Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Top 10 (9+3) Books of All Time (So Far)

It's not easy for me to make a definitive list of anything, especially things I love. It always seems that for every one addition I make to that list two crimes of omission are committed. Given that, I started compiling a list of my top ten (in no order) favorite books of all time, and I decided it should ignore format, genre, and social value, looking at it as I often do, with a combination of the "If-I-Was-On-A-Desert-Island" and the 'If-I-Had-To-Prove-To-Aliens-We-Shouldn't-Explode" scenarios.

I say "so far" because I'm always looking for that next book which will rewrite or rearrange everything for me, forcing me think about the written word in a new way. The "9+3" is because, as you'll see, there are three books which blend together as a concept for me, included for what they do for the art and mean to me as a writer more than they stand on their own. I've listed a good amount of these in other places, including my site, but I've never given a proper explanation of why they're favorites. So, here goes.

1) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson

If I had to choose one literary hero above all others, it would be Dr. Thompson. Unapologetic in his views, feared by his enemies and loved by his friends, he was a monster of a man, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was Hunter at his unbeatable, undeniable best. He took what began as a Rolling Stone assignment to cover a race in the middle of the desert and turned it into the best drug trip ever captured on paper. Then he had the balls to make it about something. His search for the American Dream became a time capsule holding the death of the sixties, told in a style so distinct it was practically trademarked. Hunter took politics and made them not only personable, but dangerous. Reading this book is so enjoyable I find myself having to slow down to taste every word.

2) Dermaphoria, by Craig Clevenger

I devour Clevenger's work. I'm greedy for it. Considering he's only put out two novels in the past ten years, I'm forced to join his newsletter and check his site far more often than necessary to catch wind of the slightest development. As great as his debut novel The Contortionist's Handbook is, and it is great, Dermaphoria is the one I had to put down after reading only three sentences to get in touch with my friends and make sure they were reading it. Clevenger is that good, constructing sentence after scenario after character so pitch-perfect it angers me to know they're not mine. In Dermaphoria it all comes together to tell the disjointed story of an amnesiac drug chemist, piecing his memory together after a near-fatal overdose.

3) Invisible Monsters, by Chuck Palahniuk

With all due respect to Mr. Palahniuk, I'm not sure whether I outgrew him or he outgrew him, but sadly I haven't enjoyed or bothered to pick up his last four books. If you look into it you'll find that those four books came out in the last four years, which is telling. He's the polar opposite of Clevenger in that he puts out too many books too fast and doesn't give them a chance to fully form, or, in plainer words, shed the shit. However there's no denying the lasting effect Palahniuk has had on fiction and the chances publishers take on darker material. Most of the spotlight fell on one of his other books, even though rule one of that book clearly states we shouldn't talk about it, but the book that stuck with me most was Invisible Monsters, the story of a model who has her face blown off, and the drag queen who bases his look on said model's former face. I love a properly done twist, and while that other unmentionable book has quite the example, Invisible Monsters has a dozen. Practically every chapter reveals some previously withheld detail that changes not only everything to come, but everything you've already read. This to me, both the reader me and the writer me, is one of fiction's greatest strengths- the trust that comes from letting someone else see for you, someone who may not be entirely trust-worthy.

4) Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore

In the third grade, when most boys wanted to be Superman or Spiderman, I wanted to be the Joker. I vividly remember standing under the hanging branches of a weeping willow tree during recess, telling a friend that when I was older I'd end up in an insane asylum. The reason? I'd seen it in Killing Joke, and the Joker just made it look too fucking cool. Alan Moore showed us comics could be dark and cruel and funny all at once. They could show nudity and madness. And they could be really, really good. Either by chance or by the simple evil of its cover it drew me in at the comic shop at the ripe age of nine. Thankfully I wasn't carded, because it changed the way I saw comics forever. I must have re-read it a hundred times before retiring it to it's dust-resistant grave. Unknown to me at the time, Killing Joke would be referenced as one of the turning points in comics toward more adult-oriented themes. It also laid down the popularly-accepted origin of the Joker and influenced both movie versions of the character. Supposedly Heath Ledger was handed a copy of Killing Joke by Christopher Nolan when he took on the role.

