I have been asked to make a list of five books I recommend for a full immersion into the best of American writing from the ’80s to today.
It is not, of course, an easy task.
To cram more books into the list, I have picked five, but also provided notes on what else you might like if you liked that book (and no, there is no collaborative filtering algorithm here – I just went through the titles I had tagged with “American fiction” on LibraryThing, and made some hard and very personal choices). So, here’s my take. What’s yours?
- Philip Roth, American Pastoral. Swede Levov and his troubled daughter are among the most unforgettable characters of our time.
If you like this, you may also like: Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater; Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk about Kevin (see also here and here); Jonathan Franzen, Freedom; Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex. I don’t know what all these books have in common, except a sense of the family as the place where mistakes are made and people’s lives go wrong.
- Joyce Carol Oates, What I Lived For. This is not Oates’s best-known book, but her portrait of Corky Corcoran struck me – when I read the book, years ago – with her ability to get inside a man’s head (hey, I’m a woman, so I know I might well be wrong).
What I Lived For takes place in the kind of upstate New York town that is past its prime and not yet willing to admit it. If you like this, you may also like two novels about even more downtrodden places: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo (a small town in Maine); American Rust, by Philipp Meyer (rural Pennsylvania).
- Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I loved this novel for its inventiveness, scope and ease at tying all sorts of things together from the Prague Rabbi’s Golem to comic-book superheroes.
If you like this, you may also like other sprawling novels of unforeseen outcomes, such as John Irving’s deservedly popular The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Or, if you’d like to go for more of an intellectual stretch, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the definitive novel about addiction in America.
- Paul Auster, Leviathan. I’ve picked one of his early novels, but I could equally have picked The Music of Chance, In the Country of Last Things, or Moon Palace. And if you like them, you will also like The Red Notebook. Auster is, in a way, his own planet – love him or hate him.
- David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Yes, this last item is the non-fiction corner, and in the last 25 years nobody packed more brilliance into American non-fiction than DFW. See also here, here and here (DFW could employ rhetorical devices of the highest order and at the same time leave you thinking he was speaking from an inner source of simple truth).
If you like this, you will also like Consider the Lobster, another set of collected essays by David Foster Wallace; Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, an iconic look at Wall Street in the ’80s; and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which reads like a horror story, except that it happened.
What are your five books? Remember, it’s just a list. You can pick anything by Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or Jeffery Deaver and I won’t think less of you. In fact, genre fiction has its own rewards – but that’s a topic for another post.