My Favorite Novels and Other Fictions and Narratives
These are the kinds of lists that would have been better compiled over a lifetime than at a given moment looking back. However, this is what I came up with. I am sure I have forgotten many books that were important to me at the time. Plus, in the case of some of the older books I cannot remember the details, only the impact of the book and the place it holds in my imagination. My reading of it may have morphed into something else in my mind. I have only cursorily researched plots and may have introduced errors.
Another point: I am measuring these books by very different standards. Some are weighty and grand, others light and ephemeral, even trivial. Some are great writing; others are hack prose. My yardstick has simply been the influence that they had on me or the degree to which they affected me. There are many great books that I either missed or read at the wrong time.
2011 addendum: I am adding a second list of novels for since I posted this compilation. My standards are high: ones that seemed not only special but genre-defining and transformative.
My Twenty Favorite Novels
1. Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville. As Melville himself said, more or less, this story is about the many simultaneous layers of a single ineffable truth. “The Whale” embraces humanity, nature, and the cosmos. It is a philosophical epistemology that does not violate its underlying novel. (See my short “book”: “Melville’s Whale: A Brief Guide to the Text” in An Olson-Melville Sourcebook Volume 1, The New Found Land, or North America, Io/22.)
2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ whole oeuvre is its own mega-novel, a whole universe (from Little Dorrit to Great Expectations, from Oliver Twist to Scrooge). A Tale of Two Cities stands out to me as a radical rendition of revolutionary violence amid switched identities and an angelic act of redemption. It is not “better” than the rest of Dickens, simply one of the more intense passages in a long symphony. I read it at age twelve and got one meaning (the drama of rescue and escape), and I read it again at age sixty-one and saw the foreshadowing of Red Guards and Hutus and an intimation of Buddhist compassion and spiritual transformation. TTC has one of the more transcendent combinations of opening and closing lines in literary fiction: “It was the best of times….,” “…a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done….”
3. Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner. This too is a stand-in, for a single, vast meta-novel. What makes it the placeholder for me is its epiphanies of language and syntactic breakdown mirroring internal and external space, conscious and subconscious minds, and timelessness within time (the instant in eternity). The book measures exactly what humans are up against in trying to fit a life mission into the frame set by mortality and against a devious and corrupt universe that pushes back in complex and unexpected ways.
4. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Another placeholder for an author’s entire work, I choose this one for the depth and poignancy of characters (each of the brothers is an entire psychology), the tour de force and prophetic “Grand Inquisitor” parable, and Ivan’s obsessive visions of infinity in the cosmos. This book has a rich inner life wound mysteriously around its progression of ugly and profane events.
5. The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk combines the subtle memory threads of Proust, the erotic obsessions of Nabokov (though behind the masks and veils of Islamic culture, which makes them more, not less, exquisitely erotic), the surrealism of Marquez, the societal ironies of Edith Wharton, and a Borgesian twist that transposes the author into his own novel as a character. The language, even though translated from Turkish, is exquisite, filled with resonance and nuance. If you heard just a plot summary, you’d say, take it or leave it, but in this book the most ordinary events and observations take on such a suspenseful intricacy and narrative drive that it becomes as much a page-turner as any Raymond Chandler mystery. Where is she hidden? What will become of her? How long will the courtship last? To what end will it come? You want to know what happens, of course, but more than that, you want to keep experiencing the surprises and evolving awareness of the narrator. I think that all of Panuk’s work is great, but this book is particularly textured, balanced, and grand. My Name is Red, by comparison, is a slog through history, iconography, and tedious Turkish mythologies, but it is powerfully counterpointed by an epilogue, which is a chronology of Turkey within a chronology of the world, and it places the intense and dramatic events and lives you have been living vicariously for hundreds of pages in the context of all of history as a little regional blip, hardly a ripple, and you realize that your own vivid life and existence are no different.
6. The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence. This book too is a placeholder for a landscape. I choose it because it was synchronous with my own life at the time that I read it (college, just twenty years old) as I was coming of age along with its characters. The experience of one’s own emerging adulthood and new body was poignantly alive for me in this text. It made me recognize and believe in a mythic, romantic version of my own story, and it helped turn me into a serious writer and a young man at the same time. The Rainbow was my companion and solace during the turning-point time of my life, and I returned to it as a bible for how to grow up, court, and become an ordinary human being on the Earth.
