• The cover of the book A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

    A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

    Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters is a novel the same way Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie—though both are actually philosophical meditations on humanity, the fact that they both feature episodic events (albeit of various degrees of comprehensibility) necessitates the label of fiction and invites the useful euphemisms of “novel” and “film.” The protagonist of Barnes’s work is more or less “mankind,” and the book’s irreverent premise (succinctly articulated in the title) allows Barnes to do things that neither historians nor novelists are typically allowed to do. Without the evidentiary responsibilities of the former and by eschewing the conventional methods of the latter, Barnes invents (as he did in Flaubert’s Parrot) a form and a style entirely his own.

     
  • The cover of the book There But For The

    There But For The

    What makes Ali Smith’s There But For The so rich and original has little to do with plot or characters (though these, too, are singularly Smith’s). It’s the way she goes about exploring her themes—namely, through brilliant, extended riffs on the words of the title. Each section is named after and begins with one of the four, and the story—of a dinner-party guest who locks himself into an upstairs bedroom and refuses to come out—is unveiled via virtuosic scrutiny of what are seemingly banal terms, which, under the genius alchemy of Ali Smith, one of the world’s best living fiction writers, are somehow transformed into stunning insights into the human need for love and connection. Also check out Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories, How to be Both, and The Accidental, all of which feature Smith’s unique brand of emotionally evocative wordsmithery.

     
  • The cover of the book Hopscotch

    Hopscotch

    Regarded as a seminal text of Latin American literature—along with Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Borges’s Ficciones, and Sabato’s The Tunnel—Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch hasn’t retained the readership of some of his fellow writers. Which is really unfortunate, because Cortázar’s fiction has its own tricks up its sleeve. Hopscotch, for instance, is comprised of 155 chapters that can be read in any order, but according to a “Table of Instructions” from the author, “In many ways, this books consists of many books, but two books above all.” He goes on to explain that you can either read chronologically up to chapter 56 and disregard the last 99 “expendable” chapters, or you can follow a “hopscotching” sequence throughout all of the chapters. Depending on your choice, you’ll have a different experience of the story. (Ali Smith did a similar thing in How to  be Both, which was published with its two parts switched so there’s no definitive version, just whichever one you happened to purchase.) Cortázar’s book is a compelling novel of youthful bohemianism forced to confront the tragicomedy of the human condition: Horacio Oliveira and his “Club” of carefree artists in Paris, as well as Horacio’s adventurous episodes that follow the disappearance of his girlfriend, La Maga—these would be memorable enough for Hopscotch to establish Cortázar as a gifted novelist, but when you add the additional feat of multiple sequences, you get an iconic and hugely influential book in its time, a reputation and a readership I hope one day return to it and find their way back into the maze of Cortázar’s brilliance.

     
  • The cover of the book House of Leaves

    House of Leaves

    Quite possibly the most popular experimental novel of the new century, Mark Z. Danielewski’s unforgettable Escher-shaped horror story is first notable for its elaborate design—a heady mix of narrators and formats, footnotes and appendices, white space and color fonts. Flipping through the disorienting pages for the first time, many readers express incredulity about the book’s comprehensibility, but surprisingly, it’s really simple to follow, which is saying something since the plot revolves around a house bigger on the inside than on the out, and a hallway that appears out of nowhere and grows into an impossibly enormous maze, and the documentary being made by the home’s owner, Will Navidson, and a blind old man writing a sort-of dissertation on the film, and Jonny Truant, a young ne’er-do-well who happens upon the old man’s manuscript and who discovers that the documentary, Navidson, and many of the references don’t exist at all. House of Leaves is a once-in-a-lifetime literary experience.

     
  • The cover of the book Speedboat

    Speedboat

    Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat was out-of-print for a long time until the National Books Critic Circle launched a campaign to get it reissued, which finally happened in 2013 from New York Review Books. An acknowledged influence on Elizabeth Hardwick and David Foster Wallace (who put the novel on his syllabi at Claremont College), Speedboat is a thoughtful and accessible experiment, the kind that reads so effortlessly and guilelessly that you forget it’s so fresh and new. Jen Fain, a journalist for the Standard Evening Sun, recounts her life in brief episodes but does so with little interiority, and though she’s involved with men, they never emerge as truly important figures. Instead, Jen’s existence is almost haphazardly chronicled, but the efficacy and insight of each seemingly random episode is so palpable and precise, continuity ceases to matter. You just feel lucky to be reading such a wonderful voice.

     
  • The cover of the book The Intuitionist

    The Intuitionist

    Colson Whitehead, whose recent novel The Underground Railroad has been met with wide praise from the New York Times to Barack Obama, first launched himself into the literary world with a novel about warring sects of elevator inspectors. His 1999 debut, The Intuitionist, is set in an unnamed city (but totally New York) and follows Lila Mae Watson, an elevator inspector of the “Intuitionist” school, which involves taking the elevator and intuiting its functionality. The other faction, the “Empiricists,” actually just test the shit out. But what seems like a ridiculous premise soon gets jettisoned into philosophical, political, and social realms—Lila’s race (not to mention that she’s the first Black woman to hold her position) and the sources of her school of thought become deftly fraught components of Whitehead’s pointed commentary. When it was first published, The Intuitionist demonstrated the extraordinary potential of its author, and in the almost two decades since, Whitehead’s debut has proven prescient—indeed, after The Underground Railroad, the possibilities still appear endless for him.

     
  • The cover of the book The Tsar of Love and Techno

    The Tsar of Love and Techno

    The cover will tell you that this book is a collection of stories, but don’t be fooled by that. It’s a novel, and one of the most brilliantly structured ones at that. In order for it to succeed so grandly as a novel, the reader has to believe it’s just stories. But after the first entry—in which a censor paints the same image into numerous paintings—the connections begin to pile up, culminating in a work that by the nature of its setup can go anywhere and do anything.