Top 10 Books of Literature (Part 1)

 

TOP 10 BOOKS OF LITERATURE (PART 1)

 

Yes – I do read ‘proper’ literature, tut-tutting at science fiction with its jetpack, even if fantasy (including science fiction with its jetpack) is my genre of choice. Indeed, the book that has perhaps shaped my world-view most is one of literary fiction (and not surprisingly the top of this list).

 

As for my definition of literary fiction, essentially it’s non-genre literature – fiction that is (mostly) not fantasy or science fiction. Yeah, I’m not going to go further than that in terms of defining ‘proper’ literature in terms of artistic or literary merit, as this is an argument that vexes academics and critics – not to mention one reason why science fiction and fantasy (not to mention horror) often find themselves in a literary or cultural ghetto (or the Sci Fi Ghetto). Of course, this potentially includes fiction from other literary or cultural ‘ghettoes’ – the ‘pulp fiction’ of crime or spy thrillers, for example.

 

However, as usual, I make my own rules and break them anyway – much like the literary establishment in defining ‘proper’ literature. A number of entries in my top ten (as well as my honorable or special mentions) might indeed be classified as science fiction or fantasy, at least in atmosphere or style – just like the literary establishment claims its chosen works for ‘proper’ literature, which is why you have descriptions such as ‘magical realism’. Also, a number of my entries are comic or absurdist, which arguably often approaches fantasy in its disdain for mundane reality.

 

Anyway, these are my top ten books of literary fiction – the books that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

 

(10) DONNA TARTT – THE SECRET HISTORY (1992)

 

Donna Tartt is a Neo-Romanticist writer – “Tartt’s novels are devoted to the themes of guilt and beauty, and focus heavily on the tumultuous thoughts and feelings of her protagonists. It might not be inaccurate to call her the Morrissey of literary fiction”.

 

With her breakout best-selling and cult novel The Secret History, she was hailed as an influential late-comer in the ‘literary Brat Pack’ that included Bret Easton Ellis, although her novel was a lot less grisly that Ellis’ American Psycho, even if it similarly involved a homicide (or two), and her style is a lot more lush (in the style of Romanticism, hence neo-Romanticist).

 

As I said, the novel involved a homicide or two, which underlies the evolving tragedy (or trauma conga line) of the beautiful elite clique of upper class classics students that are at the center of the novel and idolised by its somewhat lower middle class narrator. The first homicide occurs in their attempt to recreate a Dionysian or Bacchanalian rite (with just a hint of the fantastic or supernatural) and the second follows from their attempts to cover up the first. Needless to say, things start to fall apart from there, as the beautiful elite prove not so beautiful after all.

 

A salutary lesson for us all – don’t study classics, kids!

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(9) IAIN BANKS – THE WASP FACTORY (1984)

 

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.

It was just a stage I was going through.”

 

You don’t tend to forget that opening. I’m a big fan of the importance of first lines or openings in books or stories. Ideally, they should pack a punch or two – and Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory certainly does that.

 

Of course, you could say that of his books in general. To quote TV Tropes, “Iain Banks had a Quentin-Tarantino-like reputation: he was famous for his first published novel The Wasp Factory which featured murder, animal mutilation and had a darkly comic tone. Explicit depictions of horrible events is a constant. Any article about him is sure to mention exploding grannies or heads on life-support used as punching bags”. Or as Banks himself said, “full of gratuitous nastiness but a cracking good read.”

 

He also crossed over genres between ‘proper’ literature and science fiction (although he published in the latter as Iain M. Banks):

 

“Writing mainstream fiction is rather like playing a beautifully tuned grand piano. it’s a wonderful experience and you can get a great sound out of it. Writing science fiction is like playing a gigantic church organ, one with four keyboards, two more keyboards for your feet, a hundred different switches and a load of stops to pull out, because pulling out all the stops is very important”.

 

And he certainly pulled out all the stops in his science fiction, for which he is perhaps most famous and particularly for the novels of his most famous creation – the Culture, a galactic post-scarcity “gleeful utopia with no exploitation, rules or money, heavily supported by high technology and benign, highly capable Artificial Intelligences”. Of course, writing of utopia tends to be boring, so his Culture novels tend to focus on the more hard-nosed and ruthless reality that underlies the Culture – its military and intelligence service, cheekily known as Special Circumstances.

 

But back to the literary fiction of The Wasp Factory – it “tells the story of Frank Cauldhame, your average sixteen year-old murdererous sociopath who lives with his highly secretive father on an isolated island in North East Scotland” and whose “daily routine consists of disturbing shamanistic rituals”, including the titular oracular wasp factory. But that routine “is disrupted when he begins receiving calls from his older brother Eric who has escaped from his mental institution” and he finds out things in his family are not as they seem…

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(8) PETER CAREY – BLISS (1981)

 

“Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death that was to have the greatest effect on him”.