7. Underworld by Don DeLillo. This epic captures the sweep of the twentieth century with its absolute riddles and crises, while it prophetically sets the stage for 9/11 and the author’s subsequent novel Falling Man. More than any other modern book that I have read, Underworld establishes a landscape in which the metaphysics as well as the madness and obsession behind modernity and its icons becomes credible, as the most unlikely events and symbols bear on and elucidate one another. It makes baseball, the Bomb, the mean streets, repressed sexuality, the FBI, and the Cold War part of one credible, undulating sphinx. This book is so complicated and has so many subplots it is really three seasons worth of a drama like The Sopranos or Deadwood.
8. Continental Drift by Russell Banks. I could as easily have chosen Banks’ The Darling, Cloudsplitter, or Rule of the Bone. The reason to pick Continental Drift as a Banks placeholder is that it is the most succinct and concentrated rendition of his lush, dark vision of our drab American setting. He manages to capture, in all of his works in fact, the depth and consequences of each human decision and each movement as it reverberates through an unknown web of cultural traps and political deceits and against the infinity of night. He balances the cosmic overhang with the secular textures of work or ice-fishing or human battle. He celebrates the simultaneity of human grandeur and achievement and human helplessness and venality. He gets that no matter how ordinary and bare-bones and even banal the events (as in the banality of evil) they cannot avoid scraping against the cosmic meaning of existence and setting in motion countless karmic ripples through the affairs of nations and their inhabitants.
9. Beach Music by Pat Conroy. Substitute fairly Prince of Tides (incomparably better than its movie) or Lords of Discipline, the best revenge fantasy and redemption novel I have read. I favor Beach Music because of its grand scale encompassing the Holocaust, Vietnam, and the life of turtles and, like DeLillo’s Underworld, reinventing an entire century. Conroy is a beautiful, courageous writer; try the first eight pages of Prince of Tides for a memorable instance of perfect, lyrical prose.
10. Segu by Maryse Condé. This is a novel of indigenous African life in Mali at the time of the imposition of Islam and kidnapping of native men and women for the slave trade. It encompasses the innocence and meaning of the old tribal systems at the time that they were being shattered by conflict and enforced removal and servitude. What lifts this novel above its own milieu is that it sustains a metaphysical and psychic component rooted authentically in the Afro-Caribbean soul. It is a story in which the soul connection between Africa and the Americas continues to transcend the slave trade that demeans it and degrades it and denies it at every imaginable level.
11. The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve. Shreve is often belittled as a mere romance novelist, but I think that she transcends genre and writes enduring novels. Perhaps they are of a popular genre, but then so was Dickens in his time. I chose this one because, more elegantly than any of the others, it weaves together Shreve’s recurrent themes of memory, regret, loyalty, deceit, and switchbacking history, as it builds to a multi-layered crescendo with one of the great surprise endings of all time. The resolution of The Last Time They Met and the universe of meaning that it proposes retroactively transform the book and raise the whole rest of the author’s body of work to a level of artistry. But she doesn’t have a “bad” book in her repertoire. Try also Fortune’s Rocks and the two time-traveling sequels that complete an unorthodox trilogy in which the house is the only common element, as we follow brave, unconventional women from 1899 to modernity.
12. PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon. It’s not a novel, okay. It’s an exhaustive map of Chase County, Kansas: geology, geography, history, weather, flora and fauna, architecture, news items, crimes, accidents, weirdnesses, etc., all woven together in a patchwork opera that liberates the individual items into aliases and myths for the settling of America and the human migration and habitation of the planet itself. The only comparable tome is Moby Dick.
13. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. Most of her other work is as good, especially the incredible, incredibly bleak Wyoming stories. Proulx writes on a sort of roll such that language, image, and event synergize into new words, scenes, and outcomes, always fresh and startling, always seeing things in a novel way. I picked The Shipping News because it is pure and gentle and about love. The Wyoming tomes are compilations of short stories, anything but gentle, and more about the absence of love and the crushing of human endeavor by land and history. The Shipping News is reverential, delicate, and prayerlike, whereas her Westerns are grotesque, surreal, grisly, and brutal—quite a range for one author.
14. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. This is a placeholder for another huge, fully realized, and philosophically mature body of work from which I could as easily have picked Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, or The Return of the Native. I chose The Mayor… for no reason other than the compelling strangeness of the plot: a man sells his wife to a passerby at the start of the book. Hardy tracks the elaborate and multiple consequences and crisscrossing threads that arise from that single act over two generations. All of Hardy is dark and lonely and exquisite, and this book is no exception, but it is also hauntingly compelling and holds an irony that is just as real today as it was then.
15. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. This is a tie with another classic of his, The Woman Who Walked into Doors. In both, Doyle reenacts the language, signature quirks, and deep inner life of his characters so subtly and transparently that they grow up inside the reader instantly as real people on their daily rounds. Doyle has a unique intimacy with the deep fantasies, daydreams, and idiosyncrasies of the individuals who travel through his stories. In Paddy Clarke… it’s a young boy; in The Woman… it’s an alcoholic mother. Both are well in this Dubliner’s effortless range.
16. The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper’s overall work is wastefully vast and fairly wooden, not the stuff of great literature. But it has a solidity, a comprehensiveness, and a planetary range. The myths it enacts are full-fledged epitomes of historical events. It is wondrous strange to see the America that preceded us. The Prairie transcends the other Cooper novels, to my taste, and engraves itself clearly on a higher cosmological parchment, because here the land totally overwhelms the earnest doings of the characters, as geography and migration become their own ineffable plot.
17. The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. A brilliantly paced and plotted novel, it also manages to convey the core of the native world, the poor Third and Fourth Worlds (and Islamic culture in particular), that earns—more than just the loyalty—the very soul of its adherents. Sometimes a book captures a hinge or crook in history that is there for everyone to see but has been substantially missed or routinely misidentified. Gordimer has caught this hinge between the West and Islam, not as ideologies but as circumstantial lifestyles and domestic moralities. This is the story of a conversion, a fundamental conversion going in the opposite direction from most of the planet (but really the true direction of most of the planet), from progressive salvation back into the scrabble and stew. It is a return to the Earth’s cultural womb and a devastating indictment of the empty Western vision of plenty and success.
18. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler. Throughout her many novels about quirky Baltimore lives Tyler has mapped a gigantic canvas of small delicate and perfect mosaics. All of her books have astonishing and vibrant intersections of characters and events and catch the nuances of simple, profoundly felt and entangled lives. She specializes in a particular interior insight for a person just as it is maturing inside, a slight change of viewpoint or recognition that leads to a transformation or even an apotheosis. This early book has the deepest images, the most poignant nostalgia, and the closest thing to real regret and tragedy in the Tyler landscape. A lot of the rest is, by comparison, collateral loss. More is at stake here, though Tyler always weighs her lives against truth and fate.
19. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. A nonfiction novel, it is novelistic in every way. Mailer gets a hold of the story of Gary Gilmore in astoundingly intricate detail. His account could end up being every kind of ordinary, especially when this execution turned out to be, sadly, one of thousands upon thousands of America’s judicial murders, merely the opening act of a new phase, not a singular or landmark event. Yet Mailer crafts and reimages and refashions it such that Gilmore becomes a larger than life character in a timeless tableau. Something in Mailer becomes able to indwell in not only Gilmore but his trailer-park Utah friends and family, and inhabit the passions of their inner experiences and make them as precious to us in a way as it was to those who lived it.
20. Terrorist by John Updike. I was astonished that Updike captured Islam so compellingly. This is a gem of American life perpetrated by a master storyteller—concentrated, intense, not a word or gesture out of place—that builds to a wise climax. (See my note on it in 2013: Raising the Earth to the Next Vibration.)
Other Candidates (in no particular order and repeating the back-ups above)
The Cave, All the King’s Men, and World Enough and Time by Robert Penn Warren (if you asked me in 1962, all three of these would have been in my top ten)
Killing Mister Watson, Bone by Bone, and Lost Man’s River by Peter Mathiesson
Doctor Sax by Jack Kerouac
Mr. Vertigo and Moon Palace by Paul Auster
Rule of the Bone and The Darling by Russell Banks
Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Prince of Tides and The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy
The Wild Palms by William Faulkner
Never Let Me Go, When We Were Orphans, and Nocturnes (short stories) by Kazuo Ishiguro
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Night of the Iguana (play) by Tennessee Williams
After the Fall (play) by Arthur Miller
Hamlet, A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and Troilus and Cressida (plays) by William Shakespeare
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Crime and Punishment and The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ficciones (short stories) by Jorges Luis Borges
Man’s Fate by André Malraux
Another Country by James Baldwin
Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle
Malone Dies and Waiting for Godot (play) by Samuel Beckett
Howard’s End by E. M. Forester
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Troubled Sleep by Jean Paul Sartre
Appaloosa Rising by Gino Sky
Some Business Recently Transacted in the White World (short stories) by Edward Dorn
Close Range and Fine Just the Way It Is: (both subtitled Wyoming Stories) by E. Annie Proulx
Evening by Susan Minot
Addendum (2011 on)
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson.
