, seems like purely an adventure tale. Sometimes a book can affect me in ways that only become evident in the weeks and months after reading it. Moby Dick contains nearly the totality of existence within its pages. Even love itself, while a minor player in the book, is explored. We are all Ishmael, victims and survivors, surrounded by humanity, yet eternally alone, cursed with free will, but bound by loyalty to others and their sometimes irrational desires. This is a book that during Melville’s lifetime only sold around 3,200 copies, yet may very well be the single greatest work of fiction in American Literature.
3. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe (1719): This was the first “classic” novel that I read and enjoyed. As with Moby Dick, I had repeatedly read my copy of the Robinson Crusoe Illustrated Classics comic book before I managed to actually read the novel itself. Luckily, Robinson Crusoe is not a hard read, nor is it a deep exploration of complex issues. It is in fact a very simple story which, despite the issues inherent in writing about how a white Englishman creates his own society and teaches the “savage native” Friday how to properly live, actually manages to tell a universal story of human endurance, willpower, and gratitude. I must have read and re-read this book 6 times before I was 20 years old. Each time I read it I would understand more and more, and I would carry with me the lessons of self-reliance, patience, and humility in the face of an overwhelming Nature/God, much as Crusoe manages to do in surviving nearly 30 years marooned on a deserted island. Since I also love raw data in any form, I also greatly appreciated the detailed descriptions of the various means by which Robinson Crusoe managed to feed, clothe, shelter, and protect himself and Friday, the native who Crusoe saved from being eaten by cannibals. It is no wonder that of all the works of English literature, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has been translated into more languages and published in more countries that anything except for the Bible.
4. Ham on Rye – Charles Bukowski (1982): At around 18 years old, a dorm-mate who was studying writing shared this novel with me, which he had checked out from the campus library. I do not remember what exactly he said to make me want to read it but I went ahead and devoured this book. It was the most harrowing personal account of growing up a true outcast misfit in the cookie-cutter world that was 1930’s and early 1940’s America. Much like Slaughterhouse-Five, the story told in Ham on Rye is deeply moving and depressing at times. It also shares a similar vein of laughing/ridiculing the world around you and the people that make living such a fucking chore sometimes. Whereas in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s humor is apathetic and detached, Bukowski’s humor is raw and deeply aggressive. This story, like many of his novels, is essentially a disguised autobiography where Henry Chinaski is Bukowski’s alter-ego, and it exposes the raw nerve that Bukowski carried with him until his dying day. From his abuse at home, to the torturous “treatments” to lance his unnaturally extreme boils and acne, to the constant and punishing derision the world heaps upon him as he moves from public schools to private ones, Bukowski seemingly exorcised his demons with this novel. His previous novels (Post Office, Factotum, Women) dealt with his adult existence. Writing Ham on Rye must have been like uncovering the nearly-healed scabs of his inner wounds.
5. Blood Music – Greg Bear (1985): This is my favorite science fiction novel. Greg Bear is one of the few writers that still write in what is called “hard” science fiction. This means that the thrust of the story is not plot-driven, nor character-driven, but driven by the rigorous extrapolation of current scientific knowledge and theory and showing where this technology and science could lead the human race. In that sense Greg Bear follows in the footsteps of the masters like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I love how this novel keeps going past the point where most writers, running out of ideas, would stop. The idea of the book is that a researcher has managed to create/grow single-celled biological computers. To save his work he ends up injecting them into himself, unwittingly creating cells that actually have consciousness. Because, as quantum theory tells us, the “reality” of the Universe is only “decided” once a conscious being makes a measurement of some sort, this causes unprecedented issues once the single-celled organisms grow at an exponential rate. Eventually, there are trillions and trillions of these organisms, each one observing the world around them, and their collective consciousness surpasses the collective consciousness of the 7 billion humans on planet Earth. Eventually all humans are “infected” by these cells. Greg Bear extrapolates quite intelligently about the problems this would bring, eventually leading to an existence wholly separate from the physical/material world. It is a far-fetched outcome, but he details it so well that it makes perfect sense. That is my favorite science fiction! I love books that present the reader with deep topics to think about and ideas you could not find anywhere else.
