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December 21, 2007

Top Ten Novels

Inspired, or expired, or despired, by all the year-end top ten lists, plus something I saw somewhere about writers' top ten novels lists, I've decided to do my own top ten novels list.

But, of course, there has to be a caveat. This is not necessarily the top ten best novels I've ever read. That would be too difficult, given my moodiness. These are, rather, the novels that created my understanding of what novels are, broke that understanding and remade it, added to it substantially, or, in at least one case, helped define a whole area of things that novels shouldn't be. This is a litany of idiosyncratic reading experiences; not everyone--or even most ones--would have the same eye-opening experience upon reading these books, although I can heartily recommend all of them, and, in fact, do. This is really just a reading memoir, really. And I hate memoir. And redundancy.

Also, there are more than ten, as you will have immediately noticed. But Top Ten just rolls off the tonguish.

  1. The Dark is Rising: I wrote about it recently so I don't have to repeat, but this is a peculiar and beautiful little jewel of a book: not logical, nor perfectly structured--as YA and fantasy and YA fantasy must usually be--but intuitive and grand and cold and mysterious and ritually layered and smart and adult and complex all at once. I never found an age-specific book to match it because there is none, and it didn't so much confirm my childhood reading as point away from it, into the possibilities beyond.
  2. Pride & Prejudice: is so popular right now it hardly needs more elegy (or more accurately, rhapsody) added to its account. But beyond the "romance", which I started finding suspect at a fairly young age, P&P remains a favorite because it is so damned perfectly structured. I've read it twenty times (no exaggeration) and the structure never fails to usher me through the same emotional experience. You can become so accustomed to something that you sicken of it; you can build a tolerance to drugs; but a perfect narrative arc somehow never fails to raise your blood pressure at the right moment, even when you know what's coming better than you know the feeling of your own birthday.
  3. Jane Eyre: people pass over the weirdness of JE, I think because it's weird and that makes people uncomfortable. But weird is what happens when you take the sketchiness of a fairy tale and inhabit it with complex characters. I don't mean what Gregory Maguire does. Wicked and ilk is just a more complex formula. I mean, when you play out fairy dust in the real world, to its logical conclusion. When wives go mad and husbands are half-wild and damagingly entitled, and a half-benevolent, half-malicious universe intervenes to allow women of spirit to both escape, and be enslaved, in equal measure. JE is an anomaly among Victorian novels not because every single aspect of it wasn't a rampant trend of its era, but because Bronte committed absolutely to every device, and every line, took all of it absolutely seriously, rather than allowing herself genre and ironic distance like all the mens did. The result is Emily Dickenson weird, like focusing on flies' buzzing, or how to paint a billow, or the expression on a dog's face at twilight, when the universe shrugs to startle the master's horse.
  4. One Hundred Years of Solitude: hardly needs commentary either. Again, this was an issue of structure for me, a lesson in how Pride & Prejudice five-act fiction wasn't the only way to go about it. My first spiral structure, and induction into the pleasures of varying velocity. I didn't see it until the end, but the final sentence of Solitude tells you all you need to know about the book ... but only if you've already read the book. So it was also my first experience with that successful paradox of show vs. tell. And the book, also paradoxically, while falling me in love with lush lyricism (just like everyone else), was actually what put me on the road towards a more stripped down prose ... because once Garcia-Marquez has rained petals from the sky to mourn the death of a patriarch, what more can I or anyone do? Plus, an experience of pure, extended beauty. Truly. I was in a daze for a week. One of my few moments with the ecstasy of writing, felt while reading.
  5. The Dispossessed: Rather a dry experience, compared with all of the preceding, but a book that set me intellectually on fire because it was the first political novel I ever read. I mean, sure, I had to read Upton Sinclair and Orwell and Steinbeck and Uncle Tom in high school, but when the politics of the book is over--and come to think of it, all of those were books about political situations that had been largely resolved, although they left a mean residue--so is the book's impact. The Dispossessed was something of a complicated utopian novel, the first one I ever read after all the dystopias I read in high school (1984, A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451). I'd never experienced a political world that I so wanted to inhabit, nor felt the representation of a political reality better than the one I already inhabited. I'm no revolutionary, and I wouldn't go so far as to say the book created an activist of me. But what I have been able to do since then is at least partly enabled by the awakening of my political imagination ... something very different from political consciousness and much more essential to the workings of true democracy.
  6. The Joy Luck Club/The Woman Warrior: I'd be the first to scream if someone else glommed these two together, but I have to put them together because in my mind, they are the good and bad sides of the same coin, and the one didn't take effect on me until the other one had been thoroughly assimilated (used advisedly). I read Woman Warrior in high school, after picking it out of a used books bin in--where else?--SF Chinatown as a tween. It kinda fascinated me and kinda turned me off, partly because I was looking for some reading experience I could finally identify with, and, although I recognized the universal Chinese mother, Kingston--like any good writer--took care to make her mom an individual rather than a universal, and a Chinatown girlhood isn't the same as a hapa midwestern suburban girlhood. The other turnoff was her careful and fabulist deconstruction of novel, memoir, and superhero/hero's journey narrative. I was not at an age to appreciate that.