This book caught me totally off-guard, which is the best way to take in an extraordinary work of literature. I knew nothing about it—no opinions, no press, no reputation, no hearsay. It was one of several unabridged CDs I procured randomly for car listening—pass on to someone else if you don’t like it. From the title and a brief scan of the jacket description, I made a guess as to what it would be; I was going to treat it as a genre page-turner with maybe a bit of depth. After the opening pages, I had no reason to change my prejudice, though I felt that it was brilliantly executed; it reminded me a little of Beckett in its dark but pure view into existence from a ravaged body, at the same time far more graphic and medical than anything the author of Malloy and Malone Dies attempted. Its gruesomeness led me to consider it one of the books that I would listen to on my own rather than share with my wife, as I didn’t think she’d want to go through the long opening graphic scenes involving a car accident, medical evacuation, and tissue-by-tissue account of the victim’s treatment. Yet she happened to catch three minutes when I wanted to finish my band (for easy relocation) before changing to our shared book, and she was hooked. We listened to the next band and, before our errand was done (and since I myself was only on CD3 out of 16), I went back to 1, and we proceeded to spend the next two and a half months savoring this novel.
From the moment in Chapter III when Marianne Engle, a seeming schizophrenic from another ward in the hospital, finds the narrator after having sneaked into his room and tells him, “You’ve been burned again. This is the third time….,” the book changes radically. It adds a layer, and then another, and then another. It is no longer just an existential novel (though it is) about a venal pornographer much of whose body (including his penis) has been burned off in a car accident; it is a grand and complex epic of reincarnation and eternity, including a near impossible retelling of Dante’s Inferno inside its own narrative while alternately becoming a traditional Japanese fairytale and an Icelandic edda—each leap fully realized and complete. Finally The Gargoyle is as explicitly and brazenly about love as the only survival, the only bridge between life and death as Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey.
None of this should work; yet it does. It is wildly ambitious, daring, compassionate, imaginative, hilariously funny, and starkly sobering.
The book’s brilliance mainly lies in its language, tone, and discrimination of detail. Everything in the plot has been done before, of course. I find strands of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Max Ehrlich, T. H. White, Yukio Mishima, even James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov (the former in the use of multiple languages and etymologies, the latter in the self-witnessing voice of obsession). Davidson’s word choice is continually surprising and original, and he’s not afraid to take the most risky leap of faith, and he’s just about never makes a false step.
Irony and witty nihilism are set against wonder, grace and prayer; wry sarcasm is set against indomitable epiphanies and acts of courage, selfless sacrifice, and atonement. In that sense the narrator’s muddle of antithetical emotions and belief systems fuels a suspense that becomes a window through which the darkest and bleakest visions pass alongside visions worthy of Meister Eckhart (who is also a character in the story and under whose epigraph The Gargoyle was written).
Lush Life by Richard Price.
