Friday, September 10, 2010

Fourteen Undeservedly Overlooked Books

In response to David Foster Wallace's 1999 list (included in my previous post), here's my list of fourteen books that deserve to be much more widely known and read:
  1. Downriver by Iain Sinclair
  2. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. Selected Essays by John Berger
  4. A Cool Million by Nathanael West
  5. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes
  6. Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot
  7. Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch
  8. On The Yard by Malcolm Braly
  9. All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry
  10. Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano
  11. Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard
  12. Inwardness and Existence by Walter A. Davis
  13. The Mad Man by Samuel Delany
  14. The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos

Downriver is one of the greatest London novels of the 20th century, a vast, surreal, dystopic document of the Thatcher years. Autumn of the Patriarch, unfortunately overshadowed by the more popular Solitude and Cholera, is Gabo's prose masterpiece. John Berger's essays are beautiful, evocative examples of the best kind of leftist criticism--the kind that values art over dogma. A Cool Million is a delightful 'Horatio Alger Goes to Hell' story set against the background of the 1930s wacko far right (eerily similar to the 2010 wacko far right...) Camera Lucida is a provocative theory of art disguised as an extended essay on photography. Diderot's Jacques is far superior to his Rameau's Nephew; it's the French Don Quixote AND the French Tristram Shandy (and it's more readable than either of its precursors). Frisch's Man in the Holocene is an unforgettable study of modern anxiety and alienation, comparable Sartre's Nausea and Camus' The Stranger. Malcolm Braly's On The Yard may be the greatest American prison novel ever written; it's also a late classic of American Modernism. All My Friends is Larry McMurtry's best contemporary novel and has an amazing, unforgettable ending. The three volumes of Galeano's Memory of Fire are a masterpiece of poetic historical writing. The Bernhard novella may be the finest book ever written that takes place entirely inside an art museum. Davis's Inwardness and Existence, a major work of philosophy first published in 1989, has yet to receive the attention it deserves (although the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has been influenced by it). Delany is best known as a writer of classic 60s and 70s science fiction, but he hasn't written SF for years now; Mad Man is probably the raunchiest literary novel ever written; it makes most other supposedly 'transgressive' fictions look decidedly tame. John Dos Passos, a giant of American Modernism, seems to have slipped almost entirely into oblivion by now (and Thomas Wolfe probably isn't far behind); the titanic Modernist energy of Dos Passos' USA is lacking in contemporary American literature, which is more akin to the rearrangement of deck chairs on our cultural Titanic.


apaintbrush said...

I like the way that you described Barthes' Camera Lucida as a book about art rather than that of photography, please can you say why you feel this? waht do you think the overall meaning of this book is? Thank you

BRIAN OARD said...


When I wrote of Camera Lucida as containing a more general theory of art, I was thinking specifically of Barthes' concept of the "punctum," that aspect of a photograph that 'pierces' the viewer and holds his/her attention. This idea can be extrapolated from photography into a general theory of the reception of art. Any great work of art--photograph, painting, sculpture, novel, play, film--impresses us because something about it pierces us with an eros-like force. Barthes' punctum could be the cornerstone of what his friend Susan Sontag called for but never produced: an erotics of art.