6. House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski (2000): One of the best things about watching a great movie in a crowded theater is that you lose yourself in the collective reactions. The whole audience laughs, cries, screams, or jumps in unison, making the experience of the film that much more immersive. One of the best things about reading a great novel is that your whole self, conscious and unconscious, is lost among the stream of words that the writer has chosen for you to ingest. Reading Moby Dick transports you completely into the world of the Nantucket whaling ships. Reading one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories instantly drops you in a cruel world where you live by your wits and your sword, a world not much different from what humans had to live through in the dawn of civilizations. House of Leaves so completely draws you in, so easily distorts the basic structure of a novel, so readily turns unease into outright horror, that I have yet to experience anything else like it. Mark Danielewski has crafted a meta-novel, and instead of it becoming a pointless exercise rejecting formalism and traditional narrative structure, everything he does, from the typeface choices to the page layouts, to his consistent printing of the word “house” in blue everywhere it appears in the novel, just focuses more intently the part of your brain that screams and shouts, “This is wrong! This is horrible! This SHOULD NOT BE!!!” until you are sucked into a narrative world from which you may never truly “recover.” This is not horror of the monster-under-the-stairs type. It is horror of the unnerving sort that makes you question the very fabric of your reality. I wish I could describe it more without giving away the plot. As it stands, the book is constructed as a story within a story within another story, with seemingly endless footnotes, asides, and marginalia. Basically, a family move into a house and find that parts of it are bigger inside than they appear from the outside, leading them to discover bizarre spaces and slowly lose their minds. The story of the family is told by a news crew that joined the family to explore what they found, and the story of the news crew is told by a researcher whose papers exploring the events in the house are found by a low-level druggie whose life is changed by reading the researcher’s account of the original events. You see what I mean? It is a tremendous work of fiction, and the story of its creation is almost as bizarre as the book itself.
7. The Illuminatus Trilogy – Robert Anton Wilson & Robert Shea (1975): Perhaps the seminal work of cognitive dissonance, the Illuminatus Trilogy is the end result of its two authors attempting to craft a narrative that included, and ridiculed, nearly every single conspiracy theory, political idea, cult of personality, and outright kooky shit that came across their desk when they both worked as editors for Playboy magazine. It jumps from narrator to narrator with no warning, changing frames of reference nearly as often as it introduces new characters. It is also extremely funny. At almost 1,000 pages long, the “books” that make up the trilogy work as pure “guerilla ontology,” a technique used by Robert Anton Wilson in all his books.
“Ontology is the study of being; the guerrilla approach is to so mix the elements of each book that the reader must decide on each page 'How much of this is real and how much is a put-on?'" – Robert Anton Wilson
Every conspiracy, counter-culture, and secret organization you have ever heard of, and all the ones you have not heard of, are implicated in a mass conspiracy which builds in intensity and chaos as the book progresses. Historical figures pop up only to be revealed as something else much greater than our normal history tells us. When I first read it, I got through 200 pages wondering, “What the fuck is going on here?” By the time I was halfway through I thought I had a decent grasp of what was happening even though it was so dense. About 700 pages in I thought to myself, “How in the hell are these two going to wrap this thing up? It is just too much!” By the end of the book I felt like a newborn baby, as if my mind had been scrubbed clean of every preconceived idea that society tries to implant into our minds. It truly changed the way I think and send me on a path to read everything Robert Anton Wilson ever wrote.
8. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut (1963): This was Kurt Vonnegut’s 4th novel, written several years before Slaughterhouse-Five. I read it as I worked my way through all of Vonnegut’s writing. The story itself tells of a scientist who discovers Ice-9, a material that instantly freezes water at room temperature, and the end result that occurs because humans are stupid and mean. This may be the bleakest Vonnegut novel, while also being the funniest. Vonnegut really lets humanity have it, showing how little he thought of the organizations we create to run our world, specifically religions, government, the military, and scientists more concerned with new discoveries than the end results of those discoveries. He also creates a religion called Bokonism that is focused on “foma,” or harmless untruths such as “Everything will be alright,” or “Tomorrow will be better.” It is essentially a religion built out of outright lies, but the lies, if followed, will allow the believer to have peace of mind and possibly live a good life. It promises nothing. This is Vonnegut being serious and absurdist at the same time. I love reading his work because it all has that same quality. It asks you to accept the stupidity and futility of it all, but to understand that we have the power to live purposeful, ethical, kind lives. It also introduces through Bokonism the idea of a “karrass.” This is a group of people that are cosmically linked, even though it is not evident superficially. The opposite is a “granfaloon.” This is a group of people who imagine a proud connection that does not really exist. Vonnegut’s example is that of “Hoosiers,” basically people who hail from Indiana but who actually have no real physical or spiritual connection with each other. People kill and die for their granfaloons and Vonnegut, like me, finds that stupid as fuck.
9. It – Stephen King (1986): As a young teenager I would see other kids reading Stephen King books but I never would pick one up as they looked too scary. I was not a big fan of horror. Eventually I picked up what seemed to be the tamest King book, Firestarter, and read it and loved it, even though it was not very tame. It was, like most King books, a propulsive read. I then figured, if I am in I may as well go for the whole enchilada, so I started in on what was then the longest King book, It. At nearly 1,000 pages, it was like starting to read an encyclopedia! The story I found within, of a purely evil being that arises every 27 years to “feed” on the terrorized souls of a small town in Maine, and how a group of friends faced it and fought it as young kids, only to find themselves drawn back to Derry as adults, after having forgotten the horrors they faced in their childhood, and facing “It” once again, struck a deep chord with me. Stephen King is at his best when he describes the lives of regular people faced with the unnatural, and It explores this from the viewpoint of children and then adults, lending the book a depth that some of his other work does not have. I cannot remember how many times I kept reading because I was too afraid to stop and turn off my nightlight. I have re-read It several times since then and I always find something new to terrify me. Most of the horror in King’s books comes from a sense that the world is continuing around the protagonists without taking note of the evil just under the surface. This is allegorical and feeds on the terror that people live with while it remains unknown to the world at large. There really are monsters out there, disguised as human beings.
10. Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami (2002): Sometime around 1993 I was introduced to Haruki Murakami and his novel A Wild Sheep Chase by my friend Elliott French. What a weird book! I proceeded to read every Murakami book I could get, often as soon as the English translation was printed. They are all engrossing and mind-bending in their own way, but Kafka on the Shore may be my favorite. The book tells two separate stories. The odd-numbered chapters tell of a teenager who runs away from home and finds himself in a secluded seaside village where he finds employment and loses himself in a small private library until the police come around inquiring about a grisly murder. The even-numbered chapters follow an older homeless man who earns money through his uncanny ability to understand and find lost cats. He ends up hitchhiking and leaving his home town for the first time in his life, befriending a truck driver. These descriptions do not seem to amount to much but Murakami is not interested in plot-driven narrative. He instead constantly seeks answers to questions of identity, self-sufficiency, dreams versus reality, fate versus free will, and most of all the human connection to music and its power over us. Part of the reason I love this book so much is because one of the protagonists loves books and reading as much as I do, and what he reads frames his life. Sometimes I too daydream about getting “lost” in some small backwater burg and finding a nice quiet library to work and read my days away. The way that both narratives resonate with each other, and may be actually describing two parts of the same person, create a kind of altered-state mindset. The old man, Nakata, suffered a strange accident in his youth during wartime. This granted him the power to communicate with cats but forced him into a mental seclusion from which he never recovered. The young boy, whose name is never given but who names himself “Kafka” after the author, seeks willful isolation from the world that overwhelms him, and from a horrible crime which he may or may not have committed. Murakami’s works are the most quietly surreal novels I have read.