I have been reading Richard Price for years, all the way back to The Wanderers and The Breaks, and I have always liked and admired him, but this is whole new level. Much as Lindy and I listened to The Gargoyle during the summer/fall of 2011, we listened to Lush Life on the CD player in the car in 2012, and it is worth it because of Bobby Cannavale’s handling of the flow of street language, dialogue, and the inner thoughts of characters, each in his or her native ebonics (African-American, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Whitelander). The book becomes a combination Greek chorus, rap song, old LeRoi Jones/Paul Blackburn poem, ten times crisper and more accurate than The Wire on the same stuff (cops and robbers in post-street-drug/don’t-give-a-fuck era). At one level the book is a Rashomon-like multiple viewing of a single crime, the semi-accidental murder of young white angelic slinkster Ike Marcus in Lower Manhattan by Tristan Acevedo after Ike dares to say, “Not tonight, my man,” during a street robbery of him and his two buddies out on the town. But it goes deeper than the re-viewings because everything gets deconstructed from that point backward and forward, notably all the players and the people close to them: the perps (Tristan and Little Dap), Ike, the police (Mattie, Yolonda, Jimmy Iacone), Ike’s father (in his Shakesperean grief), Eric Cash (the only one of the mugged trio who neither passed out nor was shot), Eric’s boss Harry Steele (restauranteur and hard-knocks philosopher), Stephen Boulware (the failed wannabe actor from Pennsylvania who passed out during the crime and who seems initially the biggest self-serving phony, using Ike’s misfortune as his podium, until he gives his public eulogy for Ike and radiates the most absolute love and respect while capturing the dead guy’s precise charismatic vibe), plus the girl-friends, wives, ex-wives, partners, fantasy figures, and one-night stands of all of the above. Price’s “script” flows among all of these characters, capturing the complex web that potentiated the seminal event down to the smallest nuances. We get the full degree to which nothing was actually intended, yet nothing can be taken back. Even the phrase “Not tonight, my man!” takes on a life of its own, as we get to hear its resonance in everyone’s mind and in the public mind until Harry Steele’s final rendering shows it (also) to be not a statement of courage, of asinine bravado, of confrontation, or even irony or intent, just the words of a guy who forgot that the “scene” was long gone and that he wasn’t acting in a play about the Lower East Side. The gun was facile but real, and the guy who pulled the trigger (Tristan, the kid rapper making banal almost-brilliant rhymes throughout the book) didn’t actually know what he was holding or what it did. Lush Life is metaphysical in its probing of the mundane and ruined and walking dead. It is political in the best sense in its subtext on the nature of the availability of guns, police and judicial corruption, and due process in every socioeconomic sense. It is high art too, each little description or cameo a masterpiece, some at the level of Keats and Dickens: the shrine for Eric, the kitty litter beaches of Atlantic City, the “projects” elevators. I have written about Lush Life most fully in the sense of meeting it where it is in the second half of the third volume of my book Dark Pool of Light.
Going to Meet the Man (stories) by James Baldwin.
I read James Baldwin in college in the sixties, and he was one of five or six novelists who most strongly influenced me when I was still trying to be a fiction writer, before I met Robert Kelly and changed genres. I was particularly moved then by Another Country. I had not read Baldwin in more than fifty years when I picked up this book (initially in audio format). During that time I read a number of books dealing with African-American sensibilities, and had a run of personal literary friends (Welton Smith, Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, and Cecil Brown) who in one way or another in their work and interpersonal connections had a serious stake in characterizing the black experience in the West (including differences between Europe and the US) and keeping one on their toes as regards subconscious prejudices. I also watched most of Spike Lee’s movies and, with the rest us , lived with a black President sensitive to subtleties of race relations and able to articulate them.
On that basis I expected to find Baldwin dated. Not so. I found him cutting-edge still, in fact still the front-runner on these topics. With due respect to all of the above, to my mind no one has surpassed Baldwin’s meticulously sensitive nuancing of double entendres and hidden messaging in black-white interaction or the particularly excruciating form of marginalization and alienation that imbues African-American experience. For all the noise generated by Black Lives Matter—and I have nothing but respect for the spirit and goals of most of those involved in the movement—I don’t think any language or searing insight from them on this topic surpasses what is in short stories from the fifties and sixties like “Previous Condition,” “Sonny’s Blues,” and “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon.” They are not just poignant, they ring like Zen bell with the crispness of their koans. The stories are really about human difference in the most basic sense of it and the awkwardnesses, squeamishnesses, and defenses of intimacy—both failed and successful—in ALL situations. “Sonny’s Blues” offers about as good a description of jazz as anyone could deal up, so exquisite that I could believe the whole story was written to make a place for it, but the story has its own integrity and builds to the jazz sequence in such a way that it is a surprise when it happens. “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” captures the nuances and subtexts of differences between the US and France for a black man in the fifties—not just the obvious zones of acceptance and rejection but the paradoxical ones wherein superficial acceptance is really a feint of rejection and rejection is actually a truer form of acceptance.
The title story is shocking and at the level the worst brutalities of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. “Going to See the Man” is not, as I vaguely presumed, about a visit to a priest, great musician, or clan elder (as the other stories led one to expect). It is a gruesome account of the dismemberment, lynching, and live incinerating of a black man as seen through the eyes of a white boy whose father is one of lynch mob. No more need be said.
