Or perhaps you have.
Nothing is as it seems under the sharp western sun. After recovering from an enigmatic and near-fatal illness, Gasteneau, a man with an iron will, glimpses something so extraordinary and so horrific that he feels his life irrevocably altered. But did he really see what he thinks he saw? In the aftermath of his sickness, he’s also drawn deeper into a resolution he made just prior to getting sick: to seek out a piece of evidence that shows with certainty God’s hand at work upon the earth. But in seeking this evidence, he finds instead that he’s growing more and more obsessed by the loss of his mother, whom he barely knew, and is pursued as well by a ghostly figure in black and a feeling of hypochondria he can neither shake, nor fully define. Part mystery story, part literary crime nove, More and More unto the Perfect Day is at its core a tale of philosophical intrigue, a metaphysical thriller that combines the surreal imagery of Nabokov with the psychological complexity of Dostoevsky. The result is a novel of dreamlike strangeness and philosophical power.
10. Light Years
Published in 1995, this is James Salter’s fourth novel — a novel as real, as poetic, and as heartbreakingly beautiful as anything I’ve ever read.
By Fydor Dostoevsky. Once translated as The Possessed and often regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s four great masterpieces, the novel Demons (which contains my favorite character of all-time) nonetheless remains poorly known. Perhaps it’s the first 100 pages, which Dostoevsky later admitted were “a mistake” and not the proper way to start his mind-spinning story, which is an absolute masterpiece of plot-and-theme integration.
Tom Drury’s fourth novel, published in 2006, is intelligent, endearing, funny — though perhaps a little too farcical — and contains an exceptionally likable hero named Pierre Hunter.
The final novel by Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who, in 2004, died somewhat mysteriously at the young age of fifty. 2666 is a strange and sprawling novel — not quite one thousand pages — which depicts, among many other things, the unsolved murders of over 300 young, poverty-stricken, uneducated Mexican women in Ciudad Juárez. The story is poorly paced, but the novel is symmetrical and stylistically stunning.
6. Mao II
Written by the prolific and inconsistent New York City writer Don DeLillo, Mao II is one of his very few that held me to the end, with its excellent and unorthodox prose and its memorable female protagonist — the photographer Britta — and, most of all, his utterly real J.D. Salingeresque hero Bill.
Nick Tosches, who writes for Vanity Fair magazine, got poor reviews for this book, and in many ways you can understand why. It is an undeniably flawed novel (his third), but if you’re at all interested in the actual craft of writing, this book will sustain you by the sheer power of Tosches’s writing style and the fascinating originality of his story. Johnny Depp recently bought the rights to this book.
Many regard Truman Capote as America’s finest stylist, and I think there’s a good reason why. This book, which was published posthumously in 1986 in England and in 1987 in the United States (though chapters of it first appeared in Esquire magazine), represents Capote at his best. Because of its subject-matter, it created a storm of negative controversy, from which Truman Capote never really recovered. Admittedly, the plot, such as it is, is wobbly, but the prose positively coruscates.
3. Outer Dark
You’ve doubtless heard of the author — Cormac McCarthy — but you might not be familiar with his second novel, which was published in 1965, when Cormac was thirty-three-years-old. There’s something biblical and apocalyptic in this book — a raw and, at times, astoundingly poetic read. The title itself ostensibly comes from the bible, where a variation of it appears three times, and all three of those are from the book of Matthew:
But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12).
Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (22:13).
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30).
That’s a lot of teeth-gnashing, I think you would agree.
But Outer Dark will not leave you gnashing your teeth, though it just might leave you weeping.
Nicholas Christopher is one of the best least-known novelists and poets alive today — a true writer’s writer. His novel Trip to the Stars was first published in 2001, and here’s how it’s appositely described on his website:
At a Manhattan planetarium in 1965, a ten-year-old boy called Loren is kidnapped from his young adoptive aunt, Alma. The event profoundly changes the rest of their lives. Told through their alternating voices, A Trip to the Stars charts the paths of Loren and Alma over the next fifteen years, as they search for each other and in the process, discover themselves.
When he is whisked away by strangers, Loren at first believes he has been mistaken for another child. But his abductor turns out to a blood relative–his great-uncle Junius Samax, a wealthy reformed gambler. To his even greater surprise, Loren learns his “real name” is Enzo.
Growing up in a lavish converted Las Vegas hotel, Loren is surrounded by a priceless collection of art and antiques, and a host of eccentric guests–including experts on Atlantis, Zuni occultism, vampires, and other mysteries of the universe. Slowly, he pieces together the truth about his mother, and the complicated history that led to his adoption shortly before her death. He also battles a malicious woman, with hidden ties to both his birth parents. Although he still thinks about his aunt far away, Enzo is lulled by the belief that she knows he is safe.
But in New York, Alma is devastated by Loren’s disappearance. After months of frantic, fruitless searching, she stops and starts striving to escape the past. Changing her name to Mala– the word for “bad” in Latin, Spanish, and Italian–she gets a car and drives as far as New Orleans. After a stint working for an arachnologist, she volunteers for duty in Vietnam–a war she opposes. Trained as an X-ray technician and assigned to the Navy Nurse Corps, she keeps to herself and mourns for Loren. On Christmas day, the unexpected happens. Mala meets Geza Cassiel–a striking Air Force captain with the strange outline of a key in his stomach. Immediately, they are drawn to one another. Yet just as Mala opens her heart, Geza too vanishes. Devastated again, Mala begins a restless ten-year journey, moving from island to island around the globe, seeking for some way to overcome her losses.
Seamlessly fusing fantasy, scholarship, and suspense, A Trip to the Stars follows Enzo and Mala across a vast landscape–with stops in the Mojave Desert, Greece, North Africa, the South Pacific, and Hawaii–and through harrowing and electrifying events. At every step, Christopher tantalizes with dark secrets, breathtaking coincidences, psychic revelations, celestial influences, and the converging forces of fate and chance.
Christopher builds a story of tremendous scope as he traces the intricate latticework of Mala and Loren’s lives. Each remains separate from the other, but both are tied in ways they cannot imagine — until the final, miraculous chapter of this extraordinary novel comes to an end.
Toilers of the Sea is one of my all-time favorite novels, and Victor Hugo is one of my all-time favorite novelists. This book is a paean to human ingenuity, human strength and self-discipline. At the same time, it is an absolute condemnation of superstition.
Toilers of the Sea was first published in 1866, when Victor Hugo was sixty-four-years-old, and I promise you one thing: you’ll never forget Gilliat, surely one of the greatest characters in all of world literature.
Possibly related: Is Shakespeare All That?