#2 Eleven (Really) Long Novels Worth Your While

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-Matt, Drew, Josh, and Curtis-

For the original post click here.

Have you ever been a little frightened to read a particularly long book?

You’re not alone. Even those of us for whom reading is second only to breathing and eating as a necessary pastime (Am I exaggerating? I can’ tell.) sometimes avoid those most sizable tomes, for one reason or another. Because we love to read, we may feel as though devoting the weeks or even  months required to finish a behemoth shortchanges us because in that time we might finish two or three shorter works and be all the richer for it. It’s also possible that we dismiss these doorstops because we feel a certain antipathy towards those authors who can’t find a way to say their piece in fewer than 500 pages.

While there are kernels of truth embedded in those outlooks, there are flaws as well. Sure, some gigantic novels are mostly the result of the padding employed by authors who were paid to write their work serially, when word-count correlated directly to the size of their checks (I’m looking at you, Dickens), but long novels done right provide us an opportunity to envelope ourselves in another world for an extended period, allowing us not only to connect with the plot and characters in a potentially deeper way, but to force us to maintain focus on a complex set of intertwined ideas for a long time – always a valuable enterprise in my estimation.

Each novel is accompanied by a warning (my attempt to honestly appraise the concerns people often have about books like these) and a payoff (basically my pitch for each of the works). I can recommend these eleven from personal experience. For my purposes, I’m defining “long” as 500 or more pages. All page counts come from the books’ Amazon pages. They are in no particular order.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Warning – Russian is notoriously hard to translate into English, and despite Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky (we need more translating team couples) award-winning collaboration, the dialogue and descriptions can sound clunky in spots.

The Payoff – Dostoevsky is famous for his astute psychological profiles, and TBK has them in spades, from young Alyosha (the believer) to Ivan (the skeptic) to Dmitri (the sensualist), Dostoevsky imbues his characters with often painfully recognizable flaws and then sets them in motion, playing out a family tragedy that evolves into a wrenching murder mystery and courtroom drama.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The Warning – At nearly 1100 pages, IJ is the longest book on this list, and it’s probably the most dense. I had to read it with a (sometimes insufficient) dictionary next to my bed. Also, it’s peppered with these endnotes that necessitate two bookmarks: one for the actual page you’re on and one for the endnotes (of which there are nearly 400). Oh, and an at least cursory knowledge of Hamlet will help. I know this sounds miserable, but…

The Payoff – … Infinite Jest is perhaps the most fully realized, empathetic, challenging, moral, inspiring novel I’ve ever read. The two primary protagonists (Hal Incandenza and Don Gately) are vast reservoirs of insecurity and insight into the human (and often especially the male) condition. It will be hard work, but it will be completely worth it.

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Warning – 2666’s grisly exposition and fragmented narrative might turn your stomach. One long section of the novel is essentially a laundry list of the women’s bodies found in the desert near Ciudad Juarez and the horrific crimes visited upon them.

The Payoff – The above grim section is not without purpose. The book is partly an indictment of our attraction and desensitization to atrocity, particularly when it’s aimed at women. Murders like the ones Bolaño describes actually occurred, and when he looks around, culpability is all he sees. A few weeks’ rumination on the themes Bolaño plumbs might keep you up at night, but it’ll also put the voices of the victimized in your head, and one less blind eye is always a good thing.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

The Warning – The adjective I encounter most often when reading about Murakami is “dream-like.” This isn’t really by accident, since it’s hard to tell sometimes whether or not the events he describes in his works are really happening. That can be frustrating for readers looking for more conventional narrative structures and recognizable plots.

The Payoff – Reading Murakami is like doing a huge jigsaw puzzle, and while there are moments when madness threatens to take you over because the pieces seem not to connect, the satisfaction of completing the puzzle makes it all worth it. On a probably unrelated note, if Wes Anderson were a Japanese novelist instead of an American filmmaker, I think he’d be Haruki Murakami.

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

The Warning – This will become your favorite novel. You’ll start to see biblical symbolism everywhere and develop an imbalanced aversion to anyone named Kate. But seriously, of all the books on here, East of Eden will probably intimidate you the least. Yes, it spans generations and gets a little philosophical in spots, but let’s be honest, you wouldn’t be reading this post at all if that kind of thing didn’t get you at least a little jazzed up.