Top Fifteen of Genre Fiction (Science Fiction, Detective Novels, Fantasy)
1. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. This mythical tale of a school of wizards transcends Harry Potter by a factor of fifty or maybe a thousand to one—on the basis of heart, on the basis of soul, on the basis of esoteric authenticity, on the basis of aristry. Le Guin gets at the truth of the human heart where magic and compassion meet and fight their ultimate battle against inner darkness. In the end the only real magic is self-recognition, and its name and initiation come from recognition of the shadow. Le Guin carries this off without a morsel of preaching. Wizard of Earthsea is a cleansing document that carries a great truth of the universe. Its ending will move you to tears.
2. Lord of the Rings (trilogy) by J. R. R. Tolkein. These books are unevadable: a whole universe that must be real, somewhere.
3. Dune by Frank Herbert. No one that I know so effectively created another inhabitable planet from the ground up. Dune’s precious droplets of water and entheogenic, telekinetic worms, and the illuminating worm potion/poison enter one’s frame of reference, become real, and never go away. You will always see water as a jewel worth preserving by the droplet. You will always imagine the poison inside that you are daily transforming into knowledge.
4. Night of the Auk by Arch Oboler (play). It is stunning what Oboler was able to manage in blank verse, not only a crystalline science-fiction plot of the first voyage to the Moon but a saga and sutra of the Earth’s entire history leading to the apocalypse of humankind. The science-fiction tour de force tends to overshadow the beauty of the poetry and philosophy that are the true measure of this work. At times it reads like Shakespeare and seems as much, in a slightly higher and closer-to-source Ameican language and as regal and old. I know this is hard to believe, but check it out.
5. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke weaves a theosophical parable into a vintage science-fiction denouement, imagining the evolution of the Earth from within like a chrysalis, in dreams and in consciousness—the nucleic forerunner to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the harbinger of Indigo Children.
6. Rachel in Love by Pat Murphy. It is a short story, but it carries more oomph than most novels, even most trilogies. The tale of a girl trapped inside an ape and her quest for identity and recognition and then love is first and foremost a journey of animal sentience and consciousness transcending species, and it is also a statement of interspecies communication and the ultimate transcendence of anything that really matters. Murphy gets it phenomenologically and she gets it emotionally, so it is a spiritual journey rather than a mere exotic device. It is about language, mind, consciousness, meaning, compassion, identity, and the heartbreaking barriers that separate us from each other and our own truths. By placing a human girl inside an ape, Murphy delivers both the metaphor and the reality of the same thing, which is what science fiction is supposed to do and rarely does. (Kelpie Wilson’s Primal Tears occupies some of the same hybrid girl/ape territory, though in the direction of superwoman.)
7. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. The classic European utopian dilemma is transposed into outer space where a planet and its large moon represent two different societies, one working class, one capitalist. Le Guin characterized the Cold War in a magical way. She portrays the life changes of a brilliant scientist born on a workers’ planet (the moon Anarres) who goes back to the heavier gravity of the home planet Urras to continue his inquiry into the nature of time, only to discover that the elite world is not all it was supposed to be: each society, unaware of its own meanings and fallacies, has something crucial intact and something crucial in dysfunction. The book also recounts the scientist’s invention of a necessary device, the ansible, which allows communication across space-time without delay or dilation. Most science fiction overlooks the need for such a technology or its equivalent.
8. The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis. This tale, inserted in the middle of the Narnia series, contains the source of Lewis’ mythical world on which all the rest of the series is based. A lamp post is converted into an interdimensional marker. An unmanifested universe is created out of a pool of empty blackness by a celestial choir; then Aslan, the great lion, breathes life into its plants and animals. The plot circulates around alternate acts of malevolent and creationary magic which then entangle with one another. The core of a magic apple taken from a walled garden on Narnia is planted on Earth and becomes an apple tree which provides the wood for the wardrobe through which the children pass between dimensions in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the opening volume of the series. Lewis is a master of synchronicity and sorcery, evil and atonement too.
