Philosopher Simon Critchley offers a mind-bending meditation on memory in his part-essay, part-history, part-fiction novel. In the semiautobiographical novel, Simon receives boxes of manuscripts from a recently deceased French thinker. Among the papers are charts predicting the deaths of great philosophers, all accurate, including one for Simon himself. Faced with mortality in minute detail, Simon undertakes the construction of a personal memory theater—based on the one described by Renaissance thinker Giulio “Delminio” Camillo (which he was apparently commissioned to actually build) that would contain all human knowledge—as the novel blends the various elements of personal, philosophical, and historical into a contemplative whole. It’s an illuminating little book, wholly unique and intellectually playful, and, appropriately, one you’ll never forget. (101 pages)
Frank Money, the twenty-something Korean War vet returning home from battle and faced with the additional and ironic fact that the world he’s returning to is less integrated than the Army was, stands with Milkman as one of Morrison’s most vivid male characters, as well as the most sympathetic. As the young man tries to figure out a way to re-enter real life, and as he’s forced to help his younger sister and return her to their hometown, Morrison writes so caringly about his complex adjustment and so painfully of the America Frank finds when he comes back from defending it. (145 pages)
In the Café of Lost Youth
In Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth, four narrators tell the story of Louki, a kind of Edie Sedgwick of the Guy Debord set (the novel is partly inspired by the Marxist’s circle), who fascinates as much as she beguiles. “There are holes in my memory,” Louki writes during her turn to narrate, which may as well be the book’s condensed starting point, as even with four disparate speakers (including Louki herself), the memories and identity of one human being remains elusive, incomplete, and lost irretrievably to the past. (118 pages)
Two stories, each award winners, about the Holocaust and those who survived it. In “Rosa,” a survivor now living in Miami in the ’70s struggles to find a new life for herself, or even to know who she is, as who she was was stolen from her during those horrific years. Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, like all her work, is an evocative meditation on difficult subject matter, a well-wrought exploration of the long echoing repercussions of one of the greatest tragedies in human history. (96 pages)
The Matisse Stories
A. S. Byatt
A master of incorporating real history, invented history, and complex storytelling, A.S. Byatt’s The Matisse Stories features three stories, each inspired by or in some way connected to Henri Mattise, the French artist. When a mind as capacious as Byatt’s takes on a visionary as brilliant as Matisse, the result is obviously a marvel of art’s beautiful call and response. (144 pages)
On Chesil Beach
A newly married young couple in Britain in the 1960s (just around the time that, according to Philip Larkin, “sexual intercourse began”) are awkward and nervous on their honeymoon. As they’ve never consummated the marriage, the two unprepared lovers don’t know how to talk about sex, or to understand the other’s reservations about it, which leads, heartbreakingly, to one of the most bittersweet endings of any novel you’ll ever read. (224 pages)
A father writes a letter to his son as he watches over him while the boy sleeps. Their home, Syria, has become a war zone, and they are forced to immigrate. A response to the current (and perpetual) refugee crisis, Khaled Hosseini’s gorgeously illustrated Sea Prayer is a passionate, necessary work of our time. (48 pages)
I recently sat down to read Max Porter’s extremely well-acclaimed novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a genre blend of essay, poetry, and fable, and without once moving from my position, I devoured the entire thing. The experience—of both the beauty of Porter’s writing and the book’s short length—gave me that rare and satisfying feeling of wholeness, of having internalized an entire narrative with all the varied undulations of its emotional trajectory, the sensation of getting in one fell swoop the intentions of an artist’s work. Short stories can yield such a sense of completeness, but these for economical reasons often don’t (or can’t to the same extent) allow the reader enough empathetic exposure to the character to invest in their plight and their humanity—we’re usually given the plight.
But a short novel—long enough to settle into a character’s interiority but short enough to finish in one sitting—might be the ideal book, an unacknowledged paragon of literary enterprise, a reader’s dream. Think about it: you can race through a bunch of them (always a plus for a reader) and they offer all the accouterments of longer novels. Moreover, a short novel can get away with a lot more experimentation and lyricism than its lengthier counterpart, as its very briefness prevents (or at least lessens) the chance that an unusual technique or a peculiar premise will wear out a reader’s textual generosity. So, inspired by Max Porter’s brilliant, devastating, and short novel, here are seven additional novels you can ingest like a light snack or an appetizer, but one that mysteriously fills you up like the biggest piece of steak you’ve ever eaten.
Featured Image: zynp/Twenty20