I read a lot of books this year, and I thought it would be good to share them. Here are my five favorite novels that I read in 2013. Some are short, others are long, but they are all books I wholeheartedly recommend.
5. John Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy, 1977, 610 pages.
Master of the literary spy thriller, John Le Carre is in top form with The Honourable Schoolboy. Part sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, part Conradian epic set in the death throes of the Vietnam war and the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, The Honourable Schoolboy is so much more than a spy thriller – it invokes noir elements, intrigue within and outside the British Secret Service, and offers a panoramic scope of Southeast Asia in the 1970s. While it’s technically a “George Smiley novel,” featuring Le Carre’s most famous creation, the average but brilliant desk jockey, it’s really about the Hon. Jerry Westerby, a minor character from the previous book in the series, who is transformed into the title hero. During the chapter of his introduction, in which the omniscient narrator (Le Carre himself?) describes Westerby’s recall by the spy agency, we are given the same kind of fatal resignation that The Lord of the Rings demonstrates when Gandalf looks resigned as Frodo volunteers to take the ring to Mordor. It’s on that scale of epic, two different novels thrown into one bursting with memorable characters placed in the panoramic chaos of 1970s Southeast Asia. Apocalypse Now + Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy = The Honourable Schoolboy.
4. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, 2004, 544 pages.
Speaking of multiple novels in one work – um – let me introduce Cloud Atlas, which begins with the story of Adam Ewing, a 19th Century notary traveling back to the United States from Australia. His story cuts off after about 40 pages, and starts off one of the most innovative novels of the decade, if not the last fifty years. Next is the first half of an epistolary story about a composer in the early 1900s, followed by a 1960s crime thriller, then a contemporary story about an older publisher trying to escape from a nursing home, then a Blade Runner-esque fantasy, and finally a post-apocalyptic tale. The stories finish in reverse order, culminating in the end of Ewing’s voyage. Adapted faithfully into a 2012 film by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, Cloud Atlas is remarkable in so many ways. David Mitchell can write in whatever genre he pleases, and here he does just that, with characters and motifs intersecting from each story to form a true “atlas” of stories.
3. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, 1952, 581 pages.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms… I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” So begins Ralph Ellison’s epic tale of race, individualism, and struggle as the unnamed African-American narrator goes through a nightmare journey of disillusion from his home in the Deep South to New York City, eventually becoming a spokesman for the Communist Party. But the narrator’s white Communist handlers turn out to be no less beneficent than the prejudiced and oppressive gentlemen of the South, and the narrator learns that to create social change, he cannot trust existing institutions, which have their own hidden agendas. Moving, dazzling, and at times, comic, Invisible Man‘s jazz-like prose is a monument of modern fiction.
2. James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, 1941, 298 pages.
I’ve written about this novel before, in this past summer’s highlight reading list (Read here: https://expedictionary.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/best-reads-of-summer-2013-mystery-special/), and I’ve included it again only because it is really, really good. Mildred Pierce is a Depression-era mother of two who decides to kick out her husband, only to find out that, well, she has to support her children, somehow. But she won’t stoop down to take a working class job, even though she has no experience, because her oldest daughter, Veda, is very proud. Mildred Pierce goes through struggle after struggle, and just as things look better, karma returns with a vengeance. A hardboiled novel without any murders, Mildred Pierce is a modern day Madame Bovary, with poignant social commentary and vividly delicious characters, the acidic Monty Beragon, the scummy Wally Burgan, and of course, the insidious Veda.
1. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, 1929, 336 pages.
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury deserves all the acclaim that it receives, because it is one of the most innovative novels ever written. Told in four sections by three narrators, and a fourth in third person, The Sound and the Fury chronicles the decline of the Compson household, a once eminent name in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Taking the title from one of Macbeth’s soliloquys (“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing), Faulkner’s novel begins with the story told by Benjy, a mentally disabled man; followed by Quentin, his neurotic brother; then his other brother, the bigoted Jason; and ends with the story centered around Dilsey, their elderly black servant. All three brothers are obsessed with their flirtatious sister, Caddy, and all three watch their once-proud family fade into nothingness. The novel is tough to decipher at the beginning with Benjy’s nonlinear story and Quentin’s stream of consciousness narrative, but smooths out to more conventional narration at the end, and is one of the most rewarding modern novels for its power and depth. The Sound and the Fury is a classic that isn’t for everyone, even if nearly everyone should have the opportunity to give it a try.