The Payoff – I wasn’t joking about this becoming your favorite novel. Steinbeck’s capacity for illuminating our raw humanity may be unmatched in American literature, and East of Eden is chock-full of raw humans. Few novels have ever captured the fullness of our struggle for acceptance, from each other and from the titans of our lives.

What is the What – Dave Eggers

The Warning – If you generally feel good about Western foreign policy and want to keep it that way, don’t read this book. Eggers’ dramatized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng reveals the stunning cruelties of Sudan’s decades long civil war and Deng’s journey across that ravaged country with the “Lost Boys,” a troupe of refugee’s who walked the breadth of their country seeking aid. I’ve only cried reading a few books, and this one cuts deeply.

The Payoff – First, this serves as a pretty outstanding primer on the whole Darfur situation (as it’s known by liberal white people all across America). Second, Eggers’ telling of Valentino’s story is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking, and he masterfully balances the pain and near-despair of the tale with the Deng’s sometimes unbelievable hope and optimism about America, his future, and the realities of his past.

Light in August – William Faulkner

The Warning – Faulkner is notoriously difficult. In fact, besides James Joyce (you’ll notice Ulysses is mercifully absent from this list), I think Bill here is one of the least reader-friendly authors I’ve encountered. Perspectives shift and action is sometimes communicated almost as much by imagistic poetry as by conventional subject-verb-object prose.

The Payoff – A gut-punch of a novel about race, perseverance, sacrifice, power, and grace. Despite Faulkner’s trickiness, Light in August is definitely the most accessible of his “Big Four” – As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom! round out the list. You’re engaging with one of the true revolutionaries of American letters here, and after Light in August, you’ll not only understand what all the fuss is about, but you’ll be better equipped to dive into his other seminal works.

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Warning – If you’ve ever heard Franzen speak (he seems never to turn down the opportunity), you’ve probably wondered what crawled up the posterior of this particular savior of American literature and promptly kicked it. The guy is pretentious and egoistic and some of that sensibility leaks into his fiction, and he gives off the vibe that these characters are really just thinly veiled proxies for his own limitless, snide opinions.

The Payoff – The Corrections suffers from Franzen’s real-life obnoxiousness far less frequently than his other works (most notably 2010’s much lauded Freedom), and the result is often pretty staggering. The novel follows the various dissolutions of a mid-western family, alternately employing deft, jabbing satire and frightening portraits of human failure to expose each member’s cracking shell for what it is. Imagine contemporary Dostoevsky but without the rigid morality.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

The Warning – Shifting styles and perspectives again. Vignettes from the 30s and 40s, excerpts from a science-fiction novel-within-the-novel, and scenes from contemporary Canada all fold together in a sometimes throttling mixture. Again, reading a book like this can leave readers who like linear structures feeling a little cold. I can only promise you that she knows where she’s going, and that each of the novel’s mysteries-wrapped-in-enigmas come to light.

The Payoff – Margaret Atwood is plenty well known, but not well enough. This should be your introduction into the oeuvre of the English language’s greatest living author (well, it’s her or Cormac McCarthy). Of the authors whose books feature on this list, only Wallace and Steinbeck consistently impress me with their prose as often as Atwood does. No novel I’ve read recently pulls so convincingly at the tenuous threads of age and identity that we’re often too afraid to bother with.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon

The Warning – It really helps if you’re at least a little bit of a comic book nerd. It’s not essential, by any means, but it flattens the learning curve and makes the book a whole lot more revealing. All that aside, Kavalier & Clay takes a lot of twists and turns, and they’re not very often the twists and turns you’re rooting for, so it takes some patience and understanding to deal with the story you’re told, not the one you want.

The Payoff – Perhaps one of the most convincingly rendered novels I’ve ever read in terms of tone, place, and Pathos. Chabon dives into the fears and dreams of two men who are simultaneously in the right and wrong places at the right and wrong times, economically, culturally, and romantically to offer us profound insight into all the ways in which we think the things that will satisfy us ultimately don’t.

P.S. – In my daily perusal of book-related internet items, I came across this eloquent explanation on why no one should be afraid to read Middlemarch. An appropriate addition to this post, I’d say.

P.P.S. – For more on literature from TTAF, take a look at my essay on why men need literature in the first place.

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Categories: Outside of A Dog

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One Comment on “#2 Eleven (Really) Long Novels Worth Your While”

  1. T. Vierhout
    March 8, 2013 at 11:49 am #

    Great list. You may as well have titled it, “I dare you.” I just finished The Blind Assassin and enjoyed it immensely.

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