    Then in college I was home for the summer and helped my mom out with a cocktail party she threw without being asked and she was very impressed with my sudden maturity--I had always previously bellyached about having to greet and serve guests. When I finished the dishes I retired to my room and that night she left her new hardcopy of Joy Luck Club outside my door with a note thanking me for my help and telling me I was a good daughter (underscore hers). That's my mom all over: half serious, half self-reflectively ironic. I still have the book, and the note, and, although my bitchy mind started deconstructing the book almost immediately, I recognized in Joy Luck the orthodox version of the unsatisfying meta-memoir in Woman Warrior. At the time, I uneasily thought of Joy Luck as the better book. I now recognize Woman Warrior as the ur-text, the brilliant, unique one, which had to be tamed before it could be codified as the arc of the assimilating immigrant. I've written about this in Hyphen magazine and won't bore anyone with it here, but this was my beginning as an Asian American writer.

  7. Howard's End: Modernism wouldn't have made much sense to anyone without Forster to bridge the gap and I'm no exception. And just as everyone takes what they want from Modernism and leaves the rest, I went forward in my reading only to eventually go a step or two backwards to Forster. He introduced me to the deconstruction of the third and fourth dimensions ... but gently. Howard's End, with its timeless mansions and perpetually updating railways, is the novel of space/time compression fighting it out with imperialist expansion. I didn't experience any of that my last two years of college, but I did feel the way Forster messed with the reader's experience of time, so that important moments pass in a sentence, and untangling their implications is the quotidian work of the rest of the novel. With a little hindsight I can see that Howard's End--all of Forster, really, since I gobbled his entire oeuvre in a year--slammed the door on the following classics: Jane Austen and her manners insulated from the source of their wealth (see Tisa Bryant on Mansfield Park), and Charlotte Bronte and her Indies-plantation-owning-African-mission-going romantic males. Forster's literary heir is really Orwell.
  8. Middlemarch: Speaking of steps backward, my big discovery during my grand tour of Europe after college was Eliot. I went and read more and more and more Victorian-era novels: all of the Brontes that I had missed, all of Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins, Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tostoi, maybe a little Georges Sand ... and of course, all all all of Eliot. And--not to diss the intellect of all of the preceding, especially Forster, but Eliot's oeuvre--Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and especially Middlemarch--were my first encounter with fiction written by an intellectual writer and critic with a broad understanding of her time and a clear and expressive (rather than emotional and expressionistic) prose style. It's hard to rhapsodize about effectively, but emotional intelligence, breadth of vision, passion for people, and the ability to inhabit every stage of perspective, is my definition of genius thanks to George Eliot. She influences me more than I ever know when I'm in the midst of writing, and if I had to choose only one writer to emulate, Eliot would be the one.
  9. Cosmicomics: Not a novel, of course, but close enough to make a difference. Beautiful, weird and whimsical, funny, and with a simultaneously light and heavy touch ... everything I have written since I started reading Cosmicomics has been an attempt--in its way--to reproduce the effect of that book. It's that (to me) horrifying construction, a book of linked short stories, that remakes the novel, and indeed the short story for me. Not because of any structural or space/time funkiness--once you get past the sci-fi-y surface, these stories are very traditional--but because the ideas are so lovely Calvino just sort of ... doubled them back on each other, for the fuck of it. My most purely loved book on this list.
  10. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius please don't try to tell me this isn't a novel. And no, I'm not interested anymore in that discussion about the memoir/novel or the novelistic memoir, or the true novel or the fictional autobiography. Suffice it to say the lines have been blurred, who cares by whom? It's all the--by now--GenX clich├ęs Eggers wielded with excellence (yes, excellence) that make this book for me. Maybe I'm slow but it blew my little mind in 1999 and made a permanent dent. Eggers remains the only writer of my generation who has successfully blown my mind. (Lethem has also blown my mind, but not with a single book. Not that that's less valuable than the single-book-mind-blow, but that doesn't play as well on top ten lists.) Eggers is a negative influence. All due respect, but I have to fight hard not to write like him. He set up some rhythms and phrasing tricks that are so. damn. easy. to imitate.
  11. Parable of the Sower: My introduction to Octavia Butler. I've written about her here and here and don't feel like getting into it again. She found me a way to write science fiction, something I had always wanted to write but couldn't find a way to do while incorporating all my Asian American issues. 'Nuff said.
  12. Mumbo Jumbo: And finally, the book that answered my lingering questions about how I want to--and can--write what it is I have to write. Or put another way: what do I actually have to write. Reed gave me the structure of a process for using the code-switchy language of my actual life and not the prettified standard language Asian Americans are supposed to learn to get a dialogue with the power butlers. Reed teaches that surface and depth can be completely connected, so your linguistic polyrhythms can show and tell about what mainstream American wants to dismiss as schizophrenia simultaneously. Complex and challenging, but not white noise; a wall of word noise textured with different weights of meaning. A language that cites its sources moment by moment. Aleluja!

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Comments

Okay... now I just want to read (or re-read) everything on your list and see how our reactions differ. I'm very curious about Mumbo Jumbo, and Howard's End.

If you give me your address I will *so* send you Orphan's Tales if you don't have it already... a tiny gift in return for the pleasure of reading your blog lo these many years.

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