I feel that the titles we each list as “must-read” books are quite depictive of who we are as people in terms of taste and preference of style and genre within their subjectivity. I feel as if one asserts themselves within such an assignment by presenting what they find to be the “greatest works of fiction. . .ever created.” Yet, I want foremost to argue that no text can be regarded as “the greatest”, for, with any book, there exist a myriad of reasons as to why it is a profound work and imperative to the modernist canon; one cannot forget that an answer to such a question of such “greatness” is subjectively derived. Since modernism in itself is arguably subjective, one must choose a path at the road’s sunny fork, otherwise, floundering beneath the two sides arrives at nothing but sunburn and countless comparisons of “greatness”. So, how does one choose? I couldn’t tell you. Here is a list of a few works that came to mind most immediately, and if I think of better suited or more fitting authors I’ll certainly add them.
Jonathan Safran Foer: “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly”. I first read this short story in the New Yorker while riding the Bart home from Berkeley last summer. It’s absolutely brilliant and made the ride a lot less monotonous that day. Foer has an incredibly endearing quality to his writing that appears all too realistic while you’re reading it. The New Yorker included Foer as one of their chosen 20 authors under the age of 40, describing his piece as “Short story, told in non-sequiturs, about a love affair, marriage, and parenthood” however I feel that this description gives you no insight as to how deeply relatable this story is in terms of a painful love for another. His other popular works, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are also something to dabble in, as Foer’s descriptions are vast and brightly curious, awakening within the reader an excitement that feels as if his descriptions are dancing out as the pages are turned.
Thomas Pynchon: Zak Smith illustrated each of the pages of Gravity’s Rainbow. Here is the site for Smith’s index. something that each and every one of you should take a peek at. Pynchon, like Foer, has beautifully engaging descriptions within his writing– something that Smith’s illustrations are based off of. Smith took the most resilient line from each page of Pynchon’s book and illustrated, to the best of his ability, what he thought each page would visually be represented as. Gravity’s Rainbow is considered a post-modernist novel as it addresses aspects of warfare, as well as breaking down norms of Western culture. The construction of the novel, though starkly different, reminds me of the creative endeavor of working against the grain of literary structure within Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and/or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (Wallace is another author worth noting, as his book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is absolutely hilarious.) Within Pynchon’s text, there exists a series of mathematical levels as well as a lot of superstitious mythology.
Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro. I read this text in a modern fiction course last semester and fell head over heels in love with it. Within the text there exists a familiar heartbreak and fleeting yet returning beauty of memory of a lost love. One can only feel the sincerity in his memoirs, a hope to want to trust his writing as unadulterated honesty. After reading you think, “This is candid; luminous.” Originally written in Portuguese, the book has recently reappeared after being out of print and one could argue it a blessing. Assis writes of protagonist Bentinho who narrates the book in first person. Within Bentinho’s narrative, he questions the guilt of a lost lover and whether or not she was faithful to him. The book has incredible illusions to canonical works, historical events, and minor details such as an opera being like the colletive work of God and Satan. If you have time and enjoy love stories, read this along with Foer.
James Joyce’s: Ulysses. The staccato of discourse and oscillation of consciousness within Joyce’s text, and his stylistic rendition of The Odyssey as alluding to the corporeal self is an absolutely creative success. If you can, read this with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and look for the striking parallels between the two modernist works. Both beautifully contrived from setting to the sartorial, Joyce effectively hearkens back to the human experience of truth and consciousness (something that Woolf does valiantly embody) that renders Ulysses a masterpiece for more reasons than simply constructing an eight-hundred page epic. Within the text, Joyce structures his text after Homer’s The Odyssey, a text that all of us know or are familiar with. This book is arguably comparable to Dom Casmurro, as each of these texts stress the anxiety of time upon the artist and individual, the importance of coherency of both a state conscious and subconscious thought, the role of the individual within a community, and the modernist ideal of looking at the past through the present to the future. Joyce regards the fragmentation of the consciousness and how the emergence of modernist thought affected society and culture at the time. The text swims against the grain of basic traditional values, constructing, as Freud did, that the unconscious works as a language in itself that, at times, converges with the conscious and can create both moments of extreme epiphany and despair.
Gertrude Stein: Three Lives. Gertrude Stein is an author that everyone should read just to understand the modernist movement of art and literature. Associated closely with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Stein embodies modernism down to the marrow of the bone with her conception of no man being ahead of his time but merely “of the times”.
Joyce Carol Oates: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Oates is a goddess of rhetoric. Not only is this story dedicated and allusive to the lyrics of Bob Dylan, it has an incredibly interwoven structure that stands upon a foundation of a particular classical allusion within the title in reference to ancient feminism that even a misogynist would argue to be brilliant.
Octavio Paz: ” The Blue Bouquet” (1949).