9. The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams. Williams brings the tarot deck to life. In a spiritual thriller, good and evil forces battle for ownership of the prototype set of cards that contains the Holy Mysteries of Magic. The attempt to subject the tarot to egoic power unleashes elemental forces and an epic snowstorm. The deck turns out not to be just another machinery exploitable by the self-aggrandizing will but an actual intelligent entity with archetypal roots, capable of making moral decisions and transforming the world. The deck feels as much like a creature as a wolf or snake does. Williams wraps this in a romance with characters as fully inhabited as those in E. M. Forester’s tales set in the same milieu. The Greater Trumps blows the fake “Da Vinci Code” genre out of the water.
10. Perelandra by C. S. Lewis. This is a placeholder for the trilogy that also includes Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength. Lewis creates a magical planet Venus with floating islands of vegetation and an innocent Queen and King, a world of Eden in which the Fall has yet to take place. In fact, it must be prevented by Ransom, the main character, who battles Weston, the Tempter representing the source of technological and hyper-rational progress. Lewis weaves a Cytherean version of the biblical tale and then, through the trilogy, invents a Solar System grail involving the Earth and Mars and the hidden truth of all the planets. Like the Narnia series these books involve sacrifice, redemption, and the role of the divine. The pitfalls and dangers of mechanism and technology without connection to any spiritual and creationary core resemble those propounded in The Greater Trumps and Lord of the Rings, no surprise since Lewis, Williams, and Tolkein were all members of the same literary and spiritual circle.
11. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. This book can be read as a translation of the countercultural trope to Mars and then back to Earth with an imaginal Martian overlay, or it can be read as the archetype of the Other. Either way, Heinlein has converted the alien to Earth from inside rather than outside, as is usually done. This is also a placeholder for the many great teenage science-fiction dramas by Heinlein that I read in the fifties. It introduces the phrase “I am only an egg” and the new word “grok” to English. That constitutes some serious acts of invention!
12. Mipam: The Lama of Five Wisdoms by Lama Yongden. The first Western novel written by a Tibetan (in the 1930s) is not surprisingly the ultimate reincarnational novel and also a realistic, down-to-Earth portrayal of Tibet. Though the seventeenth reincarnation of a local abbot, Mipam is not acknowledged as such, so must go on a life journey in the secular world, becoming a business-fellow, trading with China, and engaging in astrology, magic, and romance. He ultimately lives through his karma and discovers his destiny, which includes his partner Dolma, his lover through many lifetimes. This is reincarnation without the “Twilight Zone” music and gilding. Rebirth is ordinary—that is what makes the Yongden’s account special.
13. City of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin. In this classic amnesia novel, Le Guin gives her narrator a second personality and life wherein he gets to view the Earth two ways after getting released from his memory blocks. She captures what happens when an amnesiac, freed from amnesia, sees both lives at once, the one before the trauma and the one lived unknowingly. Therein lies a great mystery and an uncommon truth. This epic adventure/road trip across a futuristic United States culminates in a powerful revelation and initiation.
14. The Green Mile by Stephen King. King creates a miracle character, an idiot with psychic and telekinetic powers on whose soul is written the pain of the planet. This is a tragedy, a series of tragedies, but also a miracle and a series of miracles. The miracles and the tragedies, the darkness and the light, and the undisclosed nature of matter and healing interweave throughout the book. When John Coffey and the prison guards set out into the night to conduct an experiment in psychic healing, it is perhaps King’s epitome moment, wherein everything strange and unreal is finally real and the main character admits that he never really understood much of anything.
15. Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. Koontz is able to disclose the unseen world gracefully and believably through the eyes of one who can see the dead. What makes the book work is that he does it with humor, compassion, and depth of character. There is a lot that I find wrong with Koontz; he slurps over into sentimentalism, maudlin-ness, patriotic and religious whimsy, and horrific overkill, but when the parts are in balance, he can be a great storyteller and inventor. Elsewhere (The Good Guy and Intensity) he dissects the criminally sociopathic mind more lucidly and credibly than anyone else on the planet.
Other Candidates (in no particular order)
More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
The Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
The Good Guy by Dean Koontz
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
The High Crusade by Poul Anderson
Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
Whipping Star by Frank Herbert
Maker of Universes by Philip José Farmer
The Third Level by Jack Finney
Untouched by Human Hands (short stories) by Robert Sheckley
Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg
War in Heaven by Charles Williams
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Nine Tales of Coyote (children’s book, short stories) by Fran Martin
The Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales (children’s book, short stories)
Deception by Jonathan Kellerman