My Fifteen Favorite Novels

by Levi Asher

Updated: January 30, 2002

NOTE: a couple of these books aren't novels, but rather collections of short stories. So I guess this is my Fifteen Favorite Works of Book-Length Prose Fiction. but that doesn't sound as good.

1. City of Glass by Paul Auster

Hah! You probably thought I'd put 'On The Road' as number 1. Nope, it's this one. Several years ago Meg Wise-Lawrence told me that she'd just read an incredible and bizarre book called 'City Of Glass' and was still in a daze from it. She called me back the next day and said she'd just read it again, and was now even more confused about what it meant. I knew this had to be something special. I started reading it that Saturday at around noon in my apartment alone, took a nap at about three-thirty, woke up and kept reading until I was done. This is the only time in my life I read an entire book in one sitting.

It's a pseudo-detective story about an obscure mystery novelist in New York City who stumbles onto a case involving a demented genius professor who'd performed a horrible language experiment on his toddler son years before. Now the son is grown up and the professor has been let out of jail. This book is wild. By the end I was so dizzy I didn't know what my name was anymore. Which is exactly what this book is trying to achieve.

The book may seem sophomoric at first glance -- a snooty English major friend of mine once dismissed Auster as 'too glib.' But she's wrong.

'City of Glass' is the first part of a trilogy, but the other two books really just serve to embellish this one, at least in my opinion. Auster keeps getting more and more popular, which is kind of bumming me out; he used to be Meg's and my little secret. His book 'The Music of Chance' was made into a good movie, and he also wrote the movie 'Smoke' and was involved with another experimental film improvised on the same set, 'Blue In The Face.' 'City of Glass' has also been published in an Art-Spiegelman-style comic book edition, but I'd recommend starting with the text original.

2. On The Road by Jack Kerouac

I think I've said enough about this book elsewhere.

3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This is sort of a 19th Century version of 'On The Road.' At least that's the way I see it. Like Kerouac, Melville is recounting a story based on his own adventures (he was Ishmael), although it was the sea, not the highways of America, that beckoned this young writer to follow.

The great surprise for me was this book's sense of humor and hugely expansive sense of the infinity of the human soul. The odd and unique characters who man the whaling ship are described with great affection and a sense of limitless wonder. I must admit I found Ahab's 'obsession' less convincing than other parts of this novel. His vengeance seems like a device to me; it's Ishmael who I care about. And the great mad cannibal Queequeq, and the crazy sea salts eating their whale steaks and rolling blubber off huge leviathans (I love saying 'leviathans') in great slippery strips.

The final piece in my web fiction project, Queensboro Ballads is a tribute to Melville and this book.

4. Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A good philosophical book (say, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence," or "Franny and Zooey") leaves you thinking, but a great philosophical book does more. It should blow your entire world-view to pieces and leave you utterly confused, grasping desperately for answers. You should walk around in a daze for weeks afterward. "Notes From Underground" had that effect on me.

It's a short first-person piece, part essay on morality and society, part tragedy and part black-comedy. The first section lays out an articulate and convincing argument that the human spirit will always defeat grand attempts at social engineering -- there will always be an "underground." But the second section shifts from the ethical view to the personal, and the narrator, himself the archetypal "underground man," dissects himself in a series of pathetic anecdotes full of social blundering, jealous obsession and deep cruelty. Dostoeovsky's view of humanity is very bleak, sordid and hopeless here. I'd always thought of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" as the pinnacle of pathetic characterization, but this book makes Kafka seem positively cheerful.

Ultimately, I'm still working out in my mind what this book means. You've probably heard me mention elsewhere that I've created a CD-Rom movie based on this novel, and after devoting two years to this project (which came out pretty good, I think), I still don't feel I completely understand what the book means. I guess that's why I like it so much. I think the book held a similar spell over Jack Kerouac, whose own most self-critical, "pathetic" novel, "Subterraneans" seems to have been modeled after it.

5. The World According to Garp by John Irving

Remember this, from the early eighties? I was in college when I read it, and it proved to me (at a time when I was thinking otherwise) that the novel was still a living, growing art form. The movie with Robin Williams was much too simple; if you haven't read or seen this, skip the video and dig up the book. You won't be sorry.

6. Kin-Flicks by Lisa Alther

This was a great, popular novel in the Seventies. Maybe it'll be rediscovered eventually. Ginny is a confused Southern girl who dates a big dumb football player, then runs off with the town delinquent, then becomes an incredibly repressed philosophy major, then a wild country lesbian, a bored housewife, and so on. Some of it is funny but it's the serious message that means the most to me. In the last pages she watches cells divide under a microscope and finally starts to understand the pattern she's been living. Great stuff.

7. The Castle by Franz Kafka

This is an absolutely hilarious short novel (yes, Kafka is meant to be funny!) about a village of fools. A young man arrives in a small country town somewhere in the recently-dismantled Holy Roman Empire, intending to transact a mundane bit of business with the owners of a castle overlooking the town. He finds that everyone in town lives in a state of awe and terror regarding the mysterious and powerful officials (almost nobody has met them) who reside in the castle, and as the young man attempts to gain permission to visit the castle he is presented with an increasingly baroque series of rules and regulations, until he is made to understand that nobody can ever visit the castle, and neither can he nor anyone else escape the deadening power it has over their lives.

I related to this novel especially because until recently I was employed as a database consultant by a large and elite Wall Street bank, and the similarities between my confused co-workers who cowered in fear of our managers and the villagers in Kafka's mythical town were striking.

8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

This is the oldest book on this list. Austen predates Dickens, George Eliot, Dosteovsky, Flaubert. It was a revelation to me, when I read this, that a certain kind of sharp sense of humor I'd thought of as distinctly modern could have existed so long ago, in a little provincial English village.