 

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!

 

Well, I can’t refer to Australian literature without that famous Australian blank verse. Peter Carey is one of two Australian literary entries in our top ten – a prize-winning Australian novelist, although sadly not the Nobel Prize for Literature…yet. (Who the hell are Patrick White and J.M. Coetzee anyway?).

 

Anyway, his novel Bliss has more than a touch of fantasy or, ahem, magical realism about it. Indeed, it opens almost as my favorite subgenre of fantasy, posthumous fantasy, with the first death of Harry Joy. He gets better, although his new life takes a turn for the worse”

 

“Written as a dark, comic fable, the story concerns an advertising executive, Harry Joy, who briefly ‘dies’ of a heart attack. On being resuscitated, he realizes that the life he has previously drifted amiably through is in fact Hell – literally so to Harry”

 

His wife is unfaithful (to his best friend and business partner), “while his son is selling drugs, and his daughter is a communist selling herself to buy them” – something which is all placed in panoramic view through the windows of his house as Harry hangs upside down from a tree outside it.

 

Redemption comes in the form of pagan goddess figure Honey Barbara – “Honey is to Harry as Isis is to Osiris. Together they conquer Hell”.

 

Resonant with mythic and symbolic imagery, the book had a huge influence on my imagination – particularly as I also saw the Australian cinematic adaptation

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(7) PHILIP ROTH – PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT (1969)

 

“Portnoy’s Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”

 

Hell, I am Alexander Portnoy, although perhaps without quite the same guilt-ridden dsyfunction, sharing something of Portnoy’s perpetual sex-obsessed adolescence (as well as monologues to psychotherapists).

 

If Philip Jose Farmer brought the kink to my science fiction, Philip Roth brought it to my literary fiction. Philip Roth is my pagan patron of sexual Judaism – or as he puts in Portnoy’s Complaint, putting the oy into the goy.

 

Portnoy’s Complaint is perhaps Roth’s most famous work, a profoundly comic novel of sexual obsession – told through the humorous monologue of the titular (heh) Portnoy, “a sex-obsessed Jewish youth who confesses his often bizarre sexual encounters to his psychotherapist”. It’s not for the faint-hearted (it was banned in several countries) but it is unforgettable for those warped enough to read it (and if you’re not warped before you read it, you will be afterwards). There’s the infamous parts (with striking titles) in which Portnoy relays, in graphic but comic detail, his guilt-ridden adolescent obsession with self-gratification – most infamously, in a scene stolen by the American Pie films, where he violates the liver his mother has left out for dinner.

 

As he tells his psychotherapist, his life is a Jewish joke – even down to the book’s concluding punchline.

 

Yes, this book changed me – although not quite so much as the titular (HEH) protagonist of close Roth runner-up, The Breast, who undergoes a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, into a giant breast rather than a cockroach. O well – there are worse ways to go. That’s Roth for you!

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(6) KURT VONNEGUT – SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1969)

 

And so it goes.

 

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. definitely wandered into here from the science fiction section. Of course, the literary establishment tend to identify him as ‘proper’ literature rather than science fiction, although “the time-travel and aliens seem to disagree”. His work is known for “its satirical, anti-authoritarian, humanist, absurdist and often brutally depressing world-view” (although tempered by a cautious optimism that love may fail but courtesy will prevail), not to mention his catchphrases.

 

And so it goes.

 

It begins like this: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come Unstuck in Time.” It ends like this: “Poo-tee-weet?”

 

The focus of Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, is the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War – as indeed it was for Vonnegut himself as a prisoner-of-war in the city at the time (even if he unfortunately relied on over-estimates of the civilian casualties, perhaps understandably from having worked in the “corpse-mines” of the novel). Vonnegut’s anti-war sentiment lent itself to the novel’s alternative title (a common habit for Vonnegut), The Children’s Crusade – which, as he indicates in the novel, was born of a touching promise to a friend’s wife who reprimanded him about the fresh-faced adolescents of his service photographs going off to die in war.

 

Anyway, the characteristic Vonnegutian hapless protagonist of the novel is Billy Pilgrim, stand-in for Vonnegut as an American soldier as prisoner of war in Dresden – and who has indeed come unstuck in time, as a result of being abducted by the four-dimensional Tralfamadorian aliens. Among other things, they place him in an alien zoo to mate with a fellow abductee, p0rn star Montana Wildhack – which, incidentally, is my own fervent aspiration in the event of alien abduction or invasion. They let him go to marry a nice girl, experience death for a while and live his life like most other humans – just less chronologically. Interspersed throughout the narrative are the characteristic Vonnegut running gags of synchronicity or serendipity – in this case, the recurring first dirty photograph in the world (made a year after photography itself).

 

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”

 

Poo-tee-weet?

 

TO BE CONTINUED – COUNTING DOWN (5) TO (1)

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

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