5) House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

When people talk about the Bible, I bet their expressions are close to mine when I talk about House of Leaves. Like them I'd gladly spend my time going around, telling people why they should have a copy in their homes. The problem is, I could tell you what it's about (a narrative about a manuscript about a documentary about a house that defies logic), but like the Matrix you really have to see it for yourself to understand. Not many novels can be considered an object of art, but House of Leaves wears the label comfortably. It's a masterpiece of typography and ergodic literature, and it could only be achieved with such single-minded vision because Danielewski went to the printing house, hunched down and slaved over it on his own. The resulting tome is a testament to the dying paper book. As interesting as e-books are, and as thankful as I am  for what they mean to me as an independent writer, a work like House of Leaves is simply impossible to translate into any other format. All those lists and footnotes and recovered photos would be there, sure, but the effect would be wholly lost. Do yourself a favor. Go to a bookstore, find House of Leaves and look inside. If you don't find yourself helplessly taking it to the register and putting down money for it, you're a stronger person than I.

6) Nobody Move, by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson seems to me one of the last, great classics. As far as I'm aware he has no internet presence; no Twitter account, no blog, not even a website, and so it's difficult to tune into what he has going on. But when he does write something, you can be sure he'll write the shit out of it. Jesus' Son was full of so much vivid honesty that reading it was like that moment you hear your favorite band for the first time. And just as you do with a favorite band, I flipped between what my favorite work of his was- Jesus' Son, about his alcoholism, or Seek, a collection of his brilliant non-fiction articles. I went back and forth this way right until Nobody Move was released, and then there was no contest. It's not as flashy a book as the others, but that's where its power comes from: the effortless way with which it owns you. All it is, really, is the story of a low-end criminal mixed up with medium-end criminals, with a girl thrown in for measure, but you never spend a second not caring about the stakes, not enjoying the ride. It's genre fiction by a literary king, and instead of feeling dumbed down it feels pared down, honed to a stabbing point. Sometimes your favorite is the one you want to go back to the most to relive it.

7) The Informers, by Bret Easton Ellis

In general I like the idea of Bret Easton Ellis more than I actually like him. Like someone out of one of his books, he comes on strong, and seems a bit in love with himself. However I need to know that writers like him are out there, scaring people with their books, saying things others are too timid to. But even if I'm not an adoring fan I have to tip my hat to Ellis for one book in particular: The Informers. With this inter-connected collection of short stories about (of course) Los Angeles, he manages to reveal a dozen, different sides of the same, vapid society, offering a handful of characters you either love to hate or feel your heart break as you watch their cruel surroundings consume them and turn them into one of its own. This alone is enough for a good book, but then one, final element comes into play from so far left field you don't see it coming, until it cracks you straight in the skull. It's one hell of a surprise, pulled off with flawless skill, and it elevates the entire book to an unexpected level of greatness. Well played, Ellis.

8) Book of Sketches, by Jack Kerouac

There's a pattern forming here. I tend to acknowledge an author's more known work yet celebrate their more obscure, less celebrated stuff. In other words, I might be a book snob. Kerouac's huge hit was The Road, easily the most widely-read book to come out of the Beat Generation. My only issue with that book is I think it's too long a form to maintain Kerouac's passion, so that by the end I felt numb to it. Book of Sketches solves that by not being a novel at all but rather compiled pieces from the notebook he kept in his back pocket and ritually, even obsessively detailed the things he witnessed inside. Not only does this set an example any writer would be smart to follow, it offers a thousand, tiny moments of genius for us to discover. It finds a happy medium between his poetry and his prose, and finally it acts as the most telling kind of autobiography- one told in brief moments, those the man felt were important enough to put down on paper. All Kerouac is worth a read, but this one slapped me the hardest.

9) Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

I'd always meant to read this classic, and when I finally did about a year or two ago I kicked myself for waiting so long. Then I went to the library and borrowed all the Bradbury they had. His voice is so modern and clean I had to stare at Fahrenheit's 1953 publishing date a few times to make sure I wasn't reading it wrong. It's no wonder it blew people away when it came out. This is one case where an author's most popular work, while being nowhere near the only thing he had to offer, is also his greatest. Warning of a future in which no one reads books, and in fact can't own them by law, brought out the best in Bradbury. It's science fiction yet it isn't, common for Bradbury, one of the most respected sci-fi authors (the Ray Bradbury Award is the highest honor in its field) yet he claims he isn't one. Don't be fooled into thinking Fahrenheit 451 should be lumped in with all those boring classics found on mandatory school reading lists. While some of those dead texts can feel like punishment, others become classics because they're actually that good.

+3) The Unfortunates, by B.S. Johnson, The Microscripts, by Robert Walser, The Atrocity Exhibition, by J.G. Ballard

Finally, there are three works which I group together because I love what they represent to me, which is the endless possibilities inherent in books. The various forms they can take when approached with a mind that's either innovative or, to be honest, mentally ill. And sometimes both. Books like these free me up in the way I think about books themselves, similar to the way House of Leaves does except that that book stands very much on its own.

The Unfortunates is an attempt to create a non-linear narrative in the most honest way possible- by taking it out of the author's hands and leaving it completely to chance. You see, The Unfortunates is made up of twenty-seven, individually-bound chapters which the reader removes from the box and is free to shuffle and read any way they choose. While the premise could be considered gimmicky, the idea works because the story- a true account of Johnson's friend dying of cancer- is told through random memories as they float to the surface during Johnson's return to a familiar city. Though I'd like to see something like this tried with a more fictional, event-based story, there were enough unplanned moments in my reading for the whole thing to be worthwhile. I compare it to a videogame. When something amazing happens through gameplay and physics versus scripted cinematics, it always seems more special, more real. Ironic that a "Book-in-a-Box" showed thinking outside one, and it ends up as a one-of-a-kind experience.

The Microscripts is a book of writings by the German author Robert Walser, a man who spent a great deal of his life in a sanitarium. Walser was unique because due to a combination of his illness and a lack of confidence he wrote in tiny marks a millimeter high on scraps of paper he found. For years after his death the scribbles were believed to be written in a code that died along with Walser, until someone realized it was actually German script so small it was barely legible. The scraps were painstakingly transcribed and sadly revealed not the ramblings of a madman but rather a real author with a real voice. These Microscripts come reproduced with color photos of the original scraps, written on the backs of receipts or in the margins of book covers, letting us look into the mind of the tortured artist.

Finally, The Atrocity Exhibition is what I'm talking about when I say both innovative and mentally ill, because I'm not sure anyone in their right mind could write something even close to Atrocity Exhibition. Nor anyone less than brilliant. If you need evidence of how disturbed the late Ballard was, you only need know that a) he wrote Crash about his repeated theme of sexual arousal by car crash, and that b) the movie Empire of The Sun (with young Christian Bale running through the wasteland of WWII internment camps) is based on Ballard's childhood. Atrocity Exhibition is about as bizarre and disjointed as they come, depicting a world post-JFK assassination. Eerily abandoned and sterile, it focuses primarily on a doctor attempting to somehow map out the architecture of sex. It treats dead celebrities and parking garages as equal sexual objects. In short, it's genius and it's insane. I could never write a book like this in a hundred years, and I probably sleep better for it, but all I have to do is crack the cover on this for ten seconds to read a sentence or even a chapter title so brilliant I have to put it back down. Which is for the best, because attempting an in-depth sitting with this one is both challenging and off-putting. It took me a few years to actually finish it even though in reality its not very long. Do I recommend it? Yes. And also not at all. That's the greatest compliment I believe I can offer a novel.


Unknown said...

Good Suggestions. I have only read one of them (F451). I just went out and grabbed Dermaphoria, so we'll see how it goes.

Brian Martinez said...

Excellent choice, let me know how you like it.

D. Jonathan Newman said...

love this entry, and I loved that someone bought Dermaphoria because of it. Clevenger is hands-down my favorite author.

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