Jane Austen has become "hip" again recently, due to a flood of movies like "Emma" and "Sense and Sensibility." Ignore these movies -- they always get it wrong. Jane Austen was not about fine costumes and lush settings. It's all in the narrative voice, and you can't get that without the book.

9. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

This whole book takes place on an escalator on the way back from lunch. Some people don't get a kick out of this kind of thing, but I do. We examine everything the narrator thinks about on the way to the mezzanine, and then the book is over. And everything he thinks about is, somehow, surprising, original and real.

Nicholson Baker is a weird case because I hated his most popular novel, 'Vox,' which was about a phone-sex call and was successful mainly because it was so racy. Baker doesn't write well about people. In fact his second novel, 'Room Temperature,' tried to be a follow-up to "The Mezzanine' by examining the author's thoughts as he fed his infant daughter a bottle, but even that was too human for him and the book was a bore. But when a subject gets him going -- a plastic McDonald's straw, a paper towel dispenser, whatever -- he's the best. I've enjoyed two other things he wrote: "U and I," a pitiless investigation into his own obsessive admiration for John Updike (which I loved despite the fact that I'm not crazy about Updike's writing, or his smug literary principles) and "Subsoil," a stunning horror story about potatoes (what else?) that ran in the New Yorker a couple of years ago.

10. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I avoided reading this for a long time. A few people had to really work on me to overcome my resistance to what looked distinctly like a college-assignment kinda novel. The first few chapters did nothing to convince me either. A very respectable doctor has a pretty wife in olden-day Colombia; his wife had once been in love with another man. Not riveting. I read dutifully, and little by little the characters started creeping up on me. About halfway through I realized: okay, it's not so bad. Towards the end I said: hey, it's pretty good. Then the book really caught fire in an explosive and heartbreaking final scene on the dried-up Magdalena River, I started to get serious chills up my spine ... and now here the book is on my Fifteen Favorites List.

11. Washington Square by Henry James

James is an ideal for me, I suppose, of the true writer. I can't think of any other novelist whose every sentence seems so lovingly wrought, so rare and precious. That's not to say I don't occasionally fall asleep while reading these rare and precious sentences.

On the original version of this list, I had "Portrait of a Lady" as my favorite James novel. But then it came out as a movie starring Nicole Kidman, and I thought the movie was pretty blah (and John Malkovich simply should not be allowed to go on overacting like this). So I demoted "Portrait of a Lady" and switched my favorite choice to "Washington Square," a short and very sharp tale of love and greed in old New York. This was also recently made into a movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, but nobody I know saw it or talked about it, so I didn't mind as much. (It was also the basis for an old movie called "The Heiress" starring Olivia DeHavilland -- they made movies better back in the days.)

12. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Several people have mailed me politely asking if I really thought this book deserved such a high ranking. Well, it's a year later, and just to drive my point home I'm moving it up a notch to Number 12 (sorry, Philip Roth). Hey, I don't care if she went to Bennington College with Bret Eaton Ellis -- that's not her fault, and how was she to know how bad his books would be? Anyway, it probably burns Bret up that Donna Tartt can write circles around him.

What a talent! She describes a sad, serious boy entering a Bennington-like upper-crust Vermont college and getting drawn into an odd group of Classics students intensely involved in their studies. It turns out they've been trying to simulate an ancient Greek Dionysian ritual (aren't we all?), and this gets out of hand and leads to all kinds of creepy, exciting endeavors. The publishers of the paperback version of this book seems to be trying to sell it as a suspense story, and got John Grisham to write a blurb. But this book should make John Grisham cry in his sleep, because I read 'The Firm' and I know he couldn't create characters like the impressive Henry or the hilariously annoying Bunny if his life depended on it.

13. Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver

I can't figure out how Carver did it. Each story is the same; it begins badly, with a pathetic, annoying and tiresome character narrating in a charmless voice. You read about this person's pitiful endeavors, and a slow fire starts to burn. Suddenly, about three paragraphs from the end, the story explodes like a firecracker in your hand.

The really amazing thing is how Carver pulls this trick over and over again. It's quite impressive. I mean, some of these stories had me crying. As for 'Short Cuts,' Robert Altman's movie based on Carver's works, it was worth watching, but you gotta read the stories. The one I chose for this list is a comprehensive collection published not long before Carver's premature death from cancer.

14. Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth

Roth captured the crisis and adventure of the Americanized, suburbanized Jew of the 1950's. As a member of this group (except that I was born in the 1960's), I guess I have a special connection to this topic. I also think these are beautifully crafted, funny and honest stories. The long title story -- poor City Jew falls in love with his rich suburban female counterpart -- is my favorite.

15. Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol

This Gogol selection is actually a short story, except that the book of stories I own that goes by this title (a Penguin Classics publication) also has several other excellent stories, so what the hell, I'll count it as a novel. Like so many writers above, in fact nearly all of them, Gogol uses humor to draw us into his story -- once he captures us there, though, he does not retreat into seriousness as many other great writers do, but instead simply allows the humor to balloon into pure insanity and utter weirdness, and then just leaves us in the middle of it. Until I read Gogol I had simply no idea that such brilliantly warped minds could possibly have existed in 19th Century Russia.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan (previously # 15)
Ulysses by James Joyce (previously #6)
Thank You Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (previously #13)
Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman
Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (NOTE: yes, I do seem to go for the fictional "Diary of a ..." format. I do not know why this is.)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes by Terry Southern
The Last of the Moccasins by Charles Plymell
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle
Fisher's Hornpipe by Todd McEwen
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence by Robert Pirsig
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Falling in Place by Ann Beattie
Too Far To Go by John Updike
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
Was by Geoff Ryman
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
The Magus by John Fowles
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody

Literary Kicks
